Business Saturday, January 30th Words by: Mark Bowen, pictures by: Mark Bowen

Business week: The Herefordshire master bowyer

Business Saturday, January 30th

Business week: The Herefordshire master bowyer

There are very few people who make longbows for a living but Marc Grady does exactly this from his workshop in Bodenham, near Leominster. Running The Longbow Emporium seems to be a dream job for Marc. He has a deep love for archery and a passion for Victorian Longbows. The 11-stage process of making a longbow is complicated and requires a huge amount of skill. 

Laminates are planed, then glued together. Staves are marked out, and cut. Then there is rough shaping to do and tillering. Nocks will be cut, fitted, and polished. And finally the arrow pass will be shaped and the strings made. It's a process that delivers a beautiful end product that brings hours of pleasure to their owners as well as the all important technical perfection. Here Marc tells us all about this job.

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There are only 40 master bowyers in the world. I’m a recognised master of bowyery as defined by the Guild of Bowyers, the craft guild of Traditional Bowyers and Fletchers. They have an apprenticeship scheme which aspiring bowyers would go through. It can take anything from between three and five years to get through but then on the outside of that having completed it you then become a master. There are probably 40 masters in the country with a few overseas so you could say there are only around 40 in the world.

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If I hadn't followed my father everything he learnt would have been lost. I've been professionally running The Longbow Emporium and making bows for customers since 2012. But I was making bows for several years before that as a hobby and honing my skills. I learnt the majority of my skills from my father who has been a master bowyer. In fact, he was a founder member of the Craft Guild of Professional Bowyers and so he is vastly experienced over many, many years so I learnt everything I know at his workbench so I continue what he has learnt.

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There was a problem at the time of if I didn’t pick it up then everything that he learnt would have been lost. It’s a skill that started in medieval times and it went through the Georgian and Victorian period as a recreational sport but then it sort of died out for many years as the new modern bow came into prominence.

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So therefore a lot of the skills in traditional, wooden longbow making had to be re-learnt by people like my father and it would be a shame to see those disappear. But because of people like him and because of the work that I do, we are seeing a huge resurgence in the use of the longbow. While it may have been considered a minority sport or a minority activity 30, 40 years ago to shoot a wooden bow there are a good number of archers shooting long bows today. There are 47,000 archers registered with the governing body within the country and a good quarter of those will be shooting wooden bows.

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My bows are a throwback to Victorian bows not medieval ones. The style of my bow is a Victorian Longbow and they are made for target shooting so it is a Victorian design and a recreational longbow as opposed to a medieval war bow which is of different proportions, different length and is made to shoot different sized arrows over different distances. This is a throwback to a Victorian bow as opposed to a medieval bow but it is still a longbow.

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Asian water buffalo horn is used for the nock.

The best thing about making a bow is making one perfect for the customer. The best thing for me is making a bespoke bow that is perfect for the customer so a customer comes in and says “Marc I would like to shoot the York Round or I would like to shoot a Clout and I’ve got a draw length of 26 inches and I can pull a bow at 35 but I want the arrows to go 180 yards accurately”. Then the best part of that, having gone through the measurements and assessed what their abilities are, is to make them something that is absolutely perfect and when they come back to me and say ‘Do you know what Marc this is a fantastic bow, it does above and beyond what I expected’ that’s the best bit.

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My customers are from all over. My customers are from all over the country and they are serious enthusiasts of longbow shooting. The British Longbow Society is the lead body for longbow archers and just about everybody that comes to me are members of the British Longbow Society. There are several other societies where people know of me and come to me direct.

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Training the bow to bend - a process called tillering.

It takes weeks to make a longbow. For me to go from glueing up the laminates and then to the final polish, it can take between five and six weeks to make a longbow. There are several bows on the go at any one time and they are all going through different stages.

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The arrow being crested.

It takes time to make arrows. It takes the best part of a week to make an arrow. They can be thrown together in next to no time in terms of just glueing the bits but the selection of the shafts, the weighing of the shafts, the preparation and then if there is paint work involved, then all of that will take time.

Arrows are made in batches. I make them in batches of 12. So each archer buys them in 12 and they buy a dozen possibly every year or possibly every other year so there is a good turn around. The arrows are shot regularly throughout a season of competition but at the end of the season they may be showing a bit of wear and tear, and so the archers will gradually whittle the 12 down.

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Port Orford Cedar which is used to make arrows.

A lot of my friends are in their eighties and still shooting. Archery is fantastic because from a very early age young children love throwing something. They love to stand in one spot and have an impact at something in the distance. We never get past that even into adulthood. When someone shoots a bow for the first time and they watch that arrow come from the bow and fly a couple of hundred yards it is an amazing thing.

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But then to do it accurately to test yourself against a target which may be a 100 yards away and to pit yourself against others is a great feeling. Similarly you can start at a very early age. It is not an athletic sport, it’s not necessarily a strength orientated sport so you can start very young probably around seven, or eight. You can be shooting well into your eighties. A lot of my friends are octogenarians and still shooting and still enjoying it so it’s something that you do for life.

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My day starts off by throwing the shutters open to the sunlight. My typical day is to come in here on a nice day like today is to open the shutters. The workshop faces east, and the sun comes in and illuminates the work bench. At the workbench I will pick up on the work that I probably started the day before, and it may be anything from marking out a bow, to cutting a bow, to tillering, and I will do that until sufficient work has been done. Then I will have to move on to something else. So I might do bow work in the morning and then do arrow work in the afternoon.

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Refining the nock made out of Asian Buffalo Horn.

I also do leatherwork as well for longbow archers. So there is plenty to do. Sometimes I will be working with wood, in actually making a bow. I can be working with horn, strings, leather, so there is a wide variety of things I do. Sometimes it’s the accessories like bow stands and things like that that the customer wants and they are all available at The Longbow Emporium. 

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