Humans have always had an intimate relationship with trees. Whether supplying food, shelter, fire, tools or eventually furniture and musical instruments, trees have been our constant companions. Over the years, we have developed an extensive knowledge base about trees and which species are best and uniquely suited for each intended use. English yew (aka European yew) is a good example of a tree perfectly suited for one purpose: for making longbows. Historically, English Yew has significant cultural importance. It was seen as a tree that symbolized death and resurrection due to its longevity and its ability to regenerate itself. It was planted in churchyards to ward off evil spirits. People were buried with Yew shoots, and the boughs were also used as substitutes for Palm leaves in Easter Celebrations.
The tree is also highly toxic which also kept early populations in awe of it. However, it was soon discovered that English Yew is the premier wood for the longbow. The longbow was the primary military weapon in the middle ages. This is due to the extreme flexibility and strength of the yew. In fact, during the Battle of Agincourt, 4,000 English longbow men were able to defeat 65,000 French soldiers.
English yew end-grain
Of course, English Yew was in demand all over Europe and shortages of this wood soon followed. This was complicated by the fact that Yew rarely grows straight and is very knotty. Trees perfect for bow staves are rare and waste is considerable. Laws were enacted to preserve the Yews across Europe during the Middle Ages. The Yew’s popularity only declined after the introduction of gunpowder and the invention of firearms.
English Yew is a small to medium tree seldom reaching heights greater than 65 feet. It has a large canopy with a very large trunk. It grows throughout the United Kingdom, Western Europe and parts of Northern Africa. It is long-lived, averaging 400-600 years old with exceptional trees reaching 5,000 years in age. It is difficult to age as the trees tend to be hollow as a result of fungi consuming the heart of the tree. Thus counting tree rings is complicated.
The heartwood is an orange brown sometimes with brown and purple overtones. The sapwood is a distinct creamy white. The wood tends to be straight grained, although irregular grain is not uncommon. It is close pored with a fine uniform texture and a natural luster. Since the trees rarely grow straight and they are very knotty, good clear lumber is rare.
If the grain is straight, it works easily. Irregular grain can tear; so again, tools should be sharp. English Yew is a conifer, thus classified as a softwood but is very hard, harder than most hardwoods. When working with it, I would use techniques suitable for hardwoods. Pre-boring for nails and screws is essential. It can be oily, so take care when gluing. It finishes and polishes well.
English Yew is still used for longbows. The bow usually has heartwood on the inside and sapwood on the outside. This takes advantage of the heartwood’s compressive strength and the sapwood’s tensile properties. English yew was also used for the construction of lutes. Now it is used in turning, small boxes and occasionally cabinetry. It is also sliced into veneer. Perhaps the most beautiful burl I have seen was an English Yew burl veneer.
English Yew is very toxic. Ingesting any part of the tree can be poisonous. There are scattered reports of some turners becoming ill after contacting dust and shavings. I highly recommend good dust control and the use of a dust mask. Yew is also toxic to most animals, so all pets, domesticated animals and of course, small children should be kept away from these trees.
It is rare to come across English Yew, but not impossible. Specialty wood dealers and bow makers can usually source it for a substantial price. Woodworkers are more likely to encounter Western Yew, a related species from Western North America. If you do get lucky and find some English Yew, enjoy it not only for its beauty, but for its rich history and vibrant relationship with us.