Making a set of Longbow Arrows.
1. The Tools required.
Fletching Jig – This is an essential item of equipment to ensure the position of the fletches (feathers) are equal distance around the shaft at 120 degrees to each other, in line, and straight. Fletching jigs come in all shapes and sizes but basically consist of a clamp or rest into which the shaft is located and then another clamp to hold the feather in position onto the shaft whilst the glue sets. Some fletching jigs can have three clamps for feathers, speeding up the process, but these are more expensive.
Tapering tool – This is a glorified pencil sharpener that normally has two blades to taper the arrow shaft so that the point and nock can be glued on easily. The shorter blade is used for shaping the nock and the longer blade for the point. Tapering tools come in different sizes depending on what diameter size shafts you are using to make your arrows. They are commonly either 5/16 inches or 11/32 inches tapering tools for the corresponding size shafts.
Glues - It pays to use good quality glues as there is nothing more frustrating then losing points or nocks, especially when points cost 60 pence plus. For attaching points to shafts, “araldite” is good. For attaching feathers it is best to use proper fletching glue like “HMG”, mainly because it is excellent but also because it has a fine nozzle so you don’t make a mess. Fletching glue can also be used to attach nocks. There are other glues worth trying like fast set glues or hot melt glues that can speed things up, as the glues mentioned take time to set.
Other tools – A sharp small penknife or Stanley knife, a small saw, fine sandpaper, a pencil for marking, fine brushes for painting, and varnishing and an off cut of flat wood with 12 holes drilled part way into it, so your arrows can stand in the holes.
2. The Materials.
Shafts – There are two main types of wood used for arrow shafts, Port Orford Cedar (POC) from America and Pine from Europe. Archery shops will sell both in pre-machined lengths, commonly 5/16 inches and 11/32 inches in diameter. They will also batch their shafts according to their “spine weight”. This is the degree of flexibility of the shaft. Spine weight is determined by the amount of deflection when a 2lb weight is attached to the mid point of a standard length shaft. There is then a calculation as to which weight of bow it is best matched to. (Less flexibility equals higher bow draw weight.) An arrow has to bend round a bow, as it is released, and then straighten up pretty quickly. The force of release (draw weight of the bow) needs to be matched to the degree of flexibility of the arrow. Arrow shafts are sold in 5 lb incremental categories for bow draw weights e.g. 30-35lb and 35-40 lbs. Generally speaking you need to pick shafts that are spine weighted below your bow draw weight e.g. 40-45lbs shafts for a 50lb draw weight bow. Arrows that are not reasonably matched to the bow will shoot badly. For a right handed archer, if the arrow is too stiff for their bow it will shoot left. If too flexible it will shoot right and often slap the bow on release or fly erratically. However, a lot of other factors will affect the arrow flexibility, including the length of the shaft, weight of the point you attach and shooting technique, so it is not an exact science. You will usually find out the right spine weight for your bow by trial and error.
Whether you choose POC or Pine is a matter of preference. POC is denser than Pine and stronger, though slightly heavier. Pine is usually a little bit cheaper and, being lighter, can be better for distance shooting. Picking 5/16inches shafts over 11/32 inches will mean lighter arrow, but 11/32 inches is better for field shooting where you need a tougher arrow. Whatever you choose, make sure the shafts are straight and free of knots or bad chips. You can roll the shaft on the counter in the shop to check how straight it is. Alternatively, look closely down the length of the shaft and twirl it slowly. Remember you will be cutting the shaft to your length, so any minor blemishes at the end can be cut off later. The grain of the wood in the shaft should run the length of the shaft. “V” shaped grain marks are fine. Swirls are not.
Points or Piles – This is the sharp end of the arrow and for wooden shafts they are made of brass and steel. The fit onto the shaft is either “screw on”, “parallel” or “taper”. I would recommend screw on, as combined with an adhesive, they fit very tightly and rarely come loose. Points come in different shapes. The two most common are “field” and “bullet”. The former is, as the name suggests, used in field shooting where the shape prevents the point penetrating too far into trees and other solid objects, making it easier to remove. Bullet shape is fine for target and clout shooting. You will need to select points for your size of shaft, either 5/16 inches or 11/32 inches. Points also come in different weights, measured by “grains”. There is roughly 15 grains to 1 grm in weight. Typically you will see a selection of points ranging from 60 grains to 120 grains. For bows with lower draw weights it is better to avoid the heavier points. You will eventually find the point weight that suits you, but 80 – 100 grains will suit most bows.
Fletches or feathers - The feathers you buy from an archery shop are usually turkey feathers that have been dyed different colours. You can also get goose feathers from some more traditional archery shops. The feathers come in pre-cut lengths e.g. 2.5 inches, 3 inches up to 4 inches (or you could go traditional and buy a fletch cutter to make your own from whole feathers). Their shapes are parabolic, shield or maxi- fletch (balloon like). They also come as “left” and “right” sided feathers. Which side you have makes no difference as long as you have all the same type on your arrow e.g. all “left”. You can tell the difference by looking at whether the feathery bits sit on the left side of the quill to which they are attached, a “left” feather, or sit on the right side, a “right” feather. Packets of a dozen feathers will be marked as left or right, but it is worth checking one or two to make sure. What length of feather or fletch you choose will be a matter of personal preference. A longer feather will straighten your arrow up quicker, fly a little more slowly (due to drag) and be more forgiving of a poor release. A shorter or finer fletch will be better for distance shooting, providing less wind resistance. For normal target shooting between 20 and 80 yards 3 – 4 inch feathers are fine. When buying feathers, it is normal to choose one colour for the “cock” feather (the feather that faces you when stringing the arrow onto your bow), and then another colour for the two other feathers. Don’t be tempted by cheap plastic feathers, they are not traditional, look awful and are a poor substitute.
Nocks – These are plastic and sized for shafts you are using, 5/16 inches or 11/32 inches. Make sure you get ones that are suitable for wooden shafts and that the colour will compliment your chosen feathers.
Varnish and Paints – Arrows must be varnished on completion to prevent the wood becoming damp and the arrow distorting. It is also easier to wipe mud off arrows that have been varnished on the rare occasions (!) you miss the target. An indoor clear varnish like Ronseal’s quick drying varnish is perfectly okay, or you can choose to stain your wood with one of the coloured varnishes. Painting your arrows makes them more individual. Modeling paint, especially the paints sold by “Games workshop” outlets for their fantasy models, is good because of the variety of colours available and the consistency of the paint goes on the wood well, requiring only one coat. As an alternative, you can buy shaft wraps in a variety of designs which can also look good. If you are painting a large part of the shaft, covering the area where the feathers will be attached, make sure you do not use gloss paint, as this can cause problems with the feathers staying on. The varnish applied at the end can provide the gloss look you want.
3. Getting going
Cutting the shafts - You will require twelve shafts to make a set of longbow arrows. First inspect your shafts and give them a light sanding to get rid of any slight marks or imperfections. You then need to cut them to size. Use an existing arrow, that you have already identified is the right length for you, as a template. Remember to allow for the extra length the point and nock have added to your template arrow. Once you have marked the correct length on your new shaft, then use a fine tooth saw or hack saw to gentle cut it. This shaft then becomes your template. You exactly line it up with the next shaft and then cut this next shaft and so on. Once all shafts are cut, up end them into a bunch and check they are all the same length. The next step is to mark where the cock feather is to go. Look at the cross section of the shaft at one end and see which way the grain of the wood in the cross section runs. You want to have the grain of the cross section running at right angles to the vertical longbow, when the arrow is in the string of the longbow. In this way the shaft will be less likely to bend over time. Mark where the cock feather will go with a pencil.
Tapering the shafts – Using your tapering tool, taper the end where the point will go, using the longer blade of your tapering tool, and then do the same to the other end, where the nock will go, using the shorter blade. Make sure the taper is reasonably even around the shaft. It is then worth doing a dry run with the points, partly screwing them on (if using screw on points) to see that they will fit nicely flush on the shaft and are straight.
Points - Before gluing on the points, just check they are clean inside. Sometimes there can be residue from when they are machined. Use a small cotton bud to remove any grease or dirt. Mix up enough araldite for about six arrows and then put a blob of the glue around the end of tapered shaft. I find it best to hold the point still between finger and thumb and screw the shaft into the point, rather than the other way round. The glue should then spread inside the point and you can wipe off any excess. Check each one for straightness. Work quickly and carefully, as araldite becomes quite stiff within a short period of time. Mix up a second lot of araldite and continue until all the shafts have points. Leave the shafts for awhile to let the glue set.
Nocks – The nocks need to be lined up with the pencil mark of where the cock feather is to go. Use a good quality glue or fletching glue, and squeeze a small amount into the nock itself. Then twist the nock onto the shaft, which will distribute the glue around the taper point. Wipe off any excess glue.
Feathers – If you want to paint your shafts, covering the area where the feathers are going, it is best to do this before putting the feathers on. Take your feather and put it in the clamp of the fletching jig, making sure it is nice and straight in the clamp, with the rear part of the feather positioned so there will be about 2 cms between the nock and the feather on the shaft. The clamp may have a scale on the side. If not, mark it your self so you are consistent in where the feather is positioned. Put the shaft into the fletching jig and then put the feather clamp onto the jig. Check where the feather is aligned on the shaft. A “left “ sided feather will be positioned slightly differently to a “right” side feather. You may have to make small adjustments to the fletching jig so that the feathers are centrally aligned onto the shaft. Once happy, apply a thin line of fletching glue along the whole length of the feather, position the clamp onto the jig and then gently press the clamp down onto the shaft. “HMG” glue takes about 10-15 minutes to set, but others are fast setting. Once the feather is fixed onto the shaft, ease the clamp off and then rotate the fletching jig to the next setting and repeat the process until all three feathers are on. Always check the positioning of the feathers on the first arrow to make sure no further slight adjustments are needed to the fletching jig. Once all the feathers are attached to the shafts, take a sharp penknife or Stanley knife and trim off the very small front part of each quill on the feathers. They can often be rough and catch on your bow hand, when shooting. Dab a small blob of fletching glue onto the little area you have tidied, to seal it and make it smoother.
Finishing off – Once you have the points, nocks and feathers on your arrows, stand them up in the off cut of wood, using the holes you have drilled for the purpose. Take fine sandpaper up and down the shaft to get rid of any bits of excess glue that maybe around the point and generally make the shaft smooth for varnishing. If you are painting the shafts, do this now, unless you have already done so because of the feathers (see above). When applying varnish it is best to have a small fine brush to do the fiddly bits around the feathers, and then a thicker brush to do the shafts. Three thinly applied coats of varnish are usually enough. Once you are happy with your arrows you need to make sure the nocks are opened or closed enough to fit nicely onto your bow string at the nocking point. Adjusting the nocks is best done by using a cup of boiling water into which you dip the nock to make the plastic pliable. Then, using the back of a penknife blade or similar, gently ease open the nock a little more, or squeeze it with your fingers to close it more. Trying to open up a nock more without doing this may cause it to snap off. The arrow should rest in the string when your braced longbow is parallel with the ground and then fall off if you give the string a sharp tap.
Finally – Look after your arrows, wipe them clean and check for any damage. If the feathers get wet and “sit down” on the shaft they can be encouraged to stand up again by gentle steam from a pan of simmering water.