How I Make Arrows

By Sam Harper

Well, here it is...the long-anticipated arrow build along I promised so many years ago but didn't deliver until now. It's a funny thing. There are several books on bows and arrows (e.g. The Traditional Bowyer's Bibles) where the majority of the space is dedicated to making bows, and usually there's just one chapter on arrows. And in the one chapter, the author always makes the point that the arrow is more important than the bow. Whereas any ole bow will fling arrows, if you want to shoot well, you need to have really good arrows. Isn't that ironic? And here I am entering my sixth or seventh year of having this web page without an arrow tutorial on it. Shame on me!


Did you notice that the title says, "How I make arrows" instead of "How to make arrows"? That's because I'm not really an arrowsmith. I'm not an aerosmith either. I honestly haven't made that many arrows. I think I've made maybe four batches of three to six arrows each since I started making arrows, and that's it. Most of my knowledge is theoretical. If you want to see the very first arrows I ever made and how I made them, check out this thread on the leatherwall.

There's more detail in this build-along than you really need. I added some extra stuff than can just be skipped. For example, there's a whole section on footing. If you just want to make a simple arrow, you can skip that section. There's also a section on tapered shafts you could skip.

Getting some wood

Just as there are a bunch of different kinds of wood you can make a bow out of, so also are there are bunch of different kinds of wood you can make arrows out of. And just as you can make bows out of grass, so also can you make arrows out of grass. Selecting wood can be based on one or a combination of different factors. (Here's a discussion of the properties of different wood arrow shaft material.) Some people have a favourite wood. From what I have read, a couple of frequent favourites are Sitka Spruce and Douglas Fir. Port Orford cedar gets more press, but people don't seem to prefer it as much. People who like heavy arrows like polar and hickory. People who like lighter arrows prefer cedar or pine.

There's a silly debate that sometimes goes on in archery circles about whether heavy or light arrows give you better penetration. It goes something like this:

Jim: I like lighter arrows because they fly faster, and with more speed, I get better penetration.

Bob: I like heavier arrows because with more mass, I can get better penetration.

Jim: But your arrows fly slower. You can get better penetration with a faster arrow.

Bob: Oh, c'mon, Jim. Which is easier to stop? A Peregrin Falcon flying 200 mph, or a freight train traveling 50 mph? Obviously, it's harder to stop a massive object than a non-massive object.

Jim: We're talking arrows, here, though. Even between heavy arrows and light arrows, there's relatively little difference in weight compared to a falcon and a train, but there's a great deal of difference in speed, and that difference in speed will affect penetration more than the slight difference in mass.

We can settle this debate just by thinking this whole thing through carefully. What really affects penetration is a combination of both speed and mass. The product of velocity and mass is momentum. Momentum is what determines penetration (as well as some other factors I'm not going to talk about right now). You have to account for both speed and mass.

p = m*v

where p = momentum, m = mass, and v = velocity

Now look at that equation carefully. Notice that if the mass is zero, then it doesn't matter how fast the velocity is. Your momentum is still going to be zero. And if your velocity is zero, it doesn't matter how much mass you have. Your momentum is still going to be zero.

So let's consider two opposite extremes. Let's say an archer shoots an arrow without any mass at all. It weighs nothing. That would be like dry firing your bow. The speed of the arrow will be exactly what the speed of the string is when dry fired. That's the maximum possible speed that bow can produce. It may fly 400 fps (don't really know), but it won't penetrate anything. It would be like throwing a cotton ball, or worse. The best baseball pitcher in the world can throw a cotton ball at you with all his might and not hurt you because the cotton ball has such little mass. An arrow with no mass at all won't penetrate anything regardless of how fast it's going.

On the other extreme, let's say an archer uses a telephone pole as an arrow. There's plenty of mass in a telephone pole, but with a 50 lbs bow, it's not going to go anywhere. It won't have any velocity, so it won't penetrate anything.

Given those two extremes, there's obviously somewhere in the middle where some degree of mass will result in maximum penetration. Reduce the mass by a little, and you'll reduce penetration. Increase the mass by a little, and you'll also reduce penetration. If you were to graph it, it would look something like this:

That peak in the middle represents the ideal mass that will result in the greatest penetration. It's different for heavier and lighter bows, too. If you have a heavier bow, that peak will shift up and to the right. If you have a lighter bow, it will shift down and to the left. So archers who shoot heavier bows should shoot heavier arrows, and archers who shoot lighter bows should shoot lighter arrows. Somebody ought to get a few bows with different draw weights and shoot some different arrows of different weights and actually graph it. Then we could have the actual numbers. Although I'm fairly certain that my theory is sound, I don't know the actual numbers. It would be interesting to see the shape of the curve, too.

In my case, arrow material is usually determined by what's available. When I first started making arrows, I was a poor college student, but my brother-in-law, who was a builder, gave me a bunch of walnut flooring. The walnut flooring was not long enough to make arrows out of, so I learned how to make footings to extend the length. Here is a video of me making some walnut arrows with maple footings:

Well, just the other day, I was with my friend, Rachel (the same Rachel who gave me the violin posters), at Lowes (or was it Home Depot?), and I decided to ask if they had any Douglas fir. The fellow told me they only have it in one size--8 ft, 4x4. I went and had a look-see, and there on the top of the pile was the most perfect piece of Douglas Fir one could hope for, and it was only $10. Of course I bought it and brought it home with me.


Later in this building along you're going to find out that of the six arrows I started, four of them broke. It turns out that in spite of the wonderful grain in this piece of Douglas Fir, it's not ideal for arrow wood. I did some googling and posted a question about it on the Leatherwall, and it turns out the best Douglas Fir for making arrows has much tighter rings, 20 to 30 per inch, and is harder than the plantation Douglas Fir they sell at Lowes.

To be honest with you that is kind of a relief because after breaking four arrows, I was beginning to think it was just me. You'll see hints of my discouragement as you read along. In spite of the failures, at least you'll see the mechanics of how I make arrows in this build along. Two of them survived to the end.

Just look at it! Perfectly straight grain. The few knots are strategically located where they can be avoided. There's one on the end and one right in the middle. There's a full yard of unblemished perfection between knots on both ends of the 4x4. I estimated I could get about 72 arrows out of this, but based on cutting it up today, I now believe I can get 96 arrows out of it. That comes to about 11 cents per shaft, which is dirt cheap. (For those of you who just did the math and "discovered" that I am in error, I used $11 dollars to account for taxes).

Straight grain is very important when making arrows because the arrow will bend when you shoot it, and if it breaks, the pointy shards can impale your hand. Last year at a 3D shoot, I did something really stupid. I picked up an arrow I found in the woods and shot it. It exploded as soon as I released it, sending slivers of carbon into my hand (see the full story complete with pictures of my bruised arm). It wasn't as bad as it could've been, though. I've seen worse (on the internet at least). Of course that was a carbon arrow, so it's not really relevant to my discussion of grain, but still, bad grain can cause that to happen, too.

You can get good grained arrows from a bad grained board, though. Just split the board instead of cutting it. It should split along the grain. You won't be able to get as many arrows out of a piece of wood that way, though. You should split them to where they are a half inch by a half inch because you're going to have to cut away a lot of wood to get it smooth again.

My grain is straight enough to bandsaw, though. A table saw might've been quicker, but I'd lose more wood because of the larger kerf, and I don't like to waste wood. Besides, I'm no longer at the mercy of a dinky little 9" bandsaw. I'm now the proud owner of a 14" Ultimate Grizzly Bandsaw, and it cuts large pieces of wood like a dream.

Take a look at the end of this 4x4, though.

Notice how the growth rings are fatter in the upper right and thinner in the lower left. Also notice how the wood is darker in the upper right and lighter in the lower left. It's possible that could result in arrows that are not matched in weight and/or spine, assuming I make them all the same diameter. We shall see.

Reducing the wood to 3/8" square shafts

Anywho, I cut out a clean section between knots that was a few inches over a yard. And I ripped that piece right down the middle.

Just look at that straight grain! I set my rip fence to just a smidgeon over 3/8", took one of those halves, and I ripped out three pieces.

I noticed a pin knot in a couple of those pieces, which I have circled in red so you can see them. I figured I'd have to discard a couple of shafts, but then I decided maybe I'd do footed arrows. I wasn't going to do it because I had already done that youtube video, but the pin knots changed my mind. Anyway, I kept the rip fence where it was and ripped out four shafts from each of these three boards, giving me twelve shafts in all. That's when it occured to me that I could get 96 shafts out of this 4x4.

I'm only going to make six arrows, though. I chose the ones that either had a pin knot or had some wavy grain on one end. I cut them shorter, but I don't remember by how much.

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