Introduction: How to Make a Basketmaker Style PVC Atlatl and Dart
Hey everyone! Today we're going to be building an atlatl out of PVC plumbing pipe. This is one of my favorite styles of atlatl to make, inspired by the atlatls of the Basketmaker culture of the American Southwest and the atlatls of Mesoamerica. It's a nice flexible atlatl that works great and once you get a hang of it, can be very accurate with even shorter darts.
We're also going to be building a two piece takedown dart to go with our atlatl. The takedown connection is also made of PVC pipe. This is a great dart to get started in throwing with an atlatl as it's long and flexible, making it very forgiving. It also comes apart for storage and transportation because a six foot long dart can be a little awkward.
We'll be building this atlatl here as well as in a video. When making the dart, we'll fletch it with duct tape here and with feathers in the video.
Let's get started building a PVC atlatl and dart!
Step 1: Materials and Tools
First we'll need to get some things together to build the atlatl and dart. One of the nice things about working with PVC is all you really need is a little bit of heat and a few simple tools. First we'll go over materials.
- 24 inch length of 1/2 inch Schedule 40 PVC pipe. The atlatl can be made of other types of pipe, so experiment and find out what works best if you can't find Schedule 40 pipe in your area.
- Twine or cord for tying the finger loops onto the atlatl. I'm using artificial sinew for this, but any strong cord will work, even cotton or jute twine.
- 8 inch length of leather or nylon webbing for the finger loops. This should be 3/4 to 1 inch wide. Thinner belts work great for this, you can also use vinyl fabric for this.
- Brown spray paint for finishing. I'm using Krylon Color Master in Brown Boots, which is a great base for faux woodgrain. You can also get other woodgrain effects by using different colors as a base coat.
- Brown shoe polish is great for giving PVC a woodgrain look. Black shoe polish can also be used with the brown to add depth or simulate the look of horn or weathered bone.
- Two 36 inch lengths of 1/2 inch dowels. Make sure to use straight grained and clear dowels free of knots.
- For fletching the darts we'll be using duct tape. You can also use feathers, and I show how to do that in the video. You'll also want some vinyl electrical tape for binding the fletchings.
- A 5 inch length of 1/2 in CPVC will make a good connector for the dart. The pipe should have an inside diameter just a little smaller than the dowels.
-The dart point will be made of a 1.5 inch length of 1/4 inch diameter PEX pipe and a 1.5 inch cut masonry nail. This is also called a cut nail and is used for masonry and antique carpentry restoration. Most larger hardware stores carry it. This is a design of Justin Garnett of basketmakeratlatl.com .
- Heat source - PVC is easily shaped and manipulated with heat, so a simple heat source is the primary tool needed. A heat gun is one of the most versatile heating tools as it can be directed in small areas or heat larger areas as well. Look for a heat gun with a minimum of 1500 watts, most hair dryers will not get hot enough. If you don't have a heat gun you can use a stovetop, torch, camp stove, fire, hot coals, grill, and an oven to hot box set at 300 degrees F will heat PVC up completely in about 5 minutes.
- Cutting and shaping tools - A saw or PVC cutter works great for cutting pipe to length. You will also need a knife or pair of scissors for cutting fletching, cord, tape, and for shaping the pipe. A file and sandpaper also comes in handy for fine shaping.
- Flattening jig - This will be used to put a taper into the pipe, which will give it a nice and even flex. The flattening jig can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. Basically all you need is a flat board and something 5/8 of an inch tall as a spacer to start the taper. In pictures 3 and 4 you can see the jig is made of two boards for uniformity and bolts to make the spacers adjustable. In pictures 5 and 6 you can see a simple jig made of a single 2x4 with pieces of pipe cut to the right height.
- Heating Trough - A heating trough makes using a heat gun much more efficient and easy to use. It can be made of aluminum flashing or a wood/cardboard tube or channels lined in aluminum foil or tape to reflect heat. This can help cut down heating times, especially in cold temperatures.
Step 2: Tapering the Atlatl
To build the atlatl you'll need the 24 inch length of 1/2 inch PVC pipe, the strip of leather for the loops, cord for binding, and the paint and shoe polish for the woodgrain finish.
Remove the lettering on the pipe by sanding or lightly scraping with a sharp knife. Do not use solvents as it can weaken the pipe over time.
Place the pipe into the trough or onto a heat-resistant surface. Before you start heating the pipe, make a mark 4 inches from the end and another one inch away for the handle.
Begin heating the pipe on high. Keep the heat source moving and don't let it settle in one spot. Rotate the pipe after each pass and continue heating until the whole pipe is soft enough to be flattened all along its length with finger pressure. It is important that the pipe is hot enough, or it won't flatten properly.
Once the pipe is hot enough, move it with gloved or covered hands to a flat surface and press down with the flattening jig. If the board has a pronounced grain, it will leave an impression on the pipe. This can make for some very realistic faux wood. Try to avoid really rough or damaged boards with knots for the same reason.
After the pipe cools in about 2-3 minutes, you should have a nice and fine taper. You can see the smooth flex the atlatl has in the last picture.
Step 3: Shaping the Handle
Heat about an inch of the end of the handle. Once it's pliable, press it under a board at an angle to pinch the end closed. Once filed down, this will make a nice and smooth end that will sit nicely against the palm.
Next heat up the one inch section between the two marks until it is soft enough to press. Two pieces of 1/2 inch scrap pipe make a good form to press the handle. It should be around 1/2 an inch wide between the grooves.
Step 4: Forming the Spur and Loading Groove
Next we'll be shaping the end of the atlatl by making an integral spur and loading groove. Start by sketching the spur and loading groove. The groove should start 1/2 an inch from the end and be 2 inches long. The spur is 3/8 inch wide and 1/2 an inch long.
PVC becomes rubbery and soft when hot. By heating up the pipe, you can cut the plastic easily with a knife. Gently heat the pipe until it starts to puff up. Make sure to not heat up the edges or they will split. While this won't affect the strength of the atlatl, it doesn't look good. Once hot, carefully cut along the lines to open up the groove and free spur.
You may have to reheat and flatten the end of the pipe as it might have puffed out when cutting. Heat the spur gently and lift it up so that you can file and sand it smooth.
Finish the tip of the atlatl by filing and sanding the tip to shape and smoothing out the spur. The spur should be smooth and slightly rounded, not sharp. Also file and sand the end of the handle.
Now that everything is smooth, heat the flexible arm of the atlatl and before it gets hot enough to puff out. Gently flex it until it keeps about 1-2 inches of bend.
Finish the spur by heating it up and pressing it against a board. The curve of the atlatl will help the spur sit on the right level to make loading darts easy. The spur should not stick out too far or it will cause darts to kick downward at the end of a throw.
Step 5: Faux Woodgrain Finish
Now that the atlatl is sanded smooth, it's time to apply the finish. We'll be doing a simple faux woodgrain finish. It's a nice finish because it has a nice grainy look while still being smooth and uniform like finely finished wood.
Start by painting the atlatl with your base coat. I'm using a satin finish light brown. This will give a nice deep generic woodgrain. Starting with a darker brown or gray makes for a nice walnut color. Yellow or orange looks like fresh osage, and red looks like padauk or bloodwood. You can also get exotic looks by using different colors like blues, pinks, and purples.
Once the paint is dry to the touch but still not cured, apply a layer of brown shoe polish. Work very light, with multiple passes. It will start off looking watery and streaky with some bubbles. As you continue to pass the applicator sponge over the atlatl, the polish will start to cure and gains some body. Once you're happy with the look of the grain, heat the pipe on low heat or with a hair dryer to set the polish.
Once set, it can be handled to cover the rest of the atlatl. Keep in mind that the polish will easily scrape off, so a good quality clear coat or brushed finish is important. Make sure to allow the clear coat to cure before subjecting the atlatl to use or the polish can scrape off. Once cured, it is a nice and fairly durable finish.
Step 6: Finger Loops
Cut an inch long slit into the middle of the leather strip. Slide the leather strip over the handle and right below the finger groove. If the leather you are using has a smooth side, you should put it on the inside of the loops as it's gentler on your fingers.
Start binding the loops by starting a wrap below the leather strip. Once the wrap is started and secured over itself, pull the edges of the leather strip over the wrap and crisscross over it. Once the leather is bound in place, make about 5 large loops and pass the loose end of the cord under it. Pull out the slack to tighten and finish the wrap.
Start a second wrap on the other side of the finger groove. Pull the ends of the leather strip down and test-fit the loops. Traditional loops are usually very small, just enough for the finger tips to fit. You can also make them larger to fit the thumb and forefinger for other throwing styles.
Once the loops are the size you want, use the same wrap to tie them into place. Now the atlatl is finished and ready to throw! Now it's time to work on the dart.
*If you don't mind the look, you could also wrap the loops with tape and save some time.
Step 7: Takedown Dart Cup and Fletching
To make the takedown dart, start with two 3 foot wood dowels, duct tape for fletching, a flat masonry nail and 1.5 inch long 1/4 inch PEX pipe, and a 5 inch length of CPVC pipe.
Start with the two dowels. The grain should be straight. Even if the dowels are a little curved, grain is more important. They should be clear and free of knots.
Using a knife or file, taper one end of each dowel. The point side should end in a 1/4 inch taper and the back end should end in a 3/8 inch taper.
Using a drill bit or the tip of a knife, gently cut out a smooth cone shape in the 3/8 inch end of the dowel. Make sure to go gently and keep it centered. Do not use a powered drill for this as it is very dangerous. The cup end of the dart should be nice and smooth. Round the outside edge lightly to prevent splintering.
Cut three strips of duct tape 8 inches long. The way we're making the fletching, you can use 2 strips of one color and 1 strip of another for the odd vane, also known as a cock vane.
Lay one strip of tape down and place the end of the dowel on top of it. It should be around 2 inches away from the end of the dowel. Take the second strip of tape and lay it on top of the dowel. Now press both down so that the tape sticks together. Make sure to press it down so that the fletching angle is close to 120 degrees rather than 180 flat.
Take the third strip and press it against the edge of one of the other vanes. Fold it over and press the tape together to form the third vane. There should be about a 120 degrees between the three vanes.
Cut the vanes to shape. There are a variety of shapes to choose from. For an atlatl dart, the shape isn't too important and you could even leave them full height. It does help to cut them all to the same height, though. You can bind the ends of the vanes in opposing directions with tape to give the vanes a helical twist that will helpt he dart spin and stabilize in flight faster.
In the last picture you can see the duct tape fletchings compared to feather fletchings.
Step 8: Takedown Dart Point and Connector
Now we'll be making the point and dart connector. This use of plastic pipe for atlatl darts is the brainchild of Justin Garnett of basketmakeratlatl.com who makes a lot of replica atlatls and also does experiments with modern materials.
The point starts out as a 1.5 inch long 1/4 inch PEX pipe and a 1.5 inch masonry nail. If you can't find PEX, any PE or PET tubing will work. If you can't find a masonry nail, just about anything will work. Large nails, pieces of steel rod, bolts, screws, and anything else you can think of. Hex bolts and wing screws make really good blunt points.
Heat 1/4 inch of the end of the PEX until it is soft enough to press the masonry nail into it. Be careful and wear gloves as the pipe is very hot and it can be hard to get the nail to fit. You may have to squish the pipe and then use a side to side motion to get the nail in.
Once the nail is in place, apply a little hot glue onto the tapered end of the dowel. Heat the PEX tubing up until it is pliable and press it onto the end of the dowel. As it cools, make sure to adjust the point to it sets straight. Any minor bends can be adjusted cold without heat.
Apply some hot melt glue to the inside end of the back end of the dart. Heat half of the CPVC tube until it is pliable and then push the dowel halfway into the tube. Make sure there is not glue on the very end of the dowel. Heat the rest of the tube up and once pliable push the front dowel into it.
As the pipe cools, sight down the dart and straighten it. You can correct any slight bends by just lining the dart up through the connector. Once the pipe cools it will be hard to remove the connector the first time, so pull the dart apart while it is still slightly warm. Sand the end of the dart until the connector fits snugly but comes apart easily. Now the dart is finished!
Step 9: Finished Atlatl and Dart!
Here's the finished atlatl and dart! Go out and enjoy one of mankind's oldest complex tools!
Always make sure the area you are throwing in is clear and you have lots of room. Glancing darts can whip up and fly for a hundred yards or more, so be careful. Darts are heavy, and while this may look like a toy, it is a serious weapon that can definitely hurt or kill if you aren't careful. If you don't have a range or clear area to practice in, don't take chances in a residential area.
Thanks for following along! I'd love to see any atlatls and darts you guys come up with.