I was inspired to write this one up by the HAND TOOLS ONLY contest. I've cut (and lost) a fair few sticks for foraging, walking and generally usefulness, but this one is the first one I've got anywhere near perfection. It's hand-made with hand tools and it is a versatile and robust hand tool in itself. Made for the hand, by the hand that it is made for. How cool is that?
Step 1: First Choose a Stick
All good handiwork needs a good eye. I had been thinking about a new stick for months and one day we came across this holly tree that had a damaged branch that had grown back a new shoot. The vertical shoot is probably 2-4 years old and the horizontal another 2-3 years older. It kind of just popped out as ideal raw material
Conveniently, I had my trusty Leatherman to hand to cut the branch off. The super-sharp dual tooth saw on the Leatherman was pretty essential - cutting a stick off on a moving branch, above shoulder height, is suprisingly tiring.
Once cut, the main shooting branches were removed (carefully - holly leaves have pretty robust spiked edges that can piece the skin even with gloves, so naked hands need care)
Not shown here is the 9-month wait while the cut stick was allowed to season in the shed. It was cut in October when the sap is not flowing as fast as it does in spring, so it was conveniently a bit drier than it might have been. Even after 9 months, the wood was still fairly green and subject to further drying and shrinkage.
Step 2: Roughing Out the Basic Handle Shape
Roughing out the handle
Holly is quite dense and fine grained (it is traditionally one of the woods used for wood engraving). This is handy as it can be quite finely carved and shaped without splitting. The rough branch needed to be reshaped quite considerably right down. The branch-stub making up the head would lose about half it's mass in doing so.
The first thing to do was to hack out the basic shape with a hand saw (what else?).
A stop cut was made to allow chisel-carving in the underside of the handle without digging in and splitting the end. This was then used as a depth gauge to carve down to.
Hand made with hand made tools...
This part was particularly appropriate as both the chisel and the mallet used are hand-tools that I have hand-made myself. There is something pretty cool about making tools and then using them to make more tools.
The mallet I made decades ago from an old wooden lawnmower roller. This gives a semi-spherical rounded cylinderical head for the mallet. This is a very efficient shape, as it allows the mallet to be used from any angle without stress on the wrist that otherwise occurs when tensing the wrist to hold a square mallet in the correct alignment. This may see trivial, but if you are hand-carving using repetitive mallet blows for a few hours, this shape saves a load of fatigue pain (and potentially long-term disability).
I think the head is probably box or lignum vitae. Whatever it is, it is very dense and super strong. No idea how old, but probably mid 20th century - very few lawnmowers would have had wooden parts after the 1960s. The handle is steam-seasoned beech from old partially-diseased wood, given to me by a woodsman friend years ago. This had also satisfyingly been carved with a draw knife (a two handed pole-carving tool) that belonged to my grandfather and handed down to me by my father.
Step 3: Handle Refinement
Files, chisels and saws for roughing it...
The roughing out was done with chisels (here shown in their hand-made tool roll!), Surform planes and metalworking files. These tools are great for outer-surface curves, but due to their length aren't any good for subtle inner-surface concave curves.
Hand-applied power filing
For the subtler convex curves and fine detail, it was time to go a bit modern and get the Dremel out. With a succession of emery file bits, the hand-roughed shape was smoothed and filed to a lovely curvy, slightly bulbous head. Holly is fine-grained and takes a pretty good polish even across the branch end-grain.
Step 4: Finishing With Decreasing Grit Glasspaper (i.e. the Dog Work)
Once the basic shape had been roughed out, the really hard grind was hand-sanding. The Dremel does a lot of the work, but eventually you have to use your fingertips to feel the bits you've missed, and then it gets down to hand sanding with ever-finer gritted paper.
This stage takes longer than carving because you have to redo it over a few weeks. This is because the wood takes a while to stabilise as you carve it and change its shape. Wood is a dynamic organic structure that is in a sort of equilibrium that is affected by its shape, moisture content and temperature. This is especially true of partially green wood. While it's good to carve it slightly green as it splits less, it still has to stabilise as it continues to dry out. Luckily, holly's dense fine-grained structure helps.
As the handle was shaped, the stresses in the wood meant it shifted shape slowly until it stabilised. Over a few weeks, the layers of grain dry out enough to separate slightly (especially on the domed end-grain at the butt of the handle). You can feel it in the palm of the hand, even with tiny changes. This is good. It allows you to detect what needs more sanding.
This was repeated every few days for about a month or maybe six weeks. It's not much work to resand each time, but it's well worth it. Eventually the handle becomes as smooth as marble, but with the lovely warmth of wood.
A walking stick is itself a hand tool. On a walk, you can make many thousands of steps and each one means your hand is passing over the smoothed wood of the handle. If it isn't super-polished, it can chafe!! Eventually your natural skin oils and mud, dirt and so on continue this smoothing process.
Step 5: A Hand Made Hand Tool :)
Here's the finished stick. It retained the lovely pale colour of holly wood and an endearing eye from a shooting branch. Here's some shots of the fresh cut stick and the staff/walking stick it became and some things it makes more enjoyable on walks...
Some handy things it helps with are:
- generally helping stability on rough terrain
- camera monopod - resting on a stick allows off-the-cuff handheld shots when out in the woods
- helpful to vault over muddy slush
- pulling down berry-laden branches when gathering things like elderberries
- rooting around in the underground when foraging to discover beauties like this orange birch boletus (yum!)
- hacking down nettles, brambles, briar, etc
- shepherding the dog
- and so on
I thoroughly recommend holly as a stick. Pretty strong, and I have yet to destroy it by excessive thorn-thrashing. Although I have used loads of hand tools here, you could do this with a penknife and a few rough rocks (for sanding). Its very satisfying.