How to Make a Blackthorn Walking Stick from the Prunus Spinosa Bush
How to Choose a "Blank" for a Blackthorn Walking Stick
When it comes to choosing your walking stick, you need to start with a “blank.” A blank is basically a pole that has been cut, cleaned and cured and is therefore ready for the next stage of crafting.
First you need to source a stick to cut; this typically involves hunting the hedgerows, forests and local areas looking for the ideal stick. You’ll want to locate the Blackthorn bush to start your walking stick and there are several ways you can identity this bush.
- The blackthorn bush (Prunus spinosa) is the first bush to flower in the spring. When you are out and about in nature walking, make a note of this early flowering bush so you can return in the winter months to cut your chosen walking stick blank.
- The bush can grow up to a maximum of 6 m, certainly no more, and it is not tree-sized.
- The white flowers will appear before any leaves.
- The fruits, often called "sloes," borne on short stalks, are purple to black and covered in a greyish, waxy top coat that will rub off when handled. You can make a delicious drink, sloe gin, from the blackthorn fruits. It’s both aromatic and strong, like a liqueur almost, and a popular drink in England and Ireland.
Check for Damage
Once you have located at blackthorn bush you can then single out the ideal walking stick. You’ll need to locate a straight shaft about 2.5 to 2 m tall, although you can get away with a longer shaft. Next check all up and down the stick to see if there are any unsightly gashes or tears to the bark. Sometimes you’ll find a great stick but notice that rabbits or other animals have gnawed the bark at some point.
Also check for wear and abrasions to your intended walking stick. Often as a blackthorn plant grows it rubs against other surrounding roots and sticks. This can cause unsightly damage over time. In Ireland a walking stick shaft is often cleared of all surrounding sticks from a very early age. It’s then left to mature over the course of 5 to 10 years until it’s ready to cut. How’s that for patience?
Personal Protection When Cutting Blackthorn
Once you’ve find the best blackthorn walking stick you’ll need to protect yourself before you commence cutting your stick. I suggest that you need decent hand protection, either suede gardening gloves, or even welding gloves. It needs to be thick enough to protect your hands from the blackthorn spikes. A strong pair of gardener’s glove will stop your hands getting injured from the long and dangerous blackthorn thorns. Also eye protection is essential. I use simple grinding goggles that fully encase my eyes before cutting. I have heard of people also using welding masks!
The reason for protecting yourself from spikes and thorns of the blackthorn is that if they puncture your skin they can cause serious infection. The thorns themselves are not poisonous, but when they penetrate the skin they drag bacteria from the human skin and fungal coating on the spike itself into the body. This is what causes the infection. They can penetrate clothing and wellington boots very easily. They also have a tendency to break off once they have penetrated the skin, and this is what leads to infection as your body fights the foreign body.
It is always advisable to seek professional medical help if any blackthorn bush wound turns infectious.
Tools Required for Cutting Natural Blackthorn Wood
- Hand Protection – decent gardening gloves thick suede
- Eye protection – goggles
- Small hand saw
- Hand cloth
- Small gardening knife
Cutting Your Walking Stick Blank or Shank
Once you have suitable protection from the blackthorn thorns you can begin to cut your walking stick. This is really the secondary part of learning how to make your blackthorn walking stick and probably the most fun. There are two ways to cut your stick. One is to cut across the base of the blackthorn shaft. The second, and preferred, is to dig at the root base.
Often you’ll find that a blackthorn shaft grows as root ball that forms a beautiful and totally natural handle to your blackthorn walking stick. It is this base that gives your walking stick a glorious feel and weight when in use. To get around the base, you can dig around the edges with a small spade or trowel. You’ll find that several large roots shoot off from the root ball. These you’ll need to cut with either a strong set of secateurs or a small saw. You want to use a narrow saw as it makes it easier to cut back and forth at the roots.
Once you have cut all of the blackthorn roots off of the ball your walking stick is one step closer to being finished.
You can now cut the top of the shaft down to size. Your walking stick at this stage should always be bigger than required as this allows the wood to cure naturally. It can then be cut down to its operating size at a later point.
Once you’ve cut down your blackthorn walking stick it’s a good idea to trim off any thorns or small branch shoots from the main stick. A word of advice - do not cut the thorns off at the base, leave about an inch (2-3 cm) of thorn or branch.
The reason for this is that as the stick cures it shrinks. If you cut these obstructions off at the base they will sink into the wood and you’ll have sunken holes all down your blackthorn walking stick. Thorns can be trimmed so the spikes do not cause injury. Blackthorn spikes are usually very long so this shouldn’t be a major problem.
You now have a blackthorn walking stick “blank,” awaiting the next stage.
Walking Stick Preparation
Now for the ultimate test of patience when it comes to making a blackthorn walking stick. Your “blank” now needs to be cured. This drying process allows the sap to egress from the blackthorn stick, and means you can start working on making your walking stick. However you’ll need to let the blank cure for at least one year, ideally three or four years! If you do not have the time for this it is possible to buy pre-dried blanks from reputable craftsmen.
One of the best locations for buying these is in Ireland. The Irish have a huge cultural tradition when it comes to the use of blackthorn. The Irish “shillelagh” is a formidable weapon that has been used for centuries. It’s essentially a wooden club made from blackthorn. Cured over many years the implement is both heavy and well compressed and can easily crack a skull or break bones.
Preparation and Cleaning
Once the stick has cured, the thorns' ends can now be trimmed flush. The blackthorn stick now needs a wipe-down to remove mould and dirt. You are best off using a damp cloth. You are not looking for a material with sharp abrasive qualities as this will damage the bark.
A dish cloth with a mild detergent works well. Just ensure that when cleaning the blackthorn shaft you do not over-saturate the wood as this will lead to warping later on.
Varnish Your Walking Stick
After cleaning and once the stick is dry you’ll want to give it a gentle rub over with very fine sandpaper. Just make sure you do not damage the beautiful purple bark. After wiping off excess dust you want to varnish your blackthorn walking stick to protect it from the elements when out in the countryside walking. I use boiled linseed oil as a primer. Rub it in then allow the stick to dry before wiping down again and adding another coat. Dry in a dust-free environment. Once fully dry you’ll then need to paint on a protective coat using a polyurethane based paint. This paint is both flexible and water-resistant, so it’ll move when your stick flexes. Harder varnishes are prone to cracking which isn’t very appealing.
A great way to protect your walking stick from damage is to apply a decent coat of a Polyurethane based varnish. It flexes with the movement of your walking stick and therefore doesn't crack.
Adding a Handle, Collar and Ferrule
If you’re making a blackthorn walking stick that includes a root ball or base then you won’t need to attach a handle or collar to your walking stick. You may want to add a ferrule though as this will help protect the ground end of your stick from damage when walking. A decent ferrule will also help keep water out of the end. Water could cause the stick to split over time. In comparison a steel tipped ferrule lasts longer than a brass one. But it really is up to the individual and you’ll have to choose what finish you want when you’re making your walking stick.
If you cut your blackthorn at the base then you’ll need to attach a handle. This technique requires you to drill a hole in the central shaft of the wood you’re working with. Once you have chosen the handle you want you’ll need to check how it is fitted. I use a dowelling rod, with glue. You can also drill through the handle into the shaft too.
The use of a simple collar will help shield the join between your walking stick and the handle, and provides a pleasing look to the eye.
Having learnt how to make a blackthorn walking stick from the bush Prunus spinosa you can now begin your own projects. Learning something new is the key to developing yourself as a person. A well balanced walking stick will provide you with stability and protection for many years to come. A well constructed walking stick is a perfect deterrent against aggressive animals and for that matter people too! Having a well made blackthorn walking stick to hand could help save you in extreme situations.