Wood has a long tradition as a material for making bows. The first bows were believed to have been made of wood or bone 40,000 years ago in ancient Africa. Longbows were developed separately by many cultures, including Native Americans. Each culture had its own traditions for making a longbow, since the materials they had would vary.
The most famous longbows are those of the Welsh and English in the Middle Ages. These were preferably made of yew. Yew is still popular because of the ease of drawing it, and its ability to release quickly. However, it is difficult to acquire yew wood, since it was popular for so long. The British at one time required that a barrel of yew staves to make bows was imported with each barrel of wine from Italy, since Italian yew was highly valued and more abundant.
The ash tree is the runner-up in the bow wood popularity contest. Although it is not as flexible as yew, it still makes good bows. It was used by the English and Native Americans alike, since both Europe and the Americas had their own types of ash. The oldest existing bows, found in Denmark and believed to be roughly 9,000 years old, are made of yew and ash.
Other Self Bow Woods
Self bows are bows made from one type -- and often one piece -- of wood. Most longbows are self bows. Other woods besides yew and ash have been used to make self longbows. English longbows were also made of witch hazel and elm. Native Americans used hickory, oak and osage orange, which is still prized by some bowhunters.
Almost any wood can be used to make a bow. The key is to find the optimum part of the wood for a bow. In some woods like osage orange, this may be the heartwood in the centre. Other woods may require you to use the inner or outer sapwood.
Modern laminated longbows are made of two woods. One wood is used on the belly, the inside part toward the archer. This is often a hardwood like satinwood or rosewood. Another wood is used to create the backing, often maple, hickory or bamboo. The two woods are glued together and then sealed -- "laminated" -- to protect them from the elements and help keep them together
Willow is exceptional because it is the only wood you cannot use for making bows. It grows straight, a prime quality in bow wood, but is considered too brittle. Willow can be used to make arrows, but cannot withstand the tension needed to draw and fire a bow.