Modern bows are cool. They are made of all kinds of space-age materials and they’re super strong too, but they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Some archers prefer a more natural feel to their bows, and why wouldn’t you? Compound bows are great for power and precision, but if you aren’t a competition archer it might seem like overkill. This being said, you might have thought about buying or even making your own longbow (or traditional bow) from scratch. What wood would you use to make it, though? How long should it be? Will the wood crack under pressure? These are all good questions, so let’s have a look at which wood species are the best suited for bow construction, and what characteristics make certain wood species the best bow woods out there.
What Should You Look for in a Bow Wood?
If you’re wondering what the best bow wood should look and feel like, it’s not super complicated. In fact, if you simply think about the action the bow needs to perform in order to function effectively, it’s self-explanatory. When you pull your bowstring, you’re storing energy not only in the string but in the wood itself, and when the string (and arrow) is released, that energy is transferred as momentum for the arrow.
Simple, right? So, by asking yourself what work the bow will be doing in order for this operation to take place, you understand what a good bow wood will look like. Essentially, a good bow wood should be able to bend, store energy, release said energy, and retrain its shape once the operation has been completed. It might seem simple, but there aren’t an awful lot of wood species that are capable of doing this well.
This means that a wood bow should have two primary characteristics among all others. Firstly, it should have a high MOR (modulus of rupture), which is a measurement of how much stress the wood can tolerate before it breaks. This is important considering that you will be repeatedly bending the wood with your bowstring.
Secondly, the wood should have a high MOE (modulus of elasticity), which is a measurement of how much stress it takes to bend the wood. This characteristic is in the same vein as the MOR, except you’re measuring its tolerance to withstand a force intended to bend it instead of how much force it takes to break it. In the case of both MOE and MOR the higher the tolerance is, the higher the number will be.
What does all of this mean? Essentially, the best wood for a bow will have a high MOR and a low MOE, which means it can be bent with relative ease, but not break. This is a tough job specification for wood, as most species tend to be pliable, but they can also be quite brittle unless they have a natural elasticity, moisture content, or oil content.
How Do I Choose the Best Wood for Bow Construction?
Wondering how to choose the best bow woods? Knowing the characteristics that a wood should have is all well and good, but it won’t help you much if you don’t know which wood species has the desired characteristics you’re looking for. This being said, it would be nice if there was a chart you could use that detailed which wood species are most proficient at functioning as a bow.
It just so happens that there is one. It looks at the MOE and MOR of a (large) number of wood species and arranges them from worst to best suited for the construction of a longbow or recurve bow. The only problem is that this is not exactly official, but rather just grades them according to their rigidity and flexibility under stress. However, this is a fairly good guide in our opinion if you’d like to have a look at it.
This being said, hunters and archery enthusiasts alike have been documenting which wood species are best suited to archery applications. As you can imagine, people have been using the bow and arrow for quite a long time, so there are more than a few tips and tricks out there about which wood species are the best, how to carve a bow, and even what string is best to use when making a bow from scratch.
Although there are many kinds of wood out there, they might not all be readily available in your immediate area, so it’s best to pick one that you’ll be able to get your hands on easily and won’t cost too much money. Since you’re making your bow from scratch you might be looking for a wood with a particular color and/or grain pattern too, so it’s best to shop around instead of going for one with the best MOR and MOE rating.
What Is the Best Wood for a Bow?
As we mentioned previously, choosing the best wood for a bow can be tough. There are so many options to choose from! What are they though? Well, in the interest of saving you some time and sanity, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best wood species you can use to make a bow. These all have characteristics that make them the ideal material for archery, but it’s going to come down to your personal preference with ones that are more similar.
Orange Osage Wood
Some would save the best for last but we’re going to lead with it. Orange Osage is arguably the best wood for longbow fabrication by a country mile. This wood has the ideal compression and tensile strength for use in the construction of a bow, and it looks pretty good too if aesthetics are a deal-breaker for you.
The nice thing about this wood is that you can mold it fairly easily into the shape of a bow. All that you need to do is apply heat to the wood, which allows the wood fibers to become more malleable. Once up to temperature, you should be able to bend and fashion the wood into your desired shape! It’s pretty easy too.
If this seems a bit too good to be true, your intuition is right. While it might be a good wood for longbow construction, it isn’t one of the most readily available wood species. This being said, things that are hard to come by are usually expensive too, and orange Osage is no exception to this rule. It is well worth the price if you can get your hands on some though.
Unlike Osage, hickory wood is readily available, and this makes it more affordable than Osage too. It also happens to be pretty good at being a bow. Hickory is commonly used for drumsticks because it is able to absorb loads of potential energy over and over again and release it, making it an ideal candidate for your bow project. It doesn’t look quite as good as Osage, but you can treat it if you’re in the mood for an aesthetic upgrade.
If you’re not into bows that are super meaty but don’t want to compromise on the strength of your bow, then hickory is a great choice. It’s also the best wood for longbow creation if you’re going to be traveling with your bow a lot, considering that it’s light and strong, you’ll be able to go pretty much anywhere you’d like without the risk of breaking your bow.
If this also sounds a bit too good to be true, it is. While hickory is a good wood it’s nowhere near perfect, so what are its flaws? Well, unlike Osage, hickory tends to absorb a lot of moisture, which isn’t really what you want from a bow. This means that if you’re looking to shoot in moisture-rich environments your bow is going to perform poorly very quickly.
Red Oak Wood
Red oak is a really good choice if you want really strong wood that isn’t hard to find. It isn’t particularly cheap, but that’s only because it’s a great-quality wood. If you choose to make your bow out of some red oak the chances are that you’ll have a bow for a really long time, and if you look after it, you could have a bow for life.
What makes red oak one of the best choices for bow woods? Well, red oak is a wood species that also happens to be readily available in most regions. It’s pretty dense and heavy too, which means that your bow will be durable and have good shape retention. Red oak bows also tend to feel far more sturdy compared to other wood types, so you’ll have a sense of being planted when lining up your shot.
Unlike most other bow woods though, red oak is porous, which makes it fairly tricky to cut. You should have a look at the growth rings of the board you choose to ensure that there aren’t too many imperfections present. Failing to do so might make it impossible for you to fashion a bow from the board, so better safe than sorry!
Red Cedar Wood
You might be asking yourself how cedar can possibly be a good wood for bow construction. Cedar is a fairly sturdy wood after all, so it would be challenging to fashion it into a bow. Red cedar then isn’t actually a genus of cedar at all, it’s actually a juniper genus that has been named red cedar thanks to the color of its heartwood.
It isn’t unlike conventional cedar wood though, it’s still pretty brittle like the more conventionally used cedar genus, but this seems to be a trade-off since it’s noticeably lighter than its namesake wood. It’s lightweight and the fact that it is readily available means that it is often used to make longbows, in fact, loads of English bow makers prefer this wood when making traditional bows.
The trick when selecting a piece of red cedar for your longbow is choosing one with little to no knots as they can make it trickier to fashion the bow. Since this wood is light and brittle (even though it can be bent), it can have the odd splinter now and then. This being said, it’s a good idea to cover the bow in either animal hide or another synthetic sheath to increase grip and reduce friction in your palms.
Even if you know very little about archery, you probably know that bamboo has been used for hundreds of years to make bows, and for good reason as it’s one of the best bow woods around. The rigidity to flexibility ratio of bamboo is basically perfect for use as a bow, as it bends and retains its shape really well. Bamboo is also one of the best woods to use for a bow because of its durability.
Making a bow out of bamboo means that you’ll have a bow for life, and it requires minimal maintenance too. Compared to some of the other wood species we’ve had a look at so far, bamboo is also significantly cheaper, with the only downside being that it can be more challenging to fashion a bow out of bamboo compared to other traditionally used hardwood species.
The cool part about making a bow out of bamboo is that you can customize its elasticity by applying heat, much the same way you would with the orange Osage we mentioned previously. This combined with the snappy character bamboo exhibits when force is applied to it makes it one of the best choices out there for bow material.
Like some other woods we’ve covered previously, there are many who say maple is the best wood for bow making. Maple is a widely used wood for a number of applications in different industries all over the world. This isn’t surprising considering that it’s one of the strongest and best-looking hardwoods out there, and it makes for decent bow wood too.
Like most other hardwood species out there, maple is great at storing and dissipating potential energy, which is why it can commonly be found in applications like flooring, load-bearing applications, countertops, and even shelving. This makes it one of the most durable materials to use in the construction of a bow.
These days most recurve bows, and even longbows, are made of composite materials like carbon fiber, but there’s still a large cult following who maintain that the best material for all traditional bows is maple wood. This doesn’t mean you need to choose though; you have the option of mating synthetic materials with maple to get the best performance and balance.
Like maple, birch is an extremely versatile hardwood species. Birch is used to make everything from tongue depressors (the sticks that doctors use to keep your tongue down) to furniture, paper, and even toys for kids. Not only is birch readily available and good looking, but it’s also inexpensive, which makes it a crowd favorite for bow making.
If you happen to be thinking about using birch as a bow wood, you should be aware of which type of birch is best suited for the application. Some of the most commonly sold birch wood is white birch, which tends to be brittle and lacks elasticity. The birch that you want for bow making is yellow birch, as it has both the density and elasticity you need for bow function.
Another reason that birch is seen by some as the best wood for bow making is that it is fairly lightweight. A light bow means that it can be easier to line up when taking a shot, and easier to lug around for things like 3D archery ranges. This can be a bit off-putting if you’re used to modern bows that allow for stabilizers, so be sure to put in those practice hours!
Dogwood is a great choice for bow-making. The only catch is that it’s less accessible in North America than some of the other wood species we have had a look at so far. However, it’s a pretty common import from Europe, so it’s not an impossible task to get your hands on some, especially if you’re just looking for some material to make a bow.
So, what makes dogwood such a good material for bow making then? Well, like some of the other woods we’ve looked at, it has a good compression ratio, which means it handles any stresses applied to it pretty well. Dogwood also happens to be pretty dense, which means it won’t pick up moisture or mold even if its surface is poorly treated.
We mentioned previously that if you’re making a bow out of red oak wood you should watch out for knots. The exact same goes for making a bow out of dogwood, you should ensure that the board you choose is as free of knots as possible, just keep in mind that the higher the grade of dogwood you choose the more it will cost.
This next wood might be a bit controversial to any bow makers reading this, and it might bring a sigh of relief to others. The truth is cherry wood isn’t inherently a good wood to craft a bow out of compared to virtually all of the other wood species we’ve covered so far. However, those who have crafted and used cherry bows swear by them, so there’s definitely something to them.
The reason many archers choose cherry wood for their bows is because of its fast return. The fast snap back means that you can load up for your next shot fairly quickly, which is ideal for hunting and competition scenarios. Another reason that cherry is so popular is that it is incredibly lightweight, which means you can make incremental changes in your stance and angle of approach without much resistance.
It fires arrows surprisingly quickly for a wood bow too, which might not be a factor everyone is interested in (especially if you’re a traditionalist) but it’s worth noting for those who use composite bows for their speed alone. Other than speed, cherry is a durable wood, which means that your cherry bow can serve you for a lifetime if it’s cared for well.
When most people think of traditional bows they picture long, heavy bows that aren’t nearly as fast or as easy to manage as composite ones. This isn’t always the case though, a well-crafted bow made of the right wood is more than capable of competing with modern bows, especially in the hands of a skilled archer.
This is well illustrated in bows made of juniper wood. Juniper wood board is dense and small, two characteristics that make for a great bow! You can have a small, sturdy bow that’s sure to give the bigger bows a run for their money, even the composite ones. Juniper is dense and is pretty snappy if the bow has been designed well.
The only drawback of pursuing a bow made of juniper wood is that it can be challenging to find a piece of wood remotely big enough to fashion a bow out of. Although, you should be able to track one down online, or order one from your local lumber supplier in a pinch. If you still aren’t having any luck, try joining two shorter pieces of juniper together.
If you’re shocked at the prospect of making a bow out of palm wood, you are forgiven. Most people don’t know that it is entirely possible to make a bow out of palm wood. A palm branch is actually a lot like bamboo, so it tends to make for a good bow material and a pretty durable one at that. Palm is a cool choice for bow making because even though it’s extremely dense on the outside, the interior is supple, making it flexible yet rigid enough to retain the desired shape.
If you’re in the market for a bow that is lightweight and capable of striking a target over long distances, then this might be the wood for you. Palm bows are typically really long and thin so they store tons of energy, all of which can be used to propel your arrow as far as you need (within reason, of course). Palmwood can be used to make both longbows and recurve bows though, it all depends on your personal preference.
As you can imagine by what we mentioned above, palm bows are the ideal tool for hunting game over vast flat terrain. In Southern America, indigenous people used these types of bows to hunt and protect themselves, and if it’s good enough for those applications, you can bet that it’s good for shooting the odd target on a closed range. Just like with the bamboo bow though, be sure to practice getting used to the feel and tension of the bow.
Now that you know what characteristics make a wood good for bow making, have a bow woods list you can use to choose a good wood for your next bow, and what factors you should take into account when making a bow from scratch, it’s time for you to get out there and put your new-found knowledge to the test. Remember that there are loads of wood species outside of the bow woods list above you can try out, so be sure to assess all your options before making your final decision.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Wood Makes Most Bows?
Which woods are the best bow woods? Depending on your region, any number of wood species could be commonly used in the construction of bows. It really depends on the price range and the availability of wood in that area, but statistically, maple wood is mostly used to make bows across the board.
Is Ash Good for a Longbow?
Is an ash longbow any good? An ash longbow is just as good as most other hardwood bows. Ashwood tends to be hard and strong which is why it was and is used in the construction of many English longbows. Ash and witch elm are pretty common in traditional bow construction.
Which Is More Powerful, the Crossbow or Longbow?
This is a tough question to answer. In most applications, a crossbow would typically be more powerful than a longbow, especially at close range. Early crossbows were not, but modern longbows and crossbows can vary in effectiveness depending on the application, shooting aids, and distance. Off the shelf, though, crossbows tend to be statistically more powerful.