One of the world’s oldest surviving wooden artefacts is a yew spear head, found in 1911 at Clacton-on-sea, Essex. It is estimated to be 450,000 years old. Yew wood is reddish brown (with whiter sapwood), and is very springy; the entire tree is poisonous – wood, bark, needles and seed. It was traditionally used to make bows, especially the longbow: the battle of Agincourt was considered to have been won by the yew wood long bow.
Yews are fascinating trees – characteristically planted in churchyards, where some are estimated to be over 1,000 years old. The Druids regarded yew as sacred and planted it close to their temples. As early Christians often built their churches on these sacred sites, the association of yew trees with churchyards was perpetuated. Another theory is that they were planted, for making bows, in graveyards so that they wouldn’t poison grazing cattle.
Very slow growing for a conifer, yew is one of the hardest of the softwoods. Much prized in furniture making for its colour, figure and durability, it is also notoriously hard to work: deceptively smooth, the grain is interlocking and will often ’catch’ a tool edge – cabinet scrapers and sandpaper are traditionally used for finishing yew wood pieces. It also makes spectacularly beautiful turned objects or treen. The earliest [and the best] Antique Windsor chairs, were made with yew – it was well suited to being steam ‘bent’ for the characteristic bow back, as well as being turned for the spindles.
The patina of yew wood is unique, and particularly lovely – over the years it develops a silky sheen. Similarly the colour, while really quite vivid orange with purplish streaks when freshly cut, fades to a warm, mellow brown on antique furniture. It is one of the most prized, and unusual, of our indigenous cabinet timbers. This exceptional pair of Georgian yew wood lamp tables are a fine example, with their elegant turned columns and octagonal tops with fine inlay.