The Magic of Sinew



Elk leg sinews dried and ready for processing.

Sinew  is the term used to describe tendon or ligament in more formal English. It is the cord that connects muscle to bone or bone to bone in skeletal animals.  Like rope, it is made up of bundles of bundles of bundles as shown in this anatomical illustration.

Foot Anatomy

For our purposes, sinew is a true gift to the primitive technologist, survivalist, or low-tech hunter as it provides us with so many possibilities.  Sinew is the fiber stripped from animal tendons and used as a strong thread or it can be braided or plied together to make a stronger cord or rope.  It can be used to make bow strings, tie objects together permanently, backing and strengthening a bow, or lashing spear or arrow points onto their shafts.  It binds well with hide glue, having almost identical chemistry (collagen).  This causes it to act a lot like duct tape, binding and sticking to most surfaces.

It is also important to know that every human on Earth had access to and likely utilized sinew in the pre-modern world.  It is a gift of nature that aided our ancestors in the making of compound and composite tools.

Here are two recently hafted spear points points.  If you haven’t worked with sinew, its difficult to convey just how amazing and useful this material is.  It has been called the “duct tape” of prehistory but it is even better than that.  It not only holds well and is remarkably strong, but shrinks and strengthens as it cures.  The points above were hafted (tied on) with sinew dipped in hide glue to create a solid  and tight hold on points.  This method holds up very well for throwing darts or spears and is nearly impossible to break.

Sinew backing and binding on a Nez Perce bow. Courtesy of NPS.

If you hunt (or know someone who does), you can acquire this from the legs and back straps (the strap covering the tenderloins) of nearly any animal of size.  Elk, bison, and deer are obvious candidates for long pieces and are readily available in North America. Smaller animals such as rabbit can be used, but as in so may things, longer can really be better.  The main issue I have with the shorter sinews is that it is more difficult to work wet as it must be continually added while binding.

Plate LXIXThe more you know…

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:





















More Paleolithic Technology in the Shop

DSC_0001 (9)I recently finished another Paleolithic inspired spear thrower (a.k.a. atlatl).  This came about due to some throwing over the past year that re-energized my feelings about this technology and it’s sporting aspects.  As usual for this type of project, I made several at once since the tools were at hand.  Here’s a quick rundown on the process of connecting an antler hook to a wooden handle.

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I cut the antler and rough out a notch for the hook. A few hours soaking in water will soften the cancellous core for easy working.

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Drilling can easily be done on the softened antler with a narrow knife, stone flake, or tapered drill bit.

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Once the hole is drilled (I take it down to about 3/8 inch or a little thicker) the handle can be roughly whittled, testing periodically for fit.

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Argh! A moment of distraction means the snap of a stone bit!

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A process of trial and error will eventually make a tight joint.

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Nearly there.

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Cleaning of the shoulders of the joint makes for a much neater look and solid connection.

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If the fit is tight, the drying cancellous tissue in the horn sticks surprisingly well. However, I want this to be maintenance-free for the owner so a drop of wood glue will insure decades of strength.  Now the slow and tedious shaping can commence.

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Antler hook after shaping.

Hickory handle after being painted with red ochre.

Here is the hickory handle after being painted with red ochre.

And, for mine, I added a turk's head knot in vegetable-tanned leather to keep hand placement consistent.

And, for mine, I added a turk’s head knot in vegetable-tanned leather to keep hand placement consistent.

My favorite style is the Western European Upper Paleolithic “hammer-handle” style thrower.  It works well with heavier darts and is a solid companion.

Spear Throwing Time

I recently got around to repairing my partner’s atlatl for an upcoming throw at the Landmark.  It’s been in use for seven years now and suffered some dings as well as losing it’s wooden hook.  The handle is oak and the original cocobolo hook has been replaced with antler which will hopefully last a lifetime.

DSC_0002 (9)The hook itself can come under a lot of stress, especially if it lodges in a too-deep socket on the spear or dart.  I started keeping them fatter and flatter, more like Upper Paleolithic specimens from Europe, making them stronger with a smoother release.  This design works well for me.

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Side profile of the nearly finished antler hook.

The hook above is held by elk sinew and hide glue. It may need another round to smooth it out.

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Sinew coated in hide glue drying on the spear thrower hook.

Sinew is an amazing material to work with.  I learned about it when I was a teenager by reading Larry Dean Olsen’s classic book Outdoor Survival Skills and have been a proponent ever since.  Real sinew has many advantages over modern materials including the so-called “artificial sinew” in that it adheres to many surfaces, bonds perfectly with hide glue (sharing much of the same chemistry), and shrinks as it dries making for a tighter bond.  Another advantage to sinew as a survival tool is that every animal has it, so watch out.

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Grip wrapped (half-hitched) with buckskin lace and ornamented with some hackle feathers.

Finally, a lot of folks prefer a leather gripped handle for a better hold when wet or sweaty.  This thrower has won quite a few competitions in the past and I hope that tradition continues in it’s newest reincarnation.



They work!


Atlatls Gone Wild

For the past twenty or more years the technology of the spear-thrower has become more and more well-known as a sport.  Popularly called an atlatl in the Americas as that was the name the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs gave it.  This is a world-wide technology and arguably one of the greatest technological leaps for early modern humans.  I feel fortunate to have lived through this increasing popularity and to see the growth of the sport.

Have a look at some remarkable throwers recreating an ancient training game reported to be from South America.

For a more European take on the subject, check out speerschleuders at this fine German website.  Finally, possibly the oldest image of a spear thrower in action from Lascaux Cave.

The bird on a stick in the lower left is believed to be an animal effigy spear thrower widely known in the region from the later Pleistocene.

The bird on a stick in the lower left is believed to be an animal effigy spear thrower widely known in the region from the later Pleistocene.


Spear Thrower

And in some spare time, I carved a spear thrower inspired by the an Old World Upper Paleolithic design.  This one is made from seasoned shagbark hickory (carya ovata) from my old farm.  It would certainly be handy as a multi-purpose tool to a hunter-gatherer and could easily serve as a club or throwing stick for small game.  At least some of the early ones were from more durable materials such as antler or ivory.

A close-up of the hook.  The thrower was burnished with bone to create a nice finish, then coated with walnut oil for protection.



Photos from the October 2010 Atlatl Competition are up.  Windy weather added a new level of difficulty to the target throws.  The turnout was excellent with participants traveling from as far as Roswell, northern New Mexico, and Austin to take part in our event.  Thanks to everyone who came.

Wooden Spear

I am double posting this from my professional blog because I think it is really remarkable.  A cave find from southeast New Mexico.

From time to time, we receive donations from private individuals.  After a few phone calls back and forth, I arranged to meet with someone who wanted to show me a dart she had found in a cave when she was young.  We have agreed to accept this remarkable find and intend to display it in the near future.  The preservation is beautiful, although it has apparently been handled over many years.  There was apparently a spear-thrower (atlatl) found with the dart but it was unfortunately lost in a house fire.


Click the image for a larger version


foreshaft separated

The foreshaft/point is hardwood and fits into a socket.  the hind shaft is split in order to contract when seized with sinew (still attached.  The barb is lashed on with more sinew.  I will put more description and better photos when I get time.

Dart and atlatl flex

These pictures capture the enormous flex that a dart undergoes during the throw. Not quite as evident is the flex in the atlatl itself. This one takes on a shallow “S” curve. This was an unfinished river cane shaft. It had been somewhat straightened but no forshaft or point were attached. If they were, there would probably be even greater flex due to the higher mass slowing the acceleration of the front end of the dart. I would call this shaft moderately stiff-spined and it flexed far more than could be seen with the naked eye.

This student was kind enough to allow me to photograph several throws to capture the right moment. This is about maximum flex.

This flex is vital to a powerful and accurate throw.

Below are a couple of darts with the new thrower.

Basketmaker Style Spearthrower

Finished a new atlatl this morning. Created from a scrap of Osage Orange wood. The style is a generalized Basketmaker but a bit heavier than some. It has no weight attached yet but I will probably make one just for the “tradition”. It throws well; even with my heavy Clovis-style darts.