“The best, the most exquisite automobile is a walking stick; and one of the finest things in life is going on a journey with it” – Robert Coates
What are sticks and crooks?
A stick is a walking aid, the effectiveness of which depends on its weight, length and the shape of its handle. A crook is a stick traditionally used by shepherds, the handle of which is the right shape to hook a sheep by the neck or back leg. A crook tends to be longer than a stick for this reason. A basic stick might be something you find on a walk in the woods, or can be something designed and crafted much more carefully.
A walking (or market) stick is ‘nose in’ – i.e. the nose of the handle faces in, whereas a crook is ‘nose out’ (see photos). A thumb stick has a V-shaped handle that your thumb slips through.
Sticks may well have been humans’ first tools – as hammers / clubs and for defence as well as for walking. They can still be used for self-defence, of course – and the Irish shillelagh, for example, is definitely as much weapon as walking stick. Sticks became fashionable for gentlemen in the 17th century when it was no longer acceptable to carry swords in public. Crooks almost definitely would have been first made by shepherds; rams’ horns would have been available for handles – the perfect shape to hook sheep – to catch them or to rescue them from bogs etc.
The main shaft, or shank of the stick is wooden, and the handle can be crafted from the same piece of wood, or be attached separately. There can be a collar between the handle and shank, for more stability at the joint; and there is usually a ferrule or boot at the bottom of the shank, for contact with the ground. Handles can be of wood, bone, horn or antler. See the diagram below for the parts of the handle. A good stick will be both light and strong.
What are the benefits of sticks and crooks?
- a stick is an invaluable aid for walking. It can be used to pull yourself uphill, and take pressure off knees and hips when coming downhill
- you don’t have to be old to use a stick. It will make life a lot easier for your joints, and you’ll be up and down mountains to a ripe old age
- they can be works of art – and that is generally the aim of professional stickmakers; and no two hand-made sticks are the same
- they can be made from natural, and often found materials, with minimum environmental impact in their manufacture
- it’s a great craft skill that could be turned into a small business
What can I do?
You can buy a stick from a stickmaker (or stick dresser), or you can make your own – in which case a course might be a good idea, and there are several good books (see resources for all the above). A well-made stick can last several generations. The most common wood for sticks is probably hazel, due to its durability and flexibility. Willow, pear, crab apple and blackthorn are used too, but you can make a stick from any species.
Cutting & preparing the shank
Choose a pole for your shank carefully – as straight as possible and less than 1¼ inch (32mm) diameter or it won’t straighten well. The standard joke is that the best time to pick your shank is when you see it, otherwise someone else will – but really, the best time is November to February, when the sap is down and you’ll do less damage to the tree. Coppiced trees will produce straight poles, and cutting your shank is really a bit of coppicing, and will lengthen the life of the tree. It can be done with a billhook.
Let your shank season for 2-3 years under cover – so you’ll be working on sticks that you harvested at least a couple of years previously. If you’re going to be making more than one stick, tie a bunch of shanks together before storing / seasoning – it keeps them straighter, and you can steam / straighten them all at the same time, reducing your work load.
The first task in making a stick is straightening. First you apply heat via a steam box, which you can make yourself from a metal pipe or a long wooden box. It needs to be around 4ft 6in (1370mm) long, or 5ft (1500mm) for crooks, and 4 in (100mm) wide / diameter. Close one end, make a small hole in the top to release the pressure, and put 3-5 shanks in. Insert the tube of a steam wallpaper stripper in the open end and steam them for around an hour. Then to straighten them, either bend them with your knee or use a stick press, which comprises two pieces of wood and a vice (see photo below).
Fitting the handle and ferrule
You can find what you need for a handle from the wild – be it wood, horn, antler or bone – or you can buy it from a specialist supplier. Soft wood is preferable for a handle as it’s easier to work. Horn goes through a process of boiling and pressing to make it flat.
Drill into your handle, measure precisely the length drilled and make a round peg at the top of the shank by whittling away the wood until it makes a perfect joint. Glue the handle to the peg with epoxy resin. You can fit a brass, copper or other type of metal collar too, for extra stability. Then shape the handle after it’s fitted to the shank, with files and sandpaper. Shape against the grain until it’s exactly what you want, and flush with the shank. Then use either oil or varnish to finish it, or if it’s horn, polish it with metal polish or even better – it’s possible to get special horn polish!
Finish the bottom of the stick with a rubber or metal ferrule, or boot. You can get one to fit the exact diameter of the shank and it’s fixed with a brass nail.
Indulge your creativity
You can carve anything you like for your handle – animal heads are popular, including pets. If you don’t rate your artistic ability, you can give a picture of your pet to a stickmaker to carve for you. You can carve your name, a slogan or pattern on to the shank using pyrography (carving with fire). You can embed a coin or a compass into the handle or carve celtic knot-work into it.
You could also find a pole around which has grown a climbing plant like ivy or honeysuckle. If you remove the climber, you may find that the pole is beautifully grooved, and will make a very interesting, twisted shank. You can achieve the same effect by winding copper wire around a coppiced pole as it’s growing.
Thanks to Stuart Lawrence of Wild Man Sticks for information
Whilst you’re here, why not take a look at the other 35+ crafts topics available? And don’t forget to visit our main topics page to explore over 200 aspects of low-impact living and our homepage to learn more about why we do what we do.
The specialist(s) below will respond to queries on this topic. Please comment in the box at the bottom of the page.
Keith Pickering, aka the Stickman has been making sticks for over 30 years. He sells finished sticks and runs courses in Helmsley in Yorkshire to teach other people how to do it too. He also sells every component you could possibly imagine for use in stickmaking, as well as DIY kits, from his exhaustively extensive website.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Gill Evans January 26th, 2017
It would be useful to novice sheep herders to know which woods make the lightest crooks, as they will be used held at arm’s length. Crooks bought online may otherwise turn out to be much heavier & more unwieldy than expected. Also, what kind of finish for the wood is best; ie. varnished bark with prominent knots or sanded smooth & polished. A consensus of opinion from experienced shepherds would be valuable.
2Keith Pickering January 28th, 2017
I’m not a shepherd, but I know many who are. As a professional Stickmaker I’ve made many working crooks and the traditional material for the shank is hazel, as it is both light and strong. It’s usually sanded down but left with the bark on and then oiled or varnished to make it weatherproof. Chestnut can also be used but as it doesn’t grow well “up North” we tend to use more hazel.
Keith Pickering aka The Stick Man.
3Jos Musialowski May 11th, 2017
If the stick maker knows his business he will be aware of the shepherds needs and use the correct timber which in this case would be hazel. Traditionaly used as it is a good compromise between strength and weight.
4Steven Burrows April 11th, 2018
Thanks for the opportunity to ask an expert. I have only recently started to make my own sticks and have been quite pleased with the results so far. I am currently attempting my first ram’s horn handle which has presented a whole raft of new problems and challenges what with bulking and filling etc.. My query, or request, is for any advice or tips on how to avoid or prevent the concave side from collapsing or folding over on itself when squeezing the handle into a round cross section. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Many thanks.
5Keith Pickering April 12th, 2018
I always put an offcut of hazel or ash inside the hollow end and hammer it as far as possible into the horn. You can then bulk the horn around it and drill it out again later.
6Steven Burrows April 20th, 2018
Dear Stickman Keith,
Thanks for taking the time to pass on your suggestions to solve my bulking problem. I’ll certainly give it a go next time I work on a Ram’s horn even though, this time, I seem to have managed to put a good sized crease into what I assume is solid horn pretty close to the nose / pointy end. I’m only sorry I don’t live a little closer to Helmsley so I could join you on one of your courses. Thanks again.
7Greg Steele May 6th, 2018
Hi all, hope this is an OK place to ask this question! I’m a novice stick maker, having learned with an older friend who has been doing this for some time. I’m trying to build up my own set of kit to shape the horns. The bits I cannot source are the appropriate metal collars for squashing and bulking the hot horn in the vice. I have no personal metalworking experience. Any thoughts or ideas on how to make/buy these? Many thanks in advance! PS Keith big fan of your site, I have bought a fair bit off there already!
8Keith Pickering May 13th, 2018
I only know of one person selling professionally made bulking blocks and they cost around £300 which puts most people off! I made quite a few horn handles using cheap “Jubilee” hose clips which screw up and tighten the circle of metal from which they are made. Three or four of these “can” work but not nearly as well as proper bulking blocks. If you have good horns I’d try this method first.
9Graham Steele October 30th, 2018
Hi do you know any stickmakers that run courses or lessons an making a rams horn crook i live in the southwest
10Steven Burrows October 30th, 2018
Hello Graham. I only know of a couple of people running short courses, one in North Wales and the other, Keith Pickering, “The Stick Man” from Yorkshire. Obviously they are too far from you unless you are considering a short holiday in their area to include their course. An alternative is to join a local club. That way you get to pick several people’s brains on problems that particularly concern you and I’m always amazed how free and helpful people are with their knowledge. Additionally, some clubs may have “communal” equipment, (bulking blocks, bending jigs etc.) which you can use just for the price of membership. I think most clubs put some sort of details on the internet or look out for local shows as a first point of contact. Failing that, The British Stickmakers Guild, http://www.thebsg.org.uk should be able to put you in touch with someone local to you. Hope this helps.
11Tim McGinnis January 12th, 2021
Wondering if Dogwood would be suitable for shaft material
12Keith Pickering January 14th, 2021
Tim McGinnis I’ve never used it myself but have used other “garden” shrubs successfully and I know others who have used dogwood so give it a go. Make sure it’s properly seasoned like all sticks for around a year.
13max elwes March 5th, 2021
What’s the difference in crooks traditionally used in areas. As in does from south to north are their different heads to them ???
14Keith Pickering March 8th, 2021
Hi Max Elwes, Different regions of Britain and indeed all shepherding areas have their own local shapes that work for them and the breeds of sheep they keep. “Traditional shapes” are often standardised because of competitions where judges tend to follow set standards so many crooks you see in the UK for example have become very similar.
15Ian McClure March 17th, 2022
I live in South Africa and have been making sticks for years – very therapeutic and fun in the bushveld looking for indigenous shafts. I have been making handles recently from ( culled ) warthog tusks . They ( over ) breed exceptionally fast on farms when conditions are good . I share ideas with my nephew who makes knife handles from natural materials ..
Interestingly I have been using giraffe horn – hard as marble – from giraffe natural mortalities on game farms .
Thanks for the tips !