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Learn the Basic Rules of Stickmaking

Monday 9 July 2018

The majority of homemade sticks comprise of a handle and a shaft – which is also called a shank. The shaft, and the handle if made of wood, will need to be seasoned, which means that the wood must be left to dry. The rule of thumb for drying wood is one year for 1in (25mm) of thickness.

The traditional woods for the shaft are (see gallery photo 1, left to right):

1. Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

2. Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

3. Hazel (Corylus avellana)

4. Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

5. Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa)

Cutting shafts

Shafts of all these woods if grown in a coppice, will have a tendency to be reasonably straight and therefore will reduce the need for straightening at a later stage. From a conservation viewpoint, try not to cut proposed stick shafts which you later have to discard as unsuitable.

The ideal time for cutting shafts is when the wood sap is down i.e. when the tree is hibernating for winter – this is generally indicated by the leaves having fallen from the branches, and is usually between November and February of each year. Holly, an evergreen tree, does not shed its leaves but can also be cut at this time of year. Look for shafts that are about 1.5m (5ft) in length, and about 25-30mm (1-1/4in) at the thick end, tapering to about 15mm (9/16in) at the thin end. After cutting, store them in a cool, dry, airy place for 12 months to season.

Straightening after seasoning

After seasoning your shaft, inspect the shaft for any sections that require straightening.

To straighten, start at the fat end and working your way down in stages, apply heat using a hot air gun to any sections that require straightening. Fan the heat over a 150mm (6in) length all around the circumference of the shaft at the point that needs to be straightened. Apply only sufficient heat so that the shaft is just too hot to hold at the heated area with an ungloved hand, then straighten and allow to cool before straightening the next 150mm length. Straighten across your knee or the corner of a bench (see gallery photo 2).

Type of joint

There are two types of joints used for joining the handle to the shaft:

1. Dowel joint – where the end of the shaft is made into a dowel, and the handle is drilled to accept the dowel.

2. Studding joint – where a single threaded metal rod is glued into both the handle and the shaft.

I will only be dealing with the studding joint since this is easier, and an almost perfect joint made every time.

A dowel joint once made, cannot be adjusted to be made perfect. Only experienced stickmakers can successfully make dowel joints that are perfect.

The handle

Regardless of whether the handle is carved (dog or bird head etc) or plain, the process for a studding joint is the same. Here I am using what is known as a 'cardigan' style handle, the shape being very similar to that of a carved handle.

Square the base of the neck (see gallery photo 3). Mark the centreline on all sides of the handle blank, then a centreline in each half of the handle – this will help with the shaping up later (see gallery photo 4).

Mark the centre of the base of the handle. Put the handle in a vice upside down with the neck vertical – check and confirm by using a spirit level (see gallery photo 5).

The threaded rod

At the central point of the base, drill a vertical hole using an 8mm drill bit (see gallery photo 6) to the depth of 60mm (2 3/8in), or 55mm (2 1/4in) if you intend using a spacer with the threaded rod – the threaded rod is 125mm (5in) long.

The threaded rod can be glued in place either now or later in the making process, depending on your preference. When gluing the rod in the hole, it must be held by pressure while the glue dries.

A pocket of air can sometimes get trapped at the bottom of the hole and if pressure is not applied, the air that is compressed in the hole will cause the rod to come out slightly. Remove any excess glue before it dries.

If you are fitting a spacer, drill the centre with an 8mm drill bit and glue it to the handle when the glue holding the threaded rod has dried. Remove any excess glue before it dries. You can apply pressure by using a large washer and a wing nut screwed down on the threaded rod.

When the glue has dried, remove any excess spacer material back to the original size of the handle neck (see gallery photo 7).

Now you can carve/shape the handle. You must leave the neck squared, so do not reduce the neck part at this stage (see gallery photo 8).

Drilling the hole

Ensure that the thicker end of the shaft is flat and at 90 degrees to the shaft. Ensure that the shaft is vertical in the vice using a spirit level (see gallery photo 9).

Find and mark the centre of the thick end of the shaft using a metal washer of smaller diameter than the shaft, since it is round and has a central hole – the smaller the hole space the easier it is to find the centre (see gallery photo 10).

Drill a hole using the 8mm drill bit to a depth of 60mm (2 3/8in). Drill a small way and then move 90° round the shaft to the side and drill another small way, then move back 90°. Continue drilling, moving 90° back and forth until the hole has been drilled. The reason for moving 90° is to ensure that the hole is as upright as possible from both the front and the side (see gallery photo 11).

Now is the time to glue the threaded rod into the handle if you have not previously done so, and the spacer if one is being used. Check that the hole is deep enough for the threaded rod protruding from the bottom of the handle. About 25mm (1in) from the top of the shaft, put a strip of masking tape completely around the circumference of the shaft.

Handle alignment

Viewing from the back, insert the handle into the shaft. Looking down the full length of the shaft from the thin end, slowly rotate the shaft while keeping the handle still. Keep the back of the handle uppermost on the end of the shaft while rotating the shaft. When the shaft and the handle are in a straight line, draw a vertical pencil line on the masking tape that follows down from the centreline on the back of the handle (see gallery photo 12).

If you cannot get the handle and shaft in a straight line, then place the neck of the handle in a vice and using a hammer, tap

the threaded rod to adjust its position, and then try again to get the handle and shaft in a straight line. Always ensure that the direction you are tapping the threaded rod is against the jaws of the vice.

With the view from the back in line, and the pencil lines lined up, view from the side (see gallery photo 13). If the handle is leaning forwards or backwards, repeat the process of tapping the threaded rod in the vice so that from the side, the handle is vertical (see gallery photo 14).

When you have completed the view from the back and the side, hold the handle in its lined-up position on the shaft – there may be a small gap between the handle and

shaft surfaces. Where this occurs, remove any wood from the top of the shaft that is preventing a complete touching surface to be achieved.

When you have a complete touching surface, the handle will need to be glued to the shaft.

Gluing handle and shaft

At the very top of the shaft, put a strip of masking tape completely around the circumference, but do not cover up the 'jointing line' pencil mark – if you do, re-mark the line down the shaft. The masking tape is to prevent the glue from damaging the bark.

Using a sharp knife, slightly dish the top of the shaft around the hole drilled for the threaded rod. It is important not to cut the dish out from the whole so that it reaches the bark (see gallery photo 15).

Remove the wood between the outside lines, thereby changing the four sides of the neck into eight sides (see gallery photo 16).

Using the two-part epoxy, mix enough glue to cover the threaded rod, and insert the handle into the top of the shaft. Line up the jointing marks on the handle and shaft, and apply pressure to the joint until the glue is set.

Take note – it is possible to get a small pocket of air trapped in the joint which if pressure is not applied, will push the joint apart.

Reducing the handle to shaft

Using a 'bastard cut' file, smooth down the corners of the neck of the handle so that the neck becomes round in circumference.

There are rules that need to be applied when looking at the appearance of the handle and shaft:

1. The inside line of the handle needs to be a straight continuous line up from the shaft, which must not fall forwards or backwards.

2. The back line can be either straight or slightly backwards, but must not fall forwards.

3. The two sides can be straight or slightly flared out from the joint but must not fatten.

Use the bastard file to reduce the sides of the handle to get to this stage. Remember to cut with the grain or across, but never against it.

Now use cloth-backed abrasive from 125 grit in stages down to 400 grit to sand the neck down to the shaft circumference. Sand the handle until the masking tape at the top of the shaft starts to rough up. This is a signal to be careful since you are now only a paper thickness away from the bark. Continue carefully using the fine grit abrasive until all the masking paper has been removed, then gently rub the joint with 000 grade wire wool to remove any trace of the masking tape.

Use the wire wool down the whole length of the shaft to ensure that it is smooth. Now cut the shaft to the length required, remembering the old saying “measure twice, cut once”. If you are fitting a metal ferrule, make sure that it is the correct size, not bigger or smaller in circumference than the shaft.

So there you have it. Follow these basic rules and you will be able to make and adapt your own walking sticks to your carved heads.