How to make a traditional longbow

Updated July 19, 2017

The traditional English longbow impacted the world, both as a weapon and a hunting implement. Despite hundreds of years of military and recreational use, the longbow's design and materials have changed very little; "self" longbows are hand-cut and fashioned from one piece of wood, preferably yew. (Reference 2) Modern archers and hunters who make their own longbows enjoy a rewarding creative experience while producing a low-cost, one-of-a-kind bow to use and treasure.

Select a piece of wood to make your bow. The accepted "gold standard" for bow wood is yew, though many other hardwoods like ash, Osage Orange and hickory make serviceable alternatives.

Depending on how authentic you want your bow-making experience to be, you can either cut down a tree or purchase the wood at a lumber yard; in either case, you will need a strip of wood that is free of rot, twigs or knots. The strip, or stave, should stand nearly as tall as the intended user and be roughly three inches wide and three inches thick. (Reference 1)

Mark the centre of the stave from tip to tip; this is where your hand grip will be. Measure one foot in both directions (up and down, toward the ends of the bow) and mark with a pencil; this two-foot length defines the handle. (Reference 1)

Plane or file the sides of the bow with a drawknife or jack plane, working out from the centre of the bow (the handle) where the width should be 1 and 1/2 inches. Taper the ends as you approach the tips; the width at the bow tips should be 3/4 inch.

Secure the bow in a vice, preferably with the sap wood side facing down. (If you cut the wood yourself, it should be easy to tell which side of the wood is the sap wood; if you bought it at the lumber yard, you may be able to tell from the growth rings.) With a drawknife, shave the back side of the bow to a thickness of 1 and 1/4 inches at centre (handle) and tapering to a thickness of 1/2 inch at tips. (Reference 1) Trim away the "corners" where the back meets the sides. At this point, the cross section of your bow's belly should be a full Roman arch. (Reference 1)

Cut nocks at each of the tips using a rattail file. Cut laterally into the sides of the tip, making a 1/8-inch deep groove all around. Horn tips can be attached for added strength, if desired.

Train your bow either by using a tiller or by hand. In either method, the bow is repeatedly bent as if to string it, shallowly at first but increasing the arc each time, with rests in between for the wood to recover. Eventually, it is pulled enough that it can be fully strung. Stringing an untrained or untillered bow usually results in a broken or cracked bow.

String your bow with a Dacron bowstring, commonly found in hunting supply stores.

Finish your bow by winding a handgrip around the handle; leather, fishing line and pigskin are the most commonly used materials for grips. Sand the wood with fine paper and steel wool, then treat and seal with shellac and linseed oil. (Reference 1)


In the event that you encounter a knot or pins while shaping the bow, shave or file these areas sparingly. Leaving more wood in the area surrounding these imperfections, which are points of weakness, provides extra support and strength. (Reference 1)


Yew trees, and consequently yew wood and yew sawdust, are highly poisonous; take precautions to avoid breathing in the wood dust when working with yew. (Reference 3) Woodworking tools have extremely sharp edges; take care when handling.

Things You'll Need

  • Bow stave
  • Marking tool (pencil or charcoal)
  • Measuring tape
  • drawknife or planer
  • rattail saw
  • bowstring
  • handgrip material
  • sandpaper
  • steel wool
  • shellac
  • linseed oil
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About the Author

Jill Brown has been writing and editing technical content since 1998. In 2000, ASM International published a supplement to "Advanced Materials & Processes" called the "Directory of Materials Properties Databases," which Brown compiled, wrote for and edited. Brown earned her Bachelor of Science in geology from Cleveland State University and has taken graduate coursework in environmental engineering.