Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Walking Stick

I’m not a frequent user of walking sticks.  Others around me use them so I make them sticks and now and then I use them too.  These are not fancy sticks, though in my mind the beauty of the wood takes precedence over carvings and the like.  Some people carve their walking sticks.  I’ve seen trolls and gnomes and goblins and eagle’s heads carved at the tops of handles.  I’ve seen sticks shaped like serpents and once at the beach on South Padre Island I saw a fellow with a walking stick fashioned in the form of a pirate’s sword.  Some walking sticks leave me cold.  I was at an upscale outdoors store in Austin not long ago and they were selling “hiking staffs” made of aluminum and other assorted alloys.  They had fancy price tags on them and I wondered why anyone would spend so much money on a metal pipe when all one needs is to cut a branch of appropriate length and head out.  I read a book by Colin Fletcher called The Secret Worlds of Colin Fletcher and he had a practical view on walking sticks.  Fletcher is considered one of the founding fathers of modern backpacking.  Now I’m not a devotee of carrying heavy packs and I think packing skills trumps lugging around dozens of pounds of “things,” but even Fletcher believed in just snapping a branch and then using it to stabilize himself and his load of stuff when hiking the backwoods.

 People have different ideas of what constitutes the appropriate length for a walking stick.  Here in the South Texas Brushlands a stick must serve more than one purpose.  It’s not just a staff used to aid in hiking but it also serves as an early warning system to probe areas that might harbor rattlesnakes.  You know I’ve had some problems with rattlesnakes this past year but over the last couple of weeks I’ve killed seven monsters within two-hundred feet of my house.  In fact, the other night I was goofing around in my little workshop and I looked beyond the rim of lamplight and saw something that in the last 60 years has become imprinted on my cerebral radar screen: That quintessential bogey that raises the early warning system and puts me at DEFCON 1.  I grabbed a flashlight and pistol and walked over to the anomaly and saw what ultimately measured 74.5 inches of pure hell.

We think of "workshop hazards" but how many of you have ever considered something like this.  This snake was just a few feet from my shop (just an overhang connected to a storage shed) and it went over six feet long.

My sticks range between 52-53 inches and I use the top part of the branch as the bottom of the stick and the bottom part of the branch as the handle.  I’ve used various woods like chaparro prieto (Acacia rigidula), mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), guajillo (Acacia berlandiera), and Granjeno (Celtis pallida) for my sticks and perhaps I’ve used other woods but I can’t remember all of them.  Some woods are too heavy and that is my other concern when making a walking stick.  It should be strong but lightweight.  The three sticks in the pictures are all made from granjeno.  This is a ticklish wood to work with because though it dries to a nice light weight it also has a tendency to check and split if not properly cured.  So I’ll leave the bark on a few months and then, using one of my crooked knives, shape the stick to the dimensions I prefer.  I’ve capped off sticks with all sorts of things but I’ve been using ½ and ¾ inch PVC lately because I’ve got a cache of pipe around the house and it seems to work okay.  I drill a quarter inch hole about ½ inch from the top of the stick and thread some parachute cord through it to serve as an aid in holding.

I don’t give the sticks a fine sanding because I want a firm grip so I’ll take it down with 80 grit paper and leave it there.  I paint my sticks with clear urethane and that seals the wood and protects it as well.  And best of all, I did it myself.  I didn’t spend any mullah at any upscale outdoors store.  Just remember the KISS Principle, folks.