To expand my skillset, I offered a friend to build any prop she wanted for her birthday. Knowing she was a huge LOTR fan, I expected it to come from somewhere in the Trilogy. When she decided on the Lothlorien Bow given to Legolas by Galadriel, I had to admit, I did not know what I was in for. But the choice had been made.
So here are the steps I took to create this prop weapon that is a work of art.
1. The first step was choosing the wood. A true bow would be made from wood that you either chop down yourself or have to order, I couldn't find anyone who stocked Yew, or Spruce, or any other standard bow wood choices. Everything else has considerations: is it flexible enough, is it strong enough, too much grain, too expensive, knots, etc. And with this piece, based on reference images, there is virtually no grain. And deciding that this is a prop and not meant to be fired, opened my options. (By the way, the hero piece used by Orlando Bloom, was actually made out of rubber with an elastic bow string.) So, I ended up choosing to use a really clear piece of fir. And to give it some curve to start, I used a 2' x 6'. And while I was at it, I cut a second blank, just in case. In the second shot you can see my hunk o' wood, my template, and my trusty sidekick.
2. Create a template. Scale is important here, so find a suitable source of reference and cut out a full scale template so that you are sure that the arc of the bow, the girth, and the details (like the ends) are are in place.
3. Cut your blank. I used my bandsaw to do this in short order. But a jigsaw would work also. Or you could get out your draw knife and do this the real way, if you feel woodsy.
4. Shaping. Lots and lots and lots of sanding. Belt sander to knock down the edges and to begin to make the curves. Then a good hand sander to get it to about 90%. Then several stages of hand sanding and filing to get it looking like the pictures.
5. Bending. I found several methods of steaming and bending wood. Since this was (at least at this point) going to be a one-off, I wasn't looking to invest a ton of time a money in building a steam box that would hold my 6' foot long bow. (Oh, that's right....I haven't mentioned that this is in the Longbow category, and at the extreme level. This bow is 72" long, bent. A big one for sure.) And since the best way to do this is to soak the wood in preparation for steaming, that is usually two containers. One is watertight, allows you to submerse the wood for a day or so to soften it up and saturate it with moisture. The second is usually a long wood box with a steamer of some sort that heats and makes the wood flexible.
So, I came up with a way to combine these two, economically. (Sorry, I lost the images I shot of my invention, but it is simple enough without them.) I picked up a length of corrugated irrigation pipe, the flexible black type, some PVC endcaps to cover both ends, some appropriate glue, and I happened to have a small steamer around the house. There are plenty of inexpensive steamers out there, and plenty of ideas on how to create steam online.
I glued one cap to seal off one end, stuck my wood in the pipe, elevated the other end and filled it with water. Since the pipe expands to about 12', I was able to let the 7' or so with my wood in it, sit on the ground, and then just elevated the remaining pipe up a wall to keep the water in. After 24-30 hours, I dumped the water, stuck my wood right back in, put the other cap on the open end (I had drilled a hole in this cap), and then stuck the hose from the steamer in the cap and let it do it's thing. When I felt the wood was flexible enough, I used a piece of rope to replicate a bow string and pulled it into shape and let it dry and cool for several days. When I released it, it held about 75% of it's shape which was plenty for me.
6. Sanding. All the moisture raised the grain, so additional sanding was needed before going forward.
7. Sculpting. This is where the bulk of the time was spent. I did a ton of research and chose to use Apoxie Clay. It is a two epoxy (duh) clay that does an incredible job. I could not find it locally at any of the major craft stores, so I ordered it online. It has a fairly long shelf life after mixing, but after losing a couple of small batches that hardened on me, I started mixing less at a time, until my sculpting skills caught up. This is an unusual project, with lots of detail. And since it is a replica, it needed to be exact. I committed to staying true to the in-movie prop, and did not cut corners where it would have made it easier. One of the photos shows a practice run I did on a piece of dowel to decide on the best method for getting the finished product. I also bought a set of clay carving tools, about 12 in the set, and eventually decided on my favorite three.
The real trick to the sculpting on this is another template. I drew out all of the designs from the source material, cut them out, and then traced them in place. This allowed me to concentrate on the bow, instead of staring at a picture while my clay hardened. Then the process looked like this: rolling the clay into little worm shapes, pressing it onto the bow - following the stencils, doing some basic shaping with my fingers, and then using the clay tools to shape the edges and carve in the crazy amount of detail.
A few tips on working with Apoxie. Timing is key, take too long and it will set up on you. Start carving too soon and and it won't hold the lines and detail. Find that sweet spot. Also, wear disposable gloves (latex or nitrile) because sticky hands make a mess. And one of the best tricks I learned, have a paper cup of water and some Q-Tips on hand. As the clay starts to set up, if you dip your gloved finger or Q-Tip in the water and use it to smooth the clay, it boths buys you time and gets a much better finish.
Last tip on sculpting on this type of detail. If things start to go wrong, make a quick decision to pull it off and toss it. Once it sets, your done.
8. Sanding- Yes, again. Once Apoxie sets it sands beautifully, and you really see your work come to life. I found that I could even do some additional carving with a sharp tool and really finish things off right.
9. Staining- in this case, the bow is kind a honey color and the sculpting is kind of tan. Fortunately for me, with the two different materials, the one stain of choice got me the two different colors. The Apoxie does require a little more work with the stain since it is very hard once it fully sets. But patience pays off.
10. Bowstring- I found a tutorial online on how to weave your own bowstring. And since the legend of this bow has it that Galadriel gave Legolas a strand of her hair, which he wove into the string on his bow, I wove in a golden strand also..
11. Finishing- One final light sanding and some clear matte sealer.
12. Bonus- I also made an arrow based also on source material from the movies. This was just a dowel, some feathers dyed to the appropriate gold, some jute to tie the feathers in place, and a metal, hand hammered arrowhead.