Hand me down my walking stick

By Tom Seymour | Jul 02, 2017
Photo by: Tom Seymour Tom's favorite walking stick is a gift from a dear friend.

A song from the 1930s speaks of being lost without a walking stick. For me, the point is well taken.

As opposed to a cane, which only serves as an aid to walking, a walking stick has many uses. For me, walking through field and forest without a fishing rod or shotgun in my hand just feels odd. So I substitute a walking stick. And then all seems right with the world.

But walking sticks serve many other purposes. A friend who walks several miles each day was attacked by unleashed dogs. So he began carrying a walking stick and now the dogs hesitate to bother him, knowing if they do they’ll feel the end of the stick.

For me, a walking stick serves as a teaching tool while on field trips for wild edible plants. Rather than bending down upon finding a new plant, I simply prod it with the end of my walking stick, pointing out the plant’s structure and significant features.

Also, my walking stick comes in useful while walking in thick woods. Swatting overhanging limbs helps to dislodge ticks that might otherwise land on me and cause problems later. And in winter, I use my walking stick to knock new-fallen snow from snow-laden limbs in my path.

Lots of people go to craft shops or flea markets to buy walking sticks. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for self-reliant types, nothing beats making your own walking stick.

Here are some thoughts and tips on making your own, individualized walking stick.

1. Stick selection

Anything can be used to make a walking stick. But some woods are better than others. Generally, hardwoods are stronger and longer-lasting than softwoods. For truly personalized walking sticks, though, it might take some searching.

For instance, a stick with some crooks in it but that is otherwise straight in a general way, has character. My present walking stick fits this category. It was handed down to me by the wife of a dear friend who had passed away. I recall when my pal made it. He said it was from a root, rather than a sapling.

Also, lacking crooks and bends, a walking stick with a protuberance or knob at the top gives the walker something to hold onto. Again, it takes some looking to find a sapling or limb with this feature. Lacking a knob at the head of the stick, some people just drill a hole through the top of the stick and insert a leather throng through it, making a handy lanyard.

After locating several perfect candidates and turning them into walking sticks, it becomes easier to spot the perfect stick and to visualize how the finished product will look.

2. Bark on or peeled

Sure, it’s easy to just cut a stick and begin using it. That’s a no-brainer. But some woods have beautiful grains, which, when stripped of bark, make the walking stick a work of art. Hardwoods such as oak fit in this category. Cherry doesn’t exhibit the eye-catching grain of oak, but on the other hand, cherrywood has a beautiful red color. Wood from nut-bearing trees, when available, has gorgeous grain.

Some woods don’t need peeling, because the bark is handsome enough on its own. Striped maple, a.k.a. moose maple, with its green bark and white, vertical striping, scores high in this category.

White birch ranks right up there, too. The tight, white bark will stay on the finished walking stick as long as it lasts. And birch is light, but strong, something desirable in a walking stick.

Beaked filbert, a nut-bearing shrub, has two points in its favor. It has attractive, tight bark, as well as lots of interesting twists and turns.

Softwoods don’t generally make very good walking sticks, but even here, there are exceptions. I once found a poplar stick that beavers had cut. The thicker top end was beveled, just right for placing a thumb on it while walking. And the rest of the cleanly peeled stick exhibited tooth marks, making it a real conversation piece. This stick finally broke when I put too much weight on it. But it was nice while it lasted.

When making a bark-on walking stick, it pays to protect the bark by giving it one or two coats of shellac. That way, the stick will last indefinitely. And when making a stripped-down walking stick I like to give it several coats of lemon oil. But first, the wood needs to be completely bark-free. This may mean that after working it down with a jackknife, you’ll need to find some very fine steel wool and sand it until it is perfectly smooth.

3. Add-ons

Some people like to add decorative carvings to their walking stick. These can be elaborate or simple, depending upon individual taste. And while some whip out the ol’ jackknife to make their carvings, others go high-tech and use an electric woodburning tool instead.

For me, simple is always better. A few Celtic designs, chains, for example, can add greatly to a walking stick’s appearance.

And as mentioned earlier, lots of people like to add a lanyard to the top of their stick. But that only makes sense if the stick is straight, with no protuberance or other natural form to grab on to.

My grandpa once made a walking stick from a length of American hornbeam, or ironwood. This wood has tight, almost muscular-looking bark and this negates the need for peeling. Anyway, Grandpa’s stick had the added benefit of having spiral grooves running its full length, courtesy of a vine that had long wrapped it in a tight embrace.

This alone would have sufficed to make the stick attractive, but the thick top end had a separate feature. It had two nubs and something like a nose and the overall effect was that of a monkey face. So Grandpa peeled just the top to make the monkey face more distinctive. Then he took a center punch and, with a small hammer, made two depressions where the eyes would naturally be. Then he applied a tiny drop of red paint to both of the depressed eyes. So Grandpa had a spiral walking stick with a red-eyed monkey sitting on top.

I inherited Grandpa’s walking stick, but unfortunately, left it in the woods on a long-ago walk. It’s been impossible to locate that stick, though I’ve tried many times.

Finally, concerning add-ons, it doesn’t hurt to add a short, perhaps inch-long length of copper pipe to the small end of the stick. This helps protect the stick and also keeps it from splitting. Just use a hacksaw to trim off the desired length of copper tubing and again, with a hammer, tap it onto the stick until it is flush. Make sure to sand the cut end of the tubing smooth before installing. If done correctly, the metal tip should not fall off or come loose. It’s best to wait until the stick has thoroughly dried, though, since wood shrinks during the drying process.

4. Walking stick thoughts

So, sure, while any old stick will do for a walking stick, a hand-fashioned one can reflect the user’s personality. And who knows, maybe your own homemade walking stick will someday become a family treasure, something to be handed down to the next generation. Just make sure to impress on the recipient to keep the walking stick in hand at all times and never leave it in the woods.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jul 02, 2017 17:50

Good for you Ron!



Posted by: Ronald Horvath | Jul 02, 2017 16:59

I carry a stick on every walk and I walk every day.  It began years ago as a kind of insurance policy.  In those days I walked through Camden in the hours before dawn for exercise before work and on occasion one of my knees would spring out of kilter halfway through my daily jaunt.  I would end up hopping the rest of the way home.  I began carrying a stick as a kind of third leg, one I could depend on, and it became a permanent fixture, especially during those icy days of winter.  Now I can't leave the house without it.

It wasn't long afterward that I started making walking sticks on my lathe out of cherry, oak, birch, and black walnut, or whatever the flooring place on route 90 left on their scrap pile. Now I have an assortment.

And they serve me well.  Even with well functioning knees the stick comes in handy for pushing myself up hills and keeping my balance on rough ground.  Almost two years ago I ended up in Maine Med for a triple bypass and the first thing I reached for on arriving at home was my stick.  I thumped around the house for about two weeks until my sense of balance returned and I no longer needed it to get from my chair to the bathroom.  Still, I carry one in my car at all times for those impromptu hikes.

I sometimes think of my walking stick as a metaphor for dependence, or perhaps a handhold on a life that has grown both more secure and yet more tenuous.   Perhaps I've simply reached that time of my life when I need something to lean on, a physical manifestation of a metaphysical link to a personal world.  After all, every rabbits foot, lucky coin, worry stone, penknife, or favorite pendant is a piece of our connection to the rest of existence, our life line to home, hearth, and all that we know, cherish, and find comfort in.  

If that is truly the case then the cell phone must be the perfect symbol of modern life, a “life line” for our times.

But I’ll stick with my stick



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