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Country Skills
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Making Walking Sticks

Over the past few years I have developed an interesting pastime cum part-time business... I make one piece walking sticks from a very wide range of wood species. I am availing of this site to share some of my experiences on the topic of stickmaking.

Possibly the most enjoyable aspect of stickmaking is the job of finding the raw material. I found that I quickly developed a keen eye for identifying suitable shanks. I am constantly on the look-out for likely spots that may be home to a few suitable sticks. Once a site is identified, I seek permission from the owner to enter the land and search for and cut some sticks. Permission obtained, it’s off on a day’s hunting… for sticks. On such excursions I bring a sandwich and all of the gear necessary for the job, e.g. folding saw, small spade, gloves and some rope. Of course my trusted sprocker, Rocky, is an ever present companion and is very often the only being that I will speak to for the entire day! After that it is a matter of chance and good luck… some days will be fruitful with a dozen or more sticks being found while other days can be quite disappointing.

Next, the day’s ‘catch’ is hauled home on back – sometimes a mile or more. This can be physically demanding as stick harvesting is always undertaken in November, December and January when underfoot conditions are usually difficult and hazardous. However, the exercise gained in getting out in the fresh air looking for the sticks compensates for the less healthy task of sanding them later on in the process. Once home, the ends of the newly cut sticks are treated with a couple of coats of varnish or wax in order to reduce the risk of splitting while drying out.

Now the sticks are sorted into varieties (hazel, holly, ash, etc.) and put away to dry out in an old disused hay shed. Here they stay for a minimum of two years but some species (e.g. blackthorn) can take up to seven years to fully dry out. During the drying out period the sticks are occasionally treated with an insecticide to prevent the risk of woodworm infestation. After that it is a matter of patience – just waiting until the sticks have dried out sufficiently to begin work on turning them into the finished product.

When the appropriate time for drying out has elapsed I begin the process of transforming the seasoned cuttings into walking sticks and we explore what options are possible for shaping a comfortable handle from what nature has provided. This can be the most time consuming task of the entire job. When this has been completed I do some straightening to ensure that the finished stick is well balanced. However, I feel so much character can be lost by trying to make walking sticks as straight as billiard cues and, therefore, I interfere as little as possible from the natural growth line of the stick. As as result, none of my sticks are ‘gun barrel’ straight but they are none the worse of this!

Finally, I decide whether the stick should be de-barked, shaved or left with the bark on. From there to completion it is a matter of sanding, oiling, sanding, varnishing, sanding (yes, never ending sanding) and varnishing until I get that velvety sheen finish which is the hallmark of every Derryhick Stick.

All in all, taking the time involved in harvesting, seasoning, shaping and finishing, I estimate that a minimum of 8 hours is spent on each stick… makes the price look amazing value!

Paddy Mcguinness, IR, entered 2014-07-22

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