How to Make a Walking Stick or Hiking Stick

5 Steps for Making a Custom Walking Stick

Westernwoodartist.com Walking Sticks
Wooden Walking Sticks from Westernwoodartist.com. © William Jones

Making a walking stick is a fun and rewarding experience. You get to create the stick from the beginning and control how it develops throughout the entire process. In the end you have a very versatile utilitarian instrument that can be used in just about every daily endeavor, from casual walking to a tool for hiking. It can be a creation that is admired for its beauty as well as its use.

Obviously the first step is to select a branch or limb that will eventually provide the look you want.

There are many factors to be considered, including straightness, length, girth, weight, knots, branches, and condition.

Selecting a Stick to Make a Walking Stick

The straightness of the stick is not as important as the alignment of the top and bottom. A crook in the middle that returns to beneath the vertical of the top part is fine, and many people prefer the look of having a twist to the stick.

Length of the Walking Stick: The length depends on how it will be used. Usually a length from the floor to the wrist of the walking hand will be for casual walking and support. If it will be used as a hiking stick, where you will be going up and down hills, then it should be about shoulder high. Of course a longer stick can always be used as a casual walking stick but will be a little heavier than if it were shorter.

Diameter: The diameter, or girth, of the stick should reflect your weight and its use.

The heavier a person is, then the larger the diameter of the stick should be to support them. Also if it will be used in hiking there are two other things to consider. The heavier the stick, the more tiring it may become on extended hikes. However it should be thick enough to withstand the abuse of heavy hiking.

Weight: The weight of the stick is a function of its size and becomes a factor to be considered depending on your strength, condition, and time of use. Normally healthy adults, used to hiking, shouldn't be too concerned. However, if you have some physical limitations then the weight should be considered.

Knots: The knots formed by branches growing from the main stick provide a lot of character to the walking stick. However knots can have a weakening affect on the stick and you must also remember it is more difficult to sand and finish them. Unless there is a great number of large and weakened knots, they are not usually a problem with mesquite since it is so strong and hard. They require extra work, but most people appreciate the look.

Branches: Some sticks have branches growing from the main stick and they can be used as natural handles. Sometimes there are branches farther down the stick, which can be used as a second foot at the end. These are harder to find but it you want a handle and/or a double foot, then these should be just what you need.

Insects: The condition of the stick can vary due to insect infestation and rot. Usually insects will not bore down into the heartwood, but if there is evidence of infestation then the stick will have to be of a large enough diameter so that you can remove the sapwood and still have the diameter you need. Minor infestation can actually create some interesting patterns in the wood that many like.

Is the Wood Sound? If the wood has been down for a long time and has rot, obviously it shouldn't be used. A simple test is to place one end of the stick into the crotch of a tree and then press as hard as you can against the other end. It should not bend very much and definitely not break. You can do the same thing by placing the stick on the seat of a picnic table, or other type of jig, and forcing the other end down while the opposite end pushes against the tabletop. Use caution because you can be injured if the stick snaps.

Five Steps for Making a Walking or Hiking Stick

Now that you have selected the right stick, follow these five steps to make a wooden walking stick.

Step 1. Trim the Stick

As with any woodworking, caution has to be used around sharp tools. These instructions assume you understand basic woodworking safety and know how to work with the tools. If you don't have the experience, please consult the appropriate woodworking sites on the web and books in your library.

A pair of heavy work gloves is needed for general safety and to protect you from the sharp needles of the mesquite. If there are small branches protruding from the stick, cut them with a hand saw. Try to cut as close as possible to the stick and slightly into the bark, but parallel to the stick. If the branches are small, a small Exacto type saw can be used to cut them. Even a small keyhole saw will work fine. I like to use a regular carpenters combination hand saw with a somewhat flexible blade, that is made by Stanley.

Step 2. Remove the Bark and Dry the Stick

I find a standard heavy-duty box cutter works well to remove the bark. The assumption here is that the mesquite has been dried properly, by placing so that air can move freely around it and sealing the ends with latex paint or a waterproofing product. If you have fresh cut mesquite it will take about a year to dry naturally, depending on the diameter.

Kiln drying should be avoided since it can cause stresses inside the wood, which may weaken it or even cause it to crack. Mesquite is a very hard wood and sharp tools and care are required to do quality work. Some people recommend removing the bark right away to cut down on the possibility of insect infestation.

Either before drying, or after it is dried, remove the bark from the mesquite with the box cutter. Always push the cutter away from you and start at one end, working down the stick to the other end. Sometimes you can remove long slivers and other times you can only remove small amounts. Don't fight the working of the tool and let it do the cutting with a minimum of force. I find a picnic table is an excellent workbench for doing this. One hand grasps the stick and the other uses the cutter to remove the bark

Start by taking the outer portion of the bark away and gradually going deeper until you can see the red layer under the outer bark. The red layer that seems firmly attached to the wood can be left. If it is easily removed then make sure it is all taken off, or otherwise there will be problems with it peeling after the stick is finished. You should be able to gently scrap the cutter at a very low angle and not catch any of the wood fibers. This will indicate that you can move on to the next step.

Step 3. Sanding the Walking Stick

The next step is to begin sanding. Always use a sanding mask. First sand the knots flush with the stick using 100 grit sandpaper that is held onto a piece of 2X4 or other block. Just tear a piece of sandpaper so that it wraps part way up both sides of the block. This will give a nice flush sanding. If you want to use power tools a belt sander or combination sander will make the job quicker. Once the knots are sanded down, then sand the rest of the stick from end to end. Always sand with the grain and sand the knots in the direction of the stick grain.

Now redo all the sanding (except don't use the belt/combination sander if you used it before) with 200 grit. Next redo all the sanding with 400 grit.

Step 4. Wipe the Walking Stick

Once the sanding is done with the 400-grit paper closely look over the stick for any imperfections that may need attention. Especially look at the end grain and knots and make sure they are as smooth as possible. This is very important before applying any finish.

Once you are satisfied that the surfaces are as smooth and defect free as possible, you can take a tack rag and wipe the surfaces down to remove any sawdust that remains. Tack rags can be purchased from a hardware store or you can make your own. To make your own, take a piece of lint free cotton and put some tung oil ( or boiled linseed oil if you are using it) on it. Let the oil dry to a sticky state and then lightly wipe the surfaces of the stick.

When this is completed insert a cup screw, or a regular screw in the bottom of the stick to hang it from. Find a dust free area and hang the stick from the cup hook using string or wire ties and attach them to an object that will support the stick, inverted.

Step 5. Oil and Finish the Walking Stick

The finish I prefer is tung oil, but some others use boiled linseed oil. I'll assume we are using tung oil, but the steps are the same if you desire boiled linseed oil. Soak a lint free cotton cloth with the oil and liberally apply it to the surfaces, working from top to bottom. You can stabilize the stick by holding it from the bottom screw. Follow the instructions from the oil manufacturer and finish the stick. Let it dry per the instructions.

Lightly sand it again using the 400 grit sandpaper and use a tack cloth to remove the dust. Reapply the finish. Let it dry and sand again with the 400 grit paper and use the tack cloth. Apply the finish again. Let it dry. After the finish has dried use some paste wax (floor paste wax works well) and apply it per the instructions. Usually it is rubbed on and when it dulls it is buffed with a cotton cloth.

Finishing the Walking or Hiking Stick

Now you can attach any ornaments, handles, or decorations to it. Be careful to not scar the finish you have completed.

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