Making an English Longbow

By Sam Harper

Today is Wednesday, July 20th, 2005. I have been wanting to make an English longbow for a long time. A guy on eBay asked me to make him one, and although I was not up to making him one, the thought of it has motivated me to go ahead and try one. Join me on this great adventure.

A little about English longbows

I don't know a whole lot about English longbow history, but I do know that there was a time when every Englishman was required to have one by law so that England could be protected from invasion. (Before I go on, I should note that I'm getting a lot of this information from the Traditional Bowyer's Bible, volume I. I'm not giving specific references, because I'm too lazy to look them up.) Since so many bows had to be made, the English came up with a way to get the most bows out of a piece of wood. Instead of having wide flat bows, they had narrow bows with a D-shaped cross section. Notice how with this design you can get more bows from a tree.

Notice that with the English Longbow, less wood is wasted. It's supposedly also faster to make ELB's than flat bows, because you're just taking wood off the edges. That allowed bowyers to crank out bows in a shorter amount of time.

The only problem with this design is that it puts a lot of stress on the belly of the bow. You see, with a regular flat bow, the compression forces are distributed along the whole width of the bow, but with the ELB, the compression is concentrated at the crown of the D on the belly.

There are a couple of ways the English dealt with this problem. First, they made their bows longer than usual--at least the height of the archer if not longer. That way, the bow didn't have to bend quite as much for a given draw length. Second, they used Yew. Yew is unusually strong in compression. Of course Yew isn't the only thing they used, but it was perferred.

Thinking the whole thing through

I want to mimic the ELB as far as I can, but alas, I'm a starving college student who lives in an apartment and can barely afford to feed my cats. Yew is heinously expensive, so that's out of the question. What I need, though, is something that can withstand the compression forces of a D-shaped bow. It just so happens that Osage (i.e. bois d'ark) is perfect for this kind of thing, and it isn't nearly as expensive at the Hardwood Barn which is close to me.

I'd also like the bow to at least look a little like a Yew ELB. Yew is sort of brownish tan, and the sap wood, which is left on, is white. So I need some kind of backing that is white. Well, Hickory jumps immediately to mind. It's pretty popular for backings, so I figure it will work fine.

Osage isn't exactly the colour of Yew, but it does get darker with age, so maybe it will look like Yew in 15 years or so. Anyway, it's the best I can do.

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