In this Instructable I will describe how to prepare feathers for arrow fletching and then how to attach them to your arrow shaft. Years ago my friend and bowmaster got me into primitive archery and he showed me the Southeastern Two Fletch Method of arrow fletching and it has been my trademark ever since. Two fletching is fairly easy (you'll be a pro at it after you fletch your first 100 arrows) and you don't need a jig or special clamps to set the feathers into proper helix.
When my master and I shoot, he uses the 3 fletch method and I use the 2 fletch method and I cannot tell any difference between the two. I shoot almost as good as he does and he is a 15 year veteran of primitive archery. This two fletch method can be used on all arrow shaft materials, including aluminum and wood.
Step 1: Selection of Feather Material
I use turkey wing feathers for my fletching. I have friends that turkey hunt and they give me their wings for free. I bandsaw the feathers from the wing and store them in bags. Do not mix the feathers from one wing to the other. Keep left wing feathers in one bag and right wing feathers in another bag. One note here that mice will eat turkey feathers. It's best to put the bags in a mouse proof box. I have used goose feathers and other feathers but turkey are the best. Turkeys have two wing feather types: Primary and secondary feathers. Primary wing feathers are best for 3 fletch feathers and secondary feathers can be used for the Two Fetch Method.
IMPORTANT NOTE: I had heard that native americans favored the wing feathers from owls as they flew so silently. I had found a road killed owl once and harvested the feathers. A biology professor friend of mine said that a game warden could write me a ticket for simply possessing those owl feathers. I told my friend that I had a photo of the road kill. He said that the Endangered Species Act prohibited the use of any songbird. He said that the only feathers you could possess were the feathers of animals that had a hunting season.
When you get your feathers together, get a cutting board and a nice sharp trim knife and get busy slicing up some feathers.
Step 2: Slice Down the Middle of the Feather
Begin by slicing down the middle of the rachis of the feather lengthwise. I do a light pressured "pre" cut down the middle and then flip the feather around and go back down the pre cut and cut all the way through. This pre cut acts like a guide and will help you from slicing out of the rachis prematurely thus ruining a perfectly good feather. Slice down back and forth until you have two equal halves of the feather. Remember you are after the vane.
Be careful with the sharp knife. The knife should be sharp enough to shave with. Be sure to protect your cutting surface. I use a thick rubber mat.
Step 3: Remove Leading Edge Feathers
With the split feather in right hand, take left hand and go up about and inch or so and pull off the downy barbs and afterfeather. This will give you good stiff leading edge feathers.
Step 4: Measure Fletch Length
I want 5 inch fletchings for my arrows. To make the fletch cutting process goes as fast as possible, I use my left hand as a measuring guide. It's a good idea to check your cuts against a ruler so that you make sure that the length is what you want. Then take your trim knife and cut vanes off towards the end of the feather.
Step 5: Trim the Outside Edge
Trim the outside edge of the vane to about halfway of rachis. This will make wrapping the thread through the feather much easier when you go to attach the fletch to the shaft. The feather can be further trimmed once the fletch is on the arrow shaft. You can choose traditional, shield, parabolic or a custom cut feather.
Many may now think that the fletch is complete but it is not. You will need to sand the rough cut down so that the rachis is reduced. This sanding will allow the fletch to lie squarely on the arrow shaft. This sanding can be done with a sheet of sand paper, but to make the process quick I recommend an electric belt sander. I take the cut fletching down to my knife shop for the final process.
Step 6: Sand the Split
Hold the fletch in the middle and let the first sanding occur on the big end. Reduce this down until the leading edge is thin and tapered. This reduction will prevent a rough leading edge from hitting your knuckles if you shoot your arrow, "off the knuckle". It will make for a more streamlined arrow that will be quieter and easier to serve to the shaft.
Once the leading edge is tapered to your liking, flip the fletch over and sand the middle. You will find that as you progress towards the smaller end, that you will not need to, nor be able to sand very much. Be careful and don't sand your fingers. I prefer to grab life by the various grits it presents me. My bow master likes to use a wide spring clip like folks use to close up bags of potato chips to hold his fletch while he sands it.
Be sure to use eye protection and wear a dusk mask. Nothing like getting back from the knife shop and having to blow out a big turkey feather dust booger. I have a redneck dust removal system in my shop and rarely need a dust mask.
Remember that if the big end of the fletch needs some lateral reduction to reduce the width of the rachis then you can do it too.
Step 7: Finished Fletch
So now after you have cut, split, trimmed, sanded and squared off your feather into a real working fletch, you are probably thinking that took entirely too much time.
I cut 42 fletchs from one turkey wing for this demonstration. In one hour I had them all cut, sanded and ready for application to shafts. I saw on Ebay the other day where some pre-cut real feather fletchs cost $29.99 for 30 fletch and I saw where some barred turkey feather fletch went for $1 apiece!! Once you get your method down it goes really fast! I'm definitely worth $42 per hour! Nothing gives me satisfaction more than doing it by myself.
Step 8: Attaching Fletch to Arrow Shaft
Things needed to fletch arrows.
Titebond 3 glue. I have tried ALL the other glues and none work like Titebond 3. You will need a glue that does not bond instantly, nor glue instantly to your fingers, (superglue). You will need to adjust the fletch as you work with it to get the proper helix. It needs to be exterior grade and not change colors if it becomes wet (Gorilla glue).
Sewing thread. Pick you favorite flavor and go with it. I prefer plain sewing thread. It's of small diameter and fits inside the vane well when you are doing the "barber pole" around the rachis to affix the feather to the shaft.
A homemade serving tool. This is a tool that you will use when serving off the thread on both ends of the fletch and will keep you from having to tie a knot. This tool is easily made by hand with some strong thread (I used braided fishing line for my serving tool.) One helpful hint, the serving tool thread needs to be very close to the same diameter of the thread you are serving.
Arrow shafts. Again these shafts can be wood (I prefer my own homemade ones), aluminum or carbon fiber. If the shaft has torn or old fletching on it, remove the old fletching and prepare for the new stuff.
Step 9: Fletch Selection and Initial Attachment
Take 2 fletching from your collection and make sure that they are from the same wing to insure that they will work together to spin stabilize the arrow in flight. The best way to find two matching ones is to hold them both by the big end of the quill and place them together. They should look like a helix or spiral. This is the same helical spiral that they must be in when they are attached to the arrow shaft. DOUBLE CHECK ALIGNMENT BEFORE YOU APPLY GLUE AND THREAD. Remember that you can adjust the feathers a little when they are put on the shaft before final serving.
Make sure that you are allowing enough room on shaft from rear of fletching to the nock to allow room for your fingers to grab the bowstring without ruffling your feathers.
Hold the feathers in your left hand and apply a thin layer of Titebond 3 glue to the sanded rachis so that they will bond to the arrow shaft.
Make sure feather helix is even and in plane with the nock and press them onto the shaft and hold them with your right hand. Take thread spool with left hand, catch loose, hanging string with teeth and wrap about 6 rounds of string around the two fletch to hold them in place. This is where you can adjust them in relation to the nock plane. The nock must be even in the front, although if uneven in the rear (nock end) you can trim with scissors before completion.
Important helical alignment instructions.
Make sure that the helix is aligned with the nock in the arrow shaft. With wooden or cane arrows I have already cut a self nock in the shaft. For an aluminum shaft the plastic nock is already mounted and your plane of the vanes must be in fairly precise alignment with the plane of the nock. To better understand this vane plane, think of how the arrow must leave the bow in flight. The vane does not need to be perpendicular to the bow and should instead be on the same plane as the string so that the vane does not effect arrow flight by pushing the arrow away from the bow upon release.
I recommend that beginners that are building self nock wooden arrows not cut the self nock on the arrow until after you have fletched the arrow.
Step 10: Barber Pole Thread Up the Feather
Once you have the two feathers in proper alignment with the nock, you can begin "barber poling" the thread inside the feather. Make sure that the string fits down inside the feathers and proceed up the feather spacing the thread out about every 1/2 inch or so. Make sure that the thread does not cause spaces to form in the feather as these spaces will make noise while the feather is in flight and alert your target.
I have learned that the "barber poled" spiral thread should be removed after the glue or paint that you used to seal off the servings with has dried overnight. I used to leave this thread on the arrow permanently. I found when the fletch went into a target with this string in place that it moved slightly causing gaps to form in the vane, thus affecting arrow flight.
Continue upwards toward the nock end of the fletching. When you get to the end, lay the arrow on your lap and spin the shaft with your right hand while applying thread from the spinning spool in your left hand. This will rapidly build up string on the shaft and finish it off. To make neat servings use plenty of thread but not a stupid amount.
Important: If you are serving on wooden arrows with a self nock you must continue up to the nock point and serve around the shaft 20-25 rounds just below the nock point. This will reinforce the self nock and prevent shaft blowouts and splits. This MUST BE DONE on wooden arrows with a self nock that are shot in bows over 35 pounds of draw weight.
Finish off with a nice service. Take your serving tool and lay the loop of thread along the shaft. I prefer to pull the thread back to the pile of wrapped thread. Go around the loop with your thread about 8-10 times and cut thread. Put tail of thread into loop and use tool to pull tail back under the main pile of thread wrappings that you did on the rear of the fletching. Once you have pulled it under then trim the thread close to the shaft. You are now finished with the rear service. Take thread and serve over the leading edge of the fletching. This can be done easily by just working the thread under the leading edge of the rachis. Lay the arrow on your lap and spin the shaft to build up thread. Serve it off and trim. When you are finished you can rub more glue on the outside of the serving to keep them from fraying and becoming loose. I have found that a bit of paint works better than glue. It holds the thread down, keeps the service snug and looks great while doing so.
Step 11: Completed Arrows
The completed arrows will last for many, many shots. I have shot some arrows for over 500 times and they are still going strong. As far as accuracy, just a couple of months ago I was shooting some homemade spruce arrows and pulled a Robin Hood and shot the nock on one of my arrows at 15 yards!
I was watching The Walking Dead one night last season and I noticed for that episode that Darryl had the Southeastern Two Fletch on his crossbow bolts. If it's good enough for Darryl Dixon to kill zeds with, then by golly it's good enough for me!
This method may take more time than using a 3 fletch jig that you bought from 3 Rivers Archery but this method is more like what the Native Americans used. Maybe one day when I hit the Powerball Lottery I wlll buy a 3 fletch jig but until then I'm gonna keep on spinning shafts!
Practice makes perfect.