Building the Perfect Arrow

It seems fitting that in this special Robin Hood edition of the magazine that we should catch up with "Little John" Catley of Little John Arrows to talk about himself, Little John Arrows and a his thoughts about making the perfect arrow. We went along to Johns studio a few weeks ago and spent the day picking his brains. 

John at WorkJohn can you tell us a little bit about how you got started making arrows and how it turned in to a full blown profession.

I worked for Ericcsons mobile phones as a test repairer (microscopic soldering of circuit boards) we were on continental shifts and found that I had a considerable amount of spare time, which I spent at Marksman Archery Products.  Through this I got interested in the manufacturing side and science of bows.  When Ericsons eventually made us all redundant, I spent more time with a local bowyer, helping him make the English longbows, during which time I started making arrows for club members and friends. Along the way I was given a Victorian longbow and after that started to purchase them where ever I could, as to see the different makers style and types of wood used, and the quality of their workmanship.  Also had a collection of Victorian arrows, given to me, then also started buying them from wherever I could.  This would give me something to study i.e. weight, spine, materials, POB, footings, nocks, etc

After a considerable length of time, and studying some of the Victorian arrows, which I had obtained, I decided to have a go at making footed arrows, and I eventually discovered the art and was making them and improving them as I went along.  I was originally giving them away to friends and was eventually asked if I can match arrows for spine and weight.  After that I thought there is a niche in the market for quality, footed, crested, weight matched, all singing and dancing arrows, and decided to start retailing them. This was back in 2003.  One of my first trade customers was for Helen at Eagle Classic Archery.  I then found that I could not keep up with trade orders due to the many private orders I was getting

There are a number of wood choices available to archers, can you give us a run down of your favorites and if possible a brief explanation of the main ones, their plus and minus points and why somebody might use one over another.

I started using Port Orford Cedar, as this at the time was the most popular shaft, which was about.  Then after a period of time, the quality of the 5/16th shafts deteriated slightly, although the 11/32nd seem to maintain their standard, so I decided to look at an alternative.  I started to import Sitka Spruce Shafts, from Hildebrand in America.  I found that the Sitka Spruce shafts were lighter than the POCs, however they do bend much easier, but are easy to straighten.  The Sitka spruce is prone to creasels within a couple of inches of the pile.  This is easily rectified by footing, with lemon wood or a tougher material than the arrow shaft itself.  All in all a good shaft, I have made arrows out of Sitka spruce for flights shooting, and generally target archers especially love the Sitka spruce shafts due to their lightness. 

The Sitka spruce I find that the best shafts weigh as much as the pine shafts, but people want the Sitka spruce for its lightness, but as with lightness, there is less density, so therefore less strength.  But don’t get me wrong I am not knocking these shafts, they are good shafts, but they are best of being footed, as they are prone to breakages on the front end. (As mentioned in Target Archery, by Elmer)

Little John Crested Arrows

I was purchasing Boyton pine shafts from Helen at Eagle classic archery, found that I liked working with them and decided to contact Chris Boyton to buy direct from him.  I found that from 1 batch to the next there was no difference in quality they were all good.  I found them easy to match for weight and spine and were consistent from one batch to another.  As most of the arrows I make are weight matched to +/- 5 grains, and spined matched, as I said earlier this particular shaft material is consistent and therefore makes it easier to produce matched arrows.  The Boyton pine shafts are a good tough arrow shaft for all types of traditional archery.  People think there is a big weight difference between POC and Pine, however I find the weight difference is minimal.  They straighten easily, with a slight tweak, or a little bit of warmth from a heat gun.  Nice straight grain, good all round arrow shafts.

After studying the Victorian arrows, most of those were made from Scots pine, I found that the shafts, that Chris Boyton is making is the same material and weight to spine ratio as the Victorian ones.  

How important is fletching choice on arrows, what advantage is a longer or shorter fletch and which do you recommend. Also with regard to profile is there any difference between them or is it all in the look and style. 

I find that with target archery, for the long distance i.e. 100 yards 2.5 parabolic are the most popular.  Shorter distances 50/60 yards and less, larger fletchings work well.  As for shape difference archers have different opinions and I always consider the archers preference. (It’s always the case of what works for you).  But it is a fact larger fletchings do slow the arrow down.

Do you have any opinions on helical fletched arrows, they seem popular in some parts of the world but you don't often see them in the UK.

As my main area of arrow making is for longbow shooters i.e. target, clout, distant shooting, and field there may be the odd longbow shooter that uses helical or offset fletchings, but mostly target archers etc want straight fletch as they do not want anything to interfere with the speed of the arrow.   All of the Victorian arrows in my possession were straight fletched; as this is an area of most interest to me all that was altered in the Victorian times was the length of fletchings and possibly sometimes profile.

As a field archer I use helical as I find it settles the arrow down quicker, which for me shooting normally 15-25 yards is a real bonus.

Obviously there is a need for helical fletching; I think it originates from American bow hunting, of which I know nothing about, and all I can really say is if it works for you, then that’s okay.  I’ve only been asked on the odd occasion, and the setting up of jigs, or purchasing helical clamps, doesn’t seem worth it for me.

Little John Footed Arrows

Yes I have used a helical jig and it is difficult to get right.

What is important with fletchings, as with all things, preparation is paramount.  I personally when purchasing pre-cut feathers sometimes find the quill is quite large and bulky, I regrind the quill of my fletchings, getting rid of unwanted material so that when the feather is stuck to the shaft, it fits neatly and I varnish between the fletchings, allowing the varnish to help secure the fletchings to the shaft, and not relying totally on fletching adhesive (as the Victorians did)

Do you personally use any sort of spine calculation or to do you have a rough formula which you recommend as a starting point and then work up or down from there.

Yes the formulas I use are the formulas, which have been used for years, and yes you do have a base line to work from.  However when a customer orders arrows, I insist on talking to them over the phone rather than by email, so that I can take into consideration their shooting style, whether they like a stiff or weak arrows, what make of bow they are shooting, type of string they use, and what discipline they are shooting i.e. target, field, clout, etc. I think sometimes my customers are getting the third degree, but all information I ask them is relevant in making arrows to suit them.  As when making arrows my guarantee is if they do not work for you send them back to me, I will make a new set, or alternatively they can have a complete refund.

With the base line formulas these are guidelines to work from, but in a lot of cases archers find their own arrow, which work best for them.  So if they want me to make them a set of arrows, I ask them what they are shooting at the moment, also if they would like to send me their best shooting arrow, I can copy if for weight and spine and point of balance, If I do make any slight alterations, which I think would improve things, I inform the customer of any alterations I propose to do with the proviso if they don’t work for them, and they are not satisfied, I can remake them, or I’ll give a full refund.

What sort of points do you prefer, there seem to be so many, parallel, taper, screw on and so on. I know in the field of carbon and aluminim arrows points are often used to change spine is that a consideration when using wood.

I prefer parallel fits, not the parallel fits which fit over the shaft, I use my lathe and a dolly to compress the shaft to take the pile.  No wood is removed from the shaft. I do also use taper fits, as customers sometimes request these types, like field shooters like tapered screw on piles, in steel.  So I do stock most types of piles, so I can cater for each archer’s personal preference. I do not use pile weight for altering the spine of an arrow shaft (either to make it stiffer or weaker).  I use it to ensure the correct point of balance of each arrow.  Pile weight is also dependant on archer’s preference.

John Cresting Some Arrows

One constant problem I have, which I'm sure is not just me is keeping the point on the end, what sort of glue do you use.

I use Araldite epoxy resin, I have tried cheaper versions of epoxy resin, it dries too hard and when the arrow hits the target, it breaks the glue joint and leaves the pile behind in the target.  With Araldite I’ve never had any complaints.

When you get in to the niitty gritty of arrow technology one thing you hear alot about is FOC, what exactly is that and is that something you take in to account when building arrows.

Regarding FOC, I look at this as point of balance (POB) and consider this important in all arrows, but as to the degree of POB its horses for courses once again depending on the discipline and distance.  But POB as with spine matched, weight matched arrows, POB should match on all.

At Archers-Review.com we consider arrows to be as, if not more important to get right than your bow, do you think in general that the wider archery community spend enough time getting their arrows to fly right.

A fair percentage do know the importance of matched arrows, and there are quite a lot of longbow archers getting exceptional scores, achieving national records, county records and so on.  There are the odd few that don’t consider arrows with the same importance as the bow as arrows break, and cannot justify spending money on them.

As more traditional based archers we don't use a shelf or pressure button so getting it right up front is vital for us. How would you suggest people go about doing this in the most effective manner, or more specifically which areas of arrows building do you think people should be focussing on. Also do you think that a majority of archers could benefit for taking a little time to make sure their arrows are as well matched as they think they are.

I am a great believer in the importance of matched arrows, as if all arrows are the same for weight, spine, and POB they should all shoot the same.  As a starting point there are plenty of spine charts available for them to select their own spine area, usually shafts are sold in 5lb increments.  Somewhere in that area they will find arrows, which will possibly, be all right for them.  Sometimes it can be better to shoot a select of different arrows as when people come to see me.  Alternatively I do make samples for them to try.

Usually with beginners, the challenges they find especially in mastering shooting the longbow, can be frustrating and time consuming, once they have mastered the longbow then they will know better which arrow works for them.  A lot a patients is needed in this case.

More of Johns Exceptional Work

Not only do your arrows shoot great they look great too, can you give us an idea of the process to decorate an arrow.

All my designs are my creation and I am trying to improve on these continually, and have recently started using airbrush techniques to create a different look/style.

The cresting machine is one, which I have adapted and made improvements with the assistance of toolmakers Prodec Precision Engineers, which my brother is a director of, so most things I need making can be done professionally.  A photo is on my website which shows me cresting arrows using my cresting machine.

The paints I use are house of colour, and automotive acrylics.  The brushes I use are good quality rigger brushers (long bristles) I use, old fashioned rustins shellac based grain sealer, as I find preparation in all aspects of making arrows is the most important part of a good job. The varnish I use is a two part mix i.e. varnish and a hardener, trade name Rustins plastic coating.  I varnish after fletching and cresting sealing everything in, this is applied with a squirrel hairbrush and three thin coats, sanded down prior to final coat.

You must fletch thousands of arrows, I'm sure people would be interested to know what tools you use. Which fletching jigs do you use and are there any that you don't that you would recommend for the home user. Also what about tapering tools for nock and point ends, is there a particular favorite tool there too.

The fletching jigs, I have tried difference ones, I have got some bitzberger but out of the once I have got I prefer the Tollgate.  No longer available sadly.  It is robust, and easy to use, and if all jigs are set up the same then all the fletching go on the same.

I don’t use tapering tools, as I use a grinder, as its quicker and more accurate as with some tapering tools you can get the pile or nock of centre.

Can you give us an idea on how you determain what arrows somebody should be shooting, what sort of basic process is involved.

If somebody came to me with a 30lb recurve at 28 inches, usually arrows are spine at bow weight plus 5lb, any additional arrow length after that, add 5lb per inch.  This recommendation would be a starting point. 

Do you have a preference in tuning methods for accurate arrow selection bare shaft testing, paper tuning or another method.

For recurve shooting using carbon arrows pressure button bare shaft tuning, nock tuning, walk back tuning is the way to go, but with the traditional archer using wooden bows and wooden arrows these sort of tuning methods don’t really fit the bill. With wooden recurves and wooden arrows, highering or lowering the brace height can move the arrows about, left or right and apart from getting the spine to suit it’s a case of go out and try it. 

John's Inovative Air Brushed Arrows

Thanks to John for taking the time out to give us his thoughts. We are also looking forward to the arrows John is currently working on for use to review, the early indications are that they will be brilliant.


Archers Review is dedicated to carrying on the great tradition of sharing archery knowledge, in many ways we are still re-discovering the skills of our forefathers, unlike just about any other competitive sport, in archery the learning never stops, as we grow as archers the enjoyment increases, so we invite you to share with us all the skills, tips and hints that will help us all to be the best archer we can be.

If you have something to add feel free to mail in your articles, it can be on any aspect of archery from training to bow set up, a quick hunting tip or a specific archery question you would like to know the answer to, someone somewhere will have an answer for you.

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