Fletching is a very old art and, necessarily, must have many empirical methods and principles involved. There are innumerable types of arrows, and an equal number of ways of making them. For an excellent description of a good way to make target arrows, the reader is referred to that chapter by Jackson in the book American Archery.
Having learned several aboriginal methods of fletching and studied all the available literature on the subject, we have adopted the following maneuvers to turn out standard hunting arrows: The first requisite is the shaft. Having tested birch, maple, hickory, oak, ash, poplar, alder, red cedar, mahogany, palma brava, Philippine nara, Douglas fir, red pine, white pine, spruce, Port Orford cedar, yew, willow, hazel, eucalyptus, redwood, elderberry, and bamboo, we have adopted birch as the most rigid, toughest and suitable in weight for hunting arrows. Douglas fir and Norway pine are best for target shafts; bamboo for flight arrows.
The commercial dowel, frequently called a maple dowel, is made of white birch and is exactly suited to our purpose. It may be obtained in quantities from dealers in hardwoods, or from sash and door mills. If possible, you should select these dowels yourself, to see that they are straight, free from cross-grain, and of a rigid quality. For hunting bows drawing over sixty pounds, the dowels should be three-eighths of an inch in diameter; for lighter bows five-sixteenths dowels should be used. They come in three-foot lengths and bundles of two hundred and fifty. It is a good plan to buy a bundle at a time and keep them in the attic to dry and season.
Where dowels are not obtainable, you can have a hickory or birch plank sawed up or split into sticks half an inch in diameter, and plane these to the required size, or turn them on a lathe, or run them through a dowel-cutting machine.
Take a dozen dowels from your stock and cut them to a length of twenty-eight and one-quarter inches, or an inch less or more according to the length of your arms. In doing this you should try to remove the worst end, keeping that portion with the straightest grain for the head of your shaft.
Having cut them to length, take a hand plane and shave the last six inches of the rear end or shaftment so that the diameter is reduced to a trifle more than five-sixteenths of an inch at the extremity.
Now comes the process of straightening your shafts. By squinting down the length of the dowel you can observe the crooked portions. If these are very bad, they should be heated gently over a gas flame and then bent into proper line over the base of the thumb or palm. A pair of gloves will protect the hand from burning. If the deviation be slight, then mere manual pressure is often sufficient. During this process the future arrow should be tested for strength. If it cannot stand considerable bending it deserves to break. If it is limber, discard it.
Nocking the shaft comes next. Hunting arrows require no horn, bone, aluminum, or fiber nock. Simply place the smaller end of the shaft in a vise and cut the end across the grain with three hack saws bound together, your cut being about an eighth of an inch wide by three-eighths deep; finish it carefully with a file. Thus nock them all and sandpaper them smooth throughout, rounding the nocked end gracefully. To facilitate this process I place one end in a motor-driven chuck and hold the rapidly revolving shaft in a piece of sandpaper in my hand. When finished the diameter should be a trifle under three-eighths of an inch at the center and about five-sixteenths at the nock.
Mark them now, where the feathers and binding should go. At a point one inch from the base of the nock make a circular line, this is for the rear binding; five inches above this make another, this is for the feather; one inch above this make another, this is for the front binding; and an inch above this make another, this is for the painted ribbon.
Feathers come next, but really they should have come long ago. The best are turkey feathers, so we won't talk about any others. The time to get them is at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Then you should get on good terms with your butcher and have him save you a boxful of turkey wings. These you chop with a hatchet on a block, saving only the six or seven long pinions. Put them away with moth balls until you need them. Of course, if you cannot get turkey feathers when you want them, goose, chicken, duck, or plumes from a feather duster may be employed. Your milliner can tell you where to purchase goose feathers, but these are expensive.
Cutting arrow feathers is a pleasant occupation around the fire in the winter evenings, and the real archer has the happiness of making his tackle while his mind dwells upon the coming spring shooting. As he makes his shaft he wonders what fate will befall it. Will it speed away in a futile shot, or last the grilling of a hundred practice flights, or will it be that fortunate arrow which flies swift and true and brings down the bounding deer? How often have I picked up a shaft and marked it, saying, "With this I'll kill a bear." And with some I've done it, too!
So your feathers should be cut in quantity. This is the way you cut them: Select a good clean one, steady it between your palms while with your fingers you separate the bristles at the tip. Pull them apart, thus splitting the rib down the center. If by chance it should not split evenly, take your sharpened penknife and cut it straight.
Have ready a little spring clip, such as is used to hold your cravat or magazine in a book store. One end of this is bent about a safety-pin so that it can be fastened to your trousers at the knee. Now you have a sort of knee vise to hold your feather while trimming it. Place the butt of the rib in the jaws of the clip and shave it down to the thickness of a thirty-second of an inch. Make this even and level so that the feather stands perpendicular to it. With a pair of long scissors cut off the lateral excess of rib on the concave side of the feather. This permits it to straighten out.
At the same stage cut the feather roughly to shape; that is, five inches long, half an inch at the anterior end, an inch wide posteriorly, and having an inch of stem projecting at each extremity.
For this work you must keep your pocket-knife very sharp. With practice you should cut a feather in two or three minutes.
Donnan Smith, a worthy archer and a good fletcher, has devised a spring clamp which holds the feather while being cut. It is composed of a strong binder clip to which are soldered two thin metal jaws the size and shape of a properly cut feather. Having stripped his feather, he clamps it rib uppermost between the jaws and trims the rib with a knife, or on a fast-revolving emery stone, or sandpaper disc. This accomplished, he turns the feather around in the clamp and cuts the bristles to the exact shape of the metal jaws with a pair of scissors. It is an admirable method.
Some fletchers cut their feathers on a board by eye with only a knife. James Duff, the well-known American maker of tackle, learned this in the shop of Peter Muir, the famous Scotch fletcher.
If you wish to dye your feathers it may be done by obtaining the aniline dye used on wool. Adding about 10 per cent of vinegar to the aqueous solution of the stain, heat it to such a temperature that you can just stand your finger in it. Soak your feathers in this hot solution, stir them for several minutes, then lay them out on a piece of newspaper to dry in the sun. Red, orange, and yellow are used for this purpose; the former helps one to find a lost arrow, but all colors tend to run if wet, and stain the clothing.
Having prepared a sufficient quantity of feathers, you are ready to fledge your shaft. Select three of a similar color, strength, and from the same wing of the bird. With a stick, run a little liquid glue along the rib of each and lay it aside. Along the axis of your arrow run three parallel lines of glue down the shaftment. The first of these is for the cock feather and should be on a line perpendicular to the nock. The other two are equidistant from this. A novice should mark these lines with a pencil at first.
Now comes a difficult task, that of putting on the feathers. Many ways and means have been devised, and in target arrows nothing is better than just sticking them on by hand. Some have used clamps, some use pins, some lash the feathers on at the extremities with thread, and then glue beneath them. We take the oldest of all methods, which is shown in the specimens of old Saxon arrows rescued from the Nylander boat in Holland, [Footnote: See Archer's Register of 1912.] also depicted in many old English paintings--that of binding the feathers with a piece of thread running spirally up the shaft between the bristles.
Starting at a point six inches from the nock, set your thick end of the rib in position on the lines of glue. Hold the shaft under your left arm while with the left thumb, forefinger, and middle finger steady the feathers as they are respectively put in place. With one end of a piece of cotton basting thread in your teeth and the spool in your right hand, start binding the ribs down to the arrow shaft. After a few turns proceed up the shaftment, adjusting the feathers in position as you rotate the arrow. Let your basting thread slip between the bristles of the feather about half an inch apart. When you come to the rear end, finish up with several overlapping turns and a half-hitch. Line up your feathers so that they run straight down the shaftment and are equidistant. Of one thing be very sure--see that your feather runs a trifle toward the concave side, looking from the rear, and that the rear end deviates quite perceptibly toward this direction. This insures proper steering qualities to your arrow. Set it aside and let it dry.
When all are dry, remove the basting thread and trim the ribs to the pencil marks, leaving them about three-quarters of an inch long. Bevel their ends to a slender taper.
The next process is that of binding the feathers in position. The material which we use for this purpose is known as ribonzine, a thin silk ribbon used to bind candy boxes. In the absence of this, floss silk may be employed. Cut it into pieces about a foot long. Put a little liquid glue on the space reserved for binding and, while revolving the shaft under your arm, apply the ribbon in lapping spirals over the feather ribs. Cover them completely and have the binding smooth and well sized in glue. The ribbon near the nock serves to protect the wood at this point from splitting. When dry, clean your shaft from ragged excess of glue with knife and sandpaper, and finish up by running a little diluted glue with a small brush along the side of the feather ribs to make them doubly secure.
Now comes the painting.
We paint arrows not so much for gayness, as to preserve them against moisture, to aid in finding them when lost, and to distinguish one man's shaft from another's.