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June 24, 2010 Volume 31, No. 32

Artisanal archery

archer Tab Leach

Tab Leach, a building systems control technician at Mizzou, spends his spare time handcrafting traditional longbows from native Osage orange wood. Leach is a self-taught “bowyer” who even makes his own stone arrowheads. He passes his skills and knowledge to others by giving demonstrations and offering bow-making classes at his farm. Rob Hill photo

Custom crafted

Staff member’s hobby has become a passion

Tab Leach walks tall and carries a bent stick. By day, he is a building systems control technician, installing or servicing the many controls that keep MU’s buildings ventilated and heated or cooled. 

Evenings and weekends, however, are devoted to his hobby of crafting shapeless pieces of wood into traditional longbows or formless pieces of stone into arrowheads. In the industry, he is known as a bowyer and a flint knapper.

The longbows, made from a single piece of natural wood, have been used for thousands of years in Africa, Europe, the Americas and Asia for hunting or warfare. 

Leach caught the bow-making fever after a friend of a friend, who had made one, showed it to him. Soon he set up shop and started building bows in a 12-by-15 chicken coop that served as his workplace for 10 years. 

“I didn’t have a coach, and learned mostly from books and making mistakes,” says Leach, who moved from Alaska to Missouri 15 years ago. “On the fourth try, I made a bow that I still have.” 

Since then, he has made more than 50 bows, some of which he has sold, but the majority is on display in his home. None of them is built one-size-fits-all, he says. Each bow is customized to the individual, using two basic guidelines: the draw weight of the bow — how many pounds the bow is going to pull — and the draw length of the person — to keep an archer from becoming fatigued when shooting. 

To produce a proper bow, Leach relies on Osage orange, commonly known as hedge wood. “Osage is the premier bow wood of Missouri, if not the United States,” he says. “It makes a resilient bow that holds up over a long period of time. I haven’t found that with other woods.” 

He searches for straight pieces of Osage orange in January and February when the sap is out of the wood. Only about one out of 100 trees will contain the right wood for his bows. The hunt usually nets six to eight logs, five to six feet long. Leach then begins the most time-consuming task: preparing the wood.

He splits the logs into quarters, skins off the bark and puts on a coat of shellac to keep wasps from burrowing inside and depositing wood-eating larvae. The wood is stored in his garage for one year before it is ready to use. 

Leach says he can turn an aged log into a stringed bow in six hours, using knives, files, scrapers and a few other tools. “It’s not a finished product, but it can shoot.”

Historically, bowstring material would be sinew, the tissue that  connects muscle to bone. Leach chooses to use Dacron, a synthetic material which, unlike sinew, is not affected by moisture or heat. His cedar shaft arrows — all made with the same weight and flex for consistency — are tipped with arrowheads he makes mostly from burlington chert [flint] and fletched with turkey feathers. Additionally, he makes all the equipment associated with archery like finger guards, arm guards and quivers [the satchels that hold the arrows].

Today, traditional longbow making is thought to be a dying art, but Leach is determined to see the practice carried on in the future. He passes his skills and knowledge to others by giving demonstrations throughout the state and by offering bow-making classes at his farm. “I enjoy working with people,” he says. “It is a good feeling to see someone craft something and to help them do that.”

With questions about bow making or to inquire about enrolling in a class, e-mail