Ox Power Handbook by Paramananda das

How To Make An Ox-Bow

This file is also in the Cow Protection Book 1 PDF file to be found here

An ox bow is made out of wood that can bend without cracking. I always use hickory. (Some people use walnut.) A freshly cut tree will be the best for bending. You soften the wood by steaming it. Freshly cut wood doesn't have to be steamed more than twelve hours.

If you are working with dry wood, I don't know exactly how long you would have to steam it in order to bend it, but it would take a lot longer. Even then, the chances of the wood splitting when you bend it would he much greater.

Selecting the Wood

So try to find a live tree which is perfectly straight for a six-foot (1.8 m) section and about six inches (15 cm) in diameter. It is very important that the section does not have knots in it. Within that six-foot section, at least three feet (90 cm) in the middle should be free of knots or even bird pecks.

Sometimes when a tree is young, birds peck at it and a blemish remains which grows over and makes a bump like a little knot. It causes a definite imperfection in the grain of the wood. If you try to bend a piece of wood where there is a bird peck, the wood is likely to split. You are going to split this log lengthwise into six or eight pieces depending on the exact size of the log.

There might be a bird peck or knot on one side of the log, but on the opposite side you might get a good section. Knots are all different. Sometimes they go deep into the wood or sometimes they are just superficial. The more you work with trees, the better you can judge by looking at them how deep the bird pecks or the knots go. After you split your log into sections, you will be able to see where the knots are and how deep they go.

Splitting the Log

I use small wedges to split the log. First, split it in half. Then split it into sixths by splitting the halves into three sections each. You need at least three wedges to do this properly. Your ox bow, when it is finished, will be one and a half inches in diameter (3.8 cm) at the widest point. So, to start with, the outside edge of the section should be at least 2 1/2 inches or 3 inches wide 9 (6.3 or 7.6 cm).


Outside edge of section should be 2 1/2 to 3 inches [6-8 cm] wide.

The stick initially gets hewn with a broad hatchet until it is almost to its right dimensions. This hatchet is a small version of the broad axe which I described in the yoke-making article. A broad hatchet has one flat side which makes it ideal for hewing.


This is a Broad Hatchet. One side is flat, which makes it ideal for hewing.

The outside edge of the stick with the bark on it should be untouched. We want to leave the bark on to help keep the bow from splitting where it bends. The bark will always stay on if you handle the piece of wood properly. As you can see in the photos, the outside edge of the bow has the bark on it and all the carving is done on the sides and the inside.

We have two-inch (5 cm) holes in our yoke so we make the bows about 1 1/2 inches (3.8 cm) at the top. We found that most of the stress on the bows is right below the yoke. When a bow breaks, it is always at that spot. After the bow passes through the yoke, its depth is tapered down to about one inch but the width remains the same. There is little stress on the lower portion of the bow.

Hewing the Stick


Progression of hewing the bow stick.

Hew the stick until it is just a little bit oversized. (Note drawings.) Don't go too close to your lines because the hatchet is a little bit crude and you might dig it in too far by accident and ruin the bow. Use an outside caliper often to verify that you aren't taking off too much or too little.


This is an Outside Caliper, used to take dimensions of the diameter of round surfaces.

When you have finished hewing the bow, you should make your final decision exactly where you are going to bend it, and mark the spot. Since you have a six-foot stick and the bow need only be five feet (1.5 m) long, you have one foot of leeway to choose the best spot for the center of the bend, based on the quality of the wood. Any imperfections in the wood should be kept as far from the bend as possible. If the bow splits when you bend it, it is useless and you have wasted all the valuable time you spent in preparation, so be careful at this point to use your best judgement.

Shaping with a Drawknife

The final shaping of the bow is done with a drawknife. You can put your bow stick in a vice and shave it down to exactly the size and smoothness that you want with this drawknife. A drawknife should be used with the beveled edge down, facing the wood.


This is a Drawknife. Note the inset showing the beveled edge.

Your shavings should be long and thin if you are using the tool properly. The old gentleman who taught me to make bows and yokes once said, "You can tell a man by his shavings." In other words, the longer they are, the better the man.

Keep using the caliper to check your work. Be careful to use the drawknife with the grain of the wood so it doesn't dig in and make notches. You want the inside of the bow to be very smooth because it will be constantly rubbing on the ox's neck. The drawknife must be kept very sharp to be effective. After you are done shaping the bow with the drawknife, then you can smooth it with a wood rasp and then sand it.

Steaming the Bow

When it is time to steam the bow, we take an oval shaped copper kettle approximately two feet long and one foot wide. Have the kettle over some constant source of heat like a gas stove. When the water is boiling and steam is coming up, then lay the bows across the top with the bark facing up. You can steam two bows at a time.

Cover the top of the pot and the bows with burlap sacks to hold the steam in. Be careful not to let the edge of the sacks hang down near the flames and catch on fire. They should just cover the top of the pot so that most of the steam is contained although some steam escapes through the sacks. Steam the bows for about 12 hours to be safe.

The exact time necessary depends on your wood. If it is really freshly cut wood, that certainly shortens the steaming time. I have even heard of people bending green hickory wood without steaming it at all. But I wouldn't try that. Whenever you steam the bow, the bark will come loose. But since we are only steaming about two feet of the bow, right where it gets bent, all the rest of the bark adheres to the wood nicely when it is steamed in this way.

A piece of wood can be steamed much quicker if you enclose the whole thing in a pipe with steam coming in. But the result may be that the bark comes off the bow. We have a steam boiler in one of our buildings. We put a shut-off valve at one of the steam ports and fix a pipe large enough to contain one ox bow. The pipe is connected to the steam port with the bow inside it and then capped.

If the bow is left in there for twelve minutes with the steam at six pounds of pressure, it can then be removed and bent and the bark will usually stay on. We found that if left for 15 minutes the bark would come off. More power is required to bend the bow using this short high-pressure method than when using the slow method with the kettle. However, the results were consistently good. Even when the bark came off, nine out of ten bows held up under normal service.

Bending the Bow

Click on picture to enlarge

This is the Form for bending the bow. For older oxen, widen the form to compensate for their larger necks.

A bow should be bent immediately after it is removed from the steam. If you let it sit out in the open air, it will lose its softness very quickly, so you must have your form set up very near the steaming operation. The form must be bolted or nailed onto a solid workbench. The form is pictured above.

At the top you can see that the bow is wedged in very tightly. That is very important. Otherwise it will buckle right at the mid-point. That is the biggest stress point, right at the middle of the bend. The bow must be bent gradually. There are different holes in the form and as you bend each side of the bow, you put the pegs in to hold it in position.


Here is how the steamed bow stick is bent on the Form.

Depending on how thick your bow is, you may be able to bend it by hand. Bend one side until you pass a peg hole and put the peg in. Then you can let go and bend the other side to its corresponding hole. In the photo I started the bend with two chain binders. I put a chain on both ends of the bow, and I gradually cranked the two ends together, switching from one binder to the other. When the bend was half done, I just pushed the bow in the rest of the way by hand. But don't do it all of a sudden. Do it slowly. This will minimize the chance of the bow cracking.

Once the bow is bent all the way around the form and the pegs are holding it in place, then take some wire and wrap it around the ends of the bow to hold it in place. Remove the bow from the form and leave it wired up. You can use the bow the next day if you need it, but you must always leave it in the yoke. Otherwise it will straighten out.

It may take up to a year before the bend is permanently fixed. I have seen that there is a tendency for the bend to gradually straighten out, so it is good to always keep the bows in the yoke or wired together. If you have a yoke that you are not using, just put the bows in the yoke and leave them there for an extended period of time and then they will become fixed in the shape of that yoke.

There should be a little space between the side of the ox's neck and the bow, when the yoke is in its normal pulling position. The bows shouldn't be right on the ox's neck. You might want to have two different size forms. I have two forms and now our older oxen have outgrown the large form shown in this article. Instead of making a new form, we put shims on both sides of the form to make the bow wider.

Bow Keys

You will have to put keys in the bows to hold them in place in the yoke. A wooden key works better than anything. We tried metal bolts, pins, spring clips, but anything we used was completely inadequate and very troublesome, always falling out or bending or wearing big holes in the top of the yokes. Finally we started using the time-worn method of wooden keys.

Since the key must be small, it should be of very strong wood. We found elm makes the best keys, and hickory second. They can be whittled with a knife. Seven-sixteenths of an inch (1.3 cm) is a minimum diameter for the body of the key. Three-eighths inch (1 cm) keys break too easily, we found. It is a good practice to always carry an extra key when you work the oxen. A good key will break only in some extraordinary situation when the oxen are acting up.

Click on picture to enlarge


Key hole must be drilled perpendicular to bow stick, and must be carefully centered, about 6 inches [15 cm] from one end of the bow. Note how key will lock into place.

The hole in the bow to receive the key should be drilled. It should be carefully centered and made perpendicular to the bow. We drill three


Key hole must be drilled perpendicular to bow stick, and must be carefully centered, about 6 inches [15 cm] from one end of the bow. Note how key will lock into place.

The hole in the bow to receive the key should be drilled. It should be carefully centered and made perpendicular to the bow. We drill three different size holes. First drill the 7/l6-inch (1.3 cm) hole for the main shaft of the key and then two smaller ones below it. Then carve out the key hole so the key fits in well.

The distance of the keyhole from the bottom of the bow is critical and depends on the size of your oxen. If the bows are too far down, the yoke slides back on their necks when they pull. The effect of this is that the oxen are using the bows to pull with instead of the yoke and the bows press up against their throats and choke them. For our full-grown oxen, the correct distance is 22 inches (56 cm), but you must adjust the distance for your own oxen.

You should be careful not to damage the yoke by the rubbing of the keys around the holes because there is no way you can repair that. A good yoke, if properly taken care of, can last a lifetime. So it is good to have large leather washers that fit over the bow. The key sits on the washer and the yoke doesn't get damaged at all.


A leather washer will prevent key from damaging the top of the yoke.

It is also advisable to have extra bows when you are working oxen and depending on their work, because there is no way you can utilize the kind of yoke I have described here without a good bow. Before I knew how to make bows and I was only working one ox with a single yoke, I made a bow out of an iron pipe. This can be done in an emergency