I just came up with a wonderfully simple idea for fletching arrows or atlatl darts. Now I'm no genius, and I'm sure some ancestor in the past had to have thought of this, because it works so well, but it seems to have been lost over time. Maybe there's one of these fletching jigs in the "Mary Rose," but no one has identified it yet. Most of the arrows that ever flew probably had their feathers tied on with thread of some kind, but how do you hold the feathers while doing so? All my reading on the subject always leaves out this little, but important, detail.
I was pondering this one afternoon while sipping a soda, and noticed the straw going through the plastic lid of the cup. There were slits in the lid. What if I poked an arrow shaft through a hole in a small piece of leather and put three slits around the hole, would this device hold my feathers?
I went home, got some scraps of leather out, about an 1/8 inch thick, 1-1/2 inches square, and moderately stiff. Took a piece of hobby shop brass tubing 3/8 inch (a hollow bird bone would work), the diameter of my arrow shafts and cut some criss-cross slots into the end of the tube with a hack saw for teeth. I twisted this make-shift hole saw through the center of the leather in about 30 seconds. I have used birch bark and cardboard with just as good results. I then slid it on an arrow already fletched and marked the position of the fletching, removed the jig and made three 1/2 inch slits radiating away from the hole, at 120 degrees apart. Then I put three more 1/2 inch slits in between the existing slits, 6 total. This will let the leather, bark or cardboard expand easily. Also, as a benefit, you could use 2, 3, 4, or 6 feathers.
I then took a blank arrow shaft, slid on my new feather jig, and slid three 5-inch shield cut fletches, left wing, through the three marked slits about 3/4 inches. The feathers were easy to slide in and adjust. (On untrimmed feathers, I do trim the front half inch of the quill.) I tied on some heavy sewing thread, just in front of the feathers, using a knot called a constrictor hitch, and did a tight, close wrap, about 1/2 inch, right over the feathers, in the opposite direction that my feather's quills wanted to go. This helps straighten the quill of the fletching along the arrow shaft. The constrictor hitch is similar to a clove hitch, but much more secure, and can be found in the "Ashley Book of Knots." This is the knot tiers bible. I then put a finger on the wrap and slid the feather jig to the back of the arrow, completely off. Then I continued, leaving about 3/8 inch space between spirals of the thread, continuing to the back of the arrow, past the end of the fletching about a half inch.
To complete the arrow, start another close wrap a half inch wide and finish with two half hitches just below whatever type of nock you have. Pick up the arrow and look at the nock end of the shaft, making sure the fletching is equally spaced with the right amount of helical. You can use a popcicle stick or wood splinter to make adjustments to the fletching position by pushing against the quill. It takes about 7 to 12 feet of thread to fletch one arrow. If your thread is strong and your thread knots are whippings, you don't need glue.
Now brush on the glue or binder of your choice over the front and rear wrappings. This keeps thread from unraveling. If you use wood glue like "Tite Bond," white glue, or hide glue, you can refletch easily. Just wrap a damp rag around the rear wrapping to soften. Cut the thread and unwrap. I've also used hot beeswax, egg yoke, super glue, pine pitch, and blood. You only need to glue the front and rear wrappings, but brushing glue or binder over the spiraling thread along the shaft makes the fletching very robust and can handle my big bow, which slings out arrows at 215 feet per second. I've shot through bag targets with no detriment to the fletching's binding.
The whole job takes much longer to write about than to actually do. I can fletch arrows faster using this system than my three Bitzenberger jigs, about 2 minutes per arrow, plus they look really cool. To speed the process up I put the arrow shaft across a fletching cradle made with two 2x4 blocks about 5 inches long. These have a V-notch cut in one end and the other end is screwed to a 1x8 about 15 inches apart. This makes an arrow shaft cradle. This is clamped to the edge of my table. There is a hole through the1x8, between the 2x4 blocks. I put an adjustable loop of cord around the arrow shaft through this hole or slot, to a short 1x2 by 15 inches long, and about half inch off the floor. (When you step on this, it acts like a brake or third hand. You can also just hang a weight on or against the arrow shaft.)
I once fletched some arrows across the arm of a lawn chair, with my coat on top of the arrow shaft as a weight. This works great for a few arrows, but your fingers will get tired. That's where using the foot brake helps when doing up a dozen or more.
If you want to truly be 'abo,' as they say, make your fletching cradle between tree branches, or drive two two forked sticks in the ground in front of your favorite log. Fletch on the right side of the cradle for left wing feathers, and the left side of cradle for right wing. Whichever side of the cradle you use, spin the arrow shaft so the top of the shaft is moving away from you. This keeps the contact of thread and shaft on top so you can see it. Once the front wrap is to your liking, keep tension on the thread and slide off the feather jig completely. Now start the spiraling. For fletching a set of left wing feathers, I will hold thread tension with my left hand and turn the arrow shaft with my right, at the nock. I also keep a small butter knife in my right hand to separate the feathers, then pull the thread down across the quill. I twist the arrow shaft again to the next feather, split, pull down, etc., etc. Some feathers have so much twist, they need a little help straightening out along the shaft with fingers. I keep my thread spool on the floor.
The real secret to using thread is the feather jig. You can make it out of cardboard, bark, leather or even a thick green leaf. I have used different types and weights of commercial threads and made thread out of natural fibers, all with good results. I even made a thin yarn with my Golden Retriever's fur, using a drop spindle. One of these dog fur fletched arrows won me money at my weekly traditional shoot. Try doing one arrow, spinning off the thread, and repeating this about a dozen times. This will give you enough practice to start making them look fairly nice.
Remember, most of the arrows that ever flew were probably fletched using some kind of thread.
Email your comments to "Mike Richardson" at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike Richardson resides in Anchorage, Alaska.
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