Do you like archery? Do you like woodworking? Have you ever considered putting them together? Bow making, sometimes called bowying, is becoming an increasingly popular hobby that’s fun, relaxing, and turns out a tool that you can use for your other favorite hobbies like archery or bowhunting.
Whether you’re a new bowyer or an experienced one looking to branch out, your first decision is what wood to use. While our ancestors were mostly limited to whatever trees they had nearby, we have the modern luxury of having access to wood from all over the world.
That means you have a lot of great woods to choose from. These are a few of the best, so get out there and start cutting, drying and laminating. After that, you’re ready to hit the range with a bow you made with your own two hands.
12 Choices For Best Wood To Make A Bow
1. Osage Orange
With a scientific name of Maclura pomifera, Osage orange gets its common name from the Osage Native Americans who first used it in East Texas as well as Southern Arkansas and Oklahoma. What did they use it for? That’s right. Bows.
In fact, in early colonial America, bows made of Osage orange were so prized that you could trade one for a whole horse and a blanket. As a result, the tree spread all over the US and was even a favorite of President Thomas Jefferson.
Like many bow woods, Osage orange is dense but malleable, though as a tree, it’s fairly twisted and knotted. This means you have to find a piece of it that’s straight-grained, which isn’t too hard.
Osage Orange’s main claim to fame, though, is its resistance to rot. As a result, it’s popular with other applications as well like fence posts and hand tools, but it’s especially ideal for different types of bows and hunting in wet and muddy terrain.
2. Red Oak
Red oak is one of the most popular bow woods out there simply because it’s inexpensive and easy to find at most hardware stores or lumber yards. Frankly, Red wood is a bit weaker than other woods, and while it’s flexible, it’s more likely to break, especially as a result of a dry fire.
To avoid an early break, make sure you get wood from an old tree. This means look for thick growth rings in the wood. You should also cut the limbs at around two inches of width.
Correctly made, a red oak bow will get you high draw weights. Due to its price and availability, we recommend it for new bowyers who are still learning their way around the hand saw.
Maple is one of the best bow woods and one of the most common materials used in professionally made recurve bows. Nevertheless, it’s widely available and pretty cheap, so it’s also a good choice for beginners who want to make their own bow.
The reason maple is so popular and such a great choice for expert and novice bowyers alike is the ratio of its strength to its weight, being one of the stiffest and most resilient woods out there. Additionally, maple trees grow very consistently, meaning that any maple wood you buy is almost certain to make a good bow.
After Maple, Hickory is arguably the best standard wood to go with when making a bow. It’s traditionally been one of the most popular woods, and not just for bows either, but baseball bats, skis, golf clubs, and even airplanes.
That's because hickory is super tough. It’s stiff, too, which actually means it needs to be cut pretty thin to make your bow. Keep that in mind.
Perhaps its biggest downside, hickory doesn’t handle water all that well. Even though hickory is easy to find all over, especially the East Coast, it’s best for dry environments like those out West.
Ash was traditionally one of the most common woods for recurve bows not to mention other goods from tools to guitars. This is because it's hard and dense yet flexible and easy to mold into shape.
Lately, though, ash has been slowly replaced by maple and hickory for a couple of reasons. First of all, ash must be treated for longer periods of time before it's ready for bowying.
Second of all, it's best to use ash heartwood, which is hard to come by. Younger ash wood is still strong but can be prone to compression cracks.
Finally, it's worth pointing out that the ash wood available in the US is usually not the ash traditionally used for bows, which is European ash. American white ash is not as strong as its European cousin.
Yew is the famed wood of the English archers who turned back the French at Agincourt with their longbow skills. The English used yew wood on purpose because it's lightweight and can be grown quickly. This allowed them to mass produce them for an army who would be rapid-firing arrows at advancing cavalry.
Yew became so essential for the English army that churches started growing it in their yards. England began importing so much yew that it began depleting European stocks of the tree, and foreign governments started controlling its sale.
These days, yew is still a fine choice for a longbow, especially if you're a hobbyist trying to make a traditional English longbow, but it's unlikely your purposes are the same. That is, you aren't trying to make tens of thousands of bows as quickly as you can.
If you do decide you want to make a traditional yew longbow, know that the strong heartwood is usually put on the inside with the flexible sapwood on the outside. Healthy yew can be hard to find, though, so make sure you aren't buying overly dry yew that will end up breaking down the line.
7. Eastern Red Cedar
Eastern red cedar, whose scientific classification is Juniperus virginiana, goes by many names, including Virginian juniper, eastern juniper and red juniper. It's native to the eastern coast of North America from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
One of the main purposes of red cedar actually isn't bows at all, but keeping moths out of your clothes. For some reason, it smells great to humans but terrible to moths.
Still, if you build a closet and have some left over, it's a great option for longbows and flat bows due to its strong heartwood and more significantly, its resistance to rot and decay. One of the best applications is Native American sinew-backed bows, which incorporate the strong heartwood in the inside of the bow and use flexible sinew for the backing.
Eastern red cedar is also the best wood to make arrow shafts out of.
Many traditional hunters use Eastern Red Cedar for their hunting arrows.
Birch is one of the most versatile woods. Lightweight but strong, it's used in everything from paper to skateboards. For bowyers it’s especially valuable for making flatbows with wide limbs. Since it was and is one of the primary woods used by the nomadic Sami people of Northern Finland and Scandinavia, it’s also popular among those looking for a traditional hunting bow.
Birch includes many different species, and the ideal ones for bows are yellow and silver birch along with paper birch. Most bowyers like using birch to make one-piece bows, and you can cut trunks of birch into flatbows fairly easily. However, birch can be brittle, so you may consider giving it a stronger backing of oak or cedar, or like the Sami, of rawhide.
Ipe trees are those from the genus Handroanthus, native to South America. While it was the main wood used by indigenous Amazonian tribes for bowhunting, its most common use now is construction, mainly for things like boardwalks and decks, due to its resistance to insects and water. If you like making lots of bows but store most of them away for long periods without use, this could make ipe a good choice for your bow.
It’s difficult to see the rings in ipe wood, so you generally want to add a backing of some sort. Ipe is incredibly dense, even denser than water, so it’s definitely strong. However, without being able to cut it accurately, the tensile strength may be poor and cause it to splinter. A popular backing for ipe bows is bamboo, but bowyers also use hickory and maple.
An important thing to keep in mind, though, is that being native to South America, ipe wood in the US is almost exclusively imported. This has led to cases of wood being advertised as ipe that really isn’t. If you want to make an ipe bow, it’s best to get it from a trusted lumberyard.
Bamboo has been a part of Japanese traditional archery, or Kyūjutsu, for at least a thousand years as well as other East and Southeast Asian cultures where the plant is common. The traditional Japanese bows are called yumi and are asymmetrical laminated bows made of two pieces of bamboo as well as leather and sometimes other woods. Yumi are very long, usually over six feet.
Most modern bamboo bows follow in the yumi tradition in that they’re laminated bows, either with two separate pieces of bamboo or other woods. Specifically, bamboo makes a great backing for dense woods like ipe. It’s generally not the wood of choice for one-piece bows.
At its most basic, laminating a bamboo bow simply involves gluing the curved shafts of multiple bamboo cuts together, which you can imagine fit together easily if you pick out the sizes well. However, you can go for a more traditional design by tying the shafts together with string or leather.
Dogwood is highly regarded by amateur bowyers because you often don’t even have to buy it. Chances are that you have some kind of dogwood like flowering or Pacific dogwood in your backyard. As a result, it can be a fun way to see the bow-making progress all the way through from start to finish.
Dogwood is a strong wood usually approaching a density of 0.08. As a result, it’s used for other high-intensity sporting applications like golf clubs and roller skates.
Your main obstacle will be finding a straight enough dogwood tree as they tend to be thin and bend and knot. You should ideally cut the wood in the spring because it will be wet and springy, and the bark will come off easily. You will then need to seal the ends and the back.
Plus has not traditionally been a common wood for bows, but it’s started becoming more popular recently as hobbyist bowyers have started branching out and trying new designs. It turns out it’s both strong and flexible and also fairly straight-grained, making it great for bows.
Of course, one of the main problems with plum is that it’s hard to find unless you grow it personally. Even if you do find someone with plum trees, they’re most likely growing them for fruit, so they’re unlikely to let you chop them down. Plus, while the grain is straight, the tree itself is twisty and thin as well.
If you do get a good piece of plum wood, take it slow. Plum is sturdy and makes for a good bow, but like many small-diameter woods, it can crack or check when dried too quickly. But hey, woodworking is all about patience and enjoying the moment, so this can actually add to the experience.
Your wood choice is the first and arguably most important decision when it comes to making your own bow. While there are a ton of options out there, picking one or a combination of these strong, common woods is a great first step towards a powerful, self-made bow that you can take pride in.
There is beauty in simplicity with a self made bow, such as a with compound bow vs recurve, there are no cables and cams, no bow mounted quiver, no special bow case, just you and your hand made creation.