VIDEO: A longbow is drawn 'from the mind to the hand'
November 15, 2021 | 3:16 pm CST

The Japanese Yumi is a noble object, no longer a weapon of war.

More than 1,000 years ago, the dimensions of the Japanese Yumi, or longbow, was finalized. The size was fixed at a little more than two meters and the use of laminated construction was agreed upon. In the 1600s, after hundreds of years of tweaking, the final design was agreed upon, and, to this day, the bow is made from a two-piece bamboo and wood laminated construction.

Not too long after those dates, the Shibata Workshop in Tokyo was founded. The workshop exists today, 450 years later, and it is run by Kanjuro Shibata, a 21st generation bowmaker, according to this Business Insider story, which is part of the “Why is this so expensive” channel.

While synthetic bows costs about $400 dollars, Shibata's traditionally made bows are more in the $900 to $2,200 range. Bows made more for sophisticated users such as museums can be as much as $6,000 as they feature more expressive laminates and drawings.

These longbows were once used as weapons of war, but today are crafted for collectors and for students of the art of Kyudo. “Kyudo is a sport where you don’t fight other people, it is more about understanding yourself through introspection,” said Miyako Koyano, a Kyudo practitioner interviewed by BI. “Today, it [longbow] is considered a noble object.”

 

The longbows are made from three main layers. The two outside layers are constructed of two pieces of bamboo, which has been shaved to shape (to about 4 to 5 mm in thickness), and dried for three years. An inner core, called nakauchi, is made out of laminated bamboo and wax tree wood, and is much harder than the bamboo on the outside.

This mix of flexible and inflexible materials is critical, said Shibata. The flexible outside layers bend well, but do not have the force to return to the original position. The harder inner core and the more flexible outer core is the perfect combination. “Japanese bows are made by combining inflexible and flexible materials, and by combining bamboo and wood in this way, we can take advantage of their respective strengths," said Shibata.

Kyudo longbow made with a laminated construction.
The laminated construction of the longbow features two outside layers of flexible bamboo and a hard inner core of bamboo and wax tree wood.

The three layers are glued together, and the bow is wrapped with rope. More then 100 wood wedges are inserted between the rope and bamboo, which must be done quickly before the glue dries.  By driving the wedges, the three materials are tightened and crimped together.

While the construction of the Yumi has remained the same for hundreds of years, Shibata says he is looking for ways to increase efficiency. For instance, the wood wedges have traditionally been hand cut and could take a long time to make the wedge for each project. To speed production, he uses an electric saw to cut them to length in just seconds.

When it comes down to it, the final product is quality controlled visually and tactilely by Shibata using his hand, eyes, even his feet. This is when the quality of the bow is determined, said Shibata, and this quality control step is achieved through experience. “All work is done by conveying what I have drawn in my mind to my hands,” said Shibata.  

You can learn more about Kanjuro Shibata’s workshop here.
 

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About the author
Larry Adams | Editor

Larry Adams is a Chicago-based writer and editor who writes about how things get done. A former wire service and community newspaper reporter, Larry is an award-winning writer with more than three decades of experience. In addition to writing about woodworking, he has covered science, metrology, metalworking, industrial design, quality control, imaging, Swiss and micromanufacturing . He was previously a Tabbie Award winner for his coverage of nano-based coatings technology for the automotive industry. Larry volunteers for the historic preservation group, the Kalo Foundation/Ianelli Studios, and the science-based group, Chicago Council on Science and Technology (C2ST).