Sunday, 21 October 2012

MAKING WALKING STICKS




MAKING WALKING STICKS




You might have thought that last week's Slow Adventure post would have exhausted walking sticks as a subject to the casual reader. But I'm not so sure, especially as quite a few people got back to me about sticks; quite a few with walking stick stories of their own. Anyway as an unrepetant rabologist (someone interested in walking sticks) – or possibly even a rabophile or rabomaniac – here's a bit on what I reckon as the most interesting thing about walking sticks; making them.




STICK MAKING:

  • Of course you don't make a stick in the sense of manufacturing it, but one can 'make' a stick as in selecting and then improving an untamed feral bit of wood with the most sensitivity one can muster, just as one 'makes' a young horse.
  • The most usual and useful woods to make sticks from in Ireland and Britain include;
  • Hazel; a light wood overall especially when dried but strong enough. Pleasingly easy to find ruler straight staffs of all lengths where trees have once been coppiced. One of the easiest to find and cut from a hedge, and start using straight away, when a stick is needed in a hurry. Cut a stick stouter than you might for other woods, and leave the bark on for at least a few days so the stick dries out more slowly otherwise it will crack.
  • Ash; can be found with natural right-angled handles, and 'Y' forks. Very strong with a bit of elasticity when dried. Steam and heat straightens easily and well for longer staffs if necessary. ' A stout ash-plant' features as an essential element in many Irish songs, travellers tales and stories. It's also one of the woods that can be 'trained' as it grows into crooks, curves for handles and in winding 'screw' shapes down the shanks length. (If you have the time for that kind of thing, you lead a different life to me).
  • Black-thorn. Traditional in Ireland for both walking sticks and for shillelaghs – a club made by cutting a heavy mallet-length of trunk as the 'head' with a side-branch as the handle - or heavy cudgels fashioned from a knob of root and a sucker. Immensely strong, but needs slow drying; usually the bark is left on. Uncomfortable to harvest because of the thorns, wounds from which invariably go septic or poisonous. Rare to find straight lengths long enough for a short stick without heat straightening and very rare to find anything straight and long enough for a staff.
  • Chestnut. A good light, strong and attractive wood, but needs to be coppiced to produce straight lengths for sticks. But coppiced woods are worth looking out for.
  • Holly. Not as commonly used as the above woods, as it's difficult to find the lengths you'll need. But in some parts it was coppiced and in certain situations – suckers growing up inside a larger holly tree striving upwards for light – can be found in straight lengths naturally. It's a strong, beautifully close-grained wood. Absolutely my favourite for making thumb sticks.


  • Abroad:
  • Eucalyptus. Individual trees rarely produce straight shoots, but plantations of eucalyptus do. If you're travelling, especially in the Iberian peninsula you might do best looking for Eucalyptus.
  • Sweet Chestnut. Another Iberian peninsula find, though also found in many other southern countries. Often coppiced and so with abundant straight sticks.
  • Wild Olive – the king of woods for walking sticks. Iron hard, strong and heavy when seasoned. Perfect straight pieces are uncommon which makes finding one even more rewarding. Ideally you'll find a shoot growing off a root and can take a heavy orb of rootstock as the handle. Or look for natural crooks, and hooks. Cultivated olive isn't nearly as good, but isn't bad. My favourite walking sticks are all wild olive, harvested and brought back to season in Ireland. I've still got a few to finish off from a trip back from Spain ten years ago when you could put a bundle of sticks in an airline hold strapped to a rucksack and nobody suggested that would cost you a sixty quid for the pleasure.
  • Outside Europe there are all kinds of woods used for sticks – bamboos, iron-woods, malaccas and tens of perfectly straight, hard species that locals will tell you about. Following the laws of supply and demand sticks in stick-less places take on mythical status and incredible values. I've carried a stick deep into the Sahara and had numerous people desperate to buy it from me. A particularly nice stick I carried like a lance on my horse in Kyrgyzstan was equally coveted when I got high into the Tien Shan Mountains. Stick speculation could be a career.
  • In some places walking sticks aren't made from wood at all. Lengths of metal tube with an old umbrella handle, and often weighted with lead at the ground end are popular in some parts of Spain.



  • Harvesting sticks and practicalities:
  • In theory – and actually in practise and in law – sticks growing on someone's land, not unnaturally, belong to them. Sticks growing in road-side hedgerows are a bit more morally ambiguous as to ownership. Nipping a single stick out of the hedge doesn't seem to be a huge crime in my eyes. But try and do it nicely. If you're going to trespass for sticks it would be nice to ask the landowner if you can 'harvest' a few.
  • Plan ahead. Though it's possible to cut down and top and tail and smooth a hazel or an ash stick with a large, or even a small, penknife it's tough work, and something hard like wild olive or blackthorn will probably beat you; best is to carry a saw that fits into your pocket. Or a small axe.


  • If you're just setting off on a walk you can always buy a hacksaw blade or a small replaceable pad-saw blade for a few bob in a hardware shop. As a more portable and regular addition to my kit I carry a wire saw; the one with two rings and 18 inches of rough, braided wire. Wire saws are not actually that efficient but they'll cut a walking stick thickness easily. Best of all – and useful for many other purposes is an Opinel folding pocket saw. They're a bit pricey but worth every quid and more. You could also carry a folding pruning or bush-saw but they're bigger and bulkier.
  • If you're going to start cutting wild olives knobs from the root as part of a stick a small very sharp axe is the best deal.


  • Take some coarse and medium sandpaper along as well.
  • Oh, and maybe a small tub of beeswax polish.
  • The most important thing is to get your eye in. There's a real knack in spotting a good stick in a thicket of sticks. At first one tends not to be able to see them at all. Then one tends to see 'good' sticks all over the place, only to find that they're not good at all when you've cut 'em.
  • When you see one that looks about the right thickness – knowing what's the right thickness comes from experience as it's different for different woods and you have to mentally take the bark off – and you're happy that it's straight over a long enough length, look at it some more and from all angles; it might be straight as a rule from one side and crooked from another quarter.
  • Sometimes a bend or a curve – if its the right bend or curve – can add to a sticks use and comfort. You'll get a 'stick eye' after a bit, and see the finished stick in the still growing wood.
  • People who make lots and who have the time cut bent sticks and straighten them; this is easy if you've got a hot-air heater and a vice – a quick burst of heat and some pressure in the right place. You can also steam bend them. But all this is time-consuming. Better in my view is to walk around looking for one that's straight enough already. And it's the only way if you're making a stick on the move.
  • Wood should be green. Dead wood rarely has the strength – rather than being seasoned it'll usually be rotted.
  • Cut well below where you want the handle unless you're using a knife when the effort of cutting is so much greater that you won't want to make unnecessary cuts. With a saw it's so easy to cut that you can get the stick out well over length and then trim accurately. Make sure that you support it whilst cutting the standing limb, otherwise there's a strong chance of it falling before it's cut through and splitting.
  • If cutting a stick on the move you'll need to look for a handle integral to the stick; look for a natural 'Y' or a bump, nodule or swelling, or a natural bend. Or best of all a swelling where a sucker comes off a root stock.
  • Another way to get a handle is to look for a straight stick coming off a thicker branch and cut a length or a knob of the heavier branch to make the handle.
  • Cut the handle end first and then measure before cutting the ground end tip.
  • There are all kinds of formulae for the correct length of stick. One suggestion is from the bony in the wrist to the ground. I think that that's too short for active walking – it's based on the optimum height for someone with a gammy leg who needs support. My formula is to turn the stick up-side down, bend my arm at a right-angle to the ground, grab the stick making a fist around it and then put my other fist under that and make a mark under the lower fist; cut there and it'll be a handy walking stick.
  • For thumb-sticks and walking staffs I find that a length to under the arm pit is about right for a long one. Or to the sternum for a shorter lighter 'long' stick.
  • As you gathering from all this inexact advice, you need to work what length of stick works best for you. My only suggestion is not to cut a stick too short in the first case – leave it a little long and see how it feels and swings and handles. It's good to bear in mind the old adage; measure twice, cut once. You can always shorten a stick, it's hard to lengthen one.
  • A stick with the handle as an integral part of its make up – so a side-branch or a bulbous piece of root stock – is strongest and aesthetically rather pleasing.
  • To fix a handle onto a stick – as in a piece of antler to a holly shaft, you need to be able to drill a hole into both pieces each of which is dead straight and to fit a piece of threaded bolt with the head cut off. 8-10 mm is good. Glue with epoxy into the handle first. You can mix the epoxy with fine sawdust to fill any gaps or space.Then fit into the shaft without glue and see how the two edges meet; invariable there'll be a gap – either painstakingly file and sand down, or less painstakingly rough it down until it's close and then fit a round of thick leather in-between the two to take up any slack. Glue in to the shaft only when everything meets nicely; put heavy pressure directly down from the top, whilst keeping every straight, till the glue has set.
  • Handles can be made from antler, other woods – it's easy to shape elaborate forms – buffalo horn, rams horns (again use epoxy and sawdust to fill the hollow gap inside the horn).
  • One thing i'd council against is a making a particularly ergonomically shaped handle; lovely for walking for an hour or so if it fits your hand perfectly in one way but comfort for longer periods comes from being able to vary your grip; for this reason I prefer either hooks, knobs or best of all an unequal 'Y' with one heavy and one lighter arm.
  • If you're going to put time and effort into making sticks you can get into all kinds of refinements. Most of them unecessary.
  • One thing you can do to a stick if you travel a lot is divide into two or three with screw-joints – like a snooker cue. For a long trekking pole put in three and you can unscrew it into segments to get your stick into a bag if you're flying or in a city. You can get fancy and have a stick where you can screw different pieces together to make different lengths, or have various interchangeable handles.


  • I've got a segmented walking stick that unscrews into three. The handle also unscrews to reveal a hollow in the top segment; enough to take a tipping tube of whiskey, or something else useful like a fire-starting kit.
  • Even if you're making a stick out in the country as you're walking it's handy to have some coarse and medium sandpaper along to smooth bumps and snags off. Though you can use a knife – it's slower.
  • The wood will need oiling or waxing – proper beeswax polish is good. If nothing else to hand use animal fat or vegetable oil. The real patina and oil will come from constant carrying and the contact of your hands.


  • Ferrules are essential to stop the tip wearing down or – worse – splitting. An approx 3cm piece of copper, or brass pipe will do. Shave the end so it's a bit bigger than the ferrule and force the latter on. Bang a nail or punch tip into the pipe to make an indentation to keep it on when the stick dries out. Most people don't like copper ferrules because they wear away quicker but I find they make less clatter on hard surfaces and have better grip. And they last plenty of time, and you can replace them when they are finally worn too much.
  • You can buy rubber ferules – often a better bet for some kinds of sticks. And you can also buy pointed Alpine ferrules; they're a touch pricey from stick-bit suppliers on the internet but not exactly bank breakers and worth having a few around; if you find yourself in a rural Spanish town find the most old-fashioned hard-wear shop you can (there's a fabulous one in Aracena) and you'll find they're only a few cents; stock up on them.


  • If you're going to use your stick for wading it needs a shoulder cord and a heavy lead weight on the tip to sink it. If using a stick on steep slopes a thong of heavy leather or thick cord that can be slipped over the wrist can save you losing the stick over a cliff or down a scree slope if/when you drop it.
  • In theory once you've made a nice stick you won't need another one. But you won't stop at just making a single stick. You'll see covetable sticks in every hedge, copse and woodland.
  • Rabomania is a powerful force. And has been since humans picked up and used their very first tools – sticks.

Info:



Opinel folding saws are in some good tool shops or outdoor shops; otherwise they're easy to find and get on the internet. There are various sizes, but for cutting sticks out of the hedgerow the No 12 is pocket-sized and just right. I bought mine from http://www.heinnie.com/product.asp?P_ID=3248. Wire-saws are also available from outdoors shops and from the internet (Heinnie, as before has a good example); there are various qualities and you pretty much get what you pay for; I'd suggest that just for carrying in a pocket to slice out a useful looking stick from a copse you don't need to pay very much. There's a technique to using wire-saws, especially on standing, green sticks – basically you need to keep your hands fairly far apart and pull back and forth evenly so the wire is fairly straight rather than bent around the stick, and try and pull the stick towards you as you cut to open the saw-cut slightly so it doesn't jam.


Actual sticks, of course, you're going to be harvesting for yourself. And if you're in no hurry, and get around a bit, and know people you'll probably come across bits of antler or rams horns or buffalo horn chunks to use for handles. And ferrules and screw-joints you can make for yourself. But if there's stuff you need in a hurry – and just to see what they've got in tools, and specific stick accessories – it's worth a look at www.thestickman.co.uk. They sell pieces of antler, buffalo horn and other materials for handles. Also ferrules and spikes. What they have that's really useful are screw-joints; you can make your own but these are cheap and good so why bother.

Another on-line stick bits supplier is www.walkingsticksonline.co.uk. They also sell useful things like spike ferrules (cheaper in Spain in hardware shops if you were there, but you're probably not). Rubber ferules are useful too. And you could buy metal cap ferrules if you couldn't be bothered to make your own out of piping.  

















2 comments:

  1. As a newly confirmed Rabologist, would like to thank you for taking the time to write about sticks.

    It's helped me a lot at the beginning of my journey.

    Bill

    ReplyDelete
  2. An interesting article, thanks. I am looking for a nice'walking pole' here in Western Australia but finding one is not so easy. It is also illegal to cut from a tree so...... keep looking.

    ReplyDelete

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I'm an independent writer on wilderness activities, slow adventures, traditional horsemanship and odd stuff. I'm the author of Paddle; A long way around Ireland (Sort Of Books), and i was the story consultant on the IMAX documentary on cowboy cultures across the globe, Ride Around The Word. The Slow Adventure sends reports back from the front-line of a slow and simple life; horses, kayaks, guitars, long walks, travel, books, simplicity, trains, travel, wildlife and the occasional thrill.