Choosing, Cutting and Crafting Walking Sticks From Natural Wood
From a "blank" carefully selected in the countryside to a finished walking stick (or "cane" as they may be called) can take you a year, but the satisfaction of crafting your own is worth it.
Material for Your Stick: Finding a Blank
A blank is a long piece of straight wood collected from a natural source that’s then dried over a period of a year or more, before crafting turns the blank into a walking stick.
You can collec a blank from a local source such as a forest or hedgerow. Excellent woods for walking sticks include hazel, birch, cherry, blackthorn, ash, oak, elder, and holly. Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa, or "sloe") is perhaps ideal.
These woods also make excellent walking stick handles, either in the shape of root knobs or knots, or when turned into shape on a lathe. The material you choose for your handle is up to you.
A blank should ideally be as straight as possible. Part of the art of crafting a walking stick is locating a straight stick to begin with. It’s possible to straighten blanks artificially (see the video below), but starting with a straight blank makes life a lot easier.
Tools Required for Cutting a Blank
Tools you will need include:
- Gloves for your protection
- A small saw: folding wood saws are best
- A small spade or shovel to get at root knobs. Root knobs make excellent handles, especially for blackthorn sticks.
Seeking Out Your Blank
Locating a straight blank remains the toughest part of walking stick crafting. Searching the forests of your local area will reveal many sources, yet the sticks often appear bent beyond practical use. But keep searching, as you will find a great straight stick sooner or later.
The ideal time for locating and cutting your stick is during the winter months. As the cold season begins, the sap travels from the branches down into the roots. This makes winter wood drier and less prone to splitting.
Ideal locations include disused railway tracks and forests. If a shoot or branch needs to compete with other trees for sunlight, it will grow upwards quickly and remain relatively straight. Sticks found in hedges have often become naturally warped and crooked, and so will not make suitable walking sticks.
Video: Producing Walking Sticks in Quantity
Choosing and Cutting a Stick
Identify the tree you want to use and look at all angles to make sure the stick is straight and free from marks or blemishes. Often a branch will rub against a stronger branch creating abrasions with a rough mottled area. This will unfortunately affect the natural finished beauty of your crafted stick.
Try to avoid sticks that have large branches as thick as the one you’re cutting. The knots will create a weakness in your stick. Knots, however, may provide good material for crafting walking stick handles.
The final length of a walking stick is usually around 36", so cut 4"-6" longer than this on each end, to allow for splitting and shaping as necessary. You will always cut the walking stick later on to a suitable length.
Cut the stick at a slant to protect the tree. Sloping the cut edge remaining on the tree will allow rainwater to run off, rather than pooling which could rot the tree.
Cut off smaller branching twigs about 2-3 inches from your main stick. If cut too short they will shrink into the stick over the curing period, leaving a pock-marked stick.
Video: Master Stickdresser at Work
Curing Your Blank
Drying your stick properly is essential for crafting your walking stick. To cure your blank, hang it straight from a piece of string in a cool dark place like a garage. A constant temperature provides better, more effective curing. Don’t lay your walking stick blank flat, as any weight will cause it to bow.
The curing process hardens the wood. The sap within the wood begins to dry and the wood becomes workable. If you try to make the walking stick too early, the wood is likely to split.
You'll need to be patient. The average curing time for your walking pole is around one year since it was cut from your chosen tree or bush. After your blank wood has cured, and you have made your handle, you’ll now need to turn your crafting skills to the main walking stick pole itself.
Cleaning Your Walking Stick Blank
After curing, the fun part starts as your walking stick really begins to take shape. First you will need to clean it, to get rid of any naturally occurring lichens, dirt or mold. Use a mild detergent with a plastic-based, mildly abrasive cleaning pad with warm water. A damp scrubbing brush works wonderfully. Try to avoid over-saturating your pole with water, as you don’t want to reintroduce high water content at this stage to your blank.
Here the wood really comes to life and takes on the beauty unique to wood as a crafting material. Now that your wood looks a lot cleaner, you’ll notice the natural texture and markings. Depending on your chosen wood, you'll start to see distinctive bark marks, colors, and whirls. These natural swirls and colors are part of the beauty of natural walking sticks, and the lacquer you choose to finish the stick will enhance them.
Using a Knife to Remove Blemishes and Rough Spots
Next you'll need to ensure your shaft is as smooth as possible. Remove any branch shoots or tough spikes of wood with a sharp craft knife.
A Stanley knife blade works well. Remember to use hand protection: anti-cut gripper gloves work very well. Remove any annoying rough spots so the pole becomes totally smooth. Run your hand up and down the pole to ensure all blemishes have been removed.
Choosing the Correct Length for You
If you cut your blank correctly at the beginning of your nature hunt, you’ll have 4-6 inches excess at both the top and bottom of your walking stick. This excess helps protect your wood if it begins to check or split.
Now you can cut the top and bottom flush to the desired length. Ideally your wooden pole should be long enough to reach from the ground to a natural position in your hand as it rests at your side. Too low and you’ll end up stooping down; too high and it won't be comfortable to move the stick naturally as you walk.
If you’re planning on selling your walking stick, don't cut it until the buyer has chosen their preferred length. You can then cut accordingly, showing off your excellent customer service skills as you prepare to sell a custom-made walking stick.
Video: Curing and Scraping Walking Sticks
Enhancing the Natural Wood Color of Your Walking Stick
To bring out the natural color of the wood you have chosen for your walking stick, gently rub it down with a fine wire-wool (steel wool). The purpose here is not to remove the bark or put scratches in the wood, but to create a roughened surface for the application of oils for the next step.
Applying Boiled Linseed Oil
It’s advisable to add two coats of boiled linseed oil. After rubbing in one coat with a rug or brush, allow your stick to dry and then gently rub down with very fine sandpaper. Remove the dust by rubbing down with a clean cloth. Then apply another coat of linseed oil. Dry in a dust-free area.
Applying Polyurethane Coating
To provide a protective coat use a polyurethane based paint. Polyurethane protects the stick from damage; it’s remarkably flexible yet extremely strong.
Your walking stick is now ready for adding a handle or ferrule.
Making Handles for Walking Sticks
- Making A Walking Stick Handle Crafted From Natural Sources
How to make handles for your walking sticks and canes.
Metal or Rubber Ferrules?
The choice of ferrule (tip) really depends on your personal taste and how you want your finished product to look. Ferrules offer unique functions to your finished walking stick. Options include:
- Orthopedic ferrules (large, made of soft rubber)
- Steel-tipped ferrules (brass with a flat steel plate welded to a brass base)
- Brass ferrules
- Alpine spikes
You can even add a magnetic-tipped ferrule! I personally prefer steel-tipped as they last a long time and make a fantastic clicking sound when walking on gravel or stone.
Connecting Handle and Shaft
Next you’ll need to connect your shaft to your stick handle. You can create a fantastic look by using a metal bead or collar. This collar essentially hides the connection between the stick and handle and gives the finished product a professional look. Collars can be made from nickel, copper, brass or even silver!
Engravings on the collar also offer a way of personalizing your stick and making it a fantastic personal present to a loved one.
As an alternative to metal collars, you can also try something more natural and add an antler collar to your finished walking stick. These collars look fantastic and give your walking stick a really natural look.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.