Making Modern Spearthrower Darts (Atlatl)

Power Tools and Preindustrial Technology

Recently, I realized I needed to make a new batch of darts (spears) for an annual atlatl event at Blackwater Draw.  This is a recurring problem when teaching large groups, so several years ago I came up with a system that works well for mass producing these Ice-Age weapons with just a few common power tools.  Nothing about this project is particularly difficult but if you need to produce darts by the dozen, it can get pretty tedious and take many hours. Power tools, in this case, decrease the necessary time and energy allowing free time to pursue more satisfying occupations.

After several decades teaching and demonstrating primitive technology I have learned that people are not careful with other people’s hand-made items (kids doubly so) so making robust and easily replaced models is a real time-saver.  Also, having tried many designs with kids and adults, I have found a size, weight, and flexibility that I think covers a wide range of body types and skill sets so that most people, most of the time, can have some success in just a few throws (except Jim Gnapp, he’ll just never get it).  After promising to do this for several years now, I put together a recipe for mass producing atlatl darts.



  • Straight-grained kiln dried hardwood, 3/4″ oak or hickory; three side planed or better
  • Super glue, gel type or favorite fletching glue
  • Strong, thin thread (I use silk for my personal arrows and darts but any standard sewing thread is fine)
  • Glue-on archery field points, 190 gr. or better
  • Two part epoxy
  • Feathers, TruFlight full length arrow feathers or other feather splits; three dozen or package of 50


  • Table saw
  • Bench sander
  • Sandpaper, 100 and 150 grit; finer paper optional
  • Optional: arrow taper tool for centering and precise fitting of points
  • Small hand saw, band saw, or similar to cut shafts to length
  • Tapered countersink drill bit

Ripping the board into 1/2″ strips.

Preparing the Shafts: Rip board into 1/2″ strips, then re-saw to create 1/2″ square cross-section.


Second rip to square off the shaft.

Set table saw to 45° to further re-saw shaft into octagon section.  This can then be smoothed by hand with sandpaper or on the belt sander.


After the shafts have been ripped into octagons (six passes total for each), the bundle is cut to length. I generally make these 84″ (213 cm).

Cut shafts to length. I generally cut them to 7′ (84″).


Tapering the final 6″ to fit the points.

At this point you will notice that the shaft is far to wide for standard arrow field points so some free-hand shaping on the sander will be required.  Taper the final 3-6″gently down to a scant 3/8″ diameter, rounding the shaft as you go.


Using a tapering jig for a tight fit to the head.

Taper the shaft to fit the field point and test fit a point.


The gang ready to be inserted into their heads.

Repeat until board is consumed and all shafts are all prepared.  At this point, further shaping of the shaft can be accomplished on the bench sander to round out the octagon shape.


190 grain (ca 0.5 oz.) field point test fitted and ready to glue.

Mix a small batch of epoxy and attach the heads to the dart.  I give them a final tap after insertion by holding the dart point down over a hardwood scrap and dropping it a couple feet, sealing the point.  Wipe off any excess epoxy and wait the recommended cure time.


Tying down (whipping) the quill.  This one is not pretty but will work.

Fletching: Tear off about 1/2 inch of the vane or barbs from the quill (the barb is the hairy or fuzzy part).  Place a dab of super-glue on the forward end of the quill and hold down about 7-8″ forward of hind part of the shaft. Once this sets, repeat two more times placing the feathers evenly around the shaft (one-third way around). Trim the rear of the feather to make all three match in length.


Trimming to length.

Using a scant quantity of glue, attach each feather to the shaft.  You can skip this and just tie them down but the glue makes for a robust and neat-looking fletching.  Whip down the front and rear of the feather with thread and coat lightly with super glue to prevent unraveling.


Using a countersink to create the dimple.

Using the tapered countersink bit, create a notch in the base of the dart. For security and strength, I recommend whipping the final 3/8″ of the shaft with thread and coating with super glue to strengthen to wood.

Take a break, drink a beverage, and congratulate yourself on a job adequately done.  You now have a set of tough darts for play and learning that should, with some care, last for several years of hard use.



Whittled hook on hickory thrower.


A smattering of throwers made in about 30 minutes for a class instruction. Ripped out on a band saw, roughly sanded to create smooth round edges, and steamed for 30 minutes prior to free-hand bending.

Now for the thrower… “It is to be created in the usual fashion, neither too long or too short, too heavy or too long.” ~pt

Seriously though, there are myriad ways to create a stick with a hooked end and I won’t go into the finer points here.  I will say that this is really the simple part and can be achieved with either hand or power tools in a short time.  There is much about spear thrower design (atlatls) on the web and it is important to remember that most cultures world-wide used these efficient tools.  As their prey and use varied, the styles varied as well.  They broadly fall into a few categories but the most common in the U.S. are variations on the “Basketmaker” or “Great Basin” styles and what I like to think of as the hammer-handle styles (above).  The latter are more akin to the early designs from the Ice Age and are found throughout Europe, often make from reindeer antler, over many millennia.

My second favorite; Osage orange wood, buckskin, sinew, pitch glue and red argylite.

As for style, I personally recommend finding a cultural group you are interested in or just a design that strikes your fancy and dive in.  Wood is cheap, easily worked and plentiful.  Worry about the details later.

Click the image to learn more about this thrower.

Click the image to learn more about this thrower.


They work! and all survived a day of heavy use.

Oh but wait! There’s more! Here are a couple other respectable links to get you started:





















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More Shaving Horses and My Mobile Set-up


A Cooper’s Horse.

A shaving horse is an invaluable tool if you create or work with odd-shaped objects that are otherwise difficult to clamp or need to constantly move around.  A horse, in combination with a small bench of the same height can act as a fairly complete workshop that is reasonably portable and adaptable.  Carpenters, furniture makers, coopers, shoemakers, jewelers, and carvers all have their specific designs and no one type will be the best at everything.  With a little patience, planning, and luck a great horse can be built for cheap or free with just a very few tools.

Here are few more shaving (work) horse images and some I created over the years if you need inspiration or information on designing one for yourself.  I wish I had photos of my very first horse but unfortunately, it existed at a time when I seem to have taken very few photos of my own projects.   Maybe that had something to do with carrying two field cameras for work almost every day and my sub-conscience rebellion against it.  But I stray from the point…


Click the image to read what this peasant is making.

In the old days of pre-internet (some of you may recall this with me) there was very little information floating around about these simple but nifty devices.  People like Roy Underhill (the Woodwright’s Shop) and Drew Langsner (Country Woodcraft) had them.  I recall seeing them rotting in yards in the Ozarks or slowly decaying in the back of barns. While researching them later, the one consistency I discovered was the complete lack of consistency on their size, shape, height, length, or actual use.  Obviously, every bodger, tinker, and shingle maker had his own ideas and was probably limited by material availability.


“Goodman identifies the (above) relief as a cobbler making a wooden last sitting astride a small bench (‘horse’). The workpiece is held firmly on a sort of anvil by means of a strap passing down through the bench top, and held taut with his left foot. (Photo: Goodman 1964, p. 184, Museo di Civilta Romana, E.U.R., Rome. Reproduced without premission citing fair use).”

While my first horse was designed primarily around wood scraps found in the shop an it’s ability to fit cross-ways in a truck bed with ease, it was perfectly functional.  Experience and use taught me the good and bad points about this model and the result has been these  better and later designs…

0106This was a good horse designed for the bowyer. Hickory arm and head, poplar cross-stretchers and a long, adjustable-tilt table to accommodate a wide variety of stave thicknesses.

0699Another of similar design. The base is the same but is has a square head and wider treadle to use easily with either or both feet.

0658One of the horses in use.  This is how they are best.  I actually stopped tillering to take an “action” photo in the old shop.

0321Another action shot fixing the tiller on someone’s bow at Winter Count. I wouldn’t normally have a giant, heavy stave leaning on the horse but the photographer insisted for some reason. I was just hoping it wouldn’t bean me with a very sharp draw-knife in my hand (hence the rasp).

0053Not my herd (above).  Here are a few others I encountered at a bow making class in the Midwest several years ago. I liked the simplicity of these made for teaching new bowyers at the Bois d’Arc Rendezvous. You could probably make one of these with nothing but a few well-chosen scraps and a few bolts.

And my favorite…

Finally, the horse above has been my more-or-less permanent workstation for the last few years and has traveled many miles around the western U.S.  Used in conjunction with a small saw bench (built Winter 2015), I have a very complete work setup that packs into the bed of the tiny Toyota pick-up.


Click the image for more information about this project.

With all the gentrification of woodworking that has grown out of some fine blogs and books of the past few years I think it’s important to remember the roots.  Not everyone needs to own every tool, jig, or gizmo nor should we want to.  Few amateurs can have an enormous, dedicated work space surrounding a one-ton French-style Roubo split-top workbench, nor will he need one.  Once you figure out what you want to create, then the tools can follow as needed.









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Making a bow

Here is a post from several years ago tracking the process of making a bow.  In this case, from Osage orange.

Splitting the seasoned Osage orange (Bois d’Arc) stave.

This is a tough process. As can be seen in the photo above, I use an axe, froe, and hammer.

Not visible here are short hickory wedges that are jammed into the growing crack to keep the stave from snapping shut.

Some species of white woods debark quite easily and the bow can be made from the outer growth rings.

Not so with Osage Orange. The white new wood is visible in the stave above as the outer rings are worked down to a single thick growth ring.

This process is easiest with a sharp draw knife working downward. Your weight can be used to pull through the bark.

Working down to a single growth ring. With Osage, there is a vesicular layer between hard wood rings. This is just visible here as the white wood.

Sighting down the clean stave. Not perfectly straight, but then it wouldn’t be Osage otherwise.

The growth rings are visible in the low raking light. The smooth area nearest the viewer is down to the desired ring.  This will be the “back” of the bow meaning the side facing away from the shooter.  Crossing the rings could cause the limb to “lift” and crack as the rings are stressed.

Working the bow to its final shape. This is a different stave from the one shown above.  I and others have documented this part of the process elsewhere.

More to come.





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Shaving Horse

Reposted from 2008; what a different life it seems now.

Here is one of my favorite old shave horses. It is made from a plank chainsawed from an enormous pin-oak limb that came down during a storm years ago.

It weighs quite a bit but the weight means more stability when using it as a work bench. All my other horses have had an adjustable table but this one is set to a good angle strictly for working bows.

There are plenty of depictions in old art and many made specifically for every occupation in Diderot’s Encyclopedia from the 18th century.  I made my plans for this one based on several I measured over the years and made lots of adjustments to my first one to get the right “fit”.  My second and third attempts got better and better.  Total cost estimate: about $5.00 for bolt and a few screws.


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Safety, above all…?

Just how important is safety in a happy and complete life?

indiana-jones-bridge Don’t get me wrong.  I have known people with little regard for their own well-being, be it physical or otherwise.  Some of these are confirmed idiots.  Whether they are just non-thinking zombies or the overly entitled who expect someone else to look out for them, they lay outside this commentary and deserve no further thought.  However, fear of failure, fear of death, fear of the unknown; these all hinder us at some stage of our life.  We are taught to seek safety.  Everything is a balancing act; a never-ending series of choices  sometimes with many possibilities and I feel strongly we often reap what we sow.  Mostly, we drift along with the current of our culture, our circle of friends, down the river of expectations or wherever else circumstance leads.  These thoughts are just an introduction to a thought I want to share.

I found this quote in a book I read when I was very young.  This influenced my thought deeply throughout my formative years.  Not in immediate risk taking, but as a real thought on what safety is to us all.

But if you judge safety to be the paramount consideration in life you should never, under any circumstances, go on long hikes alone. Don’t take short hikes alone, either — or, for that matter, go anywhere alone. And avoid at all costs such foolhardy activities as driving, falling in love, or inhaling air that is almost certainly riddled with deadly germs. Wear wool next to the skin. Insure every good and chattel you possess against every conceivable contingency the future might bring, even if the premiums half-cripple the present. Never cross an intersection against a red light, even when you can see all roads are clear for miles. And never, of course, explore the guts of an idea that seems as if it might threaten one of your more cherished beliefs. In your wisdom you will probably live to be a ripe old age. But you may discover, just before you die, that you have been dead for a long, long time.

Collin Fletcher The Complete Walker.

cfIf you are not familiar with Colin Fletcher’s writings it is worth knowing that he helped create the backpacking movement in the form we know today by his seminal book “The Complete Walker” in all it’s revisions.  Starting life as a Royal Marine Commando in the Second World War, Fletcher eventually ended up in the United States and began his writing career with his book The Thousand-Mile Summer about his hike describing his walk along the length of California.  Check out his other titles HERE.

The Wilderness isn’t a place to escape to as so many refer to it.  It is a place to be, just as valid, if not more so, as the comforts and safety of civilization.



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