An Arrow Re-Fletching Project by H. of Bradenton

I decided to begin approaching the problem of surviving a possible collapse from the perspective of after it happened rather than before. And unless there is some extraordinary and unlikely event that sweeps this nation, one commodity that will certainly be depleted is firearm ammunition. There will be no running up to Wal-Mart or you local gunsmith shop to purchase more. Exotic and uncommon calibers will virtually disappear; whereas the more common will be in high demand. Trade and barter will eventually ensue to replenish to some extent expended rounds; but, that will come from an ever-diminishing original supply. With time, some remanufacturing may take place. Reloading from also lessening stocks of powder, primer, cases and slugs will occur.

So my K.I.S.S. mind-set led me to investigate the more original launched projectile weapon. The good old bow and arrow. After dusting off several old recurve bows I had buried in closet depths and locating some usable bowstrings for them, I turned my attention to a small cache of equally dated arrows I’d found stored with those bows. The shafts were still straight, even on the wooden ones. The nocks fine; albeit, the inexpensive target plastic ones were a bit brittle from having just dried out as the compounds used had lost their plasticizers due to slow evaporation. Worse, the plastic fletching had felt that same effect turning the feathers into crumbling stripes of color glued to the side of the shafts. Even some equally old aluminum shafted arrows with more flexible rubber fletching had fallen prey to the same issue. “When had I last used these?” was my question. Time passes – it had been over 25 years by my recollection.

Forgetting that I was thinking survival post-event, I ran up to my local sporting goods store and was amazed at the current prices for new arrows. I was even more surprised when I visited three of my local infamous Wal-Marts and found only one arrow in stock between them. Inquiring from a sales clerk what was up with that, I learned that “for some reason, we can’t keep arrows in stock, they are sold out by the end of the day that they are put on the shelf”. I guess I wasn’t the only person who’d made the mental leap towards an alternative projectile in my area. Looking about the Internet, I found that the best volume price for a quick cheap wooden target arrow restock was through AllCourtSports.  At $138 delivered, not a bad deal. Almost immediate gratification, and the arrows arrived in good shape, were fairly true and shoot well.

But what about those old arrows laying about? In days to come, my new arrows were surely going to suffer the same fate as those. Add in breakage, loss and deformation, I quickly realized I’d better check out the old skills of making them; or at least, remaking them. So, along with some 17,000 other folks, I watched some videos on YouTube seeing the ‘from scratch’ art of manufacturing primitive arrows. Some 30 or so videos burned into my eyes later, I’d gleaned the basics. You need a shaft that is straight (or you are able to straighten it), you need a nock cut or fastened onto one end, a point or arrowhead on the other, if you’re feeling especially aesthetic you can add your own distinctive ‘cresting’ – bands of color or paint in general and last, you need to fletch it.

Virtually all arrows I know of only have 3 feathers or vanes. The one perpendicularly mounted to the nock cut/slot called the cock feather and the other two called the shaft feathers mounted around the shaft at 120 degree intervals of the circle. What could be simpler? Just slice and sand off the old fletching and re-glue some new feathers! And after watching the videos, I’d seen just how ‘simple’ it was to take a feather found or acquired in some manner, slice it along the main vein, trim, glue and tie it onto the shaft. Did I hear, “yeah, right”? Well whoever you are, you’ve been to this point and know that those fellows are adepts and quite good at what they are doing. The small matter of practical experience and an intimate knowledge with feathers, hoof glues and the patience of Job.

Needless to say, my initial experiments went a bit to the S portion of SHTF. I quickly learned that all feathers are not created equal. Some feathers slice fairly well along the quill/calamus – some don’t, some feathers have a disturbing tendency to lose their barbs and vanes just falling apart, and all natural feathers have this real exasperating quality of attracting any glue within 20′ and turning that neatly cut and sized portion of a feather into a glob of plumaceous mess. Did I mention patience? And let’s not even go into the need for having three exactly shaped and weighted feathers. Just suffice it to say, that is a ‘must’.

Quickly deciding that hoof glue was not for me, I upgraded my technique to using modern adhesives. I found the best one to be Loctite Stik’ n Seal Outdoor/Exteriores for Metal, Ceramic, Wood, Glass, Rubber, Leather, Manmade & Plastics.  pn.@ upc – o 79340 23782 7, component IDH# 1415813. It has exactly the qualities I’d found I wanted. A fairly quick 5 minutes provided a good gripping tack set to where the new feather/vane will not fall off. Yet, you can still reposition it for over an hour. That same repositioning is crucial to get the 120 degree angle as close to correct as can be between the the three feathers. It, the sealant allows you to bend the bond, yet hold the feather without coming off the shaft to achieve a feather true perpendicular to the axis of the shaft installation. It can be easily applied in the exact stream/extruded size you need to follow the glue side of the feather along the quill and doesn’t flow hardly at all once the vane/feather is stuck to the shaft. Finally, the adhesive works equally well with wood, plastic, aluminum and yes – real feathers.

After trying over a dozen caulks, glues, epoxies – all I can say is a ‘Thanks’ to Mr. Loctite. One small tube is enough for over 50 complete re-fletches. And the biggest benefit I hate to admit, is that if you forget to recap the tube between feathers – the tube doesn’t harden. Only a tiny bit at the opening skins over with extremely little loss of adhesive.

The material for the feathers, once I’d made the mental shift from solely ‘found in nature’ materials in my mind, was the next big decision. After trying feathers found from my local bird population ranging from crows (not too bad actually those), to doves, blue-jays (I really like the color, but splitting them is almost impossible), woodpeckers, cranes, herons, vultures (probably the best natural feather I tried – but those fellows aren’t real sociable and their feathers if found are pretty ragged), blackbirds, orioles and even some ducks that have given up on the concept of migration that live around my home year-round; finally I had to come to the realization that feathers are just inferior to manmade materials in terms of uniformity, workability and durability. So I started seeking the best material that I could find that was common and either free or inexpensive.

After carefully removing a couple of remaining still intact plastic/rubber feathers from a couple of my surviving arrows cache I created a template onto a bit of poster board for tracing to any material I decided on. The uniformity issue was now solved. But what material? I needed something thin, weatherproof, easy to shape, flat, pliable enough to bend slightly in an instant as the arrow passed by the bow’s arrow rest and recover/return to its needed shape for straight flight. Obviously any paper product wouldn’t suffice. Nor would splints of wood, metal or any other hard material. I was beginning to see why feathers had been used for millennia, only to be supplanted by modern plastics once invented. Having already had my share of fun and games with the local avian population offerings, I looked to plastic.

Plastic seems to come in the thickness required by me in either too stiff or too soft of qualities. I tried many. From packaging materials such as vacuum box/wrap used for electronics to containers such as detergent bottles and jugs. None were quite right. Too heavy, too rigid, a tendency to deform or take on a bend that wouldn’t be convinced to uncurl. About to give up and while preparing some carrots at dinner time one evening during this experimental period, I looked down at the plastic cutting mat/counter protector I was using at the time. You’ve undoubtedly at least seen one of these. Approximately 12″ x 18″ plastic sheets that do not let a knife cut through them easily and perfect for a quick cutting surface on top of you kitchen counter. They are sold in packages of 2 to 10. Not a one-use disposable item; rather, a longer term usage item that usually lasts around 2-3 months or so before you finally score through the plastic during use. Cheap, available anywhere – and best, I had some. They are just the right thickness; however, the issue with as the feathers brush by the bow’ arrow rest still remained. A small, minor deflection that was unpredictable and unoffsetable kept happening when I tried the material. New material, that is. About a week later, once again chopping up some onions on an older plastic cutting sheet, I noticed it was time at last to replace the 6 month plus old mat I was using (my apologies Julia Child, but I hate to cook and don’t wear out my utensils very fast). I saw a small slice hole had gone through. As I went to the cupboard to get a new mat out of a package there and about to toss out the old mat into the recycle bin – the thought ‘recycle’ just set off the bells of innovation.

I don’t know if anyone has ever really noticed that as a one of those cutting mats get used, etched, marred and worn, they get softer, more pliable, more bendable. So much so that they can easily break along the scored lines. Just like the vanes on a bird’s feather do. The only real difference is that nature provides the microscopic barbs that allow the feather to reassemble/rehook-up to a usable flying mechanism. But, the etches and scratches in the plastic mat after being well-used create the closest material I’ve found that mimics the natural feather. It is just the right ‘softness’, has the ability to bend in a small wave/curve and recover its original flatness.

The pass-by the arrow rest issue was solved when I tested this worn plastic on an arrow shaft. I found that by selecting material from the area of the mat that had been most used, I’d discovered a free, previously thrown out material that makes for a perfect fletching substitute for natural feathers. All that remained was to cut out some 39 feathers for the 13 shafts I had saved, glue them on and carefully position them, mark/color the cock feather red with a permanent marker and find that I now had the means and method to easily replace the fletching on my old wood and aluminum arrow shafts. It takes about 5 minutes per feather – apply glue to the quill, place the cock feather, wait 5, apply the first shaft feather, wait 5, apply the final shaft feather – rotating the shaft so that each feather is upright at the time of its installation.

I’d say that the one question some friends of mine have asked most was just how did I get the 120 angle right? And without using some elaborate geometric protractor method or something like that?

Whether you remove the old remaining fletching or are starting fresh with a new shaft, the first step is to either re-nock or observe the nock on the shaft. We all know that the nock slips over the bowstring. The cock feather is always the first feather to be repositioned on the shaft. Exactly perpendicular to the nock cut-out. Okay, now how to know where to place the shaft feathers? Especially if the original line of the cleaned-off feathers is missing or on a new shaft has never there at all? The answer is in the nock. Literally. The nock bisects the diameter of the shaft. But it is not a perfect diameter line. It has a width. That width is just slightly more at the bottom of the cut – the bottom of the ‘U’. That ‘U’, the side of that ‘U’ (there is a reason I keep writing the capital letter) on the side away from the cock feather, due to the diameter of the shaft, the size and proportion of the needed bowstring cut-out size is almost exactly 120 degrees ‘around the circle. All a person has to do is draw a pencil line using the ‘U’ side mentioned to the arrow shaft and that is the point where the nock-most rear of the vane/feather line starts. Keeping the shaft feathers parallel to the first applied cock feather will ensure that the you form the perfect 3 vane triangular arrangement you need. No math, no drafting tools – nothing more that a tiny pencil line or knife score/nick. And as I mentioned above when discussing the adhesive, any minor resetting or nudging can come after the initial first tack.

I found that it is best to create some jig to hold the arrow shaft in place, to keep it from rolling while allowing for the feathers to not touch the work surface below. All feathers/vanes are mounted/glued so that they are standing straight up along the glue line. Glue is best applied to the feather quill, not the arrow shaft. The scratches and etches in the plastic also allow for minor bending and adjustment to the feather during adhesion to the shaft.

All in all, once I figured out the process and the materials, the actual job of re-fletching the arrows worked out to about 30 minutes apiece start to a finished product. A good way to spend some time just rediscovering that our ancestors were far more patient and noticed a lot more than I did at first.