How Does a Custom Recurve Bow Get Made?

Step inside the workshop of one of the country’s finest makers of recurves and longbows

Fifteen years ago, James “Big Jim” Babcock hunted with a stickbow for the first time—and was hooked. Today, he crafts some of the finest laminated-limb recurves and longbows in the country. We paid a visit to Babcock earlier this year at his custom-bow shop in Albany, Georgia

While the big bow companies race to make a 400 fps compound and a crossbow that fits in a holster, a handful of artisans around the country understand that for many traditional-minded sportsmen, archery is more about form than function. A proper bow should be an effective hunting tool but also a work of art.

That’s why traditional recurves and longbows never go out of style—because style is front and center. It’s also why custom bowyers like Georgia’s James Babcock of Big Jim’s Bow Company are busier than ever.

You only have to hunt with a trad bow once to understand the magic. That’s how it happened for Babcock. (He’ll ask you to call him Big Jim, and at 6-foot-3 and 320 pounds, he comes by the nickname honestly.) For 28 years, he’d been a diehard compound-bow hunter before trying a stickbow in 2004. “I figured I’d shoot a doe with it, and that would scratch the itch,” Big Jim says. “Well, I shot the doe—and I sold my compound the next day.” He bought a custom longbow and then started making his own. “At one point, I just knew I had to make bows full time.” In 2008, with his wife, Barbara, he opened up shop.

Big Jim hasn’t hunted with a compound since. Once a successful contractor with 40 workers, he now employs just a few talented craftsmen who help him create some of the country’s finest custom-made recurves and longbows. Order a Big Jim bow, and expect to wait more than a year to have it in your hands. But if you’re an archer who thinks a bow should be a work of art, it’ll be worth it.

Besides the challenge and satisfaction of instinctive shooting, the reason recurves and longbows never lose their appeal is ele­mental, Big Jim says. “I’m convinced it’s the wood. It’s warm. It’s beautiful. It’s traditional. People never get tired of wood.” And if it’s wood you’re after, Big Jim is your man. He buys and stores semi-loads of wood from foreign and domestic vendors.

“Customers tell me, ‘I want a one-of-a-kind bow.’ I just smile and say, ‘We can do that.’ I start them slow, showing them just a few of the combinations. And then I take them to the next storage unit, and the next, and pretty soon I’ve blown their minds.”

hunter shaping a recurve bow
Taking Shape Babcock with a bow form used to press and cure the laminations of a recurve bow.Andrew Hetherington
man holding up a slab of spalted maple
A slab of spalted maple.Andrew Hetherington
a stack of black and white ebony lumber
Limb veneers of black-and-white-ebony lumber.Andrew Hetherington
stacks of black-and-white ebony lumber
A stack of black-and-white ebony lumber.Andrew Hetherington
a lineup of domestic and exotic woods
A lineup of domestic and exotic woods, including cocobolo, zircote, bubinga, and bocote.Andrew Hetherington
hunter shaping a traditional bow riser
Big Jim shapes a riser for a Mountain Monarch recurve.Andrew Hetherington
man standing in a trailer that's wood storage
One of eight 8x10-foot trailers Big Jim bought from a local military base to store and dry wood.Andrew Hetherington
A hand-tooled Thunderchild leather arm guard
A hand-tooled Thunderchild leather arm guard, surrounded by the implements used to make it. One of several styles Big Jim offers, this guard pays homage to the Thunderchild First Nation reserve in northern Saskatche­wan, which is among the bowyer’s favorite bowhunting destinations.Andrew Hetherington
a box of springbok horns in a box
A box of springbok horn, imported from Africa and used for limb tips and overlays.Andrew Hetherington
jigs used for shaping traditional bow risers
A collection of jigs, used for shaping bow risers, hangs from a pegboard in the bow shop; there’s one for every model in the Big Jim lineup.Andrew Hetherington
writing on the wall in a wood shop
A not-so-subtle warning from Big Jim’s right-hand man, Dan Harris, aka Preacher.Andrew Hetherington
a traditional bowhunting craft workshop
The paired top and bottom limbs of takedown longbows hang on a drying rack as their tips and overlays cure. All Big Jim bows have laminated limbs, which are made by glueing together as many as eight ­layers of fiberglass and wood veneers. These are then pressed and cured in a 165-degree oven for four hours. Takedown bows like the ones here make up between 80 and 90 percent of Big Jim’s orders. “Most hunters like to be able to break their bow down, but especially anyone who flies to hunt. If you take a single-piece bow on a plane, it’s an extra $75 baggage fee each way. But you can stash a pair of take-down bows in your luggage and not pay an extra dime.”Andrew Hetherington
socket joints for a traditional bow
The disassembled socket joint in the handle of a Thunderchild longbow reveals the heart of every takedown model. The grip, left, is made by wrapping carbon and fiberglass strips over a form, which also creates a socket within. (The grip will be finished with a beaver-tail wrap.) The male tenon, right, fits snugly inside. “I have built takedowns that draw 100 pounds (though I don’t recommend shooting a bow that heavy). I’ve never had one break at the joint.”Andrew Hetherington
a coin featuring a bighorn ram
This coin, depicting a bighorn ram, will decorate the riser of a Full Curl recurve.Andrew Hetherington
traditional bowhunting covered in epoxy resin
Epoxy resin covers the jig used to create the grip and socket joint of a takedown bow.Andrew Hetherington
a traditional bow being drilled
Using a drill press and a Forstner bit, Big Jim creates the recess for a brass coin that will indicate the model of the bow.Andrew Hetherington
man testing draw strength on a traditional bow
Big Jim tests the draw weight on a Thunderchild longbow by pulling the riser down to the correct draw length along a marked vertical rod and then reading the scale above it. “One of the biggest mistakes hunters make when switching to traditional gear is over-bowing themselves,” Big Jim says. “Even if you can pull a 70-pound compound, you should probably shoot a 40- to 45-pound recurve or longbow. I have a 70-year-old customer who shoots 35 pounds. Every year he sends me pictures of deer and bears he’s taken. Draw weight doesn’t kill ­animals; arrow placement does.”Andrew Hetherington
filing and sanding a traditional bow
Big Jim uses a file and sandpaper to hand-finish the limb tips and riser shelf of a Buffalo longbow.Andrew Hetherington
man filing limb tips
Big Jim uses a file and sandpaper to hand-finish the limb tips and riser shelf of a Buffalo longbow.Andrew Hetherington
a lineup of traditional custom crafted bows
Finished bows, left to right: A Mountain Monarch recurve with sheephorn overlay, a Buffalo longbow with moose-antler overlay, Buffalo and Thunderchild takedowns with wood overlays.Andrew Hetherington
a bowhunting target covered in holes
Big Jim’s primary backyard bow-testing target has caught more than a few arrows.Andrew Hetherington
Full Curl recurve bow with a coin embedded in it
A Full Curl recurve with specs and signature on the belly.Andrew Hetherington
man testing a custom crafted bow by a pool
Babcock takes a break from bow-­making to fling arrows by the pool, which is surrounded by 3D targets. “Deedee, my 100-pound, 7-year-old Chesapeake, likes to play with her pool toy while I shoot,” Big Jim says. He’s an excellent shot and has won a handful of traditional archery tournaments. “I shoot every bow for both accuracy and feel before I send it out,” he says. “I want every one of them sighted in and shooting great by the time it leaves the shop.”Andrew Hetherington