If you get Lee Waltman, owner and sole employee of Little Crow Custom Bows, started on varieties of wood, you’d better have some time on your hands. Not because Waltman is overly wordy or dry, but because he’s a zealot for detail and fastidiously interested in every facet of traditional bow making.
Waltman’s workshop sits adjacent to his circa-1889 farmhouse, located in Isanti and built on a hill atop an old potato cellar. The stone foundation still stands, but Waltman tore down the storehouse above the cellar and constructed a workshop when he moved there in 2009.
We go through the double doors under the brick archway, which seems straight out of the Shire. The floor is dirt. Corrals where potatoes were once dropped down into buckets through holes in the ceiling are now cobwebby and dank. I shine my phone light above. A Shop-Vac hangs down from the ceiling, with just its hose running into the workshop upstairs. “For the noise,” Waltman says.
It’s warm and spacious in the workshop; sawdust and sketches and scraps of wood are scattered everywhere. There are belt sanders, grinders, saws, a big drafting table, and three tall presses—elaborate steel frames strung up with air compressors, with wood cutouts of the shape of each of Waltman’s bows nested inside. Most of the equipment that is not a saw or grinder was built by Waltman himself. There is almost as much craft in the machines themselves as there is in the bows.
On the drafting table lay a dozen complete or near-complete bows, spread out on towels and pristinely polished. Waltman makes four different types of bows: the Merlin, the Longbow, the Raven, and the Whiskeyjack. Each one has a slightly different design and costs anywhere from $550 to $1,200, depending on the wood varieties used to craft it. Waltman has a good stock of domestic and exotic wood for customers to choose from—red elm to black locust to cocobolo and beyond.
Customization isn’t just a cosmetic issue. For Waltman, it’s all about suiting the bow to its shooter and its main purpose. “One of my first questions to customers,” Waltman says, “is: What are you using it for? Hunting? Or are you just target shooting?”
From there, Waltman asks for the shooter’s draw length, which affects how long he’ll make the risers (where the handle meets the limbs—or the long, flexible parts of the bow). He’ll get a tracing of their hand so he can grind the handle throat down to their hand size. He’ll ask what kind of grip they have—tight and full, or loose and more delicate. He’ll call and interview them. Basically, Waltman will do whatever it takes to make the right bow for his customer, which includes making it ultra-durable.
“I’ve never had a bow break,” he says. “That could ruin a business, especially if they’re a one-man show, like me. Say you have a bunch of bows coming back. You can’t make 20 bows for nothing. Some of these woods are crazy expensive.”
Long before he starts gluing limbs or grinding overlays, Waltman seeks the right wood. He hands me a three-foot long, four-by-four piece of black locust. It’s heavy, probably around 15 pounds, and, even without sanding or polishing, has a very handsome color palette: dark chocolate streaked with blonde. “That piece is a hundred bucks,” he says.
Waltman lets the wood air-dry for two years minimum, then pulls it out so it can acclimate to the humidity levels of the shop before he starts grinding it down into laminations. The laminations become tapers—strips that are almost paper thin—that are glued together with glass, which provides power and support. Eventually it all gets tightened under pressure and then sent to the press, where the heat-activated glue—the same kind used in the aerospace industry—sets in. After that, it’s time for the more meticulous work. Using clamps, grinders, micrometers, and an oven, Waltman shapes the handle, sands the bow, and applies veneers, all while measuring and re-measuring, grinding and re-grinding. The whole process takes about a week.
Waltman talks like a seasoned instructor about flat grain and edge grain and mismatching laminations—all necessary components in fashioning strong limbs for a bow. He pulls his snap-on glasses from his neck and bends over a near-complete bow to show us that the center of the bow isn’t actually the center, then takes a few measurements, marks up a limb, and flips it.
Waltman made his first bow in 1996 in a three-week course taught by traditional bow maker Mike Fedora. After that, he kept up bow making as a hobby. It wasn’t until after he retired from General Motors in 2009 that Waltman filed Little Crow as an LLC.
Before he could sell his bows, though, Waltman had to gain the confidence in his craft. In those 13 years leading up to opening shop, he made upwards of 100 bows—for friends, brothers-in-law, himself. The whole process came naturally, thanks in part to Waltman being a lifelong bow hunter.
Outside his shop, Waltman takes a few shots as his dog Rooster runs after a tennis ball. As he shoots, he waxes casual about the bow scene. “You get more out of it the more you put into it,” Waltman says more than once, comparing traditional bows to compound bows. The latter have a pulley system (or cams) that assist in the draw, so by the time a shooter pulls all the way back, they can aim and ready for release while holding the arrow at, say, 20 pounds instead of 70. The stored energy allows for a faster shot.
So, why go back to a traditional bow? “A lot of guys my age want to go back to shooting what they shot when they were kids,” Waltman says. Not that nostalgia is necessarily the main attraction to his craft. “I do see some young shooters and first-timers [shopping for a traditional bow], but I think the trend in general—people who hunt—is going down.”
That, and he sees a lot of crossbows taking over the archery market. When I ask why he thinks that is, he says, “Instant gratification.”
That doesn’t stop Waltman, though. Nor does the fact that there are more bow hunters elsewhere in the country, like in Pennsylvania, where he’s originally from, and Wisconsin and Michigan. He might sell more bows if he lived in those states, but then again he might not. Waltman says he’s content to make his 40 bows a year and spend the rest of his time fixing up his old farmhouse. He used to travel the country a lot, going to trade shows and informal shoots, but he’s built up enough of a reputation now that he doesn’t have to. His customers are from all over the country, and it’s a small community—word spreads quickly.
He pulls an arrow back and shoots it into the hill. He shoots another. The second arrow lands an inch away from the first. “To hunt with a stick bow, you have to have more woodsmanship,” he says. “You have to get closer. I just enjoy that.”