Buying A Custom Bow

Traditional Archery – By Doug Besherse

Buying A Custom Bow

One of the questions I get asked often is “what are the best 3-4 bows or bowyers”?

I use to discuss this with people but no longer does so, or at least I now limit the conversation quite a bit. There are a lot of reasons I do this one of which is I am put in a no-win situation. I have a lot of bowyer friends and for me to suggest one over the other would not be wise.

Another reason is that buying a “custom bow” is a personal thing and while I may really like a bow the next guy may find nothing at all special about it. In fact, there is a bow that I have that I feel is built as humanly perfect as can be built. It is beautiful, shoots terrific and is a quality piece thru and thru.

I have let guys look at it and shoot it on occasion. Some will like it as much as I do, others will say something like “yeah that’s a pretty nice bow”, while others will say ” it’s okay but you ought to shoot my bow, it’s the best there is.” Of course, I will do so, interestingly enough though their bow never seems as good as mine.

There are many flavors of ice cream because different people have different taste, so it is with bows.

How To Pick The Best Custom Bow

Just a few years ago there were very few custom bowyers, now there are so many that picking a bowyer is a confusing proposition. Between all the “well known” bowyers and the “up and coming bowyers” there are now literally hundreds to choose from.

So number one how can I recommend only 3 or 4 out of this group. Most importantly number two, how are you going to pick one from this group? 

Well if you really want a custom bow you will have to go through the process of “weeding out” the 199 other bowyers to get to that one special one that will make your bow. While I don’t know the reasons why every individual wants a custom bow there are several reasons that seem to always surface when talking with a prospective buyer. I will discuss these in no certain order of importance.

Why every individual wants a custom bow

One of the most common reasons for buying a custom bow is that the prospective buyer is looking for that one “magic bow”. The bow that has all the misses shot out of it. The bow that shoots 250 fps with a 1000 grain arrow, and all this at a draw weight of 45#. Although most of the advertisements and brochures will have you believing this, the truth is there is no such bow. The grim reality is that recurves and longbows have been made for thousands of years. Every design imaginable has been tried. About the only thing new is the materials that have been developed in the last 50 years. Even though these materials will let us do some things with bows that before were difficult if not impossible to do, between the mid 1960’s and mid 1970’s laminated recurve designs were put to the test. I haven’t seen a bow built in the last 10 years that was any different from one of the bows built during the aforementioned time frame.

While some of the bowyers may think their design is new and unique if one does some research looking through old periodicals or a few bow collections they will find that “new and unique design” or a close version of it was being made 20 to 30 years ago.

To be quite frank if you think buying a custom bow is your ticket to becoming the next gold medal winner in the Olympics or that it is going to shoot 50 fps faster than your current bow you are headed for a severe disappointment. I have said it many times before and I’ll say it again, there are no magic bows. There is not a bow out there that is head and shoulders above the rest, regardless of price.

The limits what a bowyer can do

1. Whether you are talking about speed, accuracy, or quality there is a limit to what a bowyer can do. If a bowyer has been building his bows for any length of time and he takes pride in his work, he has probably gotten his bow design as close to perfect as he can. This being the case with all the bowyers it would make common sense that most all the bows being made would be very similar in the three categories mentioned before.

2. There is a common rule that is used in the business world. It is called the 80/20 rule and you’d be amazed at how many things this rule applies to. Some examples are 80% of the real estate sales are made by 20% of the sales force and 20% of product inventory makes up 80% of your sales. You will see this rule applied to other things in life also, but just how does it relate to the subject we are talking about?

Over the years I’ve had the unique opportunity to test hundreds of bows. Out of all those bows, only a few sticks out in my mind as being special. This brings me to how the rule applies to bows. The rule that I have is other than the price there isn’t much difference in 80% of the bows being built. If you don’t believe me just ask someone who has spent a small fortune buying all kinds of bows looking for that one magic bow.

With all that’s been said so far why in the world would anyone want a custom bow?

Well, actually there are several good reasons. A well-built bow is like a work of art. It is as unique as the bowyer himself, each bow has it’s own personality with no two being exactly alike. There is this mystical appeal that draws you to them that is hard to describe. Holding a well-built bow in your hand is like… gives you the feeling that…well it just makes you want one like it. I think most males can associate with that.

To emphasize the point I’ll tell you about one of my friends. I have a good friend who has had more than his share of bows. His saying is “the best bow I have ever seen is everyone that I’m about to buy !” I laugh every time I think about that statement because that is about the way everyone feels….including me!

How does one go about picking that next prize possession commonly known as a custom bow?

Let’s start with the obvious things. You have to decide on the type, recurve or longbow and do you want it in a takedown or one piece? What length do you have in mind? Next what style are you interested in? In a longbow, you can have a Hill style, deflex/reflex slim handled, flatbow, or hybrid (a cross between a recurve and longbow). In a recurve are you interested in a 1950’s, 1960′ or 1970’s style. Do you want the limbs and/or riser made out of fancy, “exotic” wood, or will the shear function of laminated maple do the job for you?

By going through the simple process above you will eliminate at least half if not two-thirds of the bowyers. Take the group that is left and invest some time and money on the phone. Before calling the bowyers up, have a list of questions you want to ask them written down .

  1. Start the conversation by politely introducing yourself. Tell the bowyer your name, where you are from, how you heard about him and that you are interested in buying one of his bows. 
  2. Do not tell him what type bow you are interested in just yet. There is a good reason for that which we will cover as we go along. Explain to him that there are a lot of bowyers around and that it’s confusing buying a bow.
  3. By doing the above you allow the bowyer to get his mind off of what he was just doing and get it focused on your conversation. Now tell him because of those reasons you have a lot of questions for him. Tell him that you know he is a busy man and that you appreciate his time.
  4. Then ask him if now would be a convenient time to talk. If he says no then ask him when would be a good time.
  5. Make a note of the time and call him back then. If he doesn’t want to talk to you then and doesn’t offer to call you back, move on to another bowyer.
  6. Remember there are a ton of bowyers, most are great people. Why would you want to waste your time on someone who isn’t one of them?

The first question I would ask is 

“if for whatever reason I am not satisfied when I get my bow from you what policy do you have for my returning it?

Another way of putting it would be ” if I don’t like your bow am I stuck with it?”

If the bowyer balks at this question or says anything other than “just send it back” move on to the next bowyer on your list. There are too many bowyers that will guarantee your satisfaction to take a chance on wasting $500 of your hard-earned cash. The only exception would be if you are having him make some special oddball bow, something along the lines of a 52″,70# left-handed bow that he will never sell to anyone else. If you are having a bow made like that do your homework on the bowyers and “role the dice” because hardly any of them will take one back ( you can’t blame them).

The second question would be something like

“will you give me a list of the last 10 people who bought a bow from you ?”

If he won’t you would probably be wise to finish the conversation with him now and save you phone money for someone else. He may not be able to give the names of that many people for whatever reason but he should be able to supply you with several. Invest some time and money calling these people. The tricky thing about calling these people is they are all probably going to be satisfied customers and/or buddies of the bowyer. 

Would you give somebody the name of an unsatisfied customer if you were trying to sell them something? 

If you answered yes obviously you need mental evaluation, go immediately and seek professional help. If you answered no then continue on reading. What do you ask these people? We will get to that later, you still are not finished with the bowyer yet.

One thing to remember is that most bowlers don’t make one of the best recurves and at the same time make one of the best longbows. While there are exceptions to this rule, the exceptions are rare. A good example is a bow I described in the beginning that I feel is as humanly perfect as can be. The bowyer that made it only makes that type of bow. He told me several years ago that he felt that in order to make one of the best bows a bowyer had to decide whether to make either a recurve or a longbow, then spend his time perfecting that bow and the skills it takes to make it. I agree !

So how do you find out which type of bow is his best?

Ask him. While that sounds too simple he will probably tell you the truth if you haven’t already told him you are interested in one type or the other. If you tell him you are interested in one of his longbows then ask him if he makes a better longbow than he does a recurve what do you think he will tell you? Another way to find out is to ask him what he shoots. If he shoots a recurve chances are that is the best bow he makes. Common sense says that a guy will do better at what he likes versus what he doesn’t. If the bowyer says his best bow is a longbow and you want a recurve or vice versa move on to another bowyer.

After the bowyer has passed the first three questions start asking him your own. You will have things that you want that are unique and you should make a list of them so you won’t forget. Keep notes of the conversation! You will need them to match against what the other “customers” will say about the bowyer when you call them.

Besides your particular questions just as important will be your “casual” conversation with the bowyer. By asking “casual” questions like “how did you become a bowyer?” then matching it with what the other customers tell you, the honesty of the bowyer will surface rather quickly. There is a saying that no man has a good enough memory to be a great liar, I agree! If he lies about one thing…..do I have to explain it to you?
Other casual question should be:”how long is your normal delivery time “;”how long have you been building bows”;”how many bows do you make a year”; “what type wood material do you have the most confidence in or like the most”;”what length bow do you think I’ll need”? Some other casual questions you might ask are “do you get to hunt much”; “where at”, “how did you do this year”? These and other seemingly insignificant questions you may ask will come in handy while you are talking with the other people who have one of his bows.

After getting off the phone with the bowyer think about the conversation and how the bowyer handled himself. Did you like the guy? Did he treat you the way you want to be treated? Believe me buying a custom bow is a very personal experience. You will develop a relationship with the bowyer over the time it takes to get your bow. Even after you get the bow you will generally have some type of a relationship with the him. Is this the type person you want to be around, spend money and talk with? If the answer is anything but yes he isn’t the one you need making your bow. I’ve known guys, myself included, that had to stop shooting a particular bow because every time they went to pick it up all they could think about was how the bowyer had treated them “harshly”. I can assure you after spending alot of time and money this isn’t what you want to happen!
After all the talks with the different bowyers is over it is time to follow up with the customers. Narrow the bowyer field down to no more than five but preferably three and start calling. Don’t call the first couple on the list, those are probably the best “salesmen” that bowyer has. Pick a couple from the bottom of the list and start with those. If these people pass the test you might want to talk with another one or two on the list to make sure this is the bowyer you want. One thing is for certain by the time you finish talking with these people you’ll have a much better idea of who you are dealing with.

What should you ask these people?

The same things you asked the bowyer is a good place to start. Other things to ask them are “did he deliver close to the time he said he would”;” did the bow meet your expectations”; “have you had any warranty problems”; “how did he treat you after he received your deposit”; “was he helpful after you received the bow”;”would you buy another bow from him’? I’m sure you are smart enough to ask a few more questions of your own but if one of the people lives within “driving distance” I’d ask if I might come look at the bow and possibly shoot it. While this may seem strange because you have never meet this person you’d be surprised at how many people would readily welcome you. It’s amazing how proud one is of his custom bow and how he lives for the chance to show it off to someone who will appreciate it. I have had guys drive for hours just to show me their new bow and get me to shoot it, and I didn’t even ask, wasn’t interested in buying one. They just wanted to show it off!

Now that all the work is over it’s time to place your order. Then you’ll have to wait out your new “baby’s” arrival like ever expecting mother. Hopefully with the information supplied here the “birthing pains” won’t be too bad. After the many days of anxious waiting the stork (ups man) finally comes to your house and delivers the new family member. As you cradle your new baby, caressing it’s soft unscratched body a big smile will fill your face and a tear of joy might even come to your eye. The other family members will have to make some adjustments. As with any new baby’s arrival there is sure to be some jealousy among the other family members……mainly your wife. As time goes on (I give you 1 year….18 months tops) the new baby will become an unruly teenager and will need to be replaced with another fresh, unscratched baby.

Now the process starts all over again for you. What type bow do I want this time? Just remember the best bow you have ever seen is everyone you are about to buy!

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