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Yew trees hit their mark in history.

There are some woods that are so closely associated with a specific use, it is hard to think of one without the other. Ash equals baseball bats and Louisville Sluggers. Ebony brings to mind grand pianos. Walnut is closely associated with gunstocks - among many other uses, of course - and yew trees for centuries were used to make bowstaves by the bowmen of England.

Wood expert Albert Constantine Jr., in his book, "Know Your Woods," writes that before firearms were invented and archery bows were in vogue, there was a tremendous demand for yew.

Yew was the top choice for longbows. Its use dates back to the Battle of Crecy, which to the "Encyclopedia of Wood," was "the first battle at which the prowess of the weapon was tested. The French army outnumbered the English by three to one. But for every bolt released by the mechanical crossbow, a longbow could fire eight arrows. It could be reloaded every four seconds. The effect of 7,000 archers on the charging French cavalry was demoralizing in the extreme."

Yew lumber needed to be selected with care to make the bows. But the widely held belief that only one bow could be made from a yew trunk is not accurate. Yew is a small tree that is not often found in long straight lengths. In the old days yew timber from Spain was said to be superior to the yew from England because the Spanish trees grew straighter, a fact which created problems for suppliers when Britain and Spain were at war with one another.

Colorful, twisted wood

The Fine Hardwoods/American Walnut Assn.'s "Selectorama" offers a wonderful description of this wood. "Color: White to pale lemon to pale pink, sometimes orange to reddish-brown to rose red. Pattern: Smooth, lustrous grain frequently made distinctive and attractive with tiny black burls or pips, straight-grained to wavy. Yew wood is veined in patches with tiny knots and clusters of in-growing bark, all of which adds to the beauty and character of the wood. However, yew veneer has a tendency to be fragile and can buckle without the proper care. Experts recommend flattening and patching in the veneer form, when needed."

Yew trees have trunks that are typically fluted and twisted. The trees can have twisted boles, sometimes with many vertical shoots fused together forming multiple stems.

Small items a specialty

Yew is often used for small, specialty items due to its growth characteristics and limited supply. Yew trees can range in height from 20 to 60 feet, with an average height of 40 to 50 feet and a 3 foot diameter. It is a good turnery wood and is sliced into decorative veneers for use in fine furniture and cabinetry. However, it is still prized as a wood for archery bows.

Mystical powers

Beyond its practical uses, yew has been long believed to be a tree of mystical powers. According to the "Encyclopedia of Wood," the early Egyptians believed the yew's evergreen leaves symbolized everlasting life. The ancient Greeks also thought the tree sacred to Hecate, Queen of the Underworld. Even today, yews are found in many churchyards.

However, yews did not bring everlasting life to all. The trees are poisonous to cattle, which is another reason they could have been popular in churchyards to discourage grazing near the church.

In the 1980s scientists discovered that the chemical taxol, extracted from the bark of Pacific Yew trees, could be used in the battle against ovarian cancer. Now, scientists are able to synthesize taxol in laboratories.

Characteristics and cousins

Yews, Taxus baccata, are evergreens and as such are called softwoods. But the yew wood is heavy in comparison to other softwoods and to many hardwoods, too; it is tough, hard and strong. It also has a very fine texture and natural oils that allow it to be polished to a beautiful sheen.

Yew is a hard, compact and elastic wood with medium crushing and bending strength. It can be steam bent and its durability makes it a good choice for fence posts. Yew dries rapidly and usually with little problems, but shakes can occur.

Taxus baccata grows in Algeria, Asia Minor, the Causasus, northern Iran, the Himalayas and Burma and throughout Europe. There is an American "cousin" however, called American yew or Taxus breviolia. The tree is also called pacific or western yew and grows on the Pacific Coast and in southwestern Canada. It is in limited supply as well but has many of the same uses as the English or common yew.

Western yew also goes by the name mountain mahogany. Its range includes the coasts of Alaska, British Columbia, and mainland United States. Donald Culross Peattie writes in his book, "A Natural History of Western Trees," that western yew can warp or fracture across the grain in extremes of temperature. It is used for canoe paddles and the beautiful reddish gold wood is prized for small specialty uses and cabinetry work and furniture. Domestic yew is scarce to prevent its widespread use.


Taxus baccata of the Family Taxaceae

Other Names

Yew wood, common yew, European yew, yewtree, Caucasian yew


Height averages 40 to 50 feet. Weight is about 42 pounds per cubic foot. Specific gravity is 0.67.


Moderately difficult to work. Straight-grained yew works best. Irregular grains, curly or wavy grains can have tear outs. Pre-boring before nailing is recommended. Wood is naturally oily which helps natural finish, but makes gluing difficult.
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Wood of the Month
Author:Kaiser, Jo-Ann
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Jul 1, 1995
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