Beginner’s Guide to Wood Arrows
HOW TO BUILD HERITAGE ARROWS
How to build heritage arrows
Though I’ve tagged myriad big-game animals with traditional bows while shooting high-tech arrows, lately I find myself coming full circle, returning to the natural wood arrows I cut my bowhunting teeth on. I missed the sweet perfume of freshly cut Port Orford cedars, hot-melt glue and freshly applied lacquer, the simplicity and satisfaction of building a special set of arrows from scratch.
A lot has changed since my early beginnings in archery, a time when I purchased 1,000 premium Acme cedar shafts for $130 with fur-trapping money, initiating many late nights sorting and preparing them for serious shooting. Some of these woods would receive a sloppy, brushed-on poly finish and fletchings applied quickly with contact cement, “throwaway” arrows for small game and stumpshooting in punishing terrain. Others were lovingly assembled with fancy crowns and intricate cresting and reserved for special bowhunts. All that additional attention lent them huge aesthetic appeal.
The modern, DIY bowhunter can still enjoy the freedom and fulfillment of turning raw wood shafts into affordable small-game arrows, or something fancier for more serious fall assignments.
Port Orford cedar remains the traditional archery standard. This highly aromatic, extremely stable wood grows in select portions of the Pacific Northwest, is light to moderate in weight, fairly durable and retains its straightness. The days of 1,000 premium raw shafts for $130 are long gone, limited natural resources now meaning a set of unfinished, premium Port Orford cedars runs closer to $30-35 per dozen, which is still considerably cheaper than aluminum or carbon.
Archery legend Howard Hill once said, “Always shoot your best shaft.” Unless purchasing shafts for small game or stumpshooting arenas where arrows have short lives, I generally prefer weight- and spine-matched premium grades. An extra $8-10 a dozen ensures superior accuracy and super-straight grain that requires less straightening. I’m also keen on tapered shafts—add another $8-10—as they clear arrow shelves cleanly, recover faster from launch paradox, penetrate deeper and are generally more aerodynamic. Reputable sources include 3River’s Archery Supply and Lancaster Archery.
Other natural materials have come into vogue in recent years, including ash, Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, tamarack (western larch), birch, bamboo and more.
Sitka spruce is a bit more durable than same-spined/diameter cedar, lighter in mass and holds straightness well. When shooting Sitka, I prefer a slightly stiffer spine (60-65 instead of 55-60, for instance) combined with a heavier head (175 grain instead of 150 grain) to ensure ample big-game performance. Douglas fir is another popular option, a heavier, more durable material that increases penetration potential, but proves more difficult to straighten. I’ve had limited experience with laminated birch, and found it difficult to straighten, though many prefer it as a heavy, durable material that pile-drives big game.
My new bowhunting favorite is heattempered bamboo. Bamboo acts like natural carbon, recovering from release and impact paradox quickly, while also relatively heavy and naturally tapered. I shot a 350-pound black bear with a bamboo shaft tipped with an
antique Ace Standard broadhead from my selfmade primitive bow, clipping a facing shoulder blade and still achieving pass-through penetration with 57 pounds at 30 inches.
Creating tapers on bamboo shafts requires more time and care because it’s prone to splitting when twisted and/or pried from within the hollow center. I purchase spinematched 100-shaft lots on ebay (around $175) and sort them for straightness. Each lot normally relinquishes one to three dozen hunt-quality shafts, many more small-game and stump-shooting arrows, and many tomato stakes. Bamboo’s natural nodes mean it’s rarely truly straight in the sense of carbon or aluminum, but delivers remarkable accuracy, nonetheless.
Adding Tapers and Straightening
Natural arrows must be tapered at the ends to accept glued-on nocks and points/broadheads. This is a simple task. Basic “pencil sharpener” tools suffice, plastic units including two holes with razors set at 5 and 11 degrees for point and nock tapers, respectively. Choose a tool with appropriate 5/16- (normally to 50-pound spine), 11/32- (most common diameter) or 23/64-inch (heavy-spine arrows) orifices. More sophisticated taper tools include interchangeable, pressure-fit collars allowing a single cutter barrel to be used with various shaft diameters.
Applying tapers to bamboo is a bit more involved. The hollow shafts must be carefully
prepped and 1/8-inch hardwood doweling added to fill the interior void. Choose a sharp drill bit matching the diameter of your hardwood doweling, very carefully clean out the pithy interior fibers of the natural tube. Insert the spinning drill slowly because forcing it can cause it to bind and split the walls. I add a ½-inch of doweling to the nock end (the smaller diameter end) and up to 2 inches in the front to help create a heavier, stronger footing that resists breaking on hard impacts. I use two-part epoxy to adhere the dowel pieces into each end, allowing excess adhesive to soak into the bamboo walls for added strength. After the epoxy has cured, I slowly and patiently create tapers, front and rear, with a standard taper tool. If the cutting edge catches, remove the blade and sharpen it on a diamond stone for cleaner cutting. Remove just a little material at a time while working the taper down slowly to prevent splintering.
Points are secured with hot-melt glue, such as Bohning’s Ferr-l-tite; nocks with standard, slow-cure fletching cements. A couple of points to consider: when cutting wood arrows to length, remember to leave at least ½-inch extra for your nock taper, another full inch for the point taper. I cut woods by pressing a heavy-bladed knife into the wood, rolling on a hard surface and breaking off carefully. Cutting bamboo to length requires a finetooth saw, like a hacksaw, and slow, even pulls to avoid binding and splitting. I paint or lacquer tapers to seal out moisture before continuing.
Raw wood shafting can warp slightly, and
finished arrows sometimes develop bends due to changes in atmospheric conditions (moisture and heat the most likely culprits) or improper storage (lay wood arrows flat when possible). Luckily, straightening wood shafts is easy. Use a thick piece of leather and run it vigorously up and down the shaft’s offending area to generate heat. While the shaft is still warm, bend against the warp, sighting down the shaft to check your work, allowing the shaft to cool and set. Crooked bamboo is heated carefully over flame, pushed against the bend and held in place until cooled. Generally, crooks at the shaft ends are more detrimental to accuracy than those in the middle.
Finish, Seal and Decorate
Raw wooden shafts generally require staining and sealing with lacquer (compatible with fletching cement) or polyurethane (ensure finish is compatible with preferred fletching adhesives to avoid fletching failures). Staining isn’t mandatory but makes light-hued woods less conspicuous while bowhunting. The industrious archer can also use different-hued stains to create camouflaged arrows. Another option is spraying shafts top to bottom with lacquer-based paint. I often paint woods fulllength white, red or orange to make them easier to locate after a miss on small game or while stump-shooting in thick woods or grassy areas. I prefer spray paint instead of messy dipping, including while creating crowns. Heattreated bamboo requires no protective finish, though I normally rub in bowstring wax to ward off moisture.
One of the appeals of building wood arrows is adding handsome dipped/spray-painted crowns and attractive cresting to make arrows unique and colorful. Bohning Archery is the go-to source here, offering everything from dipping tubes to cresting spinners to lacquer paints formulated especially for arrow building. Bohning even sells starter kits with all of the basics included. You can then add the color fletchings you wish, normally natural feathers for traditional arrows shot off the shelf. Bohning, Jo-jan and Bitzenberger are excellent sources for quality, highly adjustable fletching jigs.
Before fletching, align wood grain for consistency and mark for cock-feather orientation (odd-color feather). This means placing all straight grain against the striker plate, “V”s or grain points against the supporting arrow shelf. This provides the stiffest shaft profile when pushed explosively from the nock end by the bowstring.
Many bowhunters build wood arrows to maintain the traditional aspect of the sport that attracted them to recurves, longbows or primitive bows in the first place. Building wood arrows from scratch is also a great way to save money and impart a personal touch to the arrows you carry to archery tournaments or into the field. Woods have been doing the job for millennia, and there’s no reason they won’t work for you, while also providing a sense of satisfaction in crafting your own bowhunting components.