Tuning a traditional bow sounds funny. At least it did to me when I first started shooting a recurve and a longbow. Truth be told, I had no idea you could tune them. After all, there sure didn’t seem like there was much to adjust on them.
What I have learned over years of hunting and doing some competitive shooting with a traditional bow is what every King’s archer knew almost seven hundred years ago. A properly tuned bow is important if you want your bow to perform at its maximum potential. That means faster, quieter and smoother than it will shoot if it’s not properly tuned. To prove that I am not making up the part about the old day archers, all ye have to do is look up the medieval word fist mele. The Wikipedia definition is this…Fist mele, also known as “brace height,” is an older term used in archery to describe the correct distance between a bow and its string. The term itself is a Saxon word indicating the measure of a clenched hand with the thumb extended.
My point in sharing this, besides impressing you with my archery history knowledge, is that obviously early archers realized how important the right string length was. Besides the proper string length, a proper nock set is also important for your bow to perform at its maximum potential.
I will assume you are like me and that instead of being a gifted woodworker that makes your own recurve or longbow you go out and buy one like I do. Let’s hope you purchased a recurve or longbow from a reputable bowyer or a manufacturer so now all we have to do is get it tuned up.
The thing you have to realize is that since we are working with a traditional bow, every bow is unique. Every traditional bow in my eyes is a work of art. On a recurve, the tiller is the measurement between the string and the inside of the limb at the end of the riser both on the top and bottom limb. On a longbow it is measured at the point where the handle narrows into the top and bottom limb (also known as the fadeout). The tiller is set when the manufacturer builds the bow. Most are set at 1/8” to 3/8” inch higher on the top limb measurement compared to the bottom limb measurement. The reason for this is that the center of your bow is the handle. Since all traditional bows shoot the arrow above the handle, this allows the limbs to still work evenly.
What do you have to set on your bow for the best performance is the brace height and nock set. All manufacturers have a suggested brace height (fist mele) and nock set. You’ll have to find what your bow likes the best. Here’s how:
How to Adjust Brace Height on Traditional Bows:
First, I suggest using a Flemish string. Most custom and well-made manufactured bows come with one. Flemish strings are made to be adjusted (twisted for the perfect length for your bow) the first thing you do is string up your bow using a bow stringer. Once strung, measure your brace height this is the distance between the string and the inside of your handle (where your hand first contacts the grip). Then check to see what the manufacturer recommends for brace height. You should then adjust your string to match the recommended brace height for your bow. To do this, unstring your bow, slide the string down the limb on the top limb and then remove the string from the bottom limb and twist it up to tighten the string. This will increase the brace height. Or untwist the string to decrease the brace height. If it is a brand-new string, before shooting you may want to heat the string with a blow dryer by blowing hot air on the string from the top to the bottom for a few minutes. Or you can leave it strung overnight and this will help get the stretch out of your string. It is not mandatory to do this, but it will be easier to adjust the brace height accurately if your string is already stretched out.
Now it’s time to shoot. Note: if you don’t enjoy tinkering with your bow leave it at the suggested brace height and skip ahead to the nock setting chapter. If on the other hand you are the kind of person that ties their own files, fixes your own vehicle, makes your own arrows and cuts up you own wild game, then read on.
Next you want to shoot:
It helps to have another person standing by. Preferably someone with good hearing so don’t ask my dad to help. Try and find a quiet place, a garage or barn works great. Then shoot two arrows at the manufactured brace height. Then unstring your bow, twist your string three complete turns and shoot again. If you listen and adjust your bow a few string twists at a time you will find a spot where your bow shoots the quietest. This is called the Bows “sweet spot”. I will usually go three twists at a time and listen to my bow at up to half an inch over and under the manufacturers recommended brace height. Once you find the sweet spot, measure the brace height and shoot that bow at that brace height. If your bow seems unusually loud or won’t quiet down, shoot a heavier arrow and start the process again. It is recommended to shoot 9 to 10 grains of arrow weight per pound of bow weight. Check your brace height every time before you shoot. Some strings tend to stretch over time and require adjustments. Also, extreme weather can cause your string to change as well. Now that you have your bow shooting in its sweet spot you can add some things to help quiet the bow noise down even more.
How to Quiet your Recurve Bow or Long Bow:
On a recurve, I like to add mole skin to the belly of my limb tip where the string makes contact with the bow. I use a six-to-eight-inch strip of mole skin to cover from the string grooves at the tip down the limb to where the string will contact the limb. This helps quiet a recurve down since the majority of noise from a recurve comes from the string slapping the limbs. To quiet the string down even more, you can add some puffs, beaver hair, cat whiskers or small rubber string vibration dampeners. I prefer the small rubber dampeners as I often hunt in cold, snowy or rainy conditions and the yarn or animal fur silencers can get wet and frozen adding weight to your string which will affect your bows performance. Longbows are much quieter than a recurve and usually once you get the brace height set they rarely require any additional work to quiet them down although the above puffs, beaver hair, cat whiskers or rubber vibration dampeners will work on them as well.
Adjusting your nock:
Next and another important part of tuning your bow is properly placing your nock set. A nock sets only duty is to be a simple indicator of where you need to put your arrow on the string for best performance. This is very important to achieve the best results out of your bow and good flight out of your arrow. Although the proper way to put on a nock set is to use a T-square, I am guilty of usually just eyeballing my nock set by putting an arrow in my bow and resting it on the shelf and just sliding the arrow up or down the string until it looks perfectly horizontal. Then I attach a brass nock set above the arrow and that’s my starting point.
Most recurves and longbows shoot best with anything from a level to a one-half inch high nock set. Again, here there is some tweaking required. Due to your bows tiller, your style of shooting, or arrow choice, a nock set above or below the manufacturer’s recommendation may be necessary. If you are having major issues with arrow flight, I would advise changing the spine or point weight on your arrow. Good luck bowhunting and as always, have fun!
- Fred Eichler