Begin­ner’s Guide to Wood Ar­rows


Modern Pioneer - - Contents - By Pa­trick Meitin

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.

Ma­te­rial Con­cerns

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.

Fi­nal Thoughts

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.

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