The timber of the yew is slow growing, so is a close grained, dense timber with closely spaced growth rings and closed pores; this makes the timber very strong and also very flexible. This feature of the timber accounts for its early use for longbows and the standard method of making these is to use a length of straight-grained timber from the main trunk, which has both heartwood and sapwood running along it.

08 Long Bow thumb

The heartwood is always used on the inside of the bow, as it remains strong when put under compression, whereas the sapwood is on the outside of the longbow to maximise on its tensile strength and its ability to stretch and return to its original shape. However, the typical growth pattern is such that straight-grained timber is rarely found, indeed, yew is more normally prized for the random grain patterns that it produces, often interspersed with clusters of tiny knots, a feature which is sometimes referred to as ‘Pippy’. This problem of finding suitable material for longbow-making resulted in considerable shortages of suitable timber throughout Europe, with all manner of trade restrictions formerly in force.

The heartwood is a deep orange, whereas the sapwood is much lighter and often quite yellow. Purple features can often be found within the grain, and this is generally explained by the presence of mineral deposits in the timber. These features, along with the random nature of the grain pattern, makes yew a highly decorative timber which has been used in the past for veneer production, although more recently, as the trend towards the inclusion of more natural features in our furniture and accessories gathers pace, use of yew as solid timber has become more prevalent, especially in the making of natural edge bowls, for which it is highly prized amongst UK turners.

09 Natural Edge Bowl 1 thumb 10 Natural Edge Bowl 2 thumb

It is often the case that natural ‘shakes’ can be found in the timber and where these have been present for some time, the tree might have developed deposits of its resin into the cracks, which then appear as fine white lines following the grain. Other features formerly treated as defects, but currently more acceptable, are bark and dead-wood incursions, which generally appear as black lines and patches.

11 Bark Incursion thumb

The late Robert Lundberg, a noted luthier, conducted extensive research into the history of lute making, and found that Taxus Baccata was the preferred wood used by lute makers, but throughout Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque times, the shortage of yew caused by its extensive use for long-bows, resulted in its supply being quite limited. Supplies were sought further afield in mainland Europe, but many countries were imposing trade restrictions on the timber because the shortage was so widespread.




Asia Medical Plants Database

Chetan, A. and Brueton, D. (1994)The Sacred Yew,

Simón, F. M. (2005) Religion and Religious Practices of the Ancient Celts of the Iberian Peninsula

Bevan-Jones, Robert (2004).The ancient yew: a history of Taxus Baccata, OPALS; the World’s First Plant-Allergy Scale

Lundberg, Robert, (2002), Historical Lute Construction

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