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The Adze – Secret tools of yew bow makers

Adze for yew longbow making

picture of an Albow Adze modified for yew longbow making


There is no two ways to skin a cat as the saying goes. Bow making is no different. I am of the opinion that there is no “best” way to make a bow. With so many different people, in so many different situations making so many different types of bows, really there is no exact science. People do the best they can with what they have and in my opinion it is the best way to start out in any hobby.

It’s nice to have great tools and materials, it helps and can make the process more enjoyable and less discouraging, but at the same time don’t be consumed by the hunt for the “best” method more than hunting the “best” bow you can, or in other words don’t spend more time tool shopping than you spend bow making !

Each of us over the years will develop unique ways of doing things, some people like to use a circle template to measure out depth on an english bow, others use measurements from a yard stick or outside callipers, a combination or whatnot. There is some people that make perfectly acceptable, and sometimes exceptional bows without more than a few rough measurements, doing everything by eye and feel with their hands, a skill that is learned threw years of dedication, one day you will just know how thick an area should be by running your fingers along it.  This not the way i would show someone starting out, just like a new guitar player isn’t going to go improvise overtop of symphony, but when you see a finely crafted artistic carving by a expert carver and realize that some do their work mostly freehand without many guides and with just a rough sketch, you take note.  This first nations Haida friend of mine is where i draw my inspiration for this tool he gave me, showing me how much quicker he could take down the stave than switching to the tools i brought along.

This tool is a Elbow Adze, similar to something the Haida and other coastal nations would have used to do things like shape parts of a totem pole but it was most indispensable as a tool to dig out giant cedar logs into dug out canoes by it’s shape it is the the best possibly hand tool to dig out concave on a flat surface.

Adze used for rough shaping a yew stave.

Elbow Adze used for rough shaping a yew stave.



Some people would scoff at this tool as use in bow making for it’s shear of what would seem lack of precision and control, but i can assure you that, at least for me it is one of my favourite tools and while not appropriate on all staves, when it shines it really shines.

This Modified Adze is made for me by a Haida friend and carver, that i shared the knowledge of yew bow making with. His own ancestors were exquisite bow makers, but this skill was mostly overlooked in the modern years as most of the artisans focused on their exceptional art in wood and silver that do this day fetches great prices and is in great demand.  Having being  gifted such a handmade tool from a carver, the handle and weight made for my hands, this tool has became one of my most prized tools and if my shop was ever robbed, this is one of the tools that is in a special location that will never be found ! 

The way you use this tool is similar to the way a hatchet is used to rough out the side profile of a yew longbow. The results you get are much different though. A hatchet is a great tool for roughing out a bow and it’s usefulness is undeniable. It takes nice clean liner chips and splits. The Adze on the other hand takes small chips out the stave, and as long as it is razor sharp you will develop a clean and very controlled bite with the wood, that allows you to quickly take down areas with even knots, something most people will steer clear of with a hatchet do to the chances or ruining the stave.


Adze can make yew bow chips out in a small controlled way much like a carver does.

Adze can make yew bow chips out in a small controlled way much like a carver does.


This tool has pleasurable qualities to it that hard to explain in words, if you have a thick uniform stave it is going to be cleaner going with a  hatchet, draw knife and rasp to rough out your bow and get it going, and a bandsaw is great to cut out close to your shape of course, but unless you have much practice a bandsaw can and will ruin you precious staves, it’s something to work up to with practice woods. A bandsaw, creates toxic dust, and is also loud and there is no way to bring it beach.. everything in it’s place, the bandsaw is probably the most important tool for most bow makers.

This small elbow Adze works more like a sculptor that slowly chips away little bits, so it’s great for people that like to freeform bows, particularly those that might not have access to a bandsaw. It frees you from a bowyers bench and instead lets you stand or sirup straight, so it’s nice for your posture, you can get pretty close to the final dimensions of the bow, for acquired pieces or working between two knots, and then on the knots themselves, a razor sharp adze will cut cleanly even threw a tight yew wood knot, something i find no other hand tool capable of, usually resorting to rasp or a sanding type effort.

Now this might not be the bell and end all of bow tools, and i don’t think nobody is going to be trading in their draw knifes anytime soon.. but when your sick of sitting in a bowyers bench or just wishing to learn a new skill that might carry on to totem or canoe carving,  it’s a great thing to have in your repertoire., I hope you will find it invaluable as i have.

* The modification of this Adze for bow making is a straighter handle that has been hallowed out in the centre for it to be less heavy and thus less intrusive into the thin staves compared with one that would be used to punch into a large cedar log.

* Finding a Elbow Adze to purchase and modify will be the best option to acquire one. Changing the handle to a wooden one (vine maple), a little straighter and making the inside hallow with some lead up near the head, filling in the hole with some insulation foam and caping it with some epoxy  is what was done for me.


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Information all about the magic Yew Trees and it’s use in Longbow making.

Taxus Brevifolia (Pacific Yew)

Yew Bark

The beautiful Yew tree seems almost magical when you stumble into one, this is how the bark looks.


Yew – The Chief of the Forest

Yew is an ancient tree. It has been revered everywhere it has existed. It has a mystical quality to it that made it the choice for everything from magic wands to being used as poison to kill unsuspecting leaders. It has qualities that are certainly unsurpassed in other woods from its natural ability to resist decay, it s ability to be used for items that need to flex such as fishing hooks and bows, to being a tree that seems to keep living after it is cut from its roots:  yew wood has been at times worth its weight in gold.  The oldest living thing on the earth in the world is suspected to be yew trees, ones planted by people thousands of years ago  in England are well over 3000 years old, although with yew it can be hard to tell.

In Medieval England, yew now depleted was used as a tax on imported goods from Italy and Spain. From every 10 barrels of Spanish wine allowed in the country 4 staves of Yew suitable for longbows was demanded as an import tax.

On the west Coast of Canada, many of the first nations (native Indians as Americans call them) referred to this small tree as “the chief of the forest” in their own language. It had a small growing area and only the trees from the highest elevations where yew grew slowly were used. Particularly the small pockets of yew that exist in what is now the West Kootenays of British Columbia, high up in the mountains under the giant old growth western Red Cedar and Fir trees, where it was traded all along the British Columbia ,Washington,Idaho, the Prairies and beyond for valuable art and materials from those areas. Although there was yew wood suitable to building bows on the coast, the density of the trees that come from the colder climates was far superior.

Yew was also used by First Nations for things like fishing hooks, spears, frames for snow shoes, masks, bowls, axe handles, and even arrow shafts. Talking sticks, and other spiritual magical items were often made from yew, but not to mention medicine that the modern world has now discovered.

Yew Tree as Medicine

Lung cancer was common in the Native People, working with fires daily, smoking fish and other actions was thought to cause cancer in the their populations. For thousands of years they used yew wood bark as a cure for many things and in the 1960’s it was investigated by scientists, and soon shown to have significant benefits with people with deadly cancers like ovarian, and breast. Although the First Nation’s use was long overlooked, their methods of smoke inhalation and drinking tea from the typically poison tree, is still overlooked, instead they made the drug taxol from the inner bark of the tree.

berry of the Yew tree

the berries of Yew are important food for Elk.

The hunger for yew tree bark was now in full drive, local populations in the small strip of the west coast of north america where it grows, and that of the small spot on the inland temperate rainforest of the Kootenai Indians were now looking at a sort of gold rush.

The problem with this collection is there is only a small amount of bark on the yew tree, and with local governments seeing this otherwise “uncommercial” tree as another industry,  the mass slaughter of the mighty Yew Tree went into overdrive. Helicopters looked from the air for signs of yew wood under the old growth canopy, prospectors came to every local bar asking loggers for insider information on where these hidden trees were found. They would cut the tree down and they would take the bark and leave the beautiful wood on the ground, or burn it in slash piles.

It wasn’t long before all the easily accessible yew trees were gone. With drug companies willing to pay whatever it took to get this bark because cancer victims would pay any price for a chance to use this new miracle drug, understandably.

After a while the drug companies decided to find out if taxol could be synthesized and with a little effort they found a way. Now the wholesale clear-out of yew wood from the landscape had stopped, at least for its magical medical qualities. Too bad they didn’t take this seriously at the start when they were warned by countless residents about their love for this important tree.

Clear Cut Logging and the future of forests with Yew

But clear-cutting practices in the province of British Columbia had long been taking a toll on the old yew treesit. It had no commercial value, it was not protected or even respected, many loggers didn’t even realize it wasn’t anything but a scrap tree or some sort of hard wood hemlock. In the old days of logging, yew wood tended to break the manual saws they used for cutting the soft Western Red Cedar and the much softer than Yew Fir.  They mostly worked around these trees as it just was too time consuming to cut down, dulling their blades. It also preferred to grow near creaks and brooks and in ravines, the very place that other trees tended to grow on a slant, in well drained soil but  thus in a way saving little pockets of Old Growth, the loggers just moved on from areas “infested” with yew.

the range of Yew trees.

Yew Trees used to be very common in it's home range, but it is becoming rare. The trees in the inland, higher elevation are much different than the coastal Yew, both are great for bow making but the trees you find in the drier, and higher elevation inland areas are many times much slower growing and dense.


Modern logging practices however are not so kind to yew wood. The preferred method of logging in British Columbia is to clear cut ever last tree in a patch, with the idea that the forest will return to its glory someday after some planting. This is true to a point, trees will grow back pretty quickly in these wet regions, but the planting of a small handful of commercial species is commonplace, but species such as Yew wood are completely ignored. Yew will grow back in a clear cut, in fact it is one of the first plants to take advantage in some areas as I have personally witnessed whole mountainsides with scrawny yew bushes growing. The problem is these are not the Yew wood of yesteryear, these are bushes.  They can never grow as a straight strong tree form. Why ? They need the shade of a large tree canopy of old growth trees, the weak ones die out young and the strong have a synergy with the old growth forest. They provide food with their berries for animals like elk. A very important food, that in some cases is a majority of their diet when times are rough. It is said a yew berry is like a human eating strawberry for elk, it is a delicious snack for them that provides many nutrients and perhaps some anti-parasitic properties for their stomachs. These elk now defecate near where they are snacking, providing more life to the earth for the Big Trees and Yew wood, and perhaps the dung now has properties that are toxic to invading bugs, keeping the trees healthy and happy, and even encouraging  valuable forest items such has the Pine Mushroom (Matsutake) a delicacy in Japan that sells for upwards of $100 a mushroom on their markets. There is no way to grow the Pine Mushroom, it only grows in Old Forests.

Now, some of this is pure speculation on my part, but it comes from years of research, but some sure things are, Yew wood is very important for elk and other animals as food, it has been used for thousands of years in Tea and Smoke for cures of ailments (Cancers ?) in Native populations, it takes hundreds of years to mature, it is a sacred tree from Europe to North America, was revered as magical, it has properties that are not yet known but surely beneficial for man, and it is most popular form of death, at least in British Columbia as a waste tree burnt in slash piles.

Bow makers and the Future of Yew wood.

The Natives in my area would harvest a stave, taking a day to accomplish this, they would notch out and and remove a bow stave from a beautiful tree, and remove just that stave from the standing tree. Many examples of this can be found in BC’s forests. This was done so that this tree could provide another bow to someone else down the road. The trees lived through this easily.

The "needles" or "leaves" of a Yew tree are much like a western Hemlock but sharp on the ends. It is hard to classify Yew.

Bow makers scour the forest passing by sometimes 100 trees before choosing one that is straight enough to be used in bow making, most mature yew trees grow twisty and are passed by bow makers.

This is not to say that bow makers in 4×4 trucks and the never ending building of logging roads into the most remote mountain valleys in BC are not having an impact, they are. Some are going close to home, poaching the yew trees on the sides of popular hiking trains where for the average public will be perhaps their only chance to see a yew tree, and thus protect it.

It would be a sad day when bow makers can no longer use a piece of yew wood to make a bow, most yew as I said is wasted by clear cutting, and a few select trees can keep a bowyer busy for a year. A responsible bowyer can try to find yew in slash piles, they can try to look for blowdown trees (these aren’t really to common because yew is so tough it very rarely blows down) but most of all they can find yew trees that have been uprooted by landslides, or where a large tree beside it has fallen and thus lifted the roots. It is also a common site to find a yew tree that is mysteriously dead, and also then dry and ready to make a bow, sometimes with wood is no longer sound but I have found most times, even though it seems discoloured it is in fact sound and has a beautiful colour to its sapwood (see my Article on the colours of dead yew)

In some ways the popularity of making bows from Yew grows, it is a double edge sword, on one hand bowyers typically respect this tree and take only what they need for a bow of their dreams, on the other hand it has created fear that leads some to try to stock pile it and hoard any yew they find thinking that if they don’t take it someone will.

I am scared the west Coast of BC will learn what Henry V of England learned long ago when the forests of Yew were almost completely gone in England, that you don’t know what you had until it is gone.

Please respect the yew wood, and keep in mind a tree may have many stems and branches that are good for bows, you can remove a stem and the tree will live on, same with branches, you are now leaving that tree its life to provide another stave to someone at a later date.

Thanks for reading, and remember Natural Archer is committed to responsible use of Yew and its preservation for future generations can make the bows we do, plus all the other things in the forest that love this plant.














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Finding your Draw Length for longbows and recurves.

Finding your Draw Length for longbows and recurves.


Finding your draw length is very important for new archers. Without it would be like buying shoes without knowing your shoe size. At Natural Archer we have simplified the process for people buying bows, and with our many years of experience we can match a bow to an archer many times just by the description of the person, and we also leave room for the bow to be overdrawn enough to make up for the fact some people have a longer draw length than they thought. As long as the bow can handle a little bit longer of a draw length, and was made well enough and slightly longer than it need to be the bows from Natural Archer will be fine, but the actual weight will now change.

When it comes to arrows it is a different story, a ideal arrow for a longbow is based on the actual ammo length, type of bow, draw weigh, the tips, the usage and gets very particular for ideal shooting. There is something called the archers paradox that we will talk about later in another article, but you have to picture a arrow has to slightly bend around the bow with just the right resistance, the arrows length the weight of an arrow, among other things.

It is important to know your draw length, but sometimes people are buying a bow and arrow set as a surprised gift to someone who has never shot an arrow in their life, in this case as us to help figure this out. Luckily a nice bow and a set of arrows that is not to short but slightly long can be shot with much accuracy as the archer gets used to the set up, I have a selection of arrows that I use now and then of different Native Canadian designs, I adjust my aim for the arrows and this does make a challenge but I can easily switch between different types of arrows just buy knowing their characteristics, I even have some arrows I enjoy shooting that are made from ocean spray shoots or bamboo that I have had for many years that are not close to straight, I mark them with markings that tell me, this arrow goes slightly left or right, this arrow point over the target, I love to amaze my friends with this time honed skill of shooting very crooked arrows from a distance and still nailing the target, I think this obsession with wanting to shoot crooked things started as a young child with a hand-me-down daisy BB gun with a crooked barrel.

Finding your Proper Draw Length

Unfortunately there are many opinions of the best method to figuring this out.

The problem is every single one of us is unique, we might not even realize we have a unique feature, some of us have shorter or longer arms on average compared to their chest, some have slightly long fingers or smaller forearms. We all have our own natural way of holding a bow, even if an archery instructor will tell you there is only one position animal stance, it is my opinion this may be correct for straight target shooting, where repeating the exact same movements creates better and better accuracy, I agree for most people, but there is contradictions to ever part of it.

Much like their is bowlers who use the “wrong” fingers with their ball, or for instance the one armed drummer from Def Leopard breaking all drumming rules, the same holds true for archers, some of us have small wrists, our legs may be different, there is even archers missing one of their fingers or even whole limbs, and this doesn’t stop them from becoming excellent archers. Many times the dedication to their practice and their passion will overcome all obstacles and let them out shoot their peers.

So I could go on all day about draw lengths, what about that West Coast paddle bow I shoot instinctively to my waste, or totally ignoring posture as I shot laying on the ground, or how about that mini assassin bow I play around with, or how about that monster english war bow drawn past my ear where I can barely stand the strain on my shoulder when I attempt my anchor point ? But the fact remains, most of us will shoot to a that solid anchor point at the bottom of our jaw with the string by our cheek, even with our English Yew Longbows, we want to get accurate and the best way is to be regular.

Using another bow

Some sporting goods shops charge over $20 to perform this simple procedure, I know archery shops need income to stay open for the days you will need them, but it seems a bit excessive to me, I would almost say it should be free.

Method #1 (With long arrow)

The best way to find your draw length is simple, draw a bow with a longer possible draw than you have, with longer arrows and have a friend mark where the spot where the arrow is at the back of the bow (side of the bow facing the target), that is your draw length, now add an extra 1 3/4″, that is the length of arrow you should get. If you can, shot the arrow many times and have make sure you are holding the bow in the “correct” position just to be sure you aren’t slouching or your arm isn’t to far extended.

Method #2 (Without Arrow)

Draw a light bow and measure the distance from the string at full draw to the back of the bow ( again, the “back” of the bow is the side away from the archer). This will take another person to help you.

Using Math and Measurements

using arm-span to find our draw length for longbow

measure from middle finger to middle finger.

Calculating Draw length for archery


another calculation for draw length longbow

Lots of people go by these measurements, and they can be pretty close to accurate, myself I would recommend using each method and then finding the average of them, and using that. If using the “using another bow” method is used, bellow may not be necessary. Wingspan measurement divided by 2.5 or Maybe take these into account and find the average. Confused yet ? We have one more method that some people swear by, to be honest I wonder about this one, but here goes.

Using a Yard Stick

Take a Yard Stick at and place one end on the chest, just down from the throat. Now extend your arm as far out as possible down the yard stick, as if you were clapping your hands, now the reading at the very end of the middle finger plus an inch is the archers rough draw length.


I hope this has helped you, please keep in mind that these are always rough measurements and nothing beats an actual bow and arrow, and also that you draw length, your ammo length will be just under 2″ longer than this, a slightly longer arrow than your draw length will seldom be a problem, an arrow shorter than your draw length of course is a big problem and can be dangerous. Natural Archer is always happy to help you find the perfect setup, and we don’t charge a penny. Thanks for reading this article.



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make a Leather grip for yew longbow

How to make a leather Grip for a Yew Longbow

Appearance is not the sole purpose to when making a leather grip on a bow. It enhances the grip strength that results in better accuracy. Some archers complain of their thumb feeling sore after practicing. The reason is that they hold their bow too tight due to bad grips on the bow. With a leather grip the control of the bow will be increased and the archer can practice with relaxed more relaxed hand muscles. It is often easier for a archer to construct a better leather longbow grip than it is to find one for purchase that will this their bow.


The ingredients required can be found in the store room of your house. All that you need to spend is a little amount of time and nothing else. A small piece of leather is required and a leather lace or even a shoe lace. Use Scissors to cut the leather. If you can, find a quilt sewing nail because it is the best option to poke holes in the grip.


Place all the ingredients for the leather grip on a table. The first thing to be done is to measure the size of the grip. It can be an inch longer than the area covered when you hold your bow in the shooting stance. Most people simply prefer to choose 4 to 5 inches of length. The width of the leather should be slightly shorter than the circumference of the longbow handle area, when lacing the bow handle you can pull it tight to stretch the leather, some people will wet the leather before they lace it up tight as it is easier to stretch when wet.


After the measurement process is completed and the leather cut to size, the next step is to make holes for lacing. Role the grip gently on the holding position and start sewing but proceed gently until you have reached the bottom. Once done then tighten the grip from the top to the bottom, like you might a shoe, and place a knot at the bottom. With this procedure a leather grip for the bow can be created. It might seem a bit hectic while reading but doing the job is really easy.

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Friends yellow cedar paddle


No any easier than a bow to make.

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Cold barn range



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Swan tail feathers for arrows


Well there is no question, Turkey feathers have been used by most arrow makers as the feather of choice. There is a great deal many feathers that will work. Goose, swan, eagle, hawk, and more.

Turkey feathers have some great advantages, they are tough as nails, last along time. One of the drawbacks is they can be very expensive, uncut turkey feathers can cost as much as your wooden shaft.

As most people that come here seem to be interested in making their own archery gear, I will tell you a bit about using cheap swan feathers from the dollar store.

I have been using these tail swan feathers for years. I only use them for arrows that I don’t plan on shooting much.

I am a big fan of flaming arrows. A few times a year I will get a few people together or if already at a gathering bring my bow to perform. I live near the ocean and it is a safe place to shoot flaming arrows, I would never recommend you to shot flamming arrows anywhere else but into the water.

For these kind of single use arrows, it doesn’t make sense to purchase either arrow shafts of take the time attaching turkey feathers. This is where the dollar store swan feathers come in.

The swan feathers combined with a arrow made of an ocean spray shoot, with a tip made of a simple washer provide me with a total arrow cost of about .20 cents. I do not finish the the shoots, I only straighten them for this use.

The cheap swan feathers are something I recommend to anyone new to making arrows that don’t expect them to be their last.

The drawback of swan is when they get wet the do not hold up as good as other types, they are easily damaged. I do not recommend them for anything that should last, but for an arrow that you have just whipped together for a little fun, they can’t be beat.

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Making Fancy Elk Antler Nocks

Making Fancy Elk Antler Nocks for you Flat or Longbow is not the 1st thing people think about when designing their bow.

But you if you have spent extra attention on your longbow, and good with a rotary tool and have the basic attachments you can carve yourself out something like you see below. Some designs were better for a flat bow, some were on kids bow, and some were on longbow. (some ended up getting sewn on a quiver)

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Making a bow string from hemp

The question has been asked of me if the kind of hemp you find in typical craft stores makes and acceptable string. Well, the answer is depends.


The best kind of hemp you will find for making strings, will be coarse and not waxed, the craft store walmart crap may not do very well from my own personal experince, but others seem to think it works ok, after all hemp is hemp right ?

The hemp you should used should be tested before use, pull on the a single strand, how easily does it break ?

Hemp strings can last a very long time and work very well, but they come with a risk, and require a level of respect. You must make sure any string you make from hemp to be flaw free, and your bow never be overdrawn.

Hemp is the strongest plant fiber on earth, it works great for bow strings and has been used and trusted in many situations.

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Getting that cool rustic look

A lot of people ask me how I do some of my finishes.

Well when I make a regular longbow most people want a perfect finish and I can’t say I blame them.

When I make a bow for myself though or a gift the time it takes me to do that final sanding is just to much and also you tend to get bored and want to try a new finish.

Well I am not the best photographer so you might have to use you imagination a bit.

One of my secrets has been this water based non toxic wood dye by Saman.

Its available at walmart even though its made in Canada believe it or not.

Use many coats and some steal wool. Leave light scratches and tool marks. Use a round pipe to push the grains down.

Seal it all up with some polyurithane.

This will give you a cool looking bow and save you many hours trying to get a perfect finish.

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