A bow can be made out of a single piece of wood (the most common choice for ancient bows, as well as for modern "primitive" bows) or it can be made of a laminated combination of different woods. When making a laminated bow, you can use different types of wood based on their qualities.
Yew has historically been the preferred wood for building bows. The sapwood of the yew tree is elastic (which allows the bow to bend) while the heartwood can tolerate compression well. When constructing a laminated bow, it is important for the belly (which faces the archer) to be able to handle compression, while the back (which is further away from the archer) needs to be able to be tensed when the bow is bent. Yew sapwood is a good choice for the back, and yew heartwood for the belly. However, yew is no longer easily available in qualities suitable for making bows.
Woods for the Back
Common choices for the back of the bow include maple, bamboo and hickory, while osage and lemonwood may also be used. Bamboo must be dried until no moisture remains in it before you can use it for making a bow. When choosing your wood, it is important to select only straight-grained pieces. Maple is often considered the best option, especially for beginners, because it tends to be straight-grained and hard, and because other types of wood are more likely to have knots.
Woods for the Belly and Core
Whalebone, beefwood or other tropical hardwoods can be used for the belly of the bow, along with satinwood and rosewood . These woods can withstand the pressures of compression when the bow is drawn. Some bows are made out of as many as five laminates, and include a core as well as a belly and back. The core may be made of purpleheart, maple, cherry or ash. Sometimes exotic woods such as chakte vega or massaranduba are used for the belly.
The goal when building a bow at home is to create a bow that will shoot an arrow as quickly as possible. Internal friction in the bow itself can cause the bow to shoot inefficiently, losing energy and therefore arrow speed. Bow maker Dick Baugh described an experiment in an article published on Primitive Ways in 2008 for determining how much energy would be lost from internal friction with a sample material before building the bow with that material. The sample is clamped in place and then bent a certain distance and allowed to recoil back. Then the recoil distance is measured to determine the degree of energy lost. This experiment can help when deciding what type of wood to use in building a bow.