Also known as Whip Arrows and probably other names, this is an old-time hobby with a lot of potential for variations, from serious weapons to safe, silly toys. The basic idea is making a simple arrow-like object that you fling with a string tied to a stick. Please consider all the safety issues that may arise in making and using these arrows. I'm leaving it to you to take the proper precautions in using knives for splitting wood and whittling. Even with designs intended to be especially safe, please follow the safety measures for using regular bows and arrows. If you don't already know about such things, I am sure there are other Instructables or other sources for learning about them. If you are careful not to hurt yourself or others (or damage someone's property) you can have a lot of fun doing something that has been handed down for generations, and I hope will experience something of a revival.
Step 1: First, Get a Good Piece of Wood in the Shape of a Thin Wedge.
First, obtain the material to make your arrow. The first thing you'll need for the traditional arrows is a cedar shingle. See if you can get a some rejects from a lumberyard. You only need a few (2-4) inches in width, so you might get several arrows even from a rejected shingle. If you can't locate cedar shingles or they only come in large and expensive packages, see if you can find some long shims of a soft wood like pine or spruce. Shims have the advantage of already being in straight strips just wide enough for an arrow. I'm showing some bad examples along with good ones -- watch out for those knots and other irregularities in the wood! The main thing is to have a good solid strip of wood 12 to 18 inches long and a couple of inches wide, with one end at least pencil-thick but less than half an inch, and the other end very thin. Place it on a flat surface and turn it over. If it rocks on one side and/ or leaves a space under the middle on the other side, pick another piece.
Step 2: Next, Get Something to Carve the Wood
A simple jackknife is the traditional tool. A utility or craft knife might be usable, or come in handy for fine work or detailing you might want to do. You may also want to get some paper, graph paper, newspaper, sanding paper, and spray paint, but those aren't strictly necessary and we'll get to them later.
Step 3: OPTIONAL STEP: Create a Pattern and Transfer It to the Wood
A traditional shingle arrow-maker will just sit on a porch and whittle an arrow freehand, but you may want to be more cautious and methodical, especially as a beginner. I just used some cheap brown "butcher's paper" that comes in a large size, but you might want to tape two sheets of graph paper together to help make straight lines and perfect symmetry. I assume you don't need to be told how to draw and cut out a pattern. 8) Also, I hope I don't have to point out that the pointy end of the arrow pattern goes on the thick end of the wood, and the wide tail goes on the thin side of the wood, so it will be like the feathers on a regular arrow. You can pin the pattern to the wood (hobby and art stores have pins designed for this sort of thing), but I just used a few pieces of tape. I salvaged a section of shingle that had a knot in one side and cracks in the thin end, placing the pattern on the good side and shortening the design a little with a Z-fold (taped down, see arrow). Once the pattern is temporarily secured to the wood, you can trace its outline with just about any marker. If you use tape, there will be areas that don't get outlined, but you can easily connect the lines, but these little gaps shouldn't be a problem.
Step 4: Let's Get to It: Rough Out the Shape
If you're using a cedar shingle instead of a pre-cut strip like a shim, you'll first need to split off the piece with your pattern. Otherwise, start whittling down just ahead of the tail, going from the widest point forward. If you start carving from the front first, the wood might split all the way back and remove part of the tail. If you want to have an expanded front end (for safety or style), you may need to start alternating direction once you get close enough to the shaft where a split might go through that part of the head. There should be no knots in or near the outline of your design, but a knot far enough to the side is not a problem. You might want to save carving the shape of the end of the tail for last. You could also just let the pattern extend to the end of the wood. It is tricky cutting across the grain of such thin wood. You can also put the tail down on a piece of cardboard and cut it with a razor-sharp craft/hobby knife.
Step 5: How Far Do You Want to Take This?
If you are inexperienced and impatient, you may end up with something that's just not going to work, or not work well at all. On the other hand, if you take your time and have some skill and patience, you'll have a rough approximation of your pattern carved out of the wood. If you're in a hurry to see how it works and don't care about the appearance or maximizing performance, you could just carve a notch in the side and use it like that. If you want an arrow that looks good and travels a bit farther, you'll want to continue whittling, and finish by sanding and painting. Note that carving shingle arrows produces a good bit of waste wood and shavings. If you have a fireplace or camp out, these make great kindling for starting the fire. You'll want to whittle outdoors, right over a large trash basket, or over some old newspaper, so the mess won't be a problem.
Step 6: Sweet and Slick
To get an arrow that looks like it was made by a crafts-person and not a careless slob, use your knife to carefully shave down to the pattern. Note the little shavings in the picture. I also recommend sanding by hand, using two or three grades of sandpaper. The examples show here are just what I happened to have on hand; you don't need to use three, and they don't need to be the these particular grades. On the other hand, you may wish to go further and finish up with an extra fine emery paper or steel wool. Just be sure to do a thorough job with one grade before moving on to a finer grade. A smoothly sanded piece of good wood is a thing of beauty!
Step 7: The Last, Key Structural Detail
The final shaping step is to carve in the notch. You should place it on or just ahead of the balance point. You don't have to be fussy and use a knife blade; you can just balance it on your finger. I don't think the exact location makes that much difference, but you will get some weird, disappointing (and possibly dangerous) results if you make the notch too far forward or back. Of course, you can also make your pattern with a small hook sticking out, but besides breaking with tradition, it would require more work and might break off either when you're carving around it or when you use it. I have always used a simple knot to catch in the notch, but I have read of people making a loop in the string.
Step 8: An Artistic (maybe, More or Less) Finish
(You need to take precautions when using spray paints, but they are listed on the cans and available elsewhere.) Painting is an option which you can take much farther and more seriously than illustrated here, but I do recommend at least one coat of one color of paint, most preferably a bright, unnatural, fluorescent color such as fluorescent orange, red, or pink. This is best for safety and for ease of finding. You should use the arrows on a field that has been mowed short, but it is surprising how hard it can be to find an arrow, even in short grass. If you are not too concerned about that, there are many options for painting with different kinds of paints, colors and means of applying the paint. Multiple thin coats are recommended, and for a super-smooth finish you can sand between coats and use a clear protective coat with matte (dull) or glossy finish. Here, I show a quick-and-easy 2-tone scheme.
Step 9: Before I Go: Some Variations to Spark Your Imagination
Here's some pictures of arrows I have made and used previously. It also shows a stick and string I have used. I haven't bothered to say anything about them, let alone add a step, because you can use all sorts and lengths of sticks and string. Kite string works well, but any good strong twine should be fine. You can see some wear and tear on the arrows. The red and yellow arrow and the one below it (glued and taped together) tend to helicopter, spinning like Maple seeds falling to the ground, when they lose momentum, and I like to shoot them high into the air, but of course you have to be extra careful with this technique (similar to clout shooting with regular arrows) and don't try it on a windy day. The very strangely-shaped ones I call clown arrows or fish arrows, and they can curve and swerve wildly.
Other options include making arrows with dowel rods, and using elastic material instead of string.