So you want to know how to make an atlatl? I have you covered. As an outdoorsman and sporting enthusiast, I’ve had hours of fun with my own atlatl, and I’m happy to share the joy with everyone. This step-by-step guide will show you the entire process using minimal tools. For the most part, you only need a knife. I’ll walk you through each part of making your atlatl and your darts, and then I’ll walk you through the basics of using them.
- Sticks. It’s ok to just find them outside.
- Knife. A hunting or work knife that can cut wood and whittle is ideal.
- Feathers (optional)
- Twine (optional)
Making the Atlatl
Find Your Atlatl Branch. Ultimately you need to find a branch for the atlatl and for each dart you want to make, but we’ll cover dart criteria later. For the atlatl, you want a branch that is roughly two to three inches in diameter and between one and two feet long.
Longer atlatls will be more powerful and more difficult to wield, so keep that in mind. Additionally, if you have plenty of choice in wood, you want a softer wood that is less prone to being sappy. If you find a stick that has a knot, curve or extra thickness on one end, it will make the process a little easier.
Clean the Wood. No, you don’t need to scrub it with soap and water. In this step, you’ll remove any small branches or protrusions, but we aren’t stripping bark or carving wood yet. You just want to make your stick as smooth as possible whilst still being a stick.
Get to Carving. This is where the quality knife comes in handy. You want to leave at least six inches uncarved, and it will serve as the handle, and if you have a knot or thick end, that should not be the handle end. Leaving bark and the natural shape helps with gripping when the atlatl is in use.
On the rest of the stick, you want to strip the bark and whittle a straight edge along the length of the stick (excluding the handle). The dart you throw will need to be able to rest against this side, so keep that in mind during this process. You don’t need to cut very deep into your stick for this part, as more whittling is about to happen.
Make the Stop Cut. Opposite the handle, one to two inches from the end of the stick, you are going to make your stop cut. This is to make a butt against which your dart can rest. When you identify where your stop cut will be, you will essentially be leaving the end alone and whittling the rest of the flat surface further to make the shape. The end result should be a stick with a protruding butt on the end.
Sand (optional). There is no harm in skipping this step until you find you like your atlatl, but if you’re going to use it a lot, sanding will reduce splinters and improve the aesthetic.
Check out the video below for more details on how to make an atlatl:
- Select a Branch. Dart branches are different from atlatl branches in two important ways. First, they should be longer than your atlatl, up to three feet in length. Second, they need to be narrow enough to fit in the stop gap of the atlatl. You will still be carving the dart branches, so you want to continue avoiding sappy wood if you can.
- Trim. This process will seem familiar. Remove growths and protrusions. You want your dart to be aerodynamic, and that means making it as round as possible without removing the bark.
- Cut. For the dart, you can leave most of it alone, but you want to cut the back end into a shape that will fit nicely against the stop cut. Just shaping that last three inches or so is sufficient. You also want to cut a tip. For safety, I recommend a fairly blunt tip, but it still needs at least a little bit of arrow shape to maintain good flight.
- Feathers (optional). You can add feathers to the back end of your dart to help it fly true. The three-feather design that is common on arrows is perfect for atlatl darts. It’s ok if it looks sloppy, as long as the feathers stay there, they will help. Glue can help the process, but the feathers are best fastened with twine or string.
- Sear the Tip. If you like the end result of your dart, consider hardening the tip in a hot flame. Butane lighters are the easiest resource, but even the coals from a typical wood fire are hot enough. You don’t want to set the tip on fire, but if you blacken it, it will be less prone to splitting and your dart will last longer.
5 Throwing Tips
- Knocking the Dart. You know that the base of the dart should rest flush against the stop cut when you throw, but getting it snug can be tricky. One of the easiest tricks is to put the tip of the dart into the ground and fit the atlatl to it. Once secure, pick up the loaded atlatl and throw.
- Grip. Speaking of picking it up, how do you hold this thing? The standard grip uses your bottom three fingers to hold the atlatl while the thumb and index finger hold the dart. You’ll be using a basic overhand grip, and the dart should be resting on top of the knuckles of your bottom fingers when you hold it ready to throw. You want to pinch the dart between the thumb and index fingers while applying enough pressure to keep it against the stop cut. When the grip is right, the throwing motion will be enough to launch the dart out of your grip. If the dart sticks, try pinching lower and lower on it until it releases properly.
- The Wrist Flick. As for the throwing motion, there are two primary options. The first is a simple wrist flick, and it’s the best place to start. You’ll be surprised by the power this simple motion will have, and it’s much easier to figure out your grip and release with the smaller throw. Don’t worry too much about aim; just focus on getting good, clean releases.
- The Full Throw. When you have your release down, you’re ready for a full-power throw. This motion is almost identical to pitching a baseball. You want to point your non-throwing shoulder at your target. You start by stepping toward the target with your lead foot. As you shift your weight from the back foot to the front, you’ll bring your arm forward in a full throw. When your arm is forward, snap the wrist down with your practiced release and the dart will go flying. If you don’t have baseball experience, it might feel uncomfortable at first, and practicing with a baseball or small rock might be easier. Watching a few clips of MLB stars can help too. Don’t fret, though. The motion will feel natural surprisingly fast, and you’ll be able to launch your darts with more power than basic bows!
- Aim. The last thing to learn is aim. When you’re doing a full throw, you want to face 90 degrees away from your target. In other words, your non-throwing shoulder should be pointed at the target. Your feet should also be shoulder-width apart. The best trick for aiming is to draw an imaginary line from the toe of one shoe to the other. It should point right at your target. When you throw, take your step along this imaginary line and the natural movement of your body will align properly.
Now you know how to make an atlatl. If you fall in love with your atlatl, there are certainly some advanced designs and fun additions you can consider. Finger holes, recurves and flex points are only the beginning. Did you enjoy the tutorial? If so, please share it, and as always, share your thoughts in the comments below.