Alton Safford Photo by Christopher Nyerges

Sage keeps old-school skills

Longbow’ Safford takes his craft back to primitive times

By Christopher Nyerges 10/01/2009

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Alton Safford is more affectionately known as “Longbow” to his friends. He’s a legend in bow-making circles, one of the old-school bowyers who worked his way up through the ranks. Currently a spry 95, he lives in the mountain region near Wrightwood and has been making bows since age 9.

Longbow was born on the Toppenish Indian Reservation in eastern Washington, where he developed a lifelong interest in Native American culture. I recently paid him another visit at his home and was again treated with a trip to his incredible workshop and “museum” of his life’s work, which includes not only handmade bows and arrows, but flint-knapped knives, leather work, bone work and much more.

Longbow has made hundreds of bows and thousands of arrows in the primitive manner. He is one of the four livingmasters of the old school of archers, along with Frank Garske, Wright Huff and Dr. Charles Grayson. He continues to make bows and go on hunting expeditions using the bows he made.

“A bow is not difficult to make, relative to arrows and string,” he explained. “But you must have a knife. Two knives are better — a machete-like Bowie and a pocketknife. If your plane crashed in the woods and you had no knife, you could still make a shelter and stay warm and dry. But without a knife, forget about making a bow.”

To begin, Longbow says you need a standing dead tree limb at least 4½ to 5 feet long, and about 1¼ to 1¾ inches thick. You don’t want green wood, since it is too heavy and doesn’t cast the arrows well. And you don’t want downed wood, since it will likely be waterlogged or rotten.

You want a piece of wood that is free of knots, checks, bumps and irregularities. A slight bend is OK. “You can make a good bow from just about any type of wood, but some are better than others,” Longbow pointed out. “The best bow-making woods are yew, osage, mulberry, black locust, apple, juniper, hickory and ash. But in a survival situation, you use whatever wood is available.”

Before you start to work on a particular piece of wood, Longbow suggests testing some of the smaller dead branches from the same tree by bending them to see if they will stand the stress.

Next, look at your piece of wood — the stave — and determine which way it will bend. Cut away wood only from the belly of the stave — the part that faces you when you shoot it — but don’t touch the back. “Slowly, carefully and evenly, cut flat strips down the belly of the bow all the way. As you remove wood from the belly, test the bow periodically by bending it,” Longbow explained.

This process can take hours until the bow begins to take shape. When you are satisfied that the bow is bending evenly, cut nocks on each end for the bowstring, and you have a bow. Longbow suggests always carrying good cordage for the bowstring into the woods, since the bowstring can be difficult to manufacture from plants alone.

“And, lo and behold, you have a bow,” Longbow exclaimed. “Twang it gently and listen to it — isn’t that a sweet, ancient and exciting sound? It was the first stringed musical instrument.”

You don’t need to create a monster bow, he said. “Many Indian bows were rated at only 35 to 45 pounds of pressure. Keep your bow light and it will be easier to shoot more accurately, and its arrows will be easier to make.”

Nyerges’ latest book, “Self-Sufficient,” is available this month. Nyerges is the editor of Wilderness Way magazine, and a survival skills instructor at Pasadena City College. He can be reached at or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.


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