A few years ago, Maryellen Burdwood
Porter sometimes shot hand bows as a hobby, and especially loved the
old wooden ones. While living in San Francisco, she and a friend
would "go down to Golden Gate Park and kill a few haybales."
Then, when she got arthritis in her shoulders, shooting hurt and "it
wasn't fun anymore" -- until she tried a wooden crossbow at a Renaissance fair.
She wanted to order one, but had
difficulty finding anything but fiberglass crossbows meant for
hunting. Finally, shortly after moving to Round Rock, Texas, she
found David Watson of New World Arbalest who could make her a wooden
crossbow. His shop was also 15 minutes away, in Austin, and he
invited Maryellen to come over and observe.
Maryellen watched him make the bow, and
watched apprentices come and go in the shop. When her order was
finished, "The moment he finished making the bow, I put it in my
truck and took it home; when I got to my house, I called him from
home and said, 'I want to be your apprentice.'"
Maryellen already had some woodworking
experience: back in her late teens and early 20s, she worked with
family friend Tim Brown in North Conway, New Hampshire, operating an
"ancient spindle carving machine" that could carve 18 forms
simultaneously. They made many duck decoys that were sent out to
artists for painting, then sold through L.L. Bean. They also made
other projects, like small boxes from oak pallets.
"I learned to love wood through
Tim Brown," Maryellen said. "I wanted to get back to it,
but I never had the opportunity." Instead, she used the money
from her woodshop work to pay for college, and had a variety of jobs
over the years, including as a San Francisco bike messenger and as an
organic landscape gardener.
When she began apprenticing at New
World Arbalest, "I got to be with wood dust again, and with the
bows, and play," Maryellen said. "I get to go to work and
be covered in wood dust and make clean, straight lines in wood,
shaping wood with spokeshaves and planers and raspers."
One of those tasks is shaping the
tiller portion of a bow. Also known as the "butt," it's the
"handle" portion, somewhat equivalent to the stock of a
gun. For this portion, "you have a lot of leeway,"
Maryellen said. "Sometimes it's plain, straight ones, like our Western European bows; sometimes
it is a Germanic, or Finnish, shape, which are rounded, with beautiful sculpted lines."
With some other parts of a bow,
however, "There's no leeway at all," she said. "It has
to be exactly precise. When you drill in the side of a bow and put in
a socket to put in the nut [also known as the "roller release"],
the socket has to be perfectly square so that the nut will release the string correctly. The prod, or bow part of the crossbow [the metal spring] must fit into the prod socket that is cut into the stock at the nose. This socket must be cut into the wood precisely, or the angle of the prod will be incorrect, and then the string that is attached to the prod could be either too high -- and not resting lightly along the deck of the tiller -- or too low -- and pressing too hard into the deck. Either of these will not allow the bolt to fly correctly when shot. And if it doesn't shoot well --
it's a 'wallhanger.'"
Maryellen doesn't like to make
wallhangers. "I get the glove out and shoot every single bow
that I've done to test it. They are decorative -- but, first, they
work," she said.
The New World Arbalest shop sells
around 10 crossbows that are relatively correct copies of types from
the Middle Ages, with customers coming from places like the Society
for Creative Anachronism [SCA] and those interested in Western
martial arts. In her first couple of years there, "The SCA
people would say, 'We can't take that out on the field [for
reenactments]; it's too beautiful," Maryellen said. "'I'm
like, 'No! That's what it's for!' So I had to ramp back my creativity
and make them a little less ornate. That's kind of hard."
In the last couple of years, however,
she's moved in a different direction. While David, whom Maryellen
describes as "a history buff; he's forgotten more than I'll ever
learn" is not particularly interested in making accurate
historical reproductions, Maryellen is. "My woodworking skills
exceed his, and in the last two years I've been looking at how they
were made 400 to 500 years ago. Then I can make them fancy and
beautiful with bone and staghorn inlay."
Recently, for instance, she's been
commissioned to make a reproduction of the crossbow of Ulrich V of Württemburg, a piece that's currently in the Metropolitan Museum of
Art. She's been talking to the curator regarding measurement and
materials and, while she currently can't do the ornate carvings,
"I'll be adding that to my skill set and teaching myself in the
next couple of years," Maryellen said.
Already, Maryellen has a crossbow in
the Florida Musem of History. They wanted something to represent the
crossbows found in a recovered shipwreck of a 16th century Spanish
galleon, discovered in the 1970s around San Padres Island. "These
were Spanish bows, long and narrow, stacked up on the bottom of the
ship, the equivalent of AK-47's," Maryellen said. "Sailors
would run and get these for ship defense."
"My master was allowed to go and
handle" the artifacts, "white gloves and all that," to
glean information about them, ' Maryellen said. "Now, whenever
we get an order for a Padres Island bow, I get to make it, because
I'm good at it, and enjoy it."
While the Padres Island bow for the
museum was made from oak, most of the still-existing historical bows
are made from fruitwoods, such as pear or cherry, as well as walnut,
and that's what Maryellen uses in her work, as well. Those extant
crossbows, however, are mostly bows that belonged to nobles. Those
used by regular military infantries were stored in armories and
didn't survive as well.
History also explains portrayals in
current media, like the TV show "Once Upon a Time" (for
which Maryellen made a crossbow, although she doesn't know which
episode it's on). "The bad guys have crossbows, and the good
guys have handbows," she said. "Crossbows have such a bad
Historically, "Long bowmen started
training at age six. They were considered a resource, and were kept
well-fed," she said. "Then, when crossbows came along,
anybody could grab a crossbow and be OK with it in a week. At some
point, any infantryman with a crossbow could shoot a knight off a
horse, which was anathema to the code of chivalry." Crossbows
then went out of style by the late 1500s, replaced by muskets and
such items, and were used only for specialized hunting applications
by the gentry.
This year, they're making a
reappearance in popular culture, with movies like The Hunger
Games, Snow White and the Huntsman and Brave.
When she watches such shows, Maryellen said, she's looking to see if
the actors handled the bow correctly: "I'll think 'they're going
to shoot themselves in the foot' or 'they'll hurt their hand if they
She also, of course, notices
construction of the bows -- such as one that appeared in a 1980s film
that had two prods [the limbs of the bow, attached to the crosspiece] "one on top of each other, which is
completely impossible." She and David Watson are still rejecting
requests from people who want them to build a Ladyhawke bow.
Several of their own bows have,
however, made their way to Hollywood. Before Maryellen worked for
David Watson at New World Arbalest, he was commissioned to make two
or three bows for "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," and
Maryellen has made a bow for Spike TV's "Deadliest Warrior."
"They wanted a knight to fight a pirate to see who would win,"
Most recently, she was commissioned to
make bows for a movie currently titled Seventh Son, which
stars Jeff Bridges and began filming in March. Maryellen made three
horse bows [for mounted archery] and six to eight Western bows "and
sent them off to the movies."
As for her own collection, Maryellen
currently owns three crossbows and is making three more -- one near
completion, and two more that are currently just stock she has cut
out. She also has "two or three other fantasy bows, where I just
know what I want to make." As one of about 20 artisans worldwide currently recreating historic bows, "There's so many bows to make, so little