Hitting the bull's-eye with handcrafted bows

Posted: Friday, February 18, 2005

MARIETTA, Okla. — A hunter at heart, G.W. Flanagan decided to use his youthful enthusiasm to take his passion one step further when he was just a teen. Since he was 15 years old, Flanagan, now retired, has been making his own bows, a ''hobby'' he's honed into a fine skill that attracts the attention of hunters far and wide.

Stepping inside his immaculate workshop outside his home in Marietta, Flanagan takes visitors on a verbal tour of his bowmaking history, showing his prized works of art and explaining the aesthetic details it has taken years to perfect.

''I started making these real nice ones in '98,'' Flanagan said. ''It's just kind of a passion that I do this. It's strictly for pleasure.''

Flanagan makes both takedown recurve and longbows and says there's little difference in the effectiveness of either. It's just the preference of the hunter.

''The longbow, you shoot it the same, but it's a little bit quieter than a recurve because of limb slap,'' he said, demonstrating the sound difference between the two by shooting a target on the far wall. ''The way the limbs are on the recurve, the string slaps the limb tip and it doesn't do that on the longbow.''

Above his workbench, Flanagan has a variety of bows hanging overhead. His bows are made from expensive exotic and domestic woods — curly maple, cocobolo, babinga and Osage orange, which is bois d' arc wood, to name a few from California to Africa.

''You need to use hard wood for a bow. All my limbs, I make them from scratch,'' he said, showing the impossibly thin layers of wood in one of his bows. ''This limb here has got five laminations. It's got three of glass and two of bamboo. The bamboo, I order it from California. It still has the nodes on it that I have to file smooth.''

Flanagan showed off a longbow of walnut with bamboo limbs.

''I made this for the Wild Turkey Federation,'' he said. ''I make one for them every year.''

Picking out another one from the collection, Flanagan described the features of a recurve bow.

''This is a takedown recurve,'' he said, demonstrating how the limbs can be unbolted so the three-piece bow can be stored in a smaller space. ''I don't make a one-piece recurve anymore. I did at one time. I couldn't get rid of it. Everybody wants a takedown bow. They hardly ever take it apart, but they like that option.''

Flanagan's own bow is decorated with deer antler, which he said he can do on a custom bow if the buyer wants.

Right now, Flanagan has some of his bows for sale in archery shops in Gainesville and Denton, Texas, and in Ada and McAlester.

''It's a hobby. It's just kind of a passion. I'm not trying to make a living at it,'' he said. ''I don't advertise, but you wouldn't believe how many people come here from all across the state.''

The gate above the entrance to G.W. Flanagan's home gives passers-by a hint at the passion of the homeowner inside. Flanagan said it makes it easier to give people directions to his home, where he has examples of his handcrafted bows hanging in his workshop.

A wall behind his workbench is covered in framed photographs of clients who have bought his bows or had them custom built. They hang alongside photos of his family members and the spoils of their hunts.

''People will come in here and tell me what kind of bow they want and what wood they want and I'll make it for them,'' he said. ''I can make one in a week. I take my time. I've got all the nice tools to do it with.''

He saves his bowmaking for the spring and summer when temperatures are at the prime. He learned the hard way that you can't rush the drying process of the glue, or you'll have disgruntled hunters bringing the bows back.

''That's not something you want to have happen,'' he said. ''I take too much pride in my work.''

That sentiment was evident when his eyes settled on something hanging on the south wall.

''This is the first bow I ever made,'' he said, taking a dusty bow down from its pegs. Brushing away the grime, Flanagan cringed as he eyed his workmanship. ''Isn't that the ugliest thing? Look how wide those limbs are. I don't ever show it to anybody. My dog barks at that when I pull it out.''

That bow brought back the memory of when he created it in his youth.

''I've got three friends that I went to school with. We made our own bows at 15. They weren't much to look at,'' Flanagan said. ''Last year was the first time we've been together since. We went to a 3-D shoot at Stratford and had a great time. We're going to do it a lot more from now on. We're all still living and still in good health. It was real enjoyable.''

Flanagan is able to give advice on everything from wood choice to bow strength.

''I try to discourage anyone from buying a real strong bow because it's real uncomfortable and hard to shoot,'' he said.

''A bow that looks good just automatically shoots better,'' Flanagan said, with a laugh. ''To me, it does, and I try to make them look good.''

In a box on one side of the room is a box of antlers that he uses for the decorative features that set his bows apart. Another box is filled with scraps of wood, which he now uses for a new craft.

''I've started making bolo ties from scraps of wood,'' he said, sending a grandson into the house to find one of his creations, this one a walnut arrowhead with turkey spurs on the ends of the ties. It's just one more in a long line of activities for busy retired hands.

''I like making people a nice bow, but I like making a good bow for myself, too,'' he said. ''I've been known to make a bow for myself and somebody sees it and likes it and I'll give it to them and make myself another one.''

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