Pacific Yew- The Cognac of Wood - West Wind Hardwood

This wood is my absolute favourite of favourites.  Quite simply, it has a richness that speaks to my senses like a fine cognac long-aged in French oak barrels, or perhaps your preference is Grand Marnier.  My kitchen cabinets are made from yew, as are many of our doors here at West Wind Hardwood, and upon returning from time away, I am always struck by how extraordinary this richly coloured, unique wood is.

There are many, many species of yew; one of the more common is English yew.  The name “Yew” comes from the Proto-Germanic “īwa-“and with a possible origination from the Gaulish “ivos” referring to the colour brown.  Our local species is known as Pacific yew, western yew, American yew, Oregon yew, bow-plant, mountain mahogany.

Long associated with magic, death and rebirth/eternal life; attributed with magical and psychic abilities, yew was one of the ‘nine sacred woods’ used in the ritual fires of the Celts, and as a ‘totem’ tree by Celtic tribes.  Reincarnation has always held a fascination for me; multiple lives and such.  I hold the concept lightly having had no first-hand experiences but I was recently informed that I have lived three previous lives; my first as a female warrior in Pre-Roman Britain which I find curious considering the importance the yew tree held in these times.  Perhaps some heed should be given to Hamlet’s words:  There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

Certainly, I do believe the universe operates in a continuous chain reaction of cause and effect. By actions, thoughts, and words, energy is released and in turn influences our direction. Man is, therefore, the sender and receiver of these influences. What we are, then, is entirely dependent on what we think. Consider well your motives and intentions.

“All that we are is a result of what we have thought;
it is founded on our thoughts and made up of our thoughts.”
                                                                          – Dhammapada

Growth Characteristics

Taxus brevifolia (Pacific yew or western yew) is a small to medium-sized (spindly) evergreen (conifer) native to the Pacific Northwest.  It ranges from Alaska to central California; mostly in the coastal range. The yew is extremely slowing growing and small; size indicating no relationship to age; think of our Pacific rockfish in comparison.  Foliage is relatively sparse and has a habit of rotting from the inside, creating elaborate hollow forms; very haunting.  The trunk is typically tapered and usually fluted; covered by thin scaly reddish-brown bark.  Our “John” likens the bark to the Arbutus/madrone tree.  The leaves are flat, dark green; arranged spirally.   Female trees develop distinctive soft, bright red berry-like structures (arils).

Pacific yew normally grows inconspicuously and slowly beneath a conifer forest canopy, in dense shade. Jan has tunnel vision when it comes to the yew tree.  It goes without saying that on our many hikes, his ‘yew’ radar is on and I am surprised at how they melt into their surroundings; unmissed by people like……well, like me :-D.  The species is not abundant, generally occurring in small groups or single trees. It grows best on cool, moist flats along streams, in deep gorges and damp ravines, and where fires are relatively infrequent.

Buttle Lake (Strathcona Park) – September 2010

Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the underlying dead,
Thy fibers net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.
– Alfred Lord Tennyson (from In Memoriam)

Agricultural and Medicinal Aspects

Interestingly, all parts of the tree are poisonous except the fleshy covering of the berry (arils) which can be used as a laxative and diuretic.  However, since the seeds are highly poisonous, please don’t be self-medicating.  And until recently, Pacific yew has been considered a nuisance weed by modern forestry, insufficiently important to harvest for lumber or pulp. It was often burned along with logging slash that remained after timber harvest, or at best, left behind.

In the early 1960s, the National Cancer Institute (US) found that extracts from Pacific yew bark showed in vitro activity against cancer cells, and thus began a period of stardom for this hitherto largely ignored “tree-of-death”.  This is how West Wind has come to stock yew wood; both as a by-product of out-dated forestry techniques and of the medical research industry.

Find the Two Halves
Salvaged from the Burn Pile at Arbutus Ridge

The harvest of yew bark for taxol raises an ethical dilemma: saving trees or victims of cancer. Several alternatives to harvesting wild Pacific yew to obtain taxol are explored by laboratories along with the intensive cultivation of forest tree nurseries.  Thus illustrating the value of preservation for future generations and showing how wise stewardship of an ecosystem can help achieve sustainable harvest.

Working Properties

For centuries this wood was used for bow-staves by the bowmen of England; as it was once a worthy quest to find the perfect piece, finding long ‘true’ boards is still a ‘hands-on – come-and-visit-us’ task.  Sourcing long wide boards are challenging when you consider the tormented (irregular grain pattern) growing characteristics of the trunk, however, it polishes beautifully and of course ages to a magnificent colour.  It has a warm, touch-me quality. Being a very hard ‘softwood’ it was also used for shuttles, cogs and pulley-ins.  Let me know if it’s necessary to cover the hard-core nitty-gritty facts such as specific gravity, crushing strengths and such.

Broughton Archipelago – August 2008

There is an interesting debate about the toxic effects of working with yew wood (dust) and also in its use as a vessel for eating/drinking.  I recommend a visit to Andy Coates’ blog for a spirited discussion.

Lore, Ritual and Traditional Uses

Bathroom Door – West Wind Hardwood

An important tree to the Winter Solstice and deities of death and rebirth, the yew tree has long held significance pre-dating the Christian church.  Druids used to gather pollen to create special magical effects during clan gatherings, throwing yew pollen into the fire at night to create beautiful little sparks. Yew was considered one of the guardian trees and was traditionally planted near wells or over blind springs. In the olden days, people gave thanks to the water by singing to the well at Midsummer night, or by ‘Well-dressing’ – decorating the well with petals and sprays of yew.  The yew may be the oldest-lived tree in the world; unfortunately, it is impossible accurately date these trees as their hollow trunks make ring counting impossible.  Ancient yews can be found in churchyards all over Britain as pre-Christian rites were absorbed by the church.  

What of the bow?
The bow was made in England;
Of true wood, of yew wood,
The wood of English bows;
So men who are free
Love the old yew tree,
And the land where the yew tree grows.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Indigenous Peoples of North America used the bark, foliage, and fruits of yew medicinally. Bella Coola Indians used leaf tea for lung ailments; Chehalis Indians employed leaf preparations to induce healthful sweating; Cowlitz used poultices of ground leaves on wounds, and Karok drank twig bark tea to relieve stomach ache.

As an extremely hard, decay-resistant wood, yew was valued for tools like canoe paddles and fish hooks, weapons like archery bows and spears, and ceremonial and decorative items. In the Willamette Valley, Oregon, Native Americans were often buried with their yew bows.


sources: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Taxus brevifolia Nutt. (Pacific Yew)

54 Comments

    1. I living in SE Alaska and have for 40 years and harvest and sell wood here in SE Alaska. I am not a logger. Came acrossed some very interesting Yew Wood and wonder if anybody wants to buy some. We deal is Sitka Spruce and Red Cedas and some yellow cedar and we have shiupped very large orders to 4o different countries. I am 72 and still active in the business. Any body looking for Spruce from this far north. Thank you. Mesha.

      1. I am searching for some narrow yew wood to craft Norse Runes from. Ideally, I’d love a simple round branch, about 1.25 to 1.5 inches wide, which I would simply cut into slices that I could burn the runes on one side (there’s 24 different runes and I want to make several sets for gifts), but I could make a milled board work as well. I live in Ohio. Thank you!

      2. I build arch top mandolins and always looking for a better top for my instruments so thought I’d tell you bout it I use red spruce n Douglas fir now. And some Sitka if it’s old n good n dry. So get bac with me. If u can ok. Thanks. James. Hicks. Winky. Is my nick name. Look me up on Internet. Winky hicks. Mandolins n blue grass music banjo player ok.

        1. Hi James, softwoods are less economical now to ship to the states. Depending on the quantity we’ll see what we can do. Someone will be in touch to your email.

  1. Yew is also a good wood for framing wooden boats. It steam bends well, and it’s more durable than the Oak that’s usually used. I’m told Allen Farrell used wood from Yew branches for frames on small boats, sometimes cut green from a living tree.

  2. Well put together summary of the Pacific Yew tree. I have been web searching information on this tree for the last 9 months and keep finding something new every day. Got interested when I started noticing the peeled logs scattered around the forests near my home. Salvaging them from local slash piles and chipping decks is a real challenge but I have been making some headway. Among all the other issues with recovering wood products from this tree, working with 2-18 year old logs makes it even more interesting. For every three logs that I think has some good wood in it only one does. Still having fun though.

  3. I’m hoping to find some Pacific Yew seedlings to plant in a 15 acre clear-cut I’ve planted with doug fir& red cedar with lots of reprod hemlock & spruce & alder mixed in. Any references would be greatly appreciated. Clear-cut is in Wishkah Valley of Grays Harbor, Wa. at about 200 ft. elevation. Thanks, Doug

  4. I came across what seems to be a 1940’s pacific yew coffee table. Does anyone know what something like that is worth?

  5. The Pacific Yew is not poisonous. This was an association to the European Yew (Taxus baccata) after the new people to this land recognized the tree. It does have a moderate toxicity level, but a fraction in comparison to the effects of the European relative.

    Also, can you reference the Willamette Valley that practiced burial with bows?

    Cheers

    (Citing National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest)

    1. Thank you Davis for keeping us on our toes. The “Willamette Valley” comment has been correctly cited now. But as far as the Pacific Yew not being poisonous, it appears there could some debate on that. Even though I didn’t glean my information from the Audubon’s Guide Book, they also suggest that the Pacific Yew is poisonous. I suppose common sense rules!

  6. I have a baseball bat made of Pacific Yew that I obtained from a company in California. I want to put it on a lathe and take some off the barrel to make it a more balanced bat. How cautious should I be with touching the unfinished wood and the dust? Also what could I use to finish the yew, so I could handle it as a bat. I’ve heard that oil based finishes are not suggested. Any info would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Non-toxic unless consumed in large quantities. Don’t worry about the dust any more than you would other wood types. Thanks for the comment.

  7. I am selling my home which has Yew floors in the entry, kitchen/dinning, and master bedroom. The home was built in 1984 by a logger who collected the Yew from forest near Shelton Washington. How rare or common are Yew wood floors?

    1. As Pacific Yew is not commercially logged, I would suggest that the floors in your home are something very special and to be treasured. I am assuming the logger was actually salvaging the yew trees as a by-product of either out-dated logging practices or from the search for the bark to yield the drug, Taxol.

      It should be noted that by collecting large amounts of bark from the live trees for natural Taxol production, the trees died. Researchers determined early that collecting enough Taxol from the bark of the Pacific yew to yield a viable drug would quickly wipe out the species, putting an end to the whole development process. To get around the problem of a non-sustainable supply, researchers threw themselves at synthesizing Taxol. Today, all commercial Taxol is made by this method, and none is derived from the bark of the Pacific yew.

      Pacific yews are a small component of coniferous forests, usually found as single occurrences; a yew inventory from Quatsino Sound found 1.5-2.1 yew trees/ha. They are considered a slow growing understory species and can live up to 400 years, although 200-300 years is more common.

  8. Have enjoyed reading about Pacific Yew. I have some planks of yew which I purchased fromWestwind with the idea of building a dining room table. I have been told that yew is a difficult wood to work with due to warping etc. Can you advise if it suitablefor this purpose?
    Thank you,
    Robin Goldie

    1. Hi Robin, yew is a good stable wood you should not have any problems with warping. There is crossgrain, however, and planing can be difficult. Best to sand and use cabinet scrapper for best finishing results.

  9. Hi, I have a bunch of yew wood I have been collecting for a couple years from clear cuts and slash piles. I am planning to cut a stairway and spindles for my house. How long should I dry it before use? Some is fairly green while some has been down awhile. Do I have to paint ends? I have my own sawmill so if anyone needs some might be able to hook you up.

  10. Looking for some yew wood to make a bow. Always wanted to make a traditional long bow from yew. Anybody have or know where I can buy a suitable piece?

      1. Need 72″ long Yew staves for archery bows. 1″ x 2″ x 72″ would be fine but a 4″ log with bark left on would be best for aging and splitting into staves..

  11. I have what is most likely a silly idea. I heard from a cutting-board producer that Pacific yew was the platinum standard of cutting boards. So I would like to make a cutting board for my kitchen, dimensions roughly 12″ x 18″ x 1″, maybe a little thicker, but neither L nor W is cast in stone. Any chance that West Wind might have something like that available? or, if not you, then who? Thanks in advance for any help!

    1. Yew is a indeed a very attractive wood. But I would never use yew for any items associated with food, and I would be careful to have adequate dust collection when working it. >Except for flesh of the red berries, all parts of the yew are permanently cardiotoxic.< An ounce of yew – e.g. from chewing on leaves, is sufficient to kill a 30lb dog. There is also a report from Harrisburg PA, where a bear and her cubs were found dead after they ingested yew seeds and leaves while eating the berries. This was confirmed by laboratory analysis.

      https://www.cbsnews.com/news/bears-likely-killed-from-eating-poisonous-plant-in-pennsylvania/

  12. An interesting site to visit. I have recently acquired a slab of yew I want to turn into a bowl. The wood came from
    Haida Gawaii (Queen Charlotte Island). One of these days I will cut it into a round and mount it on the lathe. I will
    wear a dust mask and a full face shield after read about yew!

  13. I am an author (paranormal mystery) and want to put a large heavy hewn wooden table in the Master Witches Council Chamber of the book I’m currently writing. Is it feasible that such a table could have been built from yew? Love that it has the Druid historical and all the mythical links.

    1. Yes Brenda, that would be very possible! English yew grew very prominently in Europe and was used for ancient bow-making and other things. We have western yew here, its slightly different but we just made this table from it: yew table

  14. i am considering having an outside patio dining table made out of yew but i am hearing mixed opinions on it’s stability in our moist west coast climate. it is covered with a roof but open to the outside air

    1. It would do just fine. This wood has longevity and is rot resistant. Be aware of the toxicity of working with yew wood. Please, please wear a good respirator and gloves. I think you don’t see yew wood being commonly used simply because it is not logged on a large commercial scale.

  15. I have a large yew tree in my front yard. It’s 6 feet in circumference at it base,and approximately 30 feet tall. An arborist. examined it and pronounced it deceased. l would like to sell it if possible or have it removed in exchange for most of the wood. Could suggest anyone who might be interested. Thanks

    1. Hi Bob, its a shame we’re too far away. You can try any local wood carver guilds or online classifieds maybe. Sorry, can’t be of much more help!

    2. Hi Bob Broadnax,
      I live in Connecticut. If you happen to be in the vicinity let me know.

      West Wind: how are you set for narrow pieces approx. 32″ long and 2″-4″ in width? I am looking for pieces with deep russet color, fine or figured grain, with tight eyes sern as a perk rather than a defect?

  16. Hi, I recently salvaged a piece of pacific yew from a slash pile I am going to make into a coffee table. I was wondering if you have any recommendations for finishing the wood? I love the color of the cabinet doors and mantel in the pictures above and I am wondering what you used?

    1. Hi Andrew! We have finished yew with a variety of things, but we sell a hard wax oil finish Project Oil that we like a lot for furniture. For some added protection you can add the Hard wax product over top of the project oil. More info can be found under Product – wood finishes.

  17. Hi. I purchased a couple of boards of Yew wood from West Wind about 15 or so years ago. I build musical instruments for a living. I bought the wood to use on a future project. Well it took many years for me to use it, but I finally built a lute with it. The Yew was traditionally used in Europe for the Lute staves, which is what I did also.
    Yew was a highly sought after wood for centuries. After the English yew was depleted due to deforestation in what is now Great Britain, the English started getting their Yew wood from France and Spain. Parts of Spain which are today parched by drought ,brought on by climate change and deforestation, were once mixed forests, many of which contained Yew wood trees. The English actually had a trade law with France, which stated that a certain number of Yew wood staves, suitable for making longbows, had to be included with each purchase of wine barrels imported to England. The English imported much French wine.
    And in Germany, it was only the Master Lute makers who were allowed to make their lutes with Yew wood. The were rationed enough yew for only 3 lutes per year. Any other lutes would have to be made with alternative woods. The apprentice lute makers were not allowed any yew wood until they achieved master status. Yew wood was given priority as a material for weapon making – the long Bow.
    For instrument making it is a very special wood. It is technically a soft wood, but it is hard and tough, and can be worked very thin. It is special acoustically, since it has an unusual characteristic – it can resonate at many different frequencies, giving a musical instrument a very complex tonality. I love this wood, but due to it’s scarcity, and minimal commercial use, most people remain ignorant of it’s incredible beauty.

    1. Hi Marcus,
      Thanks for the detailed information. I am fascinated to hear this after searching for yew. I recently bought a set of sides and backs to make a guitar out of. I have built many guitars and was really just thinking of using it for the bindings, but then I stumbled on this guitar wood. For the moment it’s sitting on the wood pile while I do research. Most likely it will be a baroque style guitar with bands of yew rather than having the entire back and sides made out of yew. But the wood I bought is cut and marked out to do that, should I want ro.

      I’m concerned about the toxicty and the ambiguity. Wikipedia is pretty ciear: it will kill you. But then, I used to trim yew hedges every year at my old bouse, sawing off limbs, electric hedge trimmer, and no gloves. I’m still here and so are you. Can you share about what precautions you took, and if you had any adverse reaction. When I was trimming those hedges I had no idea it was that poisonous. Any references would be helpful. I’m sure not going to eat any, but sanding and planing – wood dust just always ends up in your nose. I’m curious about respirators. The paper filter masks don’t give me confidence.

      I would love to see that lute! There is an article in Orfeo magazine (free online) issue 11 that shows work by two Englush makers and it shows a baroque guitar made from yew, the other guy is using it as edge binding and decorative accents.

      I’m curious if West Wind still has pieces. I need about 32″ long x 3/8 thick to cut binding strips after gluing up holly and black veneers. Any width works, but 4″ wide is a convenient size for making up binding material, because veneer strips often come about that width.

  18. I recently purchased a western yew wood tree trunk from a sculptor, it’s waxed on the ends and has been drying for over 40 years. It weighs over 150 lbs and is for sale if anyone is interested. 360 63 3601. Longview Washington.

  19. West Wind,
    I am interested in working with yew but need to get reliable infirmation, preferably from people who work with it regularly. I have followed the steps above to be allowed to read Andy Coate’s blog, but after two attempts and two weeks I have heard nothing back. Any suggestions?

    Meanwhile, thank you for writing this blog and posting so much information. As soon as I can get more information on toxicity I can make a decision to either leave it alone or actively search for more material than I now have. If interested in photos of guitars made from yew, try the Orfeo magazine online issue 11 for the articles on UK makers Gary Southall and Arem. There are a few photos. For photos of similar ways to work with narrow pieces of highly figured wood, search for their issue on Antonio Torres, ‘the father of the modern Spanish guitar.’

    As for toxicity, there is so much conflicting information out there that your link to a discussion between people who actually work with the wood is really relevant. I’m also hoping that Marcus will post in as much detail about how he handled the toxicity issues when making his lute. Same is true for anyone working with yew. Detailed info on what types of respirator, what species of yew, indoors or outdoor workshop, how to deal with the dust, etc.

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