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By January 22, 2016 0 Comments Read More →

How to Make a Walking Stick

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how to make walking stick

John Butterworth provides a step-by-step guide to making a stick, using knowledge garnered from some craftsmen.

See Also:

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Making a Chair out of a Pallet

I talked to a couple of stickmakers to get a few trade secrets, and had a go at making one myself, albeit a pale shadow of the real artisan’s work.


The British Stickmaker’s Guild was formed – guess when? As recently as 1984, in fact, as a group of people interested in the ancient craft of stickmaking and collecting. It may be a surprisingly recent group, but the main driving force behind it was the wonderfully-named Theo Fossel, a man clearly fated to be involved in ancient crafts.

In the world of stickmaking, this Guild is the force to be reckoned with. They have twenty competition Classes, A to S and Class X, so if you fancy making a stick, you could do worse than take guidance from the rules of one of these Classes. For example, Class D is ‘Plain Thumb Stick Horn’, in which the stick is ‘plain with no decoration’, the handle is ‘horn from ‘ram, buffalo, cow, etc. but excluding staghorn’. Class H is even simpler, being ‘Plain. No Decoration. To Include Natural One Piece Stick’.

My advice for the novice would be to visit one of the shows where the Guild has a competition and have a look at the gallery on the Guild website, showing the best of the best, though not many of them to seek inspiration. If carving is not your thing, there are a few ‘painted shank’ photographs in the gallery that might inspire you to have a go, if painting is more up your street.


The wood for the ‘shank’ of the walking stick can be any variety, though picking a native hardwood that grows nice and straight is your best bet. Those in the know told me that blackthorn is best but hard to find, followed by hazel – by far the most common – and ash, at a pinch. Willow grows fast and straight, but doesn’t make the best walking sticks. You can buy shanks if you wish

Shanks for sale.

Shanks for sale.

– there were hundreds at The Great Yorkshire and Kilnsey Shows,  or you can of course select your own from the wild. We have a little wood out the back and found a few suitable hazel shoots,



but our blackthorn was pretty hopeless: a tangle of thorns. The best sticks are, of course, always in the middle.

If you do pick your own, you’ll need to cut it, and the best time is January or February after a cold snap, as the sap is down and the bark, which you leave on, is nice and tight. Leave it to season for at least twelve months in a cool, dry place, such as the rafters of a garage, or outbuilding. If it’s not perfectly straight, the application of steam (just from a kettle will suffice) and the use of a clamp, as in the picture, will straighten it out.

Stick straighteners.

Stick straighteners.

As time was pressing, I bought a hazel shank, ready seasoned, and just carved a handle to fit on it.


There are three main ones: horn (usually buffalo or ram, occasionally cow), hardwood (any type will carve – some better than others) and staghorn.You can buy any of these from the stickmakers’ stands at shows or specialist websites.

Horn and wood handle blanks.

Horn and wood handle blanks.

Black buffalo horn is a relatively recent introduction; it’s solid and grows flat, so it’s easier to use than ram’s horn, which is hollow and grows with a curl. Both have to be boiled to make them pliable, then steel formers are used to get them to the right shape for, typically, shepherd’s crooks. These are, I’m told, four fingers wide, to fit a sheep’s neck, and the curly bit on the end is to hang a lantern from.

Wood handle blanks.

Wood handle blanks.

Wood for handles can be bought as blanks that have been pre-shaped, and for my money the yew in the picture would be a favourite. Elm burr is particularly prized, but is of course very rare these days. I used a piece of what I think is American chestnut from my stack of scrap wood for the trout, because, (a) it was free, and (b) despite a dodgy knot, the wood grain had a lovely bend in it, simply asking for a fish to come out.

My block of hardwood.

My block of hardwood.

Staghorn is often used unworked, in which case you need a piece with a nice round bit that’s going to fit the shank, as well as an interesting fork or two for the handle. It can’t be bent but it can be carved, with some difficulty, so practise on some wood first.


You’ll need a ferrule for the end; mine had one fitted when I bought it, but they’re only a few bob to buy.



For finishing, any wood finish such as yacht varnish can be used; Danish oil is good, too, as it allows the wood to breath. Spacers, which fit betwixt handle and shank, are allowed in all classes, and a contrasting material does rather set the handle off.

Making a ‘Fancy Stick, Wood’ (Class G)

This is a good place to start, I think. Here’s a carved trout from a stick seen at The Great Yorkshire Show, which gave me the idea for my own attempt.

Full instructions are below the slide show.

To open the PDF of the article click here.


  • 1. Choose your picture to draw.
  • 2. Transfer the image to tracing paper.
  • My block of hardwood.
  • 4. Roughly cut with a mitre saw.
  • 5. Using the rasp.
  • 6. The Shank diameter marked on the handle
  • 7. Rasping to size.
  • 8. Carving.
  • 9. The spacer.
  • 10. Carving in the vice.
  • 11.Finer sanding down with finer sandpaper.
  • 12. Gluing the sections together.
  • 13. Sanding the spacer and handle.
  • 14. The finished stick.


1           Start with a picture and trace it onto your wood block.

Rather than just copy someone else’s work, let’s find our own picture of a trout. Convert that to a drawing to get it the size and shape that you want – remember, it has to end up comfortable to the hand. Next, trace your drawing onto tracing paper. Find a spot on your chosen block of wood to trace onto, looking for a part of the grain that has the right curve and shape to it. Maybe there’s a knot that can be used for an eye in your animal, or a colour change in the wood that can be a feature; that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for at this stage.

 2           Cut it out.

Roughly cut the block to shape – if you’ve bought a handle ‘blank’ this has already been done for you. A bandsaw is best, but I don’t have one, so I used a mitre saw very carefully. When it’s sawn to shape, use a mallet and chisel to get closer to the shape of the drawing. The idea is to shift as much wood as you can before you start any finer carving, or you’ll spend all year on that part of the job!

3           Rough out the shape with a rasp or file.

I bought this rasp for £15 from one of the stickmaker’s stands, and it’s terrific. It’s an ‘Ice Bear Shinto Double-sided Rasp’, and I don’t know how I survived without one. With this, or a rough file or curved ‘Surform’ or similar, remove yet more of the wood. First, follow the tracing to get right down to the shape you want from a side view, then start to file it round, like the fish that you know is in there somewhere. You’ll start to lose the traced-on picture at this stage, so keep your picture(s) handy as a guide. Make sure you don’t file off the highest points, in this case the fins: devilishly easy to do, and impossible to put right.

It’s a good idea to mark the diameter of the shank onto the tail end now, to ensure you don’t remove too much wood from where the two will fit together – see slide show.

 4           Carving with woodcarver’s chisels.

These are specialist chisels with curved blades. We did a bit of woodcarving at night school a few years ago and collected a nice set of ‘Pfeil’ chisels, which are Swiss – rather lovely and highly recommended. You only really need a couple for a simple fish carving, as there are not many fancy shapes involved. Tap them only with a light wooden mallet, and the curve of the blade lets them cut pieces of wood off, rather than digging in and following the grain as normal flat-bladed wood chisels tend to do. Bear with me a minute… I thought so – I just looked online and they’re expensive, about £18 apiece. If you buy only one, try the 12mm No 5. Chinese sets of ten chisels for £3.99 on eBay will be worth just that.

There’s not much carving involved on the fish – just shaping the parts that the rasp won’t reach, and details like the gills and the tail fins, and of course its ‘trout pout’.

5           Start sanding.

Sandpaper comes numbered, from very rough (typically ‘40 grade’) to ultra-fine (‘2500 grade’), and you need a range. I started with 40 grade, then used finer and finer grades, up to 400 grade. The really coarse stuff makes a reasonable substitute for a round rasp, if wrapped around a piece of dowel. It also scratches the wood like crazy, hence the gradual increase in fineness. If you went straight to a fine finishing grade, it would take an age to remove these scratches.

6           Mount the handle on threaded steel bar and cut the spacer.

It’s easier to finish the carving when it’s mounted on something; if you have a carving vice, that’s great, but if not, mount it on threaded steel bar as follows. First, find the centre of the part where the handle will fit on the shank, then drill an 8mm (⅝in) hole in it, as squarely as you can. I used a bench drill and a spirit-level to get it square. The hole should about 45mm (1¾in) deep. Now glue a piece of 8mm (⅝in) threaded rod (or cut off a piece of 8mm (⅝in) bolt) into the handle with Araldite, Gorilla Glue or similar.

If you want a contrasting spacer between the handle and shank, now’s the time to cut one out. I had a piece of wenge, a lovely, dark, African hardwood, out of which I cut a circle with a hole saw, then I drilled the centre out to 8mm (⅝in). I drilled the shank now too – 8mm (⅝in) x 45mm (1¾in) deep, again in the dead centre. The length of the threaded bar needs to be the depth of both holes, plus the thickness of the spacer, so in my case about 95mm (3¾in) long.

Once the bar is glued into the handle, it’s a good time to finish any tricky carving on the fish’s tail, as you can put the steel rod in the vice and hold it firmly.

7          Mount the handle and spacer on the shank.

Now we can glue the whole lot together: slide the spacer over the rod, apply some glue and push into the shank. Clamp it if you can – I used sticky tape – and allow to dry overnight.

8           Complete the sanding.

Once the whole thing has set you’ll have to sand the handle and spacer to fit perfectly onto the shank, finish sanding the handle, apply a few taps with a centre punch for the trout’s trademark spots, then stand back and marvel at your craftsmanship. I was informed at this point that my trout looked more like a whale from the front, so I printed out a few more photographs, grudgingly agreed that it didn’t look much like a trout, then rasped and sanded a bit more until it did.

9          Apply the finish.

Finally, apply Danish oil (or yacht varnish) as per the instructions on the tin, and your work is done. Here’s the finished item.

My thanks to Bernard McMahon and Ernest Wilson who were the men in the know – thanks to both of them for passing on their knowledge.



Posted in: Woodworking

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