Several years ago I starting documenting some of the arrow-making I do. I wrote the original version of this piece in 2012 but as it always draws a lot of interest I have re-edited it and am posting it again.
Arrows have been much on my mind after seeing how ratty some of mine have become. Even though shooting takes its toll on the fletchings, it seems they get at least as much damage in storing and travel.
I was intending to start with a set of British longbow style arrows but having received some beautiful arrow bamboo (Pseudosasa japonica) from a friend who grows the stuff, I changed plans to suit the new material. Prior to this project I had never used real arrow bamboo but have used it’s distant cousin the american bamboo or rivercane (Arundinaria gigantea). It could not be much more perfect for the job.
Since I hoped to do this right, I decided to photo document the process as best I could. Good arrow making isn’t easy or fast so unless you are dedicated to perfection, you are probably better off buying them.
High-grading the materials
The first thing to do is to select shafts. I didn’t have hundreds to choose from but these were pre-selected for diameter (hence spine), straightness, node alignment, etc. so this made my work easy. I parsed out a half-dozen I liked for starters and cut them to length. Note similarity in diameter and node alignment. The scale above the shafts is in inches. I could hardly ask for better.
Attributes to look for in bamboo or cane shafts
Your arrows should be a consistent diameter, consistent weight, similar spine, long lengths between nodes, similar node placement, with very little taper overall. Most people seem to think that bamboo is straight coming right out of the ground but this is rarely the case. Expect to heat straighten and you shafts. Your best work will be done in groups to get a consistent set, not just a one-off product.
After a lot of reading, I decided to approximate Korean style arrows with inserted wood nocks. These have worked well for me in the past but I have never started with this great of bamboo.
Cleaning up the shafts
Raw bamboo has a flair at each leaf node that must be removed for a smooth arrow shaft. I do most of this with a knife but a small plane or file will suffice. You don’t want something bumping over the hand or bow as the arrows is loosed.
The node above is cut smooth.
I have a neat little shaft plane (made by Dick Baugh) that helps at this stage but a rasp or sandpaper will work too. You might have a divot at the joint but this won’t really affect your arrow.
The nodes of the set are now relatively smooth. Now, any final straightening should be done over gentle heat. This can take several hours so don’t rush it. Keep fixing little bends and make sure to heat the entire shaft to temper it. I stand over the stove for this but have used coals from the fire in a pot to achieve the same purpose. Wear gloves and be patient.
I selected Osage orange for the nocks. Horn or other hardwoods can be used here as well. The above photo shows a blank and finished nock preform.
This photo shows the basic method. With a very sharp knife, score a ring around the nock. Whittle away from the score to narrow the piece slowly. Repeat until it fits the shafts. At this point I will say that I omitted a photo of an optional, but I think important, step. That is, to wrap the end of each shaft with sinew and hide glue to prevent the shaft from splitting while pressing in the wood. If, for some reason, sinew isn’t available, silk thread can be used in its place but you should top the silk with a little thinned white glue to help prevent it unraveling through abrasion. As sinew is free and carried around inside all the higher life forms, it should be pretty easy to get some.
As you get close, keep test fitting the nocks until they are a perfect fit.
You can see the sinewed shaft ends being fit with the inserts. Glue the nocks in place with a water-soluble wood glue for easier repair.
At this point, several simple steps create a nice notch. First, wrap the joint with more sinew and coat in a thin layer of hide glue. Second, drill a small hole through the nock, preferably at 45 degrees across the grain. Make a small saw incision to start the carving and remove the waste with a small knife. Use a very small file or sandpaper to open the notch and smooth the surfaces.
At this point, you have the essence of an arrow.
Foreshafts, points, and fletchings
The next step to make these fancy sticks into arrows is to fletch them with feathers. To make fletchings, the best feathers must be selected. I am using some goose wing feathers given to me by a friend which have been graded to the last three per wing. Perhaps common knowledge in the fletching world but it worth noting that all three feathers must be from the same side of the bird (i.e., all right wing or all left wing). I cut a template from Bristol board to serve as a guide so that all the fletchings are the same size and shape. After the quills are split and trimmed, the bases (where they will be glued to the shaft) must be trimmed smooth and sanded flat to lie against the arrow. This is a very time-consuming task but critical in proper fletching.
Again, there are only about three feathers on each wing suitable for fletchings and all three on an arrow need to come from the same wing to have the same shape and twist. To produce the needed 18 fletchings I cut about 24 as some may go to waste. I always ruin a few in the final trimming or end up weeding them out due to defects. Save them for later repairs if you have any left over.
After gluing them in place by hand, the ends are served with two layers of fine silk. This is a slow and tedious job and neatness really shows but the end product will be sturdy and handle a lot of abuse through shooting.
The arrow above is now fletched, reinforced, and has a sturdy wooden nock. Real silk is strong and shimmers beautifully in the light and comes in virtually any color.
It takes me nearly an hour for each arrow so I took a break after the first four.
The foot is the front portion of the arrow that reinforces the shaft and connects to the point or head. This was done exactly as the nocks above but instead of drilling and cutting a slit, they are tapered to match the heads they are to be attached to.
As for points, I chose some traditional bodkins since they are good looking and very efficient. Many cultures came up with this essential design. These are English copies and are known to punch through heavy armor. They are surprisingly sharp and tear through most targets easily.
For the photo, I dropped these from about six inches above and they all stuck in the oak. I should mention that these points haven’t had the final fitting yet and are just stuck on by friction. If you look closely in this photo, the ferrules don’t quite fit the foreshafts yet.
Arrows are difficult to photograph so I took this high oblique shot to show them as nearly done. I hope these images help a fledgling fletcher somewhere as it isn’t an easy task. Be patient, don’t lose hope, and be consistent. Good things take time and it really shows in their performance and longevity.
I marked my shafts with a little ochre paint made with a base of boiled linseed oil with a drop of turpentine and ground pigment. I love the natural look of ochre and enjoy knowing I found and ground the pigment myself.
These remarkably fast and true arrows suit my bow very well. A little luck, experience, and patience pay off big rewards in the end.
Now, time to shoot.