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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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