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Business booming for North Dakota woodworker who makes bows

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By BRIAN GEHRING
 | The Bismarck Tribune

CENTER, N.D. (AP) — For the past 25 years, Dale and Rita McKnight have been making custom furniture and cabinets out of their shop in rural Oliver County.

Growing up in the Turtle Mountain area, Dale McKnight's grandpa was a carpenter and his father was a painter and skilled at working with wood.

"I was just around woodworking ever since I was a kid," McKnight told The Bismarck Tribune.

As a youngster, he grew up fishing and hunting just like most of his friends.

"We'd make bows out of willow branches," he said. Pretty crude by today's high-tech bows, he said, but they were kids, after all.

For most of the last 40 years, McKnight said, he had given up bow hunting, mostly because his work left him little time for it.

That changed about four years ago when he took up bow hunting again with a traditional recurve bow he built himself.

His wife, Rita, designed the logo for their new Luck-E-Bows, with a shamrock encircling the "E."

The story, however, goes back to 2007, when McKnight read an article about building traditional bows in American Woodworker magazine.

Traditional and long bows differ from compound bows in that they do not have cam systems that relieve a good deal of the weight once the arrow is drawn at full length.

As a master woodworker, McKnight took a set of plans for a recurve bow, thinking how difficult could it be to make one.

He prides himself on his woodworking, always looking to put his own signature personal touch on the works he crafts.

The problem, McKnight said, was that he built that first bow out of only wood, not including the fiberglass that allows the limbs to flex and bend.

"It snapped the first time I drew back," he said. "It was a beautiful bow, it just wasn't very functional."

Disappointed, McKnight said he put bow-making on the back burner for the next 21/2 years before taking another stab at it.

"I had all the woodworking equipment and the form," he said. McKnight orders fiberglass and strings and special woods from suppliers and exotic wood varieties from Africa and South America, as well as Minnesota, depending on who ordered the bow.

Since 2007, McKnight has made about three dozen custom recurves and a few long bows for his customers. He likes to have them come to his shop to choose their own woods and get fitted for the riser, or shooting grip, and to go over draw weights.

Bow hunters going from a compound bow to a traditional recurve will typically reduce their draw weight by 10 to 15 pounds.

Once the details are ironed out, McKnight said, it normally takes three to four days to build a bow.

Rita McKnight said her husband is meticulous in his work, whether it's building furniture, cabinets or bows.

"We have had our busiest year yet," she said, adding the state's robust economy has a lot to do with that.

"We don't do much advertising, mostly word-of-mouth, and we have had to turn down a lot of jobs this year," Rita McKnight said.

Dale McKnight said when building bows, he shapes, sands and finishes them down to one-thousandth of an inch of the design for his customers.

Once the fiberglass is added to the limbs with a special epoxy, the bow is placed in a "hot box" McKnight built and baked at 150 to 180 degrees for four hours. That's after the bow receives a compressed air treatment at 60 pounds per square inch to ensure the epoxy bonds firmly without any problems.

Depending on a customer's needs, he said, an average custom bow will cost somewhere between $450 and $500.

McKnight said while there is no "typical" customer when it comes to traditional archers, most like the feel of a recurve bow.

"They like the simplicity of the recurved," he said. "I prefer traditional bows because they are more simple and it's more gratifying to harvest a deer with one."

That simplicity and attention to detail paid off for McKnight on Nov. 11 when he took a dandy mature white-tail buck from 13 yards while sitting in a ground blind on the 61/2 acres he and his wife own.

"It was 20 below and 5:20 in the evening," he said, with only about five minutes of light left in the day.

He said a smaller four-pointer came down the tree row near his blind.

"He was acting kind of nervous and left," McKnight said. "A few minutes later, I saw him running across the field to the south."

It was then he realized why the four-pointer was antsy. A mature eight-pointer had run the smaller buck off and came to McKnight's ground blind, fur all bristled up.

Hands nearly frozen stiff, McKnight said he decided minutes before that to call it a day before the two bucks showed themselves.

McKnight said he drew back on the recurve he had built for himself last year (47-pound draw) and put an arrow through both lungs, dropping the buck within 30 yards of the shot.

An avid deer rifle hunter, McKnight said it was his first-ever archery deer, although he had taken up bow hunting again four years ago.

He said he had passed up shots on other deer looking for a mature buck.

In this case, McKnight said local game warden Ryan Tunge confirmed the buck was a 61/2-year-old.

McKnight said he bow-hunted about 70 out of the possible 80 days in the archery season and had not spotted that buck until that frigid night.

"I had spent about an hour and half in the blind ... I couldn't feel my thumb anymore," he said with a chuckle.

For McKnight, the persistence, patience and attention to detail as a traditional bow-maker and hunter paid off.

"It was very gratifying to take a mature deer, especially out of a ground blind. It gets up close and personal with the deer," he said.

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Information from: Bismarck Tribune, www.bismarcktribune.com

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