ELMIRA, Ore. — When the Queen of England's archers draw back on their longbows, they are taking aim with Oregon yew crafted by a portly Yankee bow maker who works out of a tiny shop here.
Don Adams has been a boat builder and a certified aircraft mechanic. He has produced schooners and sloops and full-size airplanes from scratch. His woodworking training came decades ago under a master bowyer.
Now he is one of the few craftsmen in the world qualified to create the weapon that contributed to mighty English victories in the Middle Ages.
'Atom Bomb of Its Time'
"You could walk out of Sherwood Forest with one of these bows and be right in style," Adams said. "At the peak of its development, it was the atom bomb of its time. It won the great battles at places like Crecy and Agincourt and Poitiers."
His bows cost $450 each and buyers, including the fabled Woodsmen of Arden and the Queen's Own Royal Company of Archers, are accustomed to waiting two years to have their orders filled.
"As far as I know, I'm the only person in the world specializing in construction of the longbow," Adams said. "A few other people dabble in it, but no one else does it full time."
Searches for Yew
For Adams, the bow-making process begins above the 3,500-foot level of the Cascade Range, where he searches out perfect specimens of yew, a gnarly, dark-needled conifer thinly scattered through Oregon's forests.
Back at home in Elmira, near Eugene in Oregon's Willamette Valley, Adams mills the wood into billets, each about 1 1/2 inches square and a bit over three feet in length. A grain-matched pair from the same log is used to make a single bow, but not until the wood has dried for four years.
In many cultures, yew is a wood cloaked with mystic properties, a material that figures prominently in ritual and superstition. But for Adams, the magic of yew is in the differing properties of its sapwood and heartwood, a natural lamination that he describes as "God's gift to the bowman."
The longbow is shaped from the choicest pieces of wood, where the half-inch or so of white sapwood meets the darker red heartwood. The sapwood, strong in tension, or stretching, forms the outside of the bow's curve. The heartwood, strong in compression, forms the inside.
Adams joins the two pieces with an intricate sawed-and-glued joint that, in the finished bow, is covered with a leather handle. As the stave is worked to its finished profile, the bow's dimensions emerge--a bit more than an inch at the center, tapering gradually to less than half an inch at the ends, where carved horn tips are fitted.
"But the dimensions are never the same," he said. "It depends on the wood. You can't make the bow by measurement. There's a lot of artist's eye to it. The stresses have to be distributed perfectly or the bow will have a short life."
Adams, who helped analyze the remains of the 400-year-old warship Mary Rose, which was raised five years ago off Portsmouth, England, said that unfinished staves found in the vessel's hold indicated that 16th-Century bowyers worked much the same way.
"Once I saw them (the staves), I knew those old bow makers weren't doing anything different," Adams said. "There were differences in size and lengths. It's the same now. The bow depends on the piece of wood."