Tonkin Cane Shafts

Most of us think of ourselves as traditionalist archers, from the finger shooting compound archer to the guy shooting the bit of bent Hickory, it seems the term covers a multitude of sins and sinners – the proper trad guys who shoot self bows and home grown wooden arrows would probably smile indulgently at the rest of us who call ourselves trad archers.

Although I come from a background of many years of shooting English Longbows I still, like many, claim to be a traditional archer despite shooting a modern bow made with modern materials, what most of us mean is that we shoot the bow in the traditional way – no sights and just fingers. I have always used wooden arrows and the wood choice is quite large, but, the shafts are always machined in some way and I spend a huge amount of time weighing, spining, making and matching arrows.

I am sure a lot of archers love the idea of the truly “home made” bow and arrows but fear that the quality of the kit they could produce wouldn’t be as consistent or as good as their current set up – I am in fact one of those, so was intrigued to find out how a simple cane shaft would perform as an arrow shaft.

Tonkin Cane is not an easy item to source, most of the bamboo available through DIY stores or garden centres is suitable only for use in the vegetable garden, so finding Mark Hill, who imports Tonkin to the UK specifically for archers was an opportunity too good to miss.

Just a few days later and I have in my hands the 33 inch long shafts. The great surprise is how good they look, even to a critical arrow fiend like me. Tonkin Cane has very low profile nodes unlike the knobbly stuff we are used to seeing at B&Q, being a natural product it has a natural taper, I am a big fan of tapered shafts, they always shoot better for me and that view was reinforced since my visit to the Mary Rose where the vast majority of the arrow shafts were tapered.

Mark has the shafts specially selected in China, then hand straightened. When they arrive in the UK they are sorted and spined by hand and here is the second great surprise, whilst checking the spine on the selection of shafts I had been sent it became apparent that there would be a margin for tuning which would allow a very fine selection in terms of accurate spining. The reason was the 33″ length coupled with the taper. Mark spines the shafts right in the middle, when I spined at either end I found an increase in spine at the thick end and a decrease in spine at the thinner end. I should mention at this point that the taper is very smooth in most cases close to 11/32″ down to 5/16″ or just under – I suspected that if you were to take your shaft from the thin end you might get a nock of 9/32″ and a point of about 11/32″ which sounded very exciting.

Being able to select an exact spine by testing the shaft at various points could be a real advantage over conventional wood shafts where the spine is +/- 2# – a spread of 5#. although these too are sold in the standard range you have this little tweak option which could in theory deliver you an exact 53# from a batch marked 51-55# without the need to buy hundreds of shafts.

In terms of straightness they are very impressive, certainly straighter than my last batch of POC which sounded like a bunch of steam trains across my glass top arrow table. These are a little more tricky than wood shafts to straighten and the judicious use of some heat will aid the process considerably – here I used a blow torch and the shaft wrapped tight in paper – the paper wont catch if it is wrapped tight and you can judge the temperature to not damage the shaft as the paper will scorch before the shaft can be burned – keep it moving and the shafts heat up very nicely. Happily the shafts did not really require much in the way of straightening and Mark assured me that the ones I received were no better or worse than a standard batch – overall very impressive so far.

I shoot an arrow of 28″ to BOP so after a very enjoyable session on the spine tester I had identified the portion of shaft from each cane that would become my arrow. My bandsaw didn’t like the bamboo at all and no matter how careful I was I ended up with a splintered end. Luckily Mark had sent me a couple of tester shafts from those that had not made it through his rigorous selection process so I was able to test each stage and not mess up my proper shafts. I cut them all by hand in the end which was no real hardship and enabled me to ensure that each end was perfect.

The natural finish on the shafts would mean that you could, if you wished, not bother with all the lacquer and varnish malarky, these canes were after all designed to be outdoors, unlike conventional wood shafts which come from inside the tree these canes are one self contained unit – they are smooth, silky and the outer gloss is instantly water reppellant.

I couldn’t help myself and sanded them down and they would get a couple of coats of sanding sealer and a coat or 2 of Rustins.

I had several choices now as far as nock and point options were concerned. Cane shafts are probably crying out to be self nocked but before I could do anything the hollow centre had to be addressed. A plug of dowel in 3 or 4mm will fit very well into the void. Most hobby shops or good wood merchants will stock this and it is available in various woods. Drilling out the middle of the pithy shaft could have been a little tricky. Luckily the Arrow-Fix people have just produced a rather nice accessory for their tool. It is a special 4mm drill designed for Bamboo. The use of the tool means that you can get a clean perfectly central hole as the tool has several sizes of guide insert

Clean out the middle and a drop of Titebond 3 on the birch or Ramin plug will have it sorted. The shaft can then be either self nocked or treated in the same way as a pine or POC shaft- tapered and pointed.

It transpired that I had on test some new points from the Arrow-fix people which have been designed just for Bamboo arrows, together with a special drill bit designed to fit in the arrow fix tool – in seconds I had drilled the 4mm centre out of the shaft to a depth of 42mm and inserted the dowel -I did this at both ends. Once the glue was dry I once again drilled out the point end to a depth of 40.5mm. This probably sounds a bit odd but it ensured that firstly I had filled the shaft adequately and secondly that the hole was now exactly 4mm wide – which is the diameter of the point. Like previous Arrow-Fix points these fit internally on the shaft leaving just a small and sexy bullet point protruding, the fit was excellent on the shafts, but, as these shafts are a natural product the diameters are not all exactly the same, I found a very small lip of varying size on each shaft – I will deal with this later, there are a selection of point weights available in 80 & 100 grain and the Arrow-Fix review on these points will be out in the next couple of weeks – so if you are thinking of Tonkin Cane shafts these points are one option. Another option are the Top Hat range of point accessories.

The nock end was tapered in preparation for either a plastic or aluminium nock.

The rest of the arrow making process was as normal. One thing to bear in mind with tapered shafts, either machine tapered or as in this case naturally tapered is that the dynamic spine is changed from that which you would expect from a parallel shaft – the reason is that weight has been removed from the rear so there will be less flapping about of the shaft and it can return from paradox quicker, obviously the balance point has been moved forward which will give better flight too. However I find a tapered arrow of the same spine as a parallel one will react different dynamically to the point where for my current bow I select a spine approximately 5# heavier for tapered than parallel ( for POC it’s 5-7# and for pine 4-6#- that’s just this current bow and just me, you may find you need to add more or less depending on your bow, your style and set up) I spoke to Stu Miller about perhaps coming up with a calculator for tapered arrows and he laughed explaining that finding the dynamic spine of a tapered arrow is a complicated business and not something he wanted to tackle at this stage… now if Stu tells you it’s complicated then you better believe it ! – the reward however for a little trial and error with determining the required spine for your bow with a tapered arrow is better flight, more speed and hence a flatter trajectory, more accuracy and for hunters better penetration – in short it’s all good.. The whole issue of needing a higher spine with tapered arrows has always puzzled me – I get the same if I shoot 5/16″ rather than 11/32″, the fatter shafts will be bang on and with the same spine in thinner shafts they group left by 6″ – raise the #age a little and they are just fine….. hmmm something for another time perhaps..

Fletching on a natural Bamboo shaft had to be from a real full length feather and then using a young feather burner I was able to fashion a suitable shape.

There are a couple of things to watch out for when preparing your shafts, once the hole has been drilled to accept a birch insert or when the point is being inserted, be careful not to twist the shaft at the end or the shaft will split along the fibers, if using an arrow fix tool be sure to select the correct adapter size when drilling, if it’s too small then the shaft may twist and split. Which ever points you decide to use you will notice that the diameter of the shafts will vary slightly, as a natural cane this is perfectly normal, on the whole they were a pretty good fit for all the fit over shafts with only minor adjustments or sanding required get the point to fit. With the Arrow-Fix points which use a tang you may find a very slight lip where the point meets the shaft, a quick sand down with some fine grade paper and the transition from shaft to point is seamless.

I prepared some shafts with Arrow-Fix points and some with Top Hats and finally a couple with ordinary glue on points which required the shaft be tapered to accept them. Again, something to watch if using Top Hats, be sure to put a drop of oil on the shaft before attempting to screw on the tip, this will lubricate it enough to stop any twisting of the shaft.

So the arrows are ready, a final check showed the spine to be very close indeed, my careful attention when preparing the length allowed me to match them closely. As far as weight goes, I knew that it would be almost impossible to match them as close without a greater number of shafts to choose from – this is no different to a small batch of say POC or Sitka where weights will vary. The final arrows came out at 52-54#, 28″ to bop, 100 grain point and an all up weight of 495 to 528 grain.

I don’t know why I was surprised when they shot so well, I shouldn’t have been, Bamboo is after all natures carbon and Tonkin in particular has an incredible strength to weight ratio which is why the most expensive fishing rods are made from it. Using “conventional” wood shafting my arrows tend to have quite low survival rates when I miss, a combination of bow weight and arrow speed usually mean an errant shot results in a broken arrow when hitting anything which resists it’s impact. It now became necessary to intentionally shoot some trees and rocks to test the strength of these Tonkin arrows I had spent so long making.

Well, it was inevitable that I would smash arrows, however there is no doubt that Tonkin shafts are more flexible than wood shafts and will take quite a degree of punishment, I should mention that it is always good practice to check arrows when they hit solid objects, more so with Tonkin as the nodes are the points where they are weakest and where damage will show, it’s no fun shooting an arrow which blows up in the bow. If you want to smash an arrow, even a Tonkin one then you will….. but I was able to shoot trees, skim off the sides of stumps and even hit the odd rock and get away with it, some shots which would definitely have ruined a POC shaft managed to not damage the Bamboo ones – without a doubt my next set of stump shooters will be Tonkin.

Mark tells me he has more shafting on the way, in addition to this selection the new batch has been selected, tested, heat treated and the spine stamped on the shaft. I had some of this available and it looks exceptionally good, somewhat darker than the “standard” Tonkin it is ear marked for test next and this review will be updated in March with the results.. here is a sneak preview… 

 When compared to the batch tested here the difference in colour is apparent. Notice also the almost imperceptable nodes where the stamping goes right across them, if you have never seem real Tonkin before you are in for a treat, it has obviously had a little work done on the nodes but Tonkin is known for it’s straightnes and low profile nodes.


Features & Design

Designed by nature so I can’t fault it there, of all the canes Tonkin has the best strength to weight ratio, the optimum flexibility combined with the perfectly aligned power fibers which makes this an excellent arrow shaft material.


Performs very well as an arrow shaft, a million Huns and Mongols can’t be wrong !!

Value for Money

Right now Mark is offering great rates on dozens and larger orders, if the supply remains steady there is no doubt that a host of trad and primitive archers will be beating a path to his door- at present the supply is still limited so get in quick..Just £15 per dozen makes these very attractive and superb value….


For those of us who have had no access to this material the discovery of a new shafting material might be treated a little suspiciously, as someone who can be a little over fastidious about his arrows, I was unsure if I would like the arrows, given that I couldn’t match both the weight and spine to the Nth degree with the limited supply at my disposal, however I was surprised to find them as good in spine and weight as other shafting materials that are available, I was also very pleasantly surprised that they proved to be so tough. The shafts come up a little heavier than POC but are similar in GPI to pine. The additional bonus of a natural taper will make these shafts attractive to all archers not just fans of primitive archery