Guide to Properties and Seasoning of the Lesser known Longbow Woods

  • All parameters are rated from 1-9
  • SG – indicates known density, or its spread. Usually a more dense sample is the better bowwood.
  • Tension – tension strength of unbroken back ring.
  • Compression – compression strength. For the purpose of this treatise,  everything from 6 up is longbow wood.
  • Response – indicates hysteresis or „spongines“ of the wood. It affects the sharpness of the cast.

Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

SG – 0.55-0.95
Tension – 9
Compression – 4 , 6 after heat treatment.
Response – 4, 6 after heat treatment.

It is most common, and it is necessary to look for dense (over SG 0.8) wood. It has a very big spread of properties intra-species. Thick growthrings don’t automatically mean good wood. It is easy to work, and seasons quickly as well. Remove bark and paint the ends for seasoning. It has to be dry (at least 10%) to shoot well. Its very hydroscopic, so a good coating of the bow is advisable. Bows up to 140# with little set have been made.

Dogwood (Cornus mass, Cornus sanguinea)

SG 0.7-1.1
Tension 7
Compression 9
Response 7

It is a very hard wood, and beige in colour. Difficult to find big pieces. Season whole logs with the bark left on, and paint the ends. It is often twisted, which can result in short grain snap, but straight pieces are extremelly strong. It is strong in compression, but transversall pins and knots tend to fret. This can be avoided by leaving some extra wood over them. Its easy to work with handtools, but cannot be heat straightened. Heat treatment makes it brittle, as its low on lignin and silica. Heat also makes it crack and split. 100-110# bows have been made, and they deliver good performance for their poundage.

Mullberry/Fustic (Morus alba, Morus nigra)

Tension 9
Compression 7
Response 9

A White sapwood with an orange heartwood. It is a cousin of osage, but it has none of osage’s “sponginess”. Seasons moderately with the bark left on and with painted ends of the split logs. Its often very knobbly and has lots of character. It is very plastic when heated, and all curves can be adjusted with extreme ease. It can have short grain and be “chippy”, and sometimes its necessary to use a finer rasp. It performs like better quality yew and it has very sharp cast.

Plums (Plum, Blackthorn, Mirabelle) (Prunus domestica, prunus spinosa)

SG 0.7-0.9
Tension 7
Compression 8
Response 9

Usually a beige colour sapwood, with a red, violet or brownish heartwood. Mirabelle has striped reed lines and is orange. Seasons with utmost difficulty. Painting the cut staves and also the bark is necessary and gluing the clefts of the stronger wood over exposed areas is advisable. It’s difficult to find longbow sized piece. Smaller diameter staves do not have much heartwood, but are more suitable for bowmaking. Bows from these woods have very good performance. As a matter of interest, Olives are of the same family and of similar properties and make a good bow, although finding a bow sized stave might be difficult – because its one of most difficult woods to season.

Hornbeam (Carpinus Betulus)

SG 0.7-1.0
Tension 8
Compression 7, 8 after heat treatment.
Response 5, 6 after heat treatment.

A very common and easy to work wood, resembling solid hickory, although not as hard and more elastic. The bark can be stripped for seasoning like ash, but the ends shall be painted. It has no vices or caveats, but some trees grow twisted and these should be avoided for bows. Bows of up to 140# have been made. They take a good deal of set, but are nigh unbreakable. Good for beginners and training bows.

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)

SG 0.5-0.7
Tension 7
Compression 6
Response 9

Common as a bush or small tree in hedges, and also along the roadside. The wood is white or beige in colour, with an occasional discolouration. The rings cannot be chased. Its better to be sawn into staves as it splits badly. It is difficult to find big pieces, but it is a very common shrub. The stave must be worked so that no soft pith remains, that way it won’t crack for seasoning. It seasons moderately easily with the bark left on, but in smaller pieces with the bark left on – the ends must be sealed. The remains where pith channel run shall be also painted with sealant. It works very easily and is reminiscent of light yew, although precautions are needed to be taken. Bows up to 150# are possible. Bows from elderberry were reportedly made in medieval Italy and mediterranean area.

Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)

SG 0.7-1.1
Tension 9
Compression 8
Response 7, 9 after heat treatment.

A common small shrub with a hard and heavy beige or ochre colour wood. This would be one of the best bowwoods available, if it wasn’t so very difficult to get a good piece. It seasons and works like osage, but its necessary to seal everything. Its “sponginess” can be improved by heat treatment. Only bows up to 70# are reported, due to difficulty of obtaining staves.

Laburnum (Laburnum spp.)

SG 0.7-0.8
Tension 7
Compression 8
Response 7

A yellow flowering tree or bush, which originally came from the Alpine region. Resembles black locust to which it is related, but it is stronger in compression. The beige colour sapwood is often rotten, and its advisable to remove it down to an unbroken heartwood ring. The wood is very fat, thus prone to various types of rot and parasites. It is also poisonous to human, probably more than yew. Seasoning is very difficult, like that of the plums. Laburnum is mentioned in both English and Continental sources as a good bowwood. It is often made into a prestigious presentation bows, due its luster and rich colour.

European spindle (Euonymus europeus)

SG 0.5-06
Tension 7
Compression 9
Response 9

Normally rather a small shrub, but finding a longbow sized piece is relatively easy – due to its invasiveness and generally growing straighter than Hawthorn for example. In medieval times it was used for small and extremely stressed wooden parts, like the tuning pegs for a violin and the pegs for wheels, and also for spindles (as the name suggest), although that is from its ability to be polished to an ivory-like high sheen. The wood is beige/white in colour, and seasons easily in the bark with the ends sealed. No mention of bows in the middle ages from this wood, but bows of up to 60# have been made from it, and they are reported to have a very low mass to weight ratio with also an extremely sharp cast. Good wood for an experiment.

Boxwood (Buxus sempirvirens)

SG 0.8-1.2
Tension ?
Compression ? (But probably in 8-9 on my scale)
Response ? (Unknown but probably higher)

Reported in Gaston Phoebus “Livre du Chasse” as “best wood for hunting bow”, and also from other sources as a good bowwood – particularly on the continent. The wood is yellow or ochre in colour, and is extremely hard and heavy. Obtaining long and big pieces might be difficult, although in France and Turkey there are some companies selling it. Naturally dried logs tend to crack lengthwise, which tells me that it needs to be split or sawn into staves, which are then painted, sealed and left in the bark. Also due to its high density, it might need very gentle drying.

Lilac (Syringa vulgaris, Syringa L.)

SG 0.7-1.0
Tension 8
Compression 9
Response ? (Unknown, but higher)

It has white or beige coloured wood, which is very hard and has good mechanical properties. It is very difficult to season, and it can crack in matter of mere minutes. However longbows of approx. 50# have been made of it, and those have reportedly shot very well.

Holly (Ilex spp.)

SG up to 1.0
Tension unknown but probably more than 7
Compression most certainly 8-9
Response ?

This tree, which should not to be confused with Holm Oak (Quercus ilex) has whitish or beige coloured wood, which is very dense and hard, and is also used for fake Ivory. Its uses were similar to that of spindle, such as chess pieces, spindles and small strained parts. It is reported to be a medieval bow wood, and is also good for longbows. I have only worked with small pieces for tuning pegs, and it is extremely hard. My guess is that it is similar to boxwood in its properties. It should dry without any big problems, but my advice with unknown wood is to leave the bark on and seal at least the ends. If cracking occurs, then also all exposed wood on sides and belly of the stave must be sealed too. Large pieces might need gentle drying due to high wood density.

Buckthorn (Rhamnus cartharica)

SG around 0.7
Tension probably around 7
Compression probably around 8
Response reports unclear, but high response – probably around 8-9

Less known as bowwood, but has been used in the mediterranean, Malta and in Italy. It has yellow orange coloured wood, which is not unlike osage. It is a very invasive species. It is reported to have very good mechanical properties. I have only obtained a small sample, but it is quite similar to Mulberry. I suspect it might make a good bow if a sufficient piece was obtained. Although it grows the biggest in the mediterranean region, it is native to the Central British Isles, and its related trees in North America tend to make good bows as well.
Black cherry (Prunus Padus)

SG 0.6-0.7
Tension 5
Compression 7
Response 10

This again is a less known species. It has the lowest hysteresis of all wood. Actually so low it goes off the scale. Its vibrating properties are unmatched by any other wood. It grows along the rivers, and the trees can be found tall and smooth, which are often suitable for multiple staves.
It is related to plums and cherry, but it has an acidic smell rather like applewood. It is strong in compression, but rather weak in tension, which makes the bow snap, if they go. It Seasons easily with the bark left on or off, but the ends need to be sealed, and It works easily too. It might be worth experimenting to see how good it is in tension to make a low stressed warbow design, as longbows in sporting weights (around 50#) made from this wood, outshoot everything else – including laminates. Knots and pins on the back of the stave are decidedly dangerous, and should be fixed preventatively – before any attempt to bend the stave is made. It is a unique wood, and easy to obtain in the correct size and length of 80“+.