Making a self yew English Longbow



A top grade Pacific Yew stave



My workshop is a fairly simple affair as apart from an electric drill (to drill the tough buffalo horn) the process of making self wood longbows uses no power tools. Top quality staves arrive as shown above, being well seasoned and ready to work.


The first stage of the longbow making process is an examination of the stave, checking the moisture levels, checking the grain and structure of the wood, deducing the character of the stave and obviously looking for any visible defects or possible problem areas. Deciding on the basic shape of the intended longbow and how it sits within the body of the stave depends on many factors such as the draw weight, draw length and whether the bow will bend in the handle or not.

The average  weight of a Pacific Yew stave is about 10lb and the average weight of a finished bow is about 1 1/2 lb, so the whole shaping process involves about 80% of the wood being removed from the stave.


Initial shaping is done using a draw knife, basically a large, very sharp blade with a handle on each end. This is a wonderful shaping tool but its use leaves no room for error and take a long time to master. Even at this early stage wood removal can not be rushed. In this first stage of shaping about 2 lb of wood is removed and this is followed by another thorough examination of the stave.

It is at this point that I remove the bark. The bark does not separate easily, and great care must be taken to remove it without cutting into the wood beneath. Once the back of the stave is revealed I draw a centre line and the rough outline of the intended longbow to act as a guide for the next stage of shaping.

The next stage of making the longbow is to remove another approx 4 lb of wood, which starts to reveal the rough shape and proportions of the longbow in the stave. At this point the wood is still too thick to bend.



Continuing the bow making process I now switch from the draw knife to the spoke shave. This tool is basically a small bladed plane that can follow the contours in the wood and allow very precise removal, particularly on a rounded surface.

Working from the middle towards the tips the shaping continues until a point is reached where you can start 'floor tillering'. This means that when holding the bow with one hand at the top and one hand on the middle it is possible to exert enough pressure to bend the bow against the floor. This process is repeated many times during the continuing shaping of the longbow.




Shaping and floor tillering continues with the spoke shave until it is time to start proper tillering. Tillering is basically the process of creating the required bending shape in the wood when the bow is pulled. It involves holding the bows handle area on a fixed platform and then using a rope and pulley to hook on the bows string allowing you to pull the bow from a distance and judge the bend with your eyes while at the same time measuring the draw weight and distance. It is done in two main stages, the first is done using a loose string and before the horn nocks are attached, secondly is with the horn nocks attached and with the bows proper string in place.

This first stage of tillering also incorporates the final shaping of the bow. This involves refining the unique D shaped cross section, final shaping of the handle area,( if it has a stiff handle) and preparing the tips of the bow for the buffalo horn nocks. Again, the spoke shave is the most often used tool but at this point I will also start to use cabinet scrapers for an even finer cut. A fine wood file is also used for the handle area and in preparing the bows tips.

This stage of the bow making process is the most crucial part and takes many days to complete, at the end of which the bow has its final overall shape and a nice smooth action with an even balanced bend.



Before the second and final phase of tillering can begin I have to make the bows horn nocks and attach them and the bows string. Buffalo horn is strong, light and very tough and like a very dense wood it has a ringed grain structure that runs up the length of the horn.

Two rough blanks are cut from a buffalo horns tip and drilled to the required diameter in one end. Having decided on the basic shape the blanks are roughly shaped using a variety of files and sandpaper. Once glued into place the nocks are filed to their final shape and then polished with a fine metal polish to produce a high gloss finish.

The bow string is made from 12 -16 strands of B50 bow string material wound into a two cord reverse twist string. One end of the string has a 'never ending' style loop while the other ends loop is formed by wrapping the string around the nock and plating it back into the string and then binding it tight. Getting the length right, allowing for a degree of initial stretching, is determined by the brace height. Brace height is the distance between the string and the bow and for these longbows should be 5 1/2 - 6 inches. A Flemish loop type string is also available, made from Dacron or 'Fast Flight'.



Now the nocks are attached and the string is on I have a true representation of the bows tiller and can begin the second and final stage of tillering. This basically involves final adjustments to the tiller and the fine finishing of the wood. These are both done using cabinet scrappers, a fine wood file and a range of fine sandpapers.

The draw weight of the bow is constantly checked during the manufacturing process but now that the woodworking of the bow is finished it is possible to measure the bows final draw weight at its maximum draw length. This is done by measuring the weight needed to pull the string a specified distance from the bow. With these longbows that distance is generally 28 inches and that distance will be the maximum recommended distance to pull the bow. Safe, higher draw lengths are achievable with Yew by making the bow longer but for most people 28 inches is plenty.

The next stage is the application of three coats of Danish oil to the wood. This is applied over several days with a light sand after the second coat. Once the oil is dry I can go on to the final stage of the bow making process, making the hand grip.

Our English longbows are fitted with my own distinct style of hand grip, made from a spiralled strip of calf leather and two lengths of solid silver wire. Once the leather grip has been glued on the silver wire (5 feet in total) is tightly wound around each end and fixed into place.



Though this is only really a rough guide to the bow making process, as each stave is different as is each new longbow it produces, hopefully it covers the basics. If anyone has any questions I would be happy to try and answer them.

With the longbow now completely finished it gets tested for for consistancy and action by shooting three different weighted arrows over various distances. It also has its arrow speed tested using the chronometer, the results being given in feet per second and a points above weight efficincy rating.

The individual and unique character of each new longbow  is only briefly glimpsed during these first test shots and it is with some regret that I pass that learning pleasure on to another.