Many people believe that the term "fletching" only refers to the feathers on the shaft of the arrow. While this is one definition, and is, in fact the name for those guiding feathers, the term also refers to the entire crafting skill of making both bows and arrows. The crafting of both the bow and the arrow involve more than just the shaping of wood into a bow and smoothing a shaft to make an arrow. There is a need for knowledge of the properties of each species of tree, as well as the glue used in backing panels, to combine these properties for the greatest performance. So other outdoor skills are quite useful.
The properties of wood used in the crafting of a bow include not only flexibility and rupture point, but grain uniformity and crown, weight, density and spring. Curvature of the limbs of the bow are achieved by boiling or steaming the wood, and letting it dry while kept bent. But this is only necessary when adding a "recurve" to the ends, or a "reflex" to the limbs. The grain of the wood must be parallel to the width of the limb, not perpendicular to it, as this will cause it to split far too easily. It also must not have a twist to it, as this will cause the limb to twist when pulled, eliminating accuracy. If soft wood is used, the bow needs to be made wider and thinner. Thick and narrower works better for hardwood bows.
First is wood selection, then shaping it to the desired style, then "tillering". These are all necessary steps. After these steps come the options of putting in a recurve or reflex. Then the additional option of "backing" the weapon with sinew or additional slats of wood. If these steps are rejected, finishing the wood by rubbing it with a blend of animal fats, and sometimes brains, and letting it slowly heat to soak the oily fluid into the wood, is the only step left to finish the weapon. A bow with none of these options is called a "self bow". The traditional longbow is one such.
Tillering is the rasping or sanding of the wood facing on the inside the arc, or "belly", to equalize the pull on both ends. The "back" of the bow, which actually refers to the side which faces away from the archer, is never tillered. Equalizing the pull involves more than just the degree to which the ends are moved when the strung cord is pulled. It is the balanced and mirrored degree of arc present in each increment as one compares each limb with the other while pulled. This can be done by setting the bow's "midpoint", or handle, atop a pole and hanging equal weights from both ears. Or the bow can be strung and pulled into precut notches in the pole, observing the limbs as the cord is moved from one notch down to the next. Or, in a pinch, the experienced bowyer can simply place his foot on the midpoint and pull the cord up himself, and assess the curve. If the arcs of the corresponding limbs, on each side of the midpoint, do not match each other perfectly, more tillering is necessary.
The bowyer begins with seasoned wood, cut during Zi'da or Cylus, when the sap is down, and allowed to cure for a full arc. If the wood is already in plank form, he will begin shaping it, using only abrading tools, like rasps, files or sandpaper. The only use for a bladed instrument is to scrape away the bark on a raw piece of wood. He does not whittle the bark off, he holds the knife perpendicular, and scrapes it. All shaping of the handle and tapering of the limbs is done with rasps and such, as whittling all too often will cause a nick and weaken the grain. It is possible to sand down a nick to salvage the wood, but more often than not, it begins a cycle of tillering overcompensations which ultimately weakens the limb beyond salvation.
Once shaped, smoothed and tillered, it is time for the above mentioned options, if desired. To add a recurve, the last 6" of each end are boiled or steamed for 3 or 4 breaks, until they get soft, and then bent forward. This is done by clamping the softened ends around the convex side of a form cut to the degree of arc desired. The experienced bowyer will have this form on hand before starting. This is left clamped for a full 24 breaks. To add a reflex, or short forward curve near the midpoint, one only needs to steam the middle portion of the bow for a few breaks, then place the back of the bow over a thin log and stand on the bow, with your bare feet on either side of the log, until the bow cools. This will put equal "forward" curves in the bow, giving it more punch. Short bows are most frequently given this option.
Now, if a "sinew backing" is not desired, the bowyer may finish up the bow with the oil described above. Otherwise, the addition of sinew backing will greatly enhance performance of most any bow. First one must obtain the leg sinews from most any large animal. They are dried, then pounded to separate each strand and flatten them to some degree. Then a hide glue, made from boiled hooves, hide scrapings and dewclaws, is diluted to about 2/3 consistency. This is kept warm while a coating is "painted" onto the back of the bow. Then strands of the dried sinew are moistened and soaked for a few minutes in this diluted glue, squeezed free of any excess, and laid from the midpoint out, side by side, in a single layer that covers the entire back of the bow. It is advisable to allow a few inches to overlap the ends, to strengthen them. Allow this to dry, then repeat this process 2 or 3 more times. After this, let it "cure" for a good 15 trials.
Then the bowyer will gently test the weapon at half-drawn strength to see if there is any fine-tuning of tillering or additional sinew-backing to perform. Once this has been tended to, the bow can be finished with the oil as described above, except that it should be done without heat, as this may loosen the backing. The application of this sinew-backing will pull to some degree against the belly of the bow, causing a degree of reflex. So if both options are added to your bow, do not overdo it. It may be up to 2 full arcs before the pull of this backing is fully realized and the bow's form and shooting characteristics are completely settled.
The bowstrings can be made from the dried sinew strands, wrapped and moistened with saliva. Saliva moistening will make the sinew form a glue coating which serves to bind the wrapping with great strength. Regular water largely lacks the element in saliva that causes this stickiness, so the arrow doesn't stick to the bowstring. But it will cause enough tackiness to throw off accuracy to a degree. There is a significant problem of shrinkage, though, so most bowstrings are fashioned from plant fibers if wet weather is anticipated.
There are many plants with highly fibrous characteristics. Also the cambium bark layer, which is between the wood and the outer bark of most trees, is very fibrous. These fibers can be separated with the application of most types of friction, even just wetting your palm and rubbing a length of it on your pants. This will separate the different strands, and allow the removal of non-fibrous debris. The fibers are then wrapped in offsetting lengths, the ends spread and intertwined, and immediately brought into the winding to keep adding length. The spliced ends must always be wound with a solid strand. This will keep them tightened and wound to such a degree that they are as strong as unbroken fibers.
A simple wrap can be achieved by tightly winding the fiber bundles, taking hold of the middle in your teeth, bringing the free ends together and releasing the middle. The two strands will wrap around themselves naturally. There are other types of cordage wraps as well, and they can all be doubled and tripled and spliced to any length and strength. Rope is essentially made this same way. Like rope, bowstrings can be quickly passed through a flame to burn away unsightly excess fibers.
The crafting of arrows uses the same skills described above with slightly different applications. The selection of wood is still very important, but more in the sense that you want as little flex as you can get. Heating is instead used to remove bends, rather than add them. Some fletchers even have straight molds made of a hard but breathable material to place the steamed, straightened shafts in while they dry.
The "feathering" is usually made, unsurprisingly, from actual feathers, which have been split down the middle of the hard quill center, or "rachis", of a feather. Since it takes three "feathers" to give proper aerodynamics to an arrow, it takes half again as many feathers to finish any number of arrows. Once split, the feathers are shaped to the desired height and length, by trimming and shaving a half inch of the feathers from the rachis to give a bit of bare, hard quill to wrap.
Using the same dried separated sinew strands as before, moistened with saliva as above, the natural glue negating the need for tying. Then, holding the three half feathers, at equidistant thirds of the shaft's circumference, from the back end, he wraps the moistened sinew tightly over the shaved rachis ends and lets it dry. He then repeats this process at the back end, wrapping it right up to where he files the nock in the end of the shaft. This will not only hold the feathers in place, but will bolster the nock against the shock of the cord's impact, while firing, and prevent splitting the shaft.
The arrow heads can be made from stone, bone, shell, metal or even glass. The flint-knapping of stone or glass requires a considerable knowledge of stone working to successfully chip and chisel a piece of stone to a thin, flat, sharp shape without shattering it. Bone and metal are far easier, as they can be cut and filed easily to a functional shape and edge. Shell is more brittle, but can still be worked with the same success.
Which ever medium is used, the desired size and weight depend largely on the intended game. But the over all shape is a triangle with an inverted "T" extending from the bottom. This T is then inserted into a slot cut into the forward end of the shaft so that the flares of the T protrude from the sides of the shaft a short ways inside of the end. The part of the shaft showing between the bottom of the triangle and the protruding flares of the T are tightly wrapped with the same saliva-moistened sinew strands. The wrapping is then extended a short ways down the shaft past the T and allowed to dry.
This person is learning what some of these terms means and makes his first attempts at making a bow and a few arrows. For the most part, he learns from repeated mistakes, but keeps on, knowing he will get it figured out. Eventually he succeeds in crafting a functional longbow, though he needs someone else to make the arrowheads for him. But he's learned enough to know that his longbow is really not very good. His bowstrings often unravel, or if made of sinew, get too sticky or shrink.
He has come far in crafting regular "self-bows", creating items actually worth purchasing. He has moved on to adding the three options to his bows, but is bound to learn from the inherent mistakes in taking this step. Like the longbow, however, he eventually succeeds in making workable samples of all three new types. He has learned also how to make simple wrapped bowstrings from both sinew and plant fibers, as well as arrowheads from bone and metal. His bows are worth the prices he charges, but are not likely to draw the interest of expert archers.
This man is now a true bowyer, worthy of recognition for his quality. He is able to craft all types of bows, with all embellishments. Only stone knapping defies his abilities in making arrowheads, and there are no types of string-wrapping he cannot do. He can dye his featherings to indicate particulars of the different types of arrows he makes, including special arrows, with small reservoirs for poisons or flammable oils, along with intricate inner cylinders for rolling weights to add secondary impacts that trigger these special effects. He can also cut holes that make the arrows whistle and howl as they fly. It is really only a matter of how quickly he can produce these items and how long they last that separate him from the masters.
Famous archers seek this man out and are glad to wait arcs for his products. He finishes them in amazingly short time and they last as long as the archers that buy them. Mostly though, this is due to the fact that these archers always want to be buried with them if and when they die. He makes top quality bows of every imaginable type and style, embellishing them with decorative curves that make them as notably beautiful as they are powerful beyond belief. His arrowheads are capable of incredible secondary trickery, the featherings spiked with chemicals that leave trails of sparkling color to mark their flight.