Wes Wallace - Custom Bows

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Custom Bows by Wes Wallace

It was the late seventies. I’d recently moved to Oregon from Missouri where I grew up. I was working construction and bow hunting whenever I could. My good friend Jim, an archer, was building bows on the side, trying to make a better bow, and I thought, that’s really cool you know, I want to try my hand at this.

At first it was mostly a hobby for him. He had this little archery shop at his house. He sold feathers, arrows, nocks, that type of thing. Over the years he got more and more into building bows not just for himself but for friends and eventually customers too. For various reasons he would move his shop, and every time he moved, I’d build his new workshop. The last time he moved, this was in the mid-eighties, he said, you know, I have so many orders, why don’t you come in and build bows with me. I had the woodworking skills, I went to school for it, and I could see what was good and what wasn’t, and I was in there all time building my own bows anyway. That’s how I got started, that’s how I became a professional bowyer.

His business was getting bigger and bigger but in 1991 tragedy struck. He drowned in a freak boating accident. By that time I was a full-time and so I started Custom Bows by Wes Wallace. Jim was a great friend and that’s why I named my top-of-the-line recurve bow the Mentor.

By that time we had established a pretty effective building process. We understood production. It was just a matter of refinement. So when I started my own business, making bows was the easiest part, advertising, getting the word out and just getting started was the hardest.

The Beginning of a Movement.

When I first started working for Jim (Brackenbury Bows), it was the beginning of a movement. Besides us and handful of guys like Robertson Stykbow, Black Widow and Bruin and a few others, there were just a lot of little, you know, basement bowyers, guys just building bows for their friends or whatever. But eventually more and more hunters wanted to get back to basics, Traditional Bow Hunter Magazine (the founders were customers of Brackenbury) started up, and the demand for custom bows really started to grow. Custom bows are works of art, especially compared to the compounds you’d otherwise buy off a rack in a store.

Trial and Error

When we first started there was a lot of trial and error. This was before either of us ever considered doing it full-time for an occupation, and boy we made some really goofy mistakes. I look at some of my first bows and think, boy that’s ugly, I mean, just ugly, but they still shot great. 

You refine things. You refine the limb design to make it more efficient and work better. You’re changing things all the time. When we first started we read books, and there’s a company up in Washington State called Martin Archery, it used to be called Howatt Archery, and Jim would go up there and talk to those people and they would him hints. We wanted to make a longer bow. We wanted a recurve that was 66 inches in length. All the bows out there that you could buy were short, longer bows are smoother and more accurate. If you look at your Olympic shooters out there shooting recurve, they all shoot extremely long bows.

If there’s a problem with a bow, you have to figure out how to solve that problem before the bow gets to the customer. There’s never a voila moment. There isn’t. There are some things that you see happen and you go, boy, this can never happen again. You have to solve it right now. It could be in the design or maybe it’s the core material is too heavy and it’s giving you too much hand shock. And a lot of it is just making sure that there’s not a catastrophe out there when a guy has it in the woods on a hunt. You don’t want it to fail. You don’t want him to blow a tip off. You know, if he breaks a knock on his arrow he’s basically dry-firing that bow. That’s why the tips on my bows are bomb proof, that’s why I’ve evolved into using so many different layers of tip overlays.

Finish has been probably one of the biggest problems in the last 20 years. Once you find a good finish, they quit manufacturing it or they change the formula and you have to go and find something else. You want a finish that when it gets knocked around it wont get scratched-up. But it has to be super hard. It has to be flexible. It has to be waterproof. When Jim and I were building bows together the only thing we used was polyurethane. But back then the only material/wood we used was maple and other hard woods that the finish would stick to. It was simple back then. We used black glass, or brown glass. It’s different now because I use so many different woods. For example, Cocobolo has a super high resin content which means certain finishes won’t stick to it, they’ll never cure.

One of the biggest things we focused on when I started with Jim was, he wanted to make a take-down version, a three-piece bow. Bear Archery was doing it, Black Widow was doing it, but we wanted to figure out a way to do it better. Simpler and with better hardware. When we decided to build a take-down longbow, we had to take a perfectly good bow that we’d just built, and we had cut it in two. And it was brutal at first. We had to grind it to fit the sleeve and then try to put it back together exactly the way it came apart which is almost impossible to do. And I’m just looking at this and thinking this is crazy, there’s got to be an easier way. So I devised a jig which allowed us to cut them in half before they were all the way built, which made the whole process much easier. So, we had to devise jigs to do things. I love doing that. I have jigs everywhere. Using jigs gives you repeatability in your product. Some of them (the jigs) I don’t show people, I don’t want them to know what it is or what I’m using or how it works. Everybody has a few trade secrets. 

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