A Fletching Primer for the SCA

Please note that this is not a scholarly report, there are no footnotes or bibliography. This is compiled from my experience fletching arrows. Nor should this be considered as THE WAY to make arrows, it is one way. If you talk to other fletcher’s you will find other ways to accomplish the same job. Talk, Watch, Learn, and come up with your own way to fletch your own arrows.

Various companies make various tools for fletching which can cost hundreds of dollars. This Primer uses household items and practice to accomplish the same work.


In the American Southwest, the Conquistadors of the 16th-century found that chain mail was useless against the desert Indians arrows. These arrows were made of a light reed which, upon striking chain mail, split into two to four ‘splinters’, which penetrated quite well.

Modem arrows are made of aluminum tubing, fiberglass, and carbon fiber. None of these are legal in SCA archery. Our arrows must be made of bamboo or other strong reeds, or preferably, wood. My personal favorite is Port Orford Cedar. Terms which you should know concerning the shaft are:

Spine: This is roughly a measure of shaft flexibility. Spine is measured by supporting the shaft at two point’s 26” apart. A two-pound weight is suspended from the center and the amount of deflection is measured. This results in a number expressed in pounds. A ‘/2” oak shaft would have a spine of about 150 pounds. The willow switch my mother was so fond of has a spine of about 10 pounds. The spine number in pounds should be close to the bow draw weight in pounds. An arrow that has a higher spine than the bow Draw weight will shoot to the left for a right handed archer.

Weight: literally, a shaft is weighed on a scale and the weight expressed in grains or grams. A light arrow will fly slightly faster than a heavy arrow. A heavy arrow will Penetrate deeper than a light arrow.

Draw length: Place a nocked arrow on the bowstring. Draw to your anchor point. Have a companion stand to the side and mark the point where the arrow crosses the back of the fingers on the bowhand. Add one inch. Shafts are normally 32 inches long when you receive them. If you have a 26 “ draw length, cut off the excess.

Diameter: Factory shafts are normally 5/16, 11/32, or 23/64 inches in diameter. A 5/16

Shaft is generally lighter, can be purchase in lower spines than a 23/64. Dowels may be purchased at your local hardware store in 5/16 and 3/8” diameter which will work very well if you have the time to sort out straight dowels, spine them etc.

WARNING: Points, plastic nocks, and tapering tools are all sold by shaft diameter size.

Preparing the shaft:

Either at the beginning or the last thing you do, each shaft needs to be waterproofed. If this is done at the beginning, be certain that the glue used will stick to the waterproofing material. I personally use beeswax which nothing will stick to so I perform this as the last item. Any good furniture finish, paste wax, lacquer, shellac, or oil stain may be used. Also, this is the time to put a crest (colored rings) on the shaft if you so desire.

The shaft must be tapered to fit the point and plastic nock. I highly recommend the purchase of a tapering tool to perform this. The tool works like a pencil sharpener and is cheap. It cuts every taper the same and insures that the point or plastic nock is centered. This is the only tool that is job specific that I recommend purchasing. If you wish to use the self-nock method only the point end must be tapered.


The nock is the last point of contact between the bow and the arrow. It is the last place that you have any control of the direction the arrow will take when leaving the bow The nock should be placed perpendicular to the grain of the arrow whether the plastic or the self-nock is used. This placement helps the shaft resist warpage, and, in my opinion, prevents the slight variation in spine cause by having one arrow with a perpendicular nock follow one with a horizontal nock.

Accurate nock placement is absolutely necessary for accurate arrow placement. Use of the plastic nock is the only true advantage the modem arrow has over the medieval arrow. The tapering tool automatically centers the nock to the shaft ensuring An exact right angle between the bowstring and the shaft.

To attach the plastic nock, I recommend either FLETCH TITE or a commercial glue that will stick to plastic and wood. This information should be on the package containing the glue. Use a ‘Q’ tip dipped in alcohol and scrub out the hollow in the base of the nock. When the factory forms these nocks, it uses a mold breaker in the process. The scrubbing removes the residue and permits the glue to adhere to the plastic.

Use just enough glue to coat the inside of the nock. Then press the nock onto the shaft and rotate it gently to let entrapped air escape. Be sure it is properly aligned to the shaft and well set. Then stand the arrow, nock up, in an upright position (old two-liter soft drink bottles work) and leave it alone until tomorrow.

The self-nock is a u shaped notch Cut into the shaft itself As this is done by hand, aligning the nock to the shaft often varies from shaft to shaft. Any variation from an exact right angle causes the bowstring to push the arrow in the direction the nock leans. This push is then transferred to the arrow’s flight path.

To Cut the nock, first determine the grain of the wood in the shaft. The nock should be cut across the gain. Cutting with the grain will result in splitting the shaft. Use a pencil To indicate the direction of cut. Next, you may want to thin the shaft at the nock. This helps prevent pinching the shaft between your fingers as you draw.

Using a sharp knife, Cut slightly less than one third off each end of your pencil mark for approximately an inch up the shaft.

By taping two hacksaw blades together, you can cut the approximate width of the bowstring. I find that standing the arrow upright helps me “eyeball” the right angle. Then using the saw, I cut a notch approximately twice the depth of the bowstring. If You cut too shallow a notch, the shaft will come off the string during the shot. Cut to Deep and the string will rub on the side of the nock causing inaccuracies. The depth Of the notch will depend on your shooting style to a great extent. I recommend you start With the two bowstring depth and gradually work deeper if you so desire. Look at a plastic nock to estimate the maximum depth.

After cutting the notch, I use a flat jeweler’s file to polish and widen the notch as desired. This also gives a smooth, sanded surface that is easier on bow strings. A self-nock must be reinforced. This can be done with horn, bone, or hardwood inserts. I prefer wrapping the shaft with thread, glued down, just far enough down the shaft that I do not touch it with my fingers during the draw. The shaft may also be placed, nock down, in a slip made of ½ glue that is water soluble, and Y2 water for a few minutes. This helps harden the nock but is not adequate reinforcement alone.


The medieval archer may have gone into combat with several points at his disposal. A broad head or three bladed point for shooting at lightly armored men and horses, a chisel point for use against plate-mail, a thin “stiletto” point for use against chain mail and others. The only point legal for SCA archery are the Field and Target styles which have no blades to enhance a wound. Even so, there are several styles of field point available. A medieval point known as the bodkin may be allowed. This is a matter of marshal's choice and must be made on a point by point basis. (pun intended)

Your main concern in purchasing points will be diameter and weight. Remember to purchase a point that is the same diameter as your shaft. Points are available from 100 Grains to 160 gains. I personally find the 125-grain to be a good starting point. Which weight is right for you?

Balance a shaft on you finger to find the balance point. Without gluing, place a point on the shaft. Balance the shaft and point. The new balance point should be about 3” in front of the old balance point.

As you have already tapered the shaft, now is the time to set the point. I highly recommend FERR-L-TITE or similar hot melt glues for this purpose. You will need a source of flame. I have seen these points set with matches, cigarette lighters, candles, lanterns, propane camp stoves and soldering irons. Any flame you can keep going in the wind and rain of a normal SCA campsite will do.

As with nocks, when points are manufactured, a mold breaker is used in the process. This typically leaves an oily film inside the socket. Place the points in a plastic bottle large enough to hold them and enough alcohol to cover them. Cap the bottle and shake vigorously. Remove the points and permit them to dry.

After drying, place about one fourth of the volume of the shaft socket of FERR-LTITE into the socket. Using wire pliers, hold the point over the flame in such a manner as to allow you to see inside. The glue will melt and flow down into the socket. It is important not to overheat the point. A minute or so after the glue melts, you will see an air bubble come to the surface of the now liquid glue. It is important to wait for this bubble. If the air is trapped in the point, you will compress it with the shaft and it will then push the shaft out of contact with the point.

Still using the pliers, hold the point, point down, against a piece of scrap wood. Place the shaft in the socket and, rotating gently, push into the socket. Now, you can sit and hold it for a few minutes while it cools or you can set the pliers down and pick up a wet rag to place against the point to cool it. Wipe off the excess glue if any. This glue does not need to set so you are now ready to fletch.


Fletching has been made from leather, cloth, plastic, leaves and many other materials. The SCA will let you anything but the plastic if you can back up its use by documentation. Feathers are the usual choice.

You can cut and dye your own. First, some terminology.

The shaft of the feather is made of a material a lot like fingernails. It is called the quill. From each side of the quill is the soft material called the vane or fletch. The fletch is made up of hundreds of individual interlocking barbs.

Usually, the feathers used in fletching are the flight feathers from the wings. As the wing is held against the body, it follows the curvature of the body. Hold the feather with the thickest part of the quill at the top and the fletch toward you. You should be able to see the curvature and thus understand the terms right handed or left handed as applied to the feather.

You may use either right or left handed feathers. However, all feathers attached to any one shaft must be the same. Two feathers curved to the right and one feather curved to the left makes a confused arrow.

I also caution you against using any type of "raptor" feather. Federal law protects hawks, owls, eagles, ravens and such. The presence of even one feather from one of these birds can get you in big trouble. Feathers from just about any other bird may be used. However, small birds have small feathers. Birds with large bodies have correspondingly heavier, longer feathers.

Commercial feathers are usually taken from white turkeys. These are then cut into shapes. The most popular shapes are parabolic and shield cut. These are then dyed various colors. Most commercial sources also offer full length feathers which you may cut and dye yourself. These feathers are already cut lengthwise down the quill.

Fletching Sketching 1

To cut the feather, you will need a ruler, a flat board, and a sharp knife or a single edge razor blade, and a sanding block with fine sandpaper. Measure and draw two lines across the board the length of the fletch you intend to use. I will use 4 and ½”. ¼” outside these two lines, draw another line. Thus you have a start line, a second line at ¼”, a third line at 4 and 3,4” and a final line at 5 inches.

Place a feather on the board. Working from the end that would be farthest from the wing, Cut off the thin portion of the quill. Place the feather with this cut at the start line. Cut the quill again at the 5 inch line. You now have a feather cut to 5 inches long but it has a fletch on both sides.

Place the feather on the board so the “V” is pointed away from you. Cut the quill down the center from the thin end at the bottom of the “V” to the thick end. You should now have two fletches, one left and one right handed, five inches long. Since you need three feathers with the same twist, repeat the above. And again.

The thick end of the quill must now be trimmed or sanded down. Shooting a period bow, the arrow rests on your hand. If the quill is left thick, it will cut or stick into the web of your bow hand between thumb and finger. With a modem bow, the thick quill will hit the arrow rest and cause the arrow to fly at a slight tangent.

Back to the cutting board. With the feather flat on the board, cut the barbs, tight against the quill, back the ¼” indicated.

Fletching Sketching 2

At this point, the fletch will guide the arrow but may be too wide. You will need a template to trim the fletch to the desired shape. You can make the template out of thin metal, wood, or any stiff material. Simply cut the shape you want your fletches to look like out of the material. Remember to leave the ¼” ends on the form. If you are as lazy as I am, just use a popsicle stick as a template. This way, you get to eat an ice cream bar every time you make arrows.

Place the template tight against the quill and cut the tips off the barbs. You will find that a sharp knife is required. Also the barbs slant from the end of the quill that will be closest to the point of the arrow back toward the nock end. With a knife, you will need to cut from the point end to the nock end. To do this with scissors, use long shears and cut the other way, from nock end toward point end.

If you want to color the feather, assuming you are using a white feather, simply touch the cut end of the barb with any free flowing ink. The ink will flow down the inside of the barb. Your kids will love to do this for you.

You now have three fletches, all curved the same way, cut to the same pattern and a wooden shaft with a nock and point. Now we actually fletch the arrow.

Fletching Sketching 3

People used to say that a man who wore a belt and suspenders both was a pessimist. The same could be said of an archer who glues and ties the fletches onto the shaft. If you are an optimist, tie fletches on but remove the thread when the glue dries. As factory fletches don’t have the ¼” extensions, you will not be able to wrap the front and back of the fletch as well as you will the homemade fletch. Don’t worry, it will still work.

First, you will need good glue. I find the carpenters wood glue to work very well. Second, go to your local hardware store and purchase an “0” ring slightly larger than the shaft diameter. A 3/8” usually works.

Third, you will need thread. Common sewing thread will work fine. I personally use the silk wrapped quilting thread as I believe it is stronger and will stand up better. Also, you may use one color at the front of the fletch, another color to wrap the fletch, a third color for the back of the fletch and a fourth color for reinforcing the nock. Could this be where the idea of a painted crest came from?

Finally, you will need a couple of toothpicks and a dull ice-pick or something similar. Assembly: first take the “0” ring and slide it onto the shaft about the width of two fingers below the nock. Place the cock feather with the back ¼” under the “0” ring Mark the length of the fletch on the shaft. Remove the fletch.

With the toothpick, apply glue to the flattened side of the three fletches and set them aside. Apply glue to the mark 1/8” on the shaft.

Now, select your thread. I use the same piece of thread for all three wrappings so I pull about five feet off the spool. I then fold it in the middle, leaving a loop. Placing the loop on one side of the shaft, I run the two ends through it and, while tightening it, place the loop at the 1/8” mark beyond the end of the fletch. I then wrap this 1/8” tightly.

If you are not going to leave the tie on the fletch simply use the loop and a couple of turns to hold the tip tight against the shaft. This makes it easier to take the thread off later.

Now, slide the butt ends of all three fletches under the “0” ring. Position them about 120 degrees around the shaft. Then begin wrapping the point ¼” of the quilt down. When the quill is wrapped back to the beginning of the barbs, begin wrapping the fletch down with a spiral pattern with the thread about ¼” apart. You will need to be careful not to pinch the barbs while doing this. The thread easily separates the barbs and follows the slant down to the quill.

When you have finished the spiral, hold the thread tight to the shaft with one hand while you use the toothpick to apply more glue to the ¼” of exposed quill at the nock end. Then wrap this final ¼” tightly. Tie off the thread with the knot behind the cock feather. Tied here, the knot will not be untied by striking the bow. Apply a little glue to the knot.

Now all three fletches are tied on but, when you look down the shaft, they are not at 120 degrees from each other. Since the glue has not yet set, take the ice-pick and gently push one the side of the quill to set the fletches exactly where you want them to be.

Set the arrow aside till the glue sets.

You have now finished one arrow. Only a few hundred more to go. May they all fly as true as the comradeship of the line.

Walk Tall
Baron Ben

Back to Archery Articles