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Fall City archery craftsman Jay St. Charles builds bows, and archers | Photo Gallery
Part of Jay St. Charles’ job is to find the longbows growing within trees. Another part is to help people discover their inner archers. The best part, though, is probably when the two are combined, in day-long archery workshops hosted at his Fall City studio.
St. Charles is officially a bow maker, selling high-end customized longbows and recurve bows to online customers throughout the world.
But he is also clearly a teacher, relishing each opportunity to share his sport and his craft with another generation.
“I’ve enjoyed doing the kids’ bows,” St. Charles says on a tour of his small shop, where classes of sixth graders, Scout troops and 4-H groups have all spent a day learning to make, and to shoot, their own English-style longbows.
Well, what the youth actually do is finish the work that St. Charles has started for them, but it amounts to the same thing.
“They start with something that’s a lot further along,” than the plain wooden staves his adult students work in the three-day workshops he offers in the summertime, he explained. “They get here at 9 and have to leave by 2:30, so I have enough work on the bows that the kids get authorship… they can say that they took it from a rough bending stave to a completed bow, and of course they talk about them as the bows they made, which is the whole point.”
Under the guidance of St. Charles and helpers, the students go through the steps to finish their bows, including making sure they are “tillered” or balanced so that the bows’ limbs bend equally, and using a cabinet scraper hand tool to gradually shave off the wood causing the asymmetrical curve.
“The cabinet scraper really makes the fine work of the bow possible in the hands of a fairly new workman,” St. Charles, said, adding that he uses the same tool to finish his own bows.
Size and draw weight, but not quality, are the big differences between a piece made by St. Charles and one made by his students.
“Rather than a child’s bow, it’s actually a small adult bow, a light draw-weight adult bow, with the idea that they take care of that bow, and that their own kids will be able to use it,” St. Charles said. “It’s kind of an heirloom piece.”
Since they’re real weapons, the next thing the students get to do is put them to real use, target shooting for the rest of the day. St. Charles has a range on his property for target practice, in a setup that’s similar to modern archery events — target shooting in woodland environments.
This part is as much, if not more fun for St. Charles as it is for the students. He grew up in the archery business, selling bows and supplies in his family’s shop for years before he, like his father, became a full-time bow maker, and he’s long been involved with local archery clubs. Photos and club memorabilia dating back to the ‘50s reflect the years he’s spent developing shooting skills, and he is eager to share them with others.
With the adults he teaches at his own shop or at Redmond’s Enso Center (www.ensocenter.org), St. Charles talks about consistency and concentration, how to hit the same spot several times in a row. With his younger students, though, lessons are more dynamic. “The kids just don’t know it’s supposed to be hard to do,” he says, with a laugh. “The weight of the world’s not on them yet!”
When the youngsters do struggle, though, St. Charles often has a solution, like the counter-intutive idea of aiming at a ball swinging on a rope.
“The day your concentration isn’t there, you need a target that you really want to hit,” he tells them, “and the most interesting target is a moving target.”
Which brings us back to the first part of his job. St. Charles makes bows of various woods, some of which are getting harder to find.
Yew is a particular favorite, good for longbows, he says, because the wood has both a stretchy outer layer good for the back of a bow, and a dense inner layer that stands up well against the compression in the “belly” or front of the bow. To get the same qualities without yew, St. Charles uses a laminate of bamboo for the back, and ipe, a tropical hardwood, for the belly.
Although yew is a native to the area and grows plentifully, the slow-growing evergreen tends to grow on national lands, requiring permission to harvest. Getting permission, though, doesn’t always mean finding the wood that will fill St. Charles’ bill.
“What I need is a span of straight, clear wood,” he explained. “I’m trying to identify that there’s a bow in there… the point is to try to get as much out of the wood that I have, to kind of honor the wood and honor the work that I’ve put in already, to get the best bow I can.”
Although he claims “All the bows I build are supposed to leave, they’re supposed to be sold!” he's become attached to a lot of his creations, which are lined up in his shop, some works in progress, some replicas of historical weapons. Picking up a bow from one table, he says “This is another type of bow found in history,” and, still teaching, goes on to explain it’s the North American longbow, distinguishable from the English by its width and depth.
Between the club memorabilia and his bow collection, the shop can seem kind of crowded, especially when filled with up to 30 12-year-olds, but St. Charles wouldn’t consider changing that.
“They all come here, this is where I’ve got everything,” he says, adding with a grin, “Plus, they get a little dose of history here.”
Jay St. Charles describes the difficulties of working with yew wood, like the log on his worktable. Yew is slow-growing, slow-drying, and tends to grow bushy, creating knots in the wood that can become weak spots in one of his hand-made bows.
A section of yew log and one of St. Charles longbows both highlight the two-layered look of yew wood. The outer white layer is resilient and holds up well to the stretch of a drawn bow, while the darker inner layer, used on the front of the bow, withstands the compression well.
Using a cooper's knife, Jay St. Charles gradually peels the bark from a yew log, to examine the white sapwood underneath.
Finger placement is important, even in nocking the arrow to the bow, which St. Charles demonstrates.
St. Charles demonstrates a good drawing technique, which ends with the thumb and pointer finger knuckles touching jaw and cheek, respectively. From here, St. Charles says, all you have to do is relax the fingers on the bowstring, and let the arrow find the target.
Taking aim in his indoor range, Jay St. Charles concentrates on the target, striving to hit the same spot with every shot.
St. Charles signs each of his bows with this pen and ink. He also includes the length and draw weight of each bow with his signature.
One of St. Charles cats stops by his workshop to "help" him work on a bow, or maybe just to sharpen his claws on the bark.
A boisterous bantam rooster keeps St. Charles company when he works in his Fall City shop.
Demonstrating his tillering tree, St. Charles demonstrates how students would test their bows for equal curves in both limbs. "I want to make this a perfect spring," he explains, and the tree helps bow makers spot inconsistencies in the arch of the wood.
A collection of bows stacked on a table illustrates the variety of bows St. Charles has made.
Examples of two of St. Claire's recurve bows.