Beating Sticks (also applies to self-made wooden walking sticks - & known as stick-making)
On most shoots the gamekeepers need their beaters to have a beating stick to tap the undergrowth etc ... but very few gamekeepers seem to provide beaters sticks these days - just flags .... as most people bring their own. Some beaters (like me!) have a few spare beating sticks in the car for anyone who is new to beating so the gamekeeper and new beaters have no worries.
In addition, pickers-up often carry a stick with them, to aid walking or getting up and down banks, or beating some stinging nettles down. People who want to make their own walking sticks (stick-making) may also find this section useful.
There is plenty of information available on the Internet and in books on stick-making. I'm not going to pretend to be an expert as many people have written about sticks and know far more than I ever will. Many of them write about making walking sticks - some very fancy ones with fantastic, carved handles. Some beaters like to have a 'different' beating stick and so take off some of the bark to create a pattern or picture.
My father has made some beautiful beaters sticks and walking sticks, as he's always been good with his hands and is skilled at marquetry, wood carving, drawing etc. Sadly, there is no way that I have the vision or the skill to carve such pieces. Such high quality sticks are usually for 'show' and walking ... not for beating the undergrowth and suffering in the way that our work-horse beating sticks will do!
If you are looking for a really fancy walking stick (not for beating!) you can commission one here billthestickmaker.com. Have a look at the photos of sticks. Wow!
If you want a book on the subject have a look at the selection on our online bookshop. [Also see the next section (obtaining a stick} for links to stick sites etc].
But just adding some 'antler' or another top to your stick can be really easy. Sometimes I add a V to the top, to make a thumbstick, or shape the top (from a larger 'branch' at the joint or preferably the 'root') into a 'ball'. It's not at all difficult.....you just need a few simple tools (wood rasps/files) and some time spent sanding down.
For beating purposes all you really need is a basic stick to tap trees and the undergrowth, so why bother with anything else? Well, as we get older, sticks can become useful for support and helping us up steep banks, through barbed wire fences etc but for many newbies it's just a case of having a stick to 'do the job'.
One of my fellow beaters on one shoot has a great beaters stick. It was specially selected and cut by him due to the branch structure at the top. He kept the top, so that the stick has some useful abilities ..... he can hook it over a fence at the top of a bank and pull himself up with it. He can wedge it under loose barbed wire to raise it and crawl through without snagging. He can easily attach a cloth flag if he needs it, so his one stick proves very useful.
A question I am often asked is which wood is best for making a walking stick? The best wood depends on how long you want to have to wait for it to season, whether you want bark on or bark off, a straight stick or one with more 'character, 'good' grain, how long you want it to last, how 'bendable' etc. The point is that sticks do not last forever ..... so why not cut a few different ones and experiment? I have around 60 sticks seasoning, which includes about 8 or 10 varieties. Most of mine are hazel, holly, blackthorn (& other 'thorn'), beech, ash, dogwood and some that I can't even remember, but you can use so many different woods. I do not have any Brussels sprouts sticks, despite being told how good they can be, LOL!! (Someone once tried to tell me that rhubarb and celery made great sticks .... but it was April 1st!).
OK, so how do you go about getting a free stick (shank) or two for beating?
Ask any gamekeeper if you can cut a beating stick and he'll probably say yes. Just don't cut one from a prized tree near the estate house or attempt to cut one whilst beating ... you might prove a tad unpopular! When you are hanging around between drives then you can usually cut a stick.
I prefer hazel sticks (very straight, takes just a year or so to season and is then strong and light) or holly sticks (a bit trickier to deal with, takes a long time to season - perhaps a few years - but can look extremely good especially when stripped of its ugly bark and stained to bring out the grain. Blackthorn sticks are also very popular - if you can find a good one and avoid the spikes when cutting. It may be worth noting that some people have a bad reaction to being spiked by blackthorn!).
Hazel is probably the easiest to start with and like any stick can be cut at any time of the year, though winter may be regarded as best as the stick will contain less sap. (See 'seasoning' below). When is the best time to cut a stick is a common question. It's a simple answer: cut the stick when you find it! If you don't, you probably won't find it again. Winter-cut sticks will take less time to season as they contain less moisture, but if you cut a stick in the spring/summer, although it will contain more moisture, it will probably be 'ready' (seasoned) at about the same time as one cut some months later. As long as you follow the other guidelines, there should be no problem.
Cut yourself a stick which is longer than you will need (many beaters carry a small pruning saw with a blade which retracts into the handle) and trim any offshoot branches - though with the harder woods like holly, it can be best to leave an inch or two until after seasoning, otherwise you may get star shake, where the trimmed ends split across the centre at different angles and form a 'star'. Take it home and season it (see next section on seasoning).
A common enquiry is how long to have the stick. Most beaters have individual sticks to suit them. Some like thick sticks, some like thin sticks. The length of the stick also varies according to taste. As can be seen from some of the photos on shootpics.co.uk most beaters have a stick which will sit comfortably in the hand when their elbow is at 90 degrees to their body. I have seen one beater use a stick that was about shoulder height! But when we went into a tall cover crop he attached a flag to the top and held it up so that the beaters could maintain a straight line.
If you want to have a 'ball' (like the Irish shillelagh [which I was taught to pronounce as 'shee-lay-lee') or something unusual carved into the top it's no good trying to obtain a stick whilst out beating. You will probably need to dig down to reveal the roots to obtain your stick, so it is going to take some time.
I see a few beaters with shillelaghs, though they are not used in the same way as the Irish historically used them to fight. But, just as some of us add weight to our stick or priest as an aid to dispatching pheasants, they used to drill the ball out and fill it with lead! Easy to carry as the heavy ball was in the hand ... but lethal when held by the other end and used like a truncheon! By the way, I don't know if the police still carry truncheons, but I recall picking one up as a child (yes, in those days we used to meet real policemen, not just see them flashing past in a car) and being astonished at how heavy it was. Most sticks I've seen with a ball at the head have been made from blackthorn, though blackthorn sticks and oak sticks were mainly used by the Irish for their shillelaghs.
I have asked a keeper if I can cut some sticks after the end of the season and he's quite happily agreed. So, I will be cutting a load of sticks (mainly hazel) for beating and for flag sticks. These sticks will be available (once seasoned and straightened) to any beaters on the shoots I attend. It will save the keeper some work and as he very kindly lets me have a few birds each season I am more than happy to help out where I can.
A short while ago I read somewhere (on the www I think) that it is perfectly legal for an individual to cut a stick for 'aiding walking' on publicly accessible land. Apparently, this was some ancient law that had not been amended or altered. However, I can't find it again, despite numerous searches.....should anyone know /find out more, please do let me know. All I would say is that cutting a 'stick' may be fine.....but causing other damage (such as cutting down a tree to get the stick/branch) may be illegal. Perhaps it's better to seek permission than take a chance?
There is a 'man of Kent' [Woodsman] who advertises hazel sticks intended for walking sticks from his own sustainable stocks on E-bay ..... but you have to buy a few at a time. [Search on Ebay for 'hazel sticks'] They are steamed and straightened so can save beaters the 'hassle' of doing their own. They usually cost around £6 each but you have to buy in bundles of 5 - and the 'buy it now' price was £32.50 when I last looked. I've noticed that bidding on 5 sticks now starts at £6 .... so you could be lucky and pick them up at much lower cost!
What is seasoning? Basically, removing most of the moisture from the stick to strengthen it, harden it and make it lighter. Whether a beating stick or a walking stick, exactly the same methods apply.
Is it easy? Very. Though please do make it easier on yourself by following these tips: do not put it in an airing cupboard etc, with one end on the floor and the other end in the corner of the walls. Do not suspend it in your garage from the rafters, with one end on one rafter and the other end on another. Why? Well as the stick dries out (seasons) the weight of it will cause it to bow - and I found out by making these mistakes years ago! Bowing is not necessarily a problem as you can straighten it later, but why cause extra work for yourself?
Instead, you can tie a piece of string around the thinner end and just suspend the stick vertically from a nail or hook. The stick may still bend a little (due to the growth on one side being greater than on the opposite side) but gravity will keep it to a minimum. Personally I hang mine in the garage, which goes through a range of temperatures over a year .... but as I cut the sticks in the autumn/winter when beating, to start with they hang at a low temperature which then builds as summer comes along. I've never had a problem with shake/splitting.
How long do the sticks take to season? That depends on many factors. My garage is cold in the winter and gets hot in the summer. There is a good airflow. Most sticks are cut in the winter months so contain less moisture than during the spring or summer. Hazel usually takes about 12 months. Holly, blackthorn and the dense woods can take around 60 months - yes, 5 years! I usually find that around 3 years is okay for mine. The thing to do is experiment - so cut different sticks and date them. I usually write the date on the cut at the widest end of the stick. The next year I cut some more ..... so there are always a few that are close to being ready. I suppose they could be kiln dried to speed up the process, but that is beyond me I'm afraid. One thing I would say is that kiln drying of timber requires the right combination of heat and air-flow. Spacers or 'sticks' are laid between the planks and these 'sticks' have specially shaped grooves in them, to aid air circulation. So, if you see on other sites that people tie bundles of cut sticks together to season, I would suggest hanging the sticks individually instead, to aid air-flow.
Always err on the side of caution ...... and give your sticks longer than you think to season. It is so easy to find that a stick is much lighter than when cut and to start working on it too soon. My father (in his 80's) recently admitted to bringing in a stick too soon .... and he had star shake ('shake' is the separation of fibres in the stick. It often starts with a single separation, then one at right angles to the original split. Further separations can occur between those splits, resulting in a star shape of splits: hence 'star' shake) in the top, bottom and off-cut branches within a few days!
One thing you could do is use a modern gadget to check the water content, though how 'deep' they will check in a thick stick I really do not know. It is something I will be testing in the future.
So having strung your heavy sticks up, many months later, you could have a perfect, much lighter and stronger stick for beating. Just saw off the top and bottom to provide a stick of the right length for you and Bob's your uncle! Of course, you might want to add a nice handle etc or bend one into the stick. Or, you may have to straighten it or bend it a little to get it how you want it.
In order to bend or straighten a stick or branch (basic stick-making), heating it really well is probably the most obvious answer. The stick will become more pliable and you will be able to bend it in certain ways. So how do you heat a stick?
Using a hot-air gun is an obvious answer though care needs to be taken to heat the stick without burning it. To prevent burning, or to heat more than one stick at a time, steaming is probably the best answer.
Steamingis easy ..... but please do take care not to cause any injury to yourself or others. Scalding or burning can be extremely painful and disfiguring. Youngsters should make sure they have a responsible adult with them before attempting steaming. Take care, take precautions, wear gloves ... and use common sense!
When I first started steaming sticks it was a fairly laborious task. In those days it was done over a saucepan or kettle and could take hours. Then I hit on the idea of wrapping my sticks in a bandage - an ordinary medical bandage - which was soaked with water, wound around the stick and then the entire area to be heated was wrapped in aluminum kitchen wrap. I used a paint stripper gun to play on the aluminum foil and heat the wet bandage without burning the stick. The aluminium wrap served a dual purpose ..... it also kept the steam inside to penetrate the stick. This ensured that the wrapped dry stick became hot and impregnated with steam which according to the old country-guys I knew, helped to bend it.
Bending a stick (straightening a stick) is quite rewarding and with a little practice becomes fairly easy. You can't bend a stick where there is a natural bend caused by branches shooting off, but anywhere that there are 'straight' lines of tissue you can alter the structure quite easily. When I took up gliding I learnt when 'turning' to move the 'stick' one way (say right) and then bring the 'stick' back to upright, then to the left about the same distance as I'd moved it to the right and then back to 'centre'. That ensured we were then flying level and straight. Straightening sticks is a bit similar .... you 'over-bend' a bit and then the stick springs back naturally. Get the over-bend right and the spring-back gives you a straight stick. If it's not quite right, just turn the stick and correct the bend.
I usually fold a towel and put it over my knee (so the heat doesn't burn me!) to use as a lever to bend the stick. A good pair of gloves prevents my hands burning on the hot stick! Of course, you could buy special vice inserts to aid stick bending .... though I can see no real advantage in the additional expenditure when my knees do a similar job!
Once you've finished just hang the stick again by one end and leave to dry. At any time in the future you can re-heat and straighten it if your stick loses shape.
By the way, if you want to remove the bark from a stick, steaming the stick first can make it really easy to peel or rub off.
OK .... so I'm rather lazy .... or prefer to find easier ways to straighten my sticks! Some years ago my wife bought a steamer for removing wallpaper prior to getting me to redecorate once she'd made a hell of a mess (for me to sort out)! Now .... what use could I put a redundant steamer to whilst she wasn't around, ha ha?!! Bending sticks using a steamer makes it a lot easier.
I first attempted this with a coil of caravan waste-water tubing as I had some spare in the garage. It's quite flexible and pretty tough so I could easily get a bent stick in it, though of limited diameter. I raised the far end on a pile of bricks, stuffed some toweling in the end and put the hose from the steamer in the lower end and made it reasonably 'steam-tight' by stuffing toweling around it. Then I switched on. 40 minutes later I had a totally steamed stick ready for straightening! It worked a treat. Though again, I wore protective gloves etc and took care not to harm myself.
Then I moved on to using a wider pipe (handy if you have cut your stick with a 'handle' or 'knob' on the end) and putting a few sticks in at once. Now we've bought a pressure steamer for cleaning carpets etc ... and I have a feeling I might try it ... on a few sticks! Well, why not?!
That's straightening sticks covered ... but don't forget that you can also use the steaming technique to put bends in sticks if you want. However, you may wish to set up something to hold the stick (a 'jig') and get the right bend in order to create a walking stick with a rounded handle/top for example. That's usually a question of steaming and then putting into a 'template' or two (different jigs) and gradually bending into shape, leaving the stick to cool/dry whilst still in the 'template/jig'.
People often ask me whether they can steam and bend the antlers they have found when out walking. I'm afraid not....antler is (when fully grown) just dead bone and cannot be bent, unlike the horn that is used in stick-making and can be jigged to a shape.
Horn (from keratin - the outer layer of hair) usually has quite a lot of space within it or is filled with a pithy substance which needs to be hardened or replaced with a resin, though when you buy some horn you may just get the solid tip. Keratin/horn has a structure similar to a stick (long tubes held together) and so can be steamed and bent. I can remember watching my father boil horn when I was a young lad. He's always been artistic and clever with his hands.....and as I recall they could also wallop us young lads quite hard, LOL!
Many country people have thumb sticks, a stick with an antler 'V' fixed to the top, which provides a nice place for the thumb to go and the spreading V means it is less likely they will drop their stick. They are usually longer and thinner than a normal beating stick as they often have the V nearer shoulder height.
Taking all this a stage further, (advanced stick-making) I like to work on some sticks which have the features required. But, they may be a bit thicker than wanted in places. Many years ago I found from a country chap that he used broken glass to reduce the wood by planing it. Now this is rather dangerous and I would not recommend it at all! But, I did use his method many years ago. I wrapped a bottle in lots of newspaper, placed it in a few plastic bags and then whacked it with a house brick! (NO ... please do not do it!)
This created some rather large pieces of glass with razor-sharp edges. Holding a stick between my feet whilst sitting down (outdoors!) and dragging one of these pieces of very sharp glass towards my body (at the right angle) along the stick resulted in removal of a thin strip of wood. Thus I was able to get the size I wanted before sanding the stick and treating it.
These days I use a spoke shave - though very rarely. It's much safer! But reducing/thinning a stick is a lot of work, so it's much better to get the right stick in the first place. Holding the stick between your feet is not as easy as it sounds, so the use of a 'shaving horse' or 'draw horse' as it is also known is better. (Youtube video - it would be easy to make a horse that is more stable, grips better and has height adjuster options for different diameter sticks, but it is a simple, practical design). It is easy to then work the stick, release and turn it and instantly re-grip it using the pressure of just one foot.
Some sticks will shrink quite a lot during seasoning...so when starting out, it's advisable to cut a few of different dimensions and keep notes on them. Then you'll know what to cut in the future.
Holly sticks and dying or staining sticks / shanks / walking sticks - advanced stick-making
With hazel sticks for beating, just leave the bark on and don't mess about with them ... they are beating sticks and just need to last a few seasons and do the job required of them. However, with holly sticks I've found some beautiful grain which can easily be 'drawn out' to show itself in its full glory. There are over 400 varieties of holly around the globe and over 200 of those in the UK. If you can find the 'right' varieties the grain can be fantastic. [Tip: cut the stick longer than you need it. Then you can cut a few inches off either end, strip the bark and dye it to see whether the grain is good enough to treat the whole stick this way].
After steaming, remove the bark. (Many beaters have holly sticks and keep the bark on them but by removing it the wood can look so much better, though some beaters lightly sand their sticks to highlight the areas where branches have been removed). Once the stick has dried out, it may well look like a plain white stick but sand it down, apply some wood dye and watch the grain appear! I use Blackfriar's or Colron wood dye. Other people swear by warm linseed oil. Whatever you do, don't use the exterior wood 'treatments' that many companies sell in DIY stores ... make sure it is wood DYE. The stains etc on offer in many DIY stores are not suitable but if you look carefully you should find small tins of wood dye. Or you can buy wood dye, varnish, linseed oil via the shootpics.co.uk online shop.
With some sticks I 'overheat' areas on the stick with a paint stripper gun - which then soak up more of the dye. I also use a light application of white spirit to lift some areas after staining - just a quick wipe in one direction with a soft cloth impregnated with white spirit can bring out some highlights. All in all this creates lovely sticks with variation in colour/depth. Obviously, the stick can then be given a few coats of a clear hard covering to protect it and strengthen it.
You can take all this as far as you want. The trouble is that having produced a lovely-looking stick you probably won't want to beat with it. Some holly sticks (there are more seasoning in the garage at the moment) are so beautiful that I wouldn't dream of using them to beat with. But then to me the grain is a whole series of fantastic patterns, whereas many of you might just be proud to beat with such a great looking stick that you have produced for yourselves! With the right treatment a stick can last many years.
I have recently seen a YouTube video showing how to heat and bend a stick. The video concerned did not mention any of the dangers of the suggested actions. It was also conducted indoors, using an open flame/heat source. The stick was heated over the flame, which could have caused a fire, if tried by an inexperienced person.
Please heed all warnings, use common-sense, and only steam/heat sticks outdoors. In the video, the individual 'hurts' his hands 3 times, due to the heat.....and he may have tougher hands than many of us. Painful burns can result from inappropriate action....please do NOT become a casualty....and do NOT put your property/house at risk by such actions.