Bill Darr – looking like a medieval archer – strides away from a silhouette target on a field two football fields long at the Sterling Renaissance Festival in upstate New York on a late summer day. He stops several times, turns and fires an arrow from his handmade, wood, longbow through the target forehead. Darr is comfortable with his bow from nearly 300 yards and has been doing it for audiences hundreds of times for audiences each Renaissance Fair season for decades. “The longbow was the weapon of choice during the Middle Ages and has been around since the Bronze Age,” Darr says. He is known throughout the circuit for his longbow skills but also as a student of ancient warfare that he shares with Fair goers.
Darr, 63, and son Neil, 38, of WhipperWil Archery on Greentree Road, Elizabethtown, hand tool bows, arrows and accessories for a loyal customer base of hunters and sportsman. Darr, both a master bowyer and expert archer, spends more than half of each year at fairs east of the Mississippi exhibiting, working on bows and arrows for customers and thrilling fairgoers with his archery prowess.
He and son Neil also exhibit and fire siege weapons that wow adults and children alike when they see their size and learn it takes two or three people to haul the Medieval replica weapon from the Middle Ages to the exhibit and fire it. “It never disappoints,” Darr smiles.
Darr was handed his first bow at age 8 by an uncle and it made an impression that has lasted a lifetime. He worked rehabilitating older homes as a contractor early in his career in Virginia. He started making fiberglass bows for hunting but rekindled his love of wooden longbows with visits to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to see how early Native American tribes crafted longbows for hunting and war. It began a 30-plus year career – a job he loves – making high quality bows and arrows for amateurs and professionals.
Darr says a good wood bow, properly maintained, will outlast its fiberglass cousin, which will tend to delaminate with age. Darr’s own preferred wood bow is several decades old and he says he has shot more than a million arrows with it at events nationwide.
Bowyers take years to prefect the art of bow making and although Darr’s son Neil has been working closely with his dad for more than a decade, he smiles when he says, “I still have a lot to learn.”
The best wood for a longbow is Osage Orange also known in the East and Midwest as Hedge Apple or just Hedge. It is a thorny, quick growing tree, and Darr favors trunks of about 16 inches in diameter which yield about seven or eight good pieces that he carves into bows.
The process of carving a custom bow for someone or one for his inventory is not an overnight process. Darr acquires logs of Hedge, Ash, Elm, Hickory Mulberry and a few others species and splits them with a hammer and maul. The resulting pieces, called staves, are cut along the growth lines of the trunk so although strong, they are not all identical. They are dried from a few months to over a year in his workshop.
When the wood has a moisture content of between seven and twelve percent, the stave is ready to work. Darr explains if the wood is too dry, it will split when the bow is bent, or if too wet, it won’t bend properly.
The staves are carved and worked over several days before they are sealed and finished – some with horn tips or a snakeskin cover. Bows from Darr’s inventory sell for around $250. Custom bows for serious hunters and sportsmen are priced individually.
The Darrs have hundreds of staves drying and between 50 and 100 ready for work. It is important, Darr explains, to match the bow and arrows to the individual archer. The bow has to have the right bend and tension for the owner and that the arrows must be the right length and stiffness for an individual’s draw.
When in Elizabethtown, Darr gives workshops for individuals who want to learn the art of bow making. The intensive weekend event, limited to three people, gets would-be bow makers started although, Darr says, “It takes years for anyone to prefect the art.” As a fulltime bowyer, Darr knows. Most individual crafting wood bows, he explains, do it part-time and they break a lot of staves before fashioning a good bow.
Living on the road has become a way of life for father and son and they can spend months at a fair from as far south as Florida or north to Lake Ontario during the summer. At the Sterling, N.Y., event and other fairs, the father-son team greet countless bow enthusiasts at their tented workshop and also find some time to work on tooling bows and arrows. They take pleasure in being part of the entertainment venue at each location to exhibit the capabilities of a good bow and a trained archer.
The Darrs take even more pleasure in explaining the tremendous power of siege weapons that took many men to operate firing large arrows, stones or even forged cannon balls in Medieval times. They also exhibit and fire the legendary French Trebuchet which were huge mechanical devices with a rotating arm that could hurl large stones or debris great distances causing havoc in the era before gunpowder.
If bows take skill and time, arrows may be made quicker but take as much skill, Darr says. The pair make thousands in different lengths to accommodate the draw of the archer. The feathers called fletchings are made mostly from turkey feathers with one fletching dyed a different color to help its user nock the arrow correctly.
Arrows too are made with hand tools but require hardwood like cedar, spruce or popular for a stiff spine so they will spin and fly true. Handmade arrows cost $50 for a half-dozen.
Darr says he has no plans to retire and father and son look forward to keeping the business viable for many more decades. It’s a niche business but one that has given the bowyer and his son great pleasure and a truly unique lifestyle.