Australian bow woods.

Where to source materials etc. Also the place to show off your new bow or quiver etc.... Making things belongs in Traditional Crafts.

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Nicholas George
Posts: 22
Joined: Fri Apr 11, 2014 11:44 pm

Australian bow woods.

#1 Post by Nicholas George » Tue Apr 25, 2023 9:51 pm

Hi all,

I’ve been making bows as a hobby for fifteen years or so. Originally from Western Australia, I spent years working in the U.S. and was involved in the San Francisco Bay Area Bowyers, an amateur bowyers’ group. In this group, I learned bow-making with North American woods like Maclura pomifera (Osage), Taxus brevifolia (Pacific Yew), Carya sp. (Hickory and Pecan), and Juniperus occidentalis (Western Juniper), and had the privilege of engaging with some of the original authors of the Bowyers Bible, including Tim Baker.

Being Australian, I was fascinated by the potential of Australian woods for self-bows, and some of my idle speculation on this topic has been circulating on the web for years: ... 47632.html. Now back in Western Australia, I’ve been experimenting with local species, notably Eucalyptus marginata (Jarrah) and Casuarina obesa (Swamp Sheoak), and various mallee from the western Wheatbelt. Compared with North American timbers, I’ve found these hard to work and disappointingly brittle.

I recognise that commonly reported mechanical properties (i.e. MOE, MOR, SG) aren’t the final word on bow-woods. Still, identifying potential bow woods without actually going and making bows from every species on the continent is desirable. With the help of another WA-based bowyer, I compiled a dataset of published mechanical properties for Australian and global wood species and started running multivariate analyses. The aim was to explore how Australian woods compared to woods from other regions, notably those considered to be highly suitable for self-bows.

Preliminary findings show that most common Australian timbers tend to be dense and weak in tension relative to woods from other continents. Density is correlated with strength, suggesting self-bows can be made from Australian species, but they must be relatively wide to compensate for their relative weakness in tension. Mass must be placed close to the handle so that performance is not compromised by the high density, suggesting pyramid designs and/or very narrow outer limbs are needed. The high density also suggests that most Australian woods will be relatively hard to work with hand tools. The results are interesting, and we are even considering publishing them.

I wanted feedback from other bowyers on their experiences with Australian woods and got ethics approval from my university to conduct a survey on the topic. This was a dismal failure. Despite posting on every bowyer forum I could think of the response rate was very poor. I’ve been poking around OzBow for nearly a decade, but Greybeard suggested I go back over old posts on Australian woods. On his advice, I spent a couple of weeks sifting through several thousand posts from 2005 to 2023. From this, I learned there are many more people actively making bows from Australian woods than I realised.

The following is my summary of the posts and would like people's feedback on it. Does it more-or-less capture your experiences with Australian woods for self-bows? Are there any other thoughts on this topic I have missed?

Australian wood species that are suitable for selfbows

The species most commonly mentioned on OzBow as being suitable for self-bows are the following (in alphabetical order):
  • Acacia harpophylla (brigalow)
  • Acacia shirleyi and/or Acacia doratoxilyn (Lance wood)
  • Alphitonia excelsa (Red Ash or Soap tree)
  • Corymbia maculata (Spotted gum), is it widely used because it is commonly available?
  • Eucalyptus paniculata (Grey Ironbark)
  • Eucalyptus sideroxylon and/or Eucalyptus tricarpa (Red Ironbark)
  • Gossia bidwillii syn Austromyrtus bidwillii (Python Tree)
Other species with a handful of mentions:
  • Eucalyptus macrorhyncha (Red Stringybark)
  • Eucalyptus laevopinea (Silvertop Stringybark)
Some people have reported success with the following species, but there are generally only one or two posts:
  • Acacia aneura (Mulga)
  • Acacia falciformis (hickory wattle)
  • Acacia cambagei (gidgee)
  • Corymbia tessellaris (Moreton Bay ash)
  • Chionanthus ramiflora (Northern Olive)
  • Eucalyptus camaldulensis (River gum)
  • Eucalyptus flocktoniae (merrit)
  • Eucalyptus grandis (Southern blue gum)
  • Eucalyptus saligna (Sydney blue gum)
  • Eucalyptus salubris (Fluted gimlet)
  • Eucalyptus tereticornis (Forrest red gum)
  • Eucryphia lucida (Leatherwood)
  • Flindersia australis (Crow's ash)
Bow design

The self-bow design favoured by most Australian bowers is the Andaman – Holmegaard. This agrees with the findings of my analyses. Wide limbs are needed to distribute strain in these relatively tension-weak woods. Thin outer limbs reduce near-tip limb mass and position wood near the grip. This is an efficient design for these very dense timbers.

Other comments

People also note that Australian native woods can make functional self-bows, but are either rare, grow in obscure places, or don’t usually grow to the size and quality needed for bows. This is also my experience with collecting wood in Western Australia. There is also a lot of intra-specific variation in wood quality reported, so a species suitable for self-bows in one region is not suitable in other areas.

People also observe that most native woods are incredibly hard to work, even with steel tools, and it would be incredibly hard to make a functional self-bow with stone tools, even with green wood (except possibly with Red or Pink Ash). This has implications for the lack of the bow-and-arrow in Australia before European colonisation.

Please let me know what you all think.


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