Bow woods

There are bow woods I've tried and bow woods I haven't tried. This is a list of bow woods (and grass in the case of bamboo) I've tried or heard a lot about. I'm only considering limb wood material, not handle wood material. Don't limit yourself, though. People are trying new things all the time.

Red oak

The great thing about red oak is that it's easy to find and it's cheap. It's ideal for somebody who is just starting out. Just about every Home Depot or Lowes I've been to has it. They sell it in the perfect size, too. It comes in a 72" long board they call a 1x2, which is actually 3/4 x 1-1/2. Red oak is very porous, and most of the pores are in the early growth rings, so it's important to find a piece with thick late growth rings or else it will seem brittle. Those boards will feel heavier. If you find a board with very straight grain, you don't necessarily need to back it, but it's a good idea to back any board bow.

Bamboo

The wonderful thing about bamboo is that you're guaranteed to have straight grain. Bamboo bows rarely fail if done right. Some people call bamboo nature's fiberglass. It's great bow material, and it's cheap. Bamboo comes in different formsóraw bamboo and bamboo flooring boards.

If you get the flooring boards, be sure to get vertical grain. The horizontal grain will come apart. Bamboo flooring makes a great bow if backed with raw bamboo. All bamboo bows are my personal favourite. They're quieter than any other bow I've made, and there's just something about the way they feel when you draw them and shoot them that's hard to describe. There's a smoothness about them. The only bad thing I have to say about bamboo bows is that they take a lot of set. It's a good idea to put a lot of reflex in the bow at glue-up if you want to have any left after tillering.

Vertical grain flooring boards can also be cut into laminations. People sometimes refer to it as "action boo." It's ideal in the core of a fiberglass bow, because it's light and strong.

Raw bamboo is just a slice of a solid piece of bamboo with the nodes still intact. It makes a great backing to almost any kind of bow. Bamboo is very strong in tinsel strength, so it needs to be very thin to avoid overpowering the belly wood. Some woods that are good with raw bamboo backing include osage, yew, ipe, and bamboo, because they can withstand the compression forces.

Hickory

Hickory is popular for backing bows. Like bamboo, it's very strong in tinsel strength, so it needs to be thin. It's not quite as strong in compression strength. It makes a good self bow, too. I haven't made a self bow out of it, but from what I've read, it's almost impossible to break. Some people question its durability, though. Apparently, it takes a lot of set over time and becomes sluggish. I think this may be due to the fact that hickory sucks up a lot of moisture from the atmosphere. It needs to be a tad dryer than other woods to get the best performance out of it. The only problem with using it to make a self bow is that it's almost impossible to get the bark off of it. I've heard several different methods, the most popular being to put it in a hot shower for 20 or 30 minutes before trying to get the bark off with a chisel.

Osage

Some people consider osage (bois d'ark) to be a weed, but to those of us who make bows, it's gold. I love everything about osage except for the fact that it's hard to find a straight piece of it without knots. It smells good, it looks good, and it's the ideal bow wood. It lasts forever without taking a set, and it's very strong in compression strength. I can't say enough about osage. I just love it. If only it were easier to come by!

Ipe

It's pronounced EE-pay. It's the same thing as Brazilian walnut. It's very strong, so you can make thinner and lighter limbs, resulting in a faster bow. It goes well with a bamboo backing. Ipe is used in decks, because it's so resistant to decay. That makes it a good bow wood, too. Some people have allergic reactions to it, so beware.

Ash

I hate ash. I don't know why anybody bothers with it. It breaks too easily.

Cedar (or Juniper)

There are different kinds of cedar. That cedar you find at Lowes and Home Depot is pitiful for making bows. It's way too brittle. Juniper (or aromatic cedar) is a lot better, but it's brittle as well. It's great under clear fiberglass, though, because some pieces of it are just beautiful. It smells good, too.

Poplar

It's tempting to try poplar since it's so cheap and available, but it's too soft to make a decent bow out of.

Black Locust

Okay, I haven't actually tried this one, but I've heard good things about it.

Yew

I haven't tried this one either. Yew is supposed to be ideal for making longbows, because it's so strong in compression that it's one of the few woods that can withstand the D-shaped cross section of an English longbow. The problem with it is that it's too expensive.

Black walnut

I've only used walnut in a fiberglass bow. I think it's beautiful. I didn't like the way it smelled when I first started using it, but the smell grew on me. I've heard it works well in non-fiberglass bows, but I haven't tried it.

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