Introduction: Making Bamboo Arrows

About: Naturalist, scientist, builder, and maker.


A Primitive Technology Disclaimer.

I firmly believe that in Preindustrial Societies, the onus of learning was on the pupil. Anyone who wants to succeed will find a way to learn.

Real learning is an active endevor. We learn best by carefully observing and doing. There will be failures. There will be frustration and tears. Not everything will be obvious nor will the reason for every step be readily apparent. It is not the duty of the teacher to drag every unwilling pupil along nor argue every point to their satisfaction every step of the way. Failure is not something to fear but is something to learn from. If you don't like the teacher or the methods, either suck it up or find another teacher.

This principle is one of the things that makes INSTRUCTABLES and the MAKE communities truly great. We are none of us teachers and we are all of us teachers. May you all find your way.

Step 1: Making (quality) Bamboo Arrows

I was surprised to not find a detailed tutorial on bamboo arrow making on Instructables. So, I stepped up and decided to document the process as I was making some new arrows anyway. I'm a fair arrow maker but there are plenty of fanatical archers with more patience than me who make even better arrows. Look around the 'net or check the bookstores for archery information.

Good arrows take time, effort, and attention to detail so if you don't have those things to spare, step out of the workshop and save yourself the bother. If you are willing to proceed, there are many skills required that will incorporate to create an arrow. Cutting, heating, trimming, smoothing, tying, drilling, and sawing; all will be needed to complete a set of arrows.

To begin: Having received some beautiful arrow bamboo from a friend (Pseudosasa japonica I think), I decided to use this to make some new arrows. I have never used this fine material before but have handled and examined arrows of this species. I should note that I have used our American cousin, river cane (Arundinaria gigantea). It could not be more perfect for the job.

Although bamboo and cane arrows can be a little on the delicate side, they make excellent and super fast hunting or target arrows if properly tuned.

Step 2: Straightening Shafts

This step takes a little hands-on trial and error work and it is more difficult to explain than it is to accomplish. This process also takes time and effort and I'm often surprised when archers don't appreciate the work that gets you here. I think that is the result of our industrial factory culture.

It is often surprising for people to learn that although bamboo looks straight, it is nowhere near straight enough to make a good arrow. Selection in the field for long node sections and naturally straight shafts will save a lot of time in the long run. The shafts need to be green, free of mold and bug holes, and cut overly long (to allow for selection of the perfect thickness in the taper).

I hand-straighten green shafts by gently working them between fingers and thumbs over the first few days as they are still fairly malleable then set them aside rubber-banded together in bundles of about six each to dry for a few days. You can pull them out daily to torque them straight and work on any warped spots.

As can be seen in the first image above, the shafts are divided into groups approximately matching thickness and the distance between nodes. Arrows need to be made in groups. One-off arrow making will not give you a consistent set so I always make 6 or more at a time.

What I failed to document here is the process of straightening and tempering the shafts. This can be accomplished fairly simply by heating the shafts over coals or stove burner until the water starts seeping out of the wood. Not too fast or there is a slight chance the water will boil inside and the node will POP like a little firecracker in your hand.

Just do it. Don't overthink it and don't force anything at this point. You should be wearing gloves while doing this so when the shafts are good and hot, they will bend like butter.

The only tool you need to check straightness is your eye. Keep looking down the shaft, roll it around in your hand, you will know when it is truly straight.

Step 3: Removing the Nodes

The nodes are the little rings around the joints of the bamboo or rivercane. These need to be removed to make the shaft smooth. I do this with a very sharp little knife and occasionally with the tiny plane shown above. If this intimidates you, you can put fine sandpaper on a block and smooth them with that. The goal is to have a smooth shaft that will slide out of your hand. At this point, I think its a good idea to rub the whole shaft down with a fine abraider stone or fine sandpaper to peel off the fine layer of new growth skin. Just little bit. The whole shaft should be tempered again over a very hot burner to drive out any last bit of water and harden the cells.

Note: There are some who take a tiny drill bit and drill a micro-hole behind each node to insure the water is all gone with heating. Not a bad idea in my mind; I've just never done it.

Step 4: Building the Nocks

At this point I cut my shafts to final length choosing a diameter of the shaft I know works for me (say 5/16th to 3/8th inch for your first arrows). You might notice that the shafts taper from one end to the other. Put the fatter end forward (the part that was closer to the ground when it was growing). The fourth image above shows nock ends strengthened by a little sinew and hide glue. Not absolutely necessary but a good idea for maximum strength. Do not use artificial sinew for this. It will not hold.

If you can't acquire sinew (hint: all animals have it) use some fine silk thread from the fabric store. Tie it off like you are whipping the end of a rope (see a knot book or the Boy Scout Handbook) and rub a tiny amount of white glue over the thread.

I am using Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) here as it is one of my favorite woods for things that need to be tough. However, any dense-grained hardwood will work. Using whatever method works for you, carve the nock inserts into a dowel shape just a little bigger than the mainshaft of the arrow. Cut the nocks to a uniform length and whittle away the unnecessary diameter to fit into the shaft. This will be made easier by reaming out the shafts with a drill bit, gimlet, or similar tool. Once you have a good fit, put a dab of glue on the insert and you're nearly done with the nock.

Step 5: Cutting the Nocks

Finish the nocks by drilling through and sawing down to the hole. Sawing prevents the wood from splitting. Finally, with a small, sharp knife the nock can be carved to it's finished dimensions.

Step 6: Forshafts

Foreshafts (generally called a foot in arrow-making) for bamboo arrows will vary depending on the type of point that is being used. The foot strengthens the font end of the arrow and provides a solid place to attach the head. These arrows will have medieval-style bodkins so the foreshaft will be short and tapered. Essentially, the short foreshafts used here are identical to the nock inserts but will be tapered to fit the socket of the head.

Step 7: Prepping Feathers

Beliefs about what are appropriate feathers vary by culture and availability. Raptors and songbirds are not legal in most countries but duck, goose, turkey, peacock, and other largish wing feathers work well. Get a bunch. This part takes some practice and will provide hours of frustration for many. You can also buy prepped, uncut goose feathers online in a variety of colors and patterns from several archery companies.

Here's what you need to know: For good arrows, all the feathers should be from the same wing (i.e., all right or all left) and approximately the same position on the wing (i.e., second or third feather from tip). There is some debate as to the preference of each of these factors but don't get too hung up on it. I tend to use fletchings (feathers) 5 inches long and about 5/8 inch tall at the maximum. This means you'll need to cut the feathers about 6 or more inches to have some quill to tie down.

Using a razor knife, slice the feathers down the center and sand or trim the quill portion into a flat base. Look at some archery books or get some pre-cut fletchings and look closely at how these are done.

Step 8: Fletching

Let's not beat around the bush. Fletching is hard. Fletching is a pain. Fletching well takes a lot of practice. That's why there are very expensive jigs for helping with this step. Don't fear. You don't need them. They can make things easier but at a cost. Your ancestors did fine without fancy jigs and high tech glues. I fletch in several ways but for this Instructable, I'm using a combination of glue and silk.

I have never really read a complete and easy instruction of how to fletch an arrow flawlessly. This Instructable may not be any better and I have decided that fletching will need to be it's own, separate tutorial to cover the many types and variables involved. Sorry.

Here is my formula and it works well for me.

  • First, sit comfortably on the floor. I am always barefoot for this as your toes can be a big help for holding an arrow. Your hands have enough to do.
  • Pick out three similar feathers and cut to 5 inches leaving about a half inch of quill en each end (for tying down). Make sure their bases are flat with either a very sharp knife or sandpaper. Check this by setting them on a flat surface and see that the feather sits perpendicular. Feel free to reject anything that isn't perfect here.
  • Where exactly to place the feathers? An amateur mistake I have often seen when teaching is not leaving space at the rear of the arrow. An inch or more is needed here for the fingers. So, for a 5 inch feather, measure down the shaft seven inches and make a mark in pencil. At this mark, tie the silk thread into a clove-hitch and take a couple wraps around the shaft. This lays the foundation for lashing down the fletchings.
  • Lay one feather over the thread and take a wrap around the shaft to hold it down.
  • Add the second feather in and take a wrap around to hold this one down as well.
  • Repeat for third.
  • Now, neatly and tightly wrap the quill, like the image above, for one quarter to one half inch and tie off just as when whipping the end of a rope. As you proceed with this step, evenly place the three feathers around the shaft for as much symmetry as can be had.
  • Although not absolutely necessary, it is fine and good to glue down each feather at this point, following the natural helix of the feather.
  • Tie down the tail end in the same manner as the third image above.

Step 9: Points

Points are like drill bits or any other tool. You should have the right one for the right job but, in a pinch, any tool can serve. The above images show a variety of points with different hafting types. Basically, there are self, tanged, slotted, or socketed types.

  • Self points are the simplest. Either a shaft with no point whatsoever or a simple foreshaft. These are used for targets and small game.
  • Tanged points have a tail that fits into a hole drilled into the foreshaft.
  • Slotted points are typical of the stone-age. A slot is cut into the shaft and the point tied on.
  • Socketed points are associated primarily with metal. The head is socketed and slips over a matched taper on the shaft or foreshaft.

The bodkins used in this project are socketed.

Step 10: Test Drive

You can do everything right, match the arrows as precisely as may be, but there will be a few that just don't fly fair. Get rid of them! Don't get too attached if they don't perform well. I find that weight and the center of balance counts for more than just about anything to match a set.

After they have been shot a few times and no tweaking is necessary, I rub down my arrows with a traditional mixture of beeswax and walnut oil. A simple modern solution is a few thin coats of Tung oil. Something to preserve them in the rain. The arrows n this Instructable was painted with a mixture consisting of red ochre mixed in boiled linseed oil.

Keep at it. Even if your first set isn't perfect, shoot them anyway and learn, just as your ancestors did.

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