Fletching By Hand

by Jon Jeffer



I started to make my own arrows just about the time I finished my first primitive bows. This may conjure up an image of a guy with a new bow, looking at it and scratching his head. That was about how that happened. I had the weapon, but I was missing the ammo! It probably happened just like that back in the Stone Age!

Anyway, I knew something about the way that modern arrows are fletched. A jig is used that holds the arrow shaft and the feather, and then with glue applied to both, the jig will hold them together at the right angle until the glue dries.

This system works great, but it has a few disadvantages. First off, I did not have the jig and I didn't want to buy one. My thought process did not get much further than that, but its worth noting that it is not a process that lends itself to fletching in the field, or under primitive conditions.

So I set out to figure out how to fletch arrows by hand.

There are a lot of traditional fletching styles that were done by hand. Some are clearly easier or harder to accomplish. One option for primitive hand fletching is to just do a really lousy job. That was in fact my first approach. My first primitive bow was light, in the 25 pound range, and the arrows were made out of Phragamite reed shafts, with wooden foreshafts sharpened to points. I used goose feathers left at full height, and wrapped three of them on with cotton thread soaked in glue. The first ones were anything but symmetrical, and the process always seemed like I had one hand too few. And some of those fletch jobs were way over on the ugly side of hideous, but they all more or less flew.

My bows went up in weight and quality, and my aspirations as a fletcher was towards more durable, more accurate arrows, and a way to make them that would let me gin up a mess of arrows within some reasonable amount of time. I tried a number of approaches and variations, but finally arrived at a method that worked. As it turns out, it is more or less the method described by John McPherson in his book, "Naked into the Wilderness".

Shafts: I started with straight shafting material. My shafts were 5/8" hardwood dowels from Home Depot. This is not exactly Abo, but it sure saves time working down shoots to homogenous gauge, and straightening them with fire. When you get lumberyard dowels to use as arrow shaft material, it pays to pick through the pile. First, pick shafts as straight as you can get them. One way to do this is to hold them up and sight down the length of the shaft and rotate it. You'll see how straight the shaft is. You will be cutting them shorter so its okay if the ends take some bend. In fact, you will almost never find perfectly straight shaft material. But some of it is really bendy, and you want to avoid that. If you do a good job getting pieces that are more or less straight, you can usually get away with not doing any subsequent straightening.

The other thing to look at is the grain. Ideally, the grain should run the length of the shaft. If the grain runs off at an sharp angle the arrow will often break at that point if it hits something hard.

To prepare the shafts, I cut them to the proper draw length. If in doubt make the arrows a few inches longer than you think you will need them, and then put one of the finished arrows on the bow and pull it. Have someone else mark the shaft with a pencil while you hold the bow at full draw. Once you know your draw length its easy to cut shafts to that length. Remember that if you are mounting broad heads you'll want the shafts a bit longer

I cut the nock (that's the slot in the back of the arrow that fits onto the bow string) using three (or four) hacksaw blades taped together so that the teeth of the blades face in opposite directions. It is a good idea to clamp the shaft into something while you cut the nock. A vice or some such arrangement is perfect. If you don't have a vice, you can improvise with a C-clamp and a post, or a railing. You can cut a V notch in a small piece of wood that the shaft will fit into, and sandwich the shaft between the block and post and tighten it up with the clamp. The primitive version is to wrap cord around this arrangement and then tighten it up by inserting a stick and twisting the whole thing tight. When you saw the nock, cut across the grain that you will see on the end of the shaft. This will keep your string from splitting the shaft. Go slowly and try to keep the cut as vertical as possible. The tendency is to creep left of right. Just be careful and go slowly. I cut the nocks as deep as the hacksaw blade is wide. This serves as a convenient guide.

Finally, I sand and seal the shafts. I use a home made varnish made of pine pitch dissolved in denatured alcohol. You can use this or commercial varnish, linseed oil, Tung Oil, or you can go totally Abo and just rub in fat and heat the shaft until it absorbs it. The sealing keeps the wood from absorbing moisture and warping.

At this point the shaft is ready for feathers.

Feathers: In the pictures shown, I used Wild Turkey feathers. I found these on the ground in woods near where my mother lives. Those woods are just full of Wild Turkeys and they drop feathers all over the place. If you are not so lucky, you can often find Canada Goose feathers down near parks that have ponds, or at lakes. These feathers are pretty ideal because they are large and fairly stiff and they are also legal to possess in the state I live in. You can also buy prepared fletches from archery suppliers. These are cut (as far as I know) from feathers from Domestic Geese or Turkeys. You can also order Goose and Turkey feathers from some suppliers. More about that later.

If you have natural feathers, the first thing you need to do is split them in half along the quill. The quill is the stiff bit up the middle of the feather. First cut off the thick bottom of the quill where it was stuck in the bird. I do this with scissors or a sharp kitchen knife on a cutting board. Then I use the knife and cutting board to split the quill in half lengthwise. The material inside the quill is a lot like Styrofoam. Once you have the feather split in half, you want to reduce the quill a bit. I trim it with scissors or a knife, and work the bottom down flat and smooth with course sandpaper, a file, or by rubbing it on something abrasive. Getting this very thin is not that important, except for the very front end. At this point you will cut fetches from the feather. I can usually get two fletches out of one large feather half, sometimes three. Make sure they are long enough and allow for the space front and back where they will be bound onto the shaft.

Note that flight feathers only have one half, and tail feathers have two. Each half feather has a natural cup to it that will impart spin to the arrow either clockwise or counter clockwise. Sort the fletches that you are making into sets of threes all with the same spin to them. Don't mix clockwise and counter clockwise feathers on the same arrow shaft.

Sinew: Is my first choice for binding on fletches. Sinew is the material that makes up the connective tissue -- the tendons -- of animals. Your tendons are made out of sinew too. One thing I like about sinew is that it is strong. Hey, its been holding your feet on all these years, right? The other two things I like about sinew are that it is more or less self adhering when its wet (add water, makes its own sauces!), and as it dries it shrinks. Both characteristics are great when you are tying on fletches and only have two hands. It is also really traditional, and you can feel like a real caveman (or cavewoman) using it.

You can get sinew, from large dead critters, at some Asian markets in the form of beef tendon (in which case you need to clean the fat and tissue off it and dry it), or you can order it dry from some businesses that actually specialize in selling dead animal parts (more about that later). Any sinew will do. When I lived in California, I used Emu leg sinew.

To prepare it for use, I pound it with a rock while its dry, and soak it in water over night and peel off the threads. You can use it right then or dry the threads and use it later. Dry, it'll last forever unless something eats it. Wet it attracts ants and dogs and will start to smell rank in a few days , at which point it will attract even more enthusiastic dogs.

If you can't stand the thought of sinew, you can use cotton thread and dip it in hide glue (or Knox Gelatin mixed about 4 times too thick) as you bind on the fletches.

Tying on fletches with sinew: I soak my sinew threads in water from anything from a few hours to a few days. This makes them soft and pliable. More than a few days and they start to smell. You can still use them. The bacteria making them stink might be a concern. This is animal parts, so take normal precautions and wash your hands after handling it.

Take a shaft, a fletch, and a sinew thread. Put the fletch against the shaft to see where it should be positioned. Remember to leave space for your fingers above the nock. Remember that you will be trimming all the fletches in the set of three to be the same length as the shortest fletch in the set. So its good to start with the shortest fletch. Use the fletch to figure out where the front end of the fletches will be, and at that point wrap the sinew once around the shaft. If you mash the end of the sinew thread a bit it will tend to stay on the shaft and make your life easier. If it does not want to stay put you may not have soaked it long enough, or have mashed the end enough.

Anyway, wrap the sinew around the shaft once. Then lay the front end of the first fletch so that it is 90 degrees to the nock, with its front end laying on the sinew on the bow shaft. Wrap the sinew once or twice over the front bit of the fletch and around the shaft. Add the next fletch at about a third of the way around the shaft and repeat. Then place the last fletch 120 degrees from the two fletches that are already tied on. Wrap the remainder of the sinew thread around the shaft totally covering the front edges of the fletching. You can wet your fingers and smooth it down, and it should all stick to itself. This will come out better if you have really thinned down and tapered this front end of the quill. Add another sinew if you have not covered the fronts of the quill completely. This covering will keep you from getting feather cuts along the top of your hand later on when shooting.

Look down the arrow from the butt end. You can make sure that the fletches are lined up at 120 degree intervals from each other and that the cock feather is 90 degrees to the nock. If they are not in the right position, with gentle pressure you can still move them. This is the beauty of doing it this way.

I will usually tie the fronts of a full set of arrows, let the sinew dry, and then go and tie the back ends. Again I will start with the shortest fletch. Some people trim the feathers at the back end to leave bare quill to wrap the sinew onto. I just fold the feather fuzz down and wrap it down under the sinew. Both methods were used by various Native Americans and probably elsewhere too. The process is more or less the same as at the front end of the fletch. You wrap the fletches down one at a time. Again you can adjust them for position and get them laid out right. I find that I have enough natural sense of proportion to get this done without resorting to any kind of measuring device and I think most people are just as capable, so my rule of thumb is to eyeball it until it looks right.

As the back ties dry, check them periodically and gently pull the tail ends of the fletches so that they lay as flat as possible against the shaft. When they dry, you can trim off the ends of the fletches that stick out from under the sinew in the back and you can wrap the shaft above the nocks with sinew to reinforce them.

The sinews dry hard. I seal them by painting my pine pitch and alcohol varnish mixture onto them. This makes them translucent and I think, pretty nice to look at. The traditional primitive sealer would be conifer pitch mixed with charcoal, moose dung, or some other combination of goodies. The basic idea is to keep the sinew from sucking up moisture and getting damp and coming undone.

Now if you want you can take them out, stick on the point of your choice, and shoot them.

Gluing down the fletches: If I was making arrows under primitive conditions for immediate use I might skip this step, but given my status as only part-time Neanderthal I usually do it, and so do most of the folks I have run into or corresponded with.

I paint Weldwood contact cement onto the base of the fletch, and onto the shaft just under the fletch with a small paint brush (cleans up with mineral spirits). I do this for all the fletches on all the arrows. Then I go back and just press the fletch down against the shaft and I am done. The operation is more or less the same with hide glue just a lot slower and a lot less convenient. You can put the hide glue in, wait for it to get tacky and then tie the middle of the fletches down with a thread.

Trimming the fletches: I trim the fletches to uniform shape with a sharp pair of large scissors. These can also be burned to shape with a coal from a fire, a cigarette, or a wood burner. Scissors are fast and easy and again I measure by eyeball and it seems good enough.

Remember that like with all things cut or trimmed, its easier to shorten the feathers than to lengthen them again. Higher fletches impart greater stability. Shorter ones offer less air resistance and are faster. Since an arrow shot from a primitive bow has to bend around the bow itself to fly straight (the Archers Paradox), more stability is usually required than with modern center shot bows.

Spine and accuracy: Spine refers to the stiffness of the arrow shaft. In theory, this should be matched to the weight of the bow as it facilitates straight flight and accuracy. There are devices called spine testers. I don't have one. One way to test is to flex the arrow shafts by hand and make bundles of them that feel about the same as an arrow that you know to be accurate. I have happily forged along up until now ignoring spine. I try to make my arrows in bunches of ten and as close to each other as I can manage. What I notice is that most of my arrows are okay, and every once in awhile I have one or two that fishtail all over the place. I cull these from my first string arrows and set them aside for doing stupid things with.

Getting the stuff you need: Our ancestors just went out and took what they needed from Mother Nature or pulled it off a passing Mammoth. Gathering raw materials nowadays takes creativity as well. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Nature: Pine pitch from the knots of pine trees, hardwood suckers, reeds, or bamboo shafting material, sinew, charcoal, feathers.

Hardware Store: Dowels, bamboo garden stakes, Weldwood contact cement, denatured alcohol, mineral spirits, various wood oils, varnishes, hacksaw blades, C-clamps, files, sandpaper, hide glue.

Supermarket: Scissors, Knox Gelatin (instead of hide glue), Twinkies and Beer (to keep the fires burning)

Other places to order stuff that you need from nature, but can't gather (feathers, sinew, etc.):

Moscow Hide and Fur - www.hideandfur.com

Three Rivers Archery - www.3rivers.com



E-mail your comments to "Jon Jeffer" at mudvillejon@yahoo.com

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