Knowing how to make a hiking stick might not be on your bucket list, in which case this article is not for you. You probably live in a locality where you can hike nearly the whole year, and, if you are not hiking, you are partaking in other outdoor activities.
However, if you live in a clime with long, hard and dangerous winters or extremely hot summers, there might be weeks or months where you would love to hike, but the time is not right.
Creating your very own stick is an absorbing pastime that will fill up those times when you wish you could be on the trail and for that, it’s important to know how to make a hiking stick in the first place. A hiking stick is a very personal item: it has to fit your physique and your hiking style.
There are specialist stick carvers who can make you one to your specification, but they do not come cheap. The sense of accomplishment you would get from making your own is also missing. The result is a long-time companion on your travels, a valuable aid and a conversation piece in the evenings.
You can further personalize it by adding mementos and records of hikes and trails with additional carving and embossing. So, even if this is not something you planned to do, maybe we have piqued your interest enough to read further on how to make a hiking stick.
Who knows, if you take the plunge and find it fun, you could even start making sticks for friends and customers, either as a hobby or as a professional.
First, Take a Good Stout Stick
This might sound like the introduction to an old-fashioned recipe, and so it should. Humans have been finding or making walking sticks both as walking aids and protection since they could walk on two legs. Depending on where you live, this could also be as simple as going to your nearest stand of trees, wood or forest.
For those not so fortunate, it might involve visiting timber yards, craft or woodworking shops or even buying online. You also need to know something about wood types and whether they are suitable or not. Very hard wood is durable, but heavier and requires a lot of work, while if a wood is too soft, it is going to break and/or easily.
Types of Wood you can Use
If you have no idea where to start, here are a few types of wood that are suitable for making hiking or walking sticks and canes. Ideally, you should use fresh, or green wood, but it is also possible to use old wood, it just needs different treatment. Here are a few timbers that are popular for the purpose.
There is a useful site called “The Wood Database”, which, while it does not have every possible species listed, is very comprehensive. Started by Eric Meier, who makes musical instruments, this is a helpful compendium of the types available and their properties, which he needed for his own purposes. It is also available as a book.
Eric is scrupulous in crediting his various contributors from around the world, some of whom are suppliers. What is also very useful is Eric’s description of how the wood could affect you, if you are susceptible to allergies. The resins of some trees can smell very strong, which can affect you when you are working with them, even if you are not sensitive to the resin.
This is a list of a few recommended types of wood for carving, for a start on your quest.
- Aspen – Aspens are from the popular ones. There are both European and Northern American varieties. They make lightweight sticks, not the most durable, but inexpensive and good for your first project
- Birch – There are many birch species. Inexpensive, fairly durable.
- Cherry – Cherrywood is easy to work with, inexpensive and durable.
- Hickory – A heavier wood from the Americas, very durable, should last a lifetime. Includes Pecanwood in the genus.
- Maple – -There are quite a few maples. You would be looking for Hard Maple if you want the most durable species. Birdseye Maple is not a species, it is a form of patterning in the wood.
- Oak No introduction needed. Durable and attractive.
- Willow – There are various willows to be found around the world. Diamond willow is not a species – it is caused by a fungus. Good for carving and inexpensive.
You could also consider bamboo or cane, used traditionally for canes and walking sticks.
Harvest responsibly – know your trees
We are sure that, as a hiker, you have a strong conservation ethic. You will not want to strip a branch from any tree just to satisfy a whim. While it can be tempting to pick up a “found” item or remove a branch, check that this allowed, especially if you are in a conservancy, heritage site or national park.
Even if you are allowed to harvest from the trees, be sure that the species is not protected or rare. If you do have your heart set on a rare or unusual wood (and are an experienced woodworker), contact a supplier, such as the well-named Rory Wood who supplies rare timbers, sourced around the world, from his 2 locations in South Africa and Maine, USA.
These specimens are obtained ethically and legally, without threatening either the scarce resource or its environment.
Tools and Accessories you will Need
Tools you will need:
- Non-negotiable is a woodcarving knife, which you will use for whittling or even for the whole job
- A saw (for cutting the stick to size),
- A plane and sandpaper of varying coarseness for smoothing the surface (you can use the plane for removing the bark instead of a knife).
- A drill if you want to make a hole through the stick to thread a wrist loop through
- Woodcarving tools if you want to decorate your stick.
Accessories and safety equipment include:-
- Pair of gloves
- Pair of safety goggles
- Materials for the handgrip, such as leather, rope or twine.
- Adhesive for fixing the grip in place or some wood tacks or small nails.
- A hammer and suitable screwdrivers if you are using screws or nails.
- A rubber cap for the foot of the cane to protect it.
Ideally, you should work on a table and use a vice to hold the stick firm, but this is not mandatory, especially if you do not already have a workshop
Making Your Stick – the Process
When you have decided which wood you want to use, or chosen what is available to you, if it is fresh, you will have to dry it out. If it is dry and shows no sign of insect damage or infestation, rotting or other damage, you can skip the drying instructions.
You do not have to use a perfectly straight stick; some twists and bends can add to the individuality of the stick. Just be sure that the piece you choose as a whole has a good balance and will not warp or break around the fault lines of the irregularity. The next question is how long should the raw stick be?
To start with, your stick should be about 30cm (or a foot) longer than the finished product. The length of the finished product can be measured according to your height and tastes. Remember to wear your hiking boots when calculating the desired height.
- For a cane (held from above), drop your arm in a relaxed position by your
- For a hiking stick, (held in front of you), use a broomstick to get an idea of where your hand will be most comfortable and measure from the ground to the top of your hand. Add a few inches above that for the head of the stick, based on the look you want to achieve.
- For a wizard’s staff (head height or longer), it is up to you. Remember that you might have to fit it into a vehicle.
Start off by Whittling the Bark
This might be something you have done in the past to make a catapult or something similar. If not, it is similar to peeling vegetables and the same cardinal rule applies: always whittle with the knife blade pointing away from your body.
If you want a smooth effect, you are going to remove the bark by whittling. You may choose to leave the bark on for a more rustic effect: note that timbers like maple tend to lose their bark, so you should always whittle when you know this can happen.
- First remove any portions you do not want, like twigs and protuberances.
- Slowly remove the bark with very shallow and even cuts. Don’t rush this: if you gouge too deeply, you might have to throw this stick out.
- Whittle layer by layer. Depending on the wood you are using, you might want to remove all the bark or retain the lowest bark layer.
Let it Age like Fine Wine
We know a woodturner who makes exquisite furniture, mainly from exotic woods and the occasional indigenous wood when he is lucky enough to obtain some. He seasons his best pieces for up to 5 years before he is satisfied that they are “done”. You will not have to wait so long.
Store the stick in a shed or a garage or similar cool spot d let it dry out slowly. Protect the ends from drying out and cracking with some form of sealant. Wood glue is also an option. Leave to dry, checking occasionally. When the stick is dry, you can start shaping the grip and carving the head to customize your stick.
Getting a Grip – Carved or Covered
The grip is the most important part of the stick. That is what you will be holding the whole time you walk, you don’t want it to rub or chafe. You can either carve indentations of your fingers and sand them down to mirror smoothness or you can attach a suitable grip.
For instance, wind a long strip of suede or chamois leather around the place where you want to grip and either glue it on or tack it with small wood tacks or nails. You could add a few twists of twine or rope at the top and bottom, both to make it look nice and to hide the tacks if you used them.
Awakening the Artist in You – Carving
You can let your imagination run free when it comes to carving the head (or the body) of your stick. Choose a design that is in line with your capabilities. Do not attempt something elaborate that a netsuke artist would be proud of unless you are particularly gifted.
You will end up being disappointed, or cut off the design (this is why we advised cutting your stick longer than you need, so you can fix or remove your carving mistakes). You do not have to do anything elaborate: you can cut some grooves or an abstract pattern with a set of woodcarving tools.
You can also leave it plain and unadorned. You could also consider adding attachments and adornments: the commercial pilgrims’ sticks for the Camino de Santiago are adorned with scallop shells with a painted cross, the traditional sign of the pilgrim. If you are going to varnish and/or seal the stick, finish doing this before you add these items.
Oiling, Sealing, and Finishing
First, make sure the surface of the stick is clean of any sawdust or any other impurities before you start sealing the wood. You can use a damp cloth or even a small vacuum.
You can opt for a natural unvarnished effect by oiling the stick. Either use Burmese Teak oil for darker woods, linseed oil, or a commercial wood oil specifically for lighter woods. If you decide not to seal it with varnish, remember to give it a thorough soaking on a regular basis.
For this first oiling, if the wood is very dry, you will be amazed at how soon even teak oil is absorbed into the grain. Apply it with a soft cloth and rub it in. This will give a burnished effect by the second or third application.
If you opt for a varnish or sealant other than oil, there is a wide range of choices, including matt or glossy finishes, wood stains and clear varnishes. Choose something that enhances the colour and grain of the wood of your stick.
Read the manufacturer’s instructions on how best to apply the product and do it in a place with good ventilation, such as outside. For a varnish, the more coats you apply, the darker the effect will be. Start with the first coat and place the stick in a place where it can dry completely until you add a second layer.
You now have your very own objet d’art. While making it you will have learned to appreciate the woodcarver’s skills and gained a deeper understanding of the beauty and resilience of wood. All that remains is to actually use your hand-crafted stick on your next hike.
This Seems very Complicated
Maybe this sounds like something you would start and never finish, or it would take too much time. Fortunately, there are lots of instant options out there, ranging from specialized woodcarvers to offerings on eBay.
You will probably find that all the “ready-to-wear” offerings out there are quite pricey and could set you back $50 to $150 for custom work.
However, if you are all thumbs, this might be a better option than attempting something that could end up in an amputated digit. if you do not want to make a stick from scratch but fancy the idea of carving an image at the top, you can look for and order a plain stick online and embellish it to your taste.
Why Would I even Need a Stick?
A hiking stick is such a useful aid on a trail and very versatile. If you have never used a stick before, try borrowing one for your next trail. Here are only some of the benefits:
- Primarily, it helps you maintain your balance, especially when you have a heavy pack. This can be very important when you are negotiating uneven or shifting surfaces. It can also prevent you falling if you trip.
- It acts as an additional shock absorber, reducing some of the stress on your knees.
- It also helps you when going uphill or over uneven paths, such as rocky riverbeds or loose shale, reducing back strain and improving your balance
- You can lean on it when you need a rest, either in a standing position or use it as a prop for reclining.
- If you do not like spiders, you can use it to avoid spider webs and their residents brushing your face when you are out early on the trail.
- If you have a good stout stick (like hickory), it might be used defensively. We hope you never require this feature.
- If you are a keen herpetologist (if and only if), you probably are already carrying a snake stick. You could make your own, but we have not covered it here. If you do come across a snake, just stand still until it moves off, or avoid it if does not (e.g. adders and vipers). Do not attempt to harm it.
You can use your stick to prop up your tent in the case of tent pole failure and to check the depth of a stream where you need to cross. You may favor a short cane, a shoulder-high pole or one that is head height. Whatever your preference, you will come to depend on its reliability and versatility.
While Nordic and trekking poles perform a similar function, they don’t have the tactile appeal of wood and are not as durable. Enjoy your next trip and your sense of accomplishment in having made a stick that is unique and into which you have invested your time.