Best Wood For Longbow Making – Properties and Seasoning of Lesser Known Woods

There is something fascinating about making your own longbow. Or even learning how longbows are made if you are not a DIY kind of person.

One of the most interesting aspects of this process is choosing the wood for making a bow. Many people will tell you that yew, red oak and osage orange are the best woods for making a longbow.

But some other lesser-known wood types would make fantastic longbows. Here is a guide to their properties and seasoning.

But first…

Note:

  • All parameters are rated from 1 to 9.
  • SG indicates known density or its spread. Usually, a denser sample is the better bow wood.
  • Tension refers to the tensile strength.
  • Compression refers to compression strength. For this article, everything from 6 going up is longbow wood.
  • Response refers to the hysteresis or ‘sponginess’ of the wood. It affects the sharpness of the cast.

1. Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

This type of wood is quite common. If you decide to use it, make sure you find dense wood (over SG 0.8). Thick growth rings don’t automatically mean good wood.

Ash is easy to work and seasons quickly as well. Remove the bark and paint the ends for seasoning.

You should know that it has to be dry (at least 10%) to shoot well. It’s quite hygroscopic, so a nice coating of the bow is advisable.

People have made bows up to 140 pounds using ash.

  • SG: 0.55 – 0.95
  • Tension: 9
  • Compression: 4, 6 after heat treatment
  • Response: 4, 6 after heat treatment

2. Dogwood (Cornus mas, Cornus sanguinea)

This hardwood is beige and finding a big piece of wood can be difficult.

Season whole logs with the bark left on and paint the ends.

Dogwood is often twisted, which can result in a short-grain snap. But straight pieces are extremely strong. It has high compression strength but transversal pins and knots tend to fret. You can avoid this by leaving some extra wood over them.

This longbow wood is easy to work with hand tools but you cannot heat straighten it. Heat treatment makes it brittle since it is low on lignin and silica. It also makes it crack and split.

People have made 100 – 110-pound dogwood bows and they deliver good performance for their poundage.

  • SG: 0.7 – 1.1
  • Tension: 7
  • Compression: 9
  • Response: 7

3. Mulberry/Fustic (Morus alba, Morus nigra)

Mulberry has white sapwood with orange heartwood. It is a cousin of Osage, but it doesn’t have Osage’s ‘sponginess’.

It seasons moderately with the bark left on and with painted ends of the split logs.

This type of wood is often knobbly and has lots of character. It is very workable when heated, and all curves can be adjusted with extreme ease. It can have short grain, making it chip. Sometimes, it is necessary to use a finer rasp.

Mulberry has a very sharp cast and performs like quality yew.

  • SG: 0.55.0.7
  • Tension: 9
  • Compression: 7
  • Response: 9

4. Plum, Blackthorn, Mirabelle (Prunus domestica, Prunus spinosa)

It has beige sapwood with red, violet, or brownish heartwood. Mirabelle has striped reed lines and is orange.

Finding a longbow-sized piece of wood will not be easy. Smaller diameter staves do not have much heartwood, but they are more suitable for bow making.

Bows from these woods have outstanding performance. As a matter of interest, Olives are of the same family and similar properties. They make amazing bows too. But finding a bow-sized stave might be tricky. It is one of the most difficult woods to season.

  • SG: 0.7 – 0.9
  • Tension: 7
  • Compression: 8
  • Response: 9

5. Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

Hornbeam is common and easy to work. It resembles solid hickory but it is not as hard; it is also more elastic.

You can strip the bark for seasoning but you’ll have to paint the ends.

Hornbeam doesn’t have vices or caveats, but some trees grow twisted. They should be avoided for bows.

People have made longbows with up to 140 poundage. They take a good deal of set but they are almost unbreakable.

This wood is suitable for beginners and training bows.

  • SG: 0.7 – 1.0
  • Tension: 8
  • Compression: 7, 8 after heat treatment
  • Response: 5, 6 after heat treatment

6. Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)

This one is well-known as a bush or small tree in hedges and along the roadside.

Its wood is white or beige, with an occasional discoloration.

Finding big pieces of this wood will require some effort. But on the bright side, it is a common shrub.

You must work the stave so that no soft pith remains. That way, it won’t crack when seasoning. It seasons fairly easily with the bark left on, but in smaller pieces.

The ends must be sealed. The same applies to the remains where the pith channel ran.

Elderberry is easy to work and it is like light yew. You need to be careful though.

You can make a bow with a draw weight of up to 150 pounds. It is believed that bows from elderberry were made in medieval Italy and the Mediterranean area.

  • SG: 0.5 – 0.7
  • Tension: 7
  • Compression: 6
  • Response: 9

7. Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)

It is a small prevalent shrub with a hard and heavy beige or ochre color wood.

This would be one of the best bow woods available if getting a good piece wasn’t so difficult. It seasons and works like Osage, but you have to seal everything. Its ‘sponginess’ can be improved by heat treatment.

Only bows up to 70 pounds have been reported (due to difficulty obtaining staves).

  • SG: 0.7 – 1.1
  • Tension: 9
  • Compression: 8
  • Response: 7, 9 after heat treatment

8. Laburnum (Laburnum spp.)

This yellow flowering tree/bush originated from the Alpine region. It resembles the black locust— to which it is related— but it is stronger in compression.

The beige sapwood is often rotten. It is advisable to remove it, down to the unbroken heartwood ring. The wood is very fat, thus prone to various types of rot and parasites.

Laburnum is poisonous to humans, probably more than yew. Like plum, seasoning is difficult.

It is often made into prestigious presentation bows due to its luster and rich color.

  • SG: 0.7 – 0.8
  • Tension: 7
  • Compression: 8
  • Response: 7

9. European Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)

Although it grows as a small shrub, finding a longbow-sized piece is relatively easy. This is due to its invasiveness and the fact that it grows straighter than, say, Hawthorn.

In medieval times, it was used for small and stressed wooden parts. Think the tuning pegs for a violin, the pegs for wheels, and also for spindles.

The wood is beige/white. It seasons easily in the bark with the ends sealed.

It is not clear whether there were bows in the middle ages made of this wood. But people have made up to 60-pound bows from it. The bows have a very low mass to weight ratio with an extremely sharp cast.

The European Spindle is a good wood for an experiment.

  • SG: 0.5 – 06
  • Tension: 7
  • Compression: 9
  • Response: 9

10. Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens)

It has been reported in Gaston Phoebus’ “Livre de Chasse” as the “best wood for hunting bows” and from other sources as a good bow wood.

The wood is yellow or ochre and is notably hard and heavy. Obtaining long and big pieces might be challenging. But some companies sell it in France and Turkey.

Naturally dried logs tend to crack lengthwise. So maybe it needs to be split or sawn into staves, painted, sealed, and left in the bark. Due to its high density, it might require very gentle drying.

  • SG: 0.8 – 1.2
  • Tension: unknown
  • Compression: unknown (but probably 8 – 9)
  • Response: unknown (but probably higher)

11. Lilac (Syringa vulgaris, Syringa L.)

This tree has white or beige colored wood which is very hard and has great mechanical properties. It is difficult to season and can crack in a matter of minutes.

Some people have made bows with a poundage of up to 50 and they shoot quite well.

  • SG: 0.7 – 1.0
  • Tension: 8
  • Compression: 9
  • Response: unknown (but high)

12. Holly (Ilex spp.)

Holly, not to be confused with Holm Oak (Quercus ilex), has whitish or beige-colored wood.

It is dense and hard. In the past, its uses were similar to those of the Spindle (chess pieces, spindles, and other small strained parts).

Holly is reported to be a medieval bow wood, and also ideal for making longbows.

I have only worked with small pieces for tuning pegs and it is super hard. It appears to be similar to Boxwood in its properties.

It should dry without any major issues. But when working with unknown wood, you should leave the bark on and seal the ends. If cracking occurs, then all exposed wood on the sides and belly of the stave must be sealed too.

Large pieces might need gentle drying due to high wood density.

  • SG: up to 1.0
  • Tension: unknown (but probably more than 7)
  • Compression: 8 – 9 (most certainly)
  • Response: unknown

13. Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica)

This is less known as bow wood but it has been used in the Mediterranean, Malta, and Italy. It has yellow/orange colored wood, almost like Osage.

Buckthorn is a very invasive species and it has great mechanical properties. You’ll notice it is quite similar to Mulberry.

You can make a remarkable bow if you get a sufficient piece. Although it grows the biggest in the Mediterranean region, it is native to the Central British Isles. Its related trees in North America tend to make excellent bows as well.

  • SG: around 0.7
  • Tension: probably around 7
  • Compression: probably around 8
  • Response: unclear (but high response, probably around 8 – 9)

14. Black Cherry (Prunus padus)

This is another less known species.

 It has the lowest hysteresis; so low it goes off the scale. It grows along the rivers and its vibrating properties are unmatched by any other wood. The trees can be found tall and smooth, suitable for multiple staves.

Black cherry is related to plums and cherry but it has an acidic smell, like applewood. It is strong in compression, but rather weak in tension, which makes the bow prone to snapping.

The wood works and seasons easily with the bark left on or off, but the ends need to be sealed.

It may be worth experimenting to see how great it is in tension to make a low-stressed war bow design. Longbows in sporting weights (around 50 lbs) made from this wood outshoot everything else— including laminates.

Knots and pins can be dangerous. You should fix them before you attempt to bend the stave.

Black cherry is a unique wood and easy to obtain in the correct size and length of 80“+.

  • SG: 0.6 – 0.7
  • Tension: 5
  • Compression: 7
  • Response: 10

Conclusion

Sometimes you want to make a longbow but the popular bow woods are hard to find in your area. If you have had this problem, consider it solved. All the above woods can result in some super awesome longbows. And you can make the poundage as high as you want. Be careful to follow the instructions so you can avoid frustrations.