Making a Hiking Staff from an Ash Sapling

If you’ve been hanging around WOC for a while, you’ll know that one of my hobbies is making hiking sticks (“staves” to be proper, I guess).  I make them from several tree species: maple, oak, hickory, white cedar, white pine, alder, aspen, and ash.  Ash and hickory are favorites to make out of freshly cut saplings, in part because in the spring it’s a breeze to strip the bark from them—which is really just for aesthetics, not for any structural purpose.  In fact, leaving the bark on makes them a bit stronger.  Yet ash and hickory are still tough, stripped or not.

My schedule yesterday worked out in such a way as to leave me a couple hours to putter; so I went to the old orchard where many ash saplings are growing and cut one that should make a good hiking stick.  In a sense I am saving these ash saplings from slow death: many of them already falling victim to the nasty emerald ash borer that has pretty much wiped out all mature green ash trees in our region.  And collecting any saplings growing in a forest understory is typically not a problem.  Because they have to fight for light under their parent trees, more than 90 percent of understory saplings eventually die.  A maple grove is a particularly good place to find straight saplings—made that way because their struggle for light draws them as rapidly as possible straight upward.  You can see the results in the dramatic shape difference of a nicely shaped and wide-spread lonesome maple that has grown up in full light compared with the tall, narrow-spread maples of a mature forest where they have grown up together.  Those, of course, make the best saw timber.

So back to my ash sapling.  I discovered years ago that if you cut them from around late April to the middle of July, when the sap layer is full of moisture, you can peel them almost like bananas.  The same for hickory.  This process is a wonderful tension reliever for me: something you can do almost mindlessly.  Sometimes I will do it right where I cut the stave.  Other times I will take it home—which is what I did last evening.  One thing I love about this part of the process is the wonderful sweet smell of the stripped stick.  There is nothing else like that smell, which is carried in the air by the moisture just released.

When that’s done, all you need to do is straighten out any bow in the stick and put it in the rafters to dry.  You can straighten out a gentle bow by holding the stick almost parallel with the ground and pressing down on it with your foot—bending it a bit beyond straight.  Fresh ash is limber; so you can press on it pretty hard.  You just have to be careful with your foot because the stick is slippery.  And you don’t want to hear any cracking sound!  If the bow in the stick is pronounced, you need to take it to the stove and heat it above a wide burner—slowly turning it right where the bow is.  When the stick is hot, but not burned, you quickly take it to a carpeted area or back outside where you do the foot press again. (Trying to do this on a hard surface could give you a hernia—when the stick slips and you do the “splits” accidentally!) When a stick is heated like this, you can actually feel the fibers relax as your foot presses down.  A heated bend is almost always permanent.

I usually give my sticks three months to dry—the rest of the summer, and that works great, because being in Michigan, your fair-weather days are relatively few.  I will wait until late fall and winter to do my crafting.  If you want a white hiking staff, the ash is perfect.  All you need to do is lightly sand it and then apply a finish.  I usually do not lacquer sticks.  I don’t like too much shine.  Most of the time I use a neutral paste wax, setting in the first couple coats with a heat gun or hair dryer on hot.  And I will round the top end either with a sanding wheel or by chip-faceting it with a whittling knife.

An alternative is to “ebonize” the wood by scorching it with a torch.  This too takes practice.  You don’t want the wood to actually ignite.  You can easily blow it out when it does ignite, but at that spot you will get a major dimple.  The key is to make it uniformly black with no white showing through after a light sanding, which will reveal any under-scorched areas.  You just re-torch those places, again making sure the flame does not stay on one spot too long.  When you are done with that, and it is still hot, it is a great time to wax it.  The heat helps the wax melt into the fibers.

I have also made a finish without wax that I really like—especially the smell.  I collect chunks of pine pitch from the Austrian and red pines that line our condo drive and melt them in a “not valuable” pan over a hot plate in the shop.  After it has all melted, I strain the bugs and wood bits out of the mixture through a “not valuable” seive, and then pour in linseed oil at about a 50/50 mix.  While that mixture is still warm, I brush it on the stick and set it deep with a heat gun.  I might do three coats, and then let it dry.  Rubbing it briskly with old towel rags takes away the residue and leaves a nice satin look, while retaining the odor of pine pitch and linseed oil: familiar old odors that will give me a rush of nostalgia.

Ebony cane, “ebonized” pine, plain hickory

The final touch is to either drill a hole just below the top and affix a leather thong, or do both that and lace on a leather grip.  Further, you can also make a wrist saddle out of a wider piece of leather strung on the strap, which is a great comfort feature.  To make the thong strap just the right length, you grip the handle and let your wrist rest in a spot where your fingers cross the thongs at their second knuckle bend right in the middle of the grip.  Tie a knot in the thong on the far side of the hole right at the spot where the length is just right.

And that’s it.  (And maybe a lot more than you actually wanted to know!)  But if you do want to do this and have more questions, drop me an email: deanohlman at gmail dot com.

See you outdoors (with your new stick!)

Dean