How to Make a Walking or Hiking Stick

Mature male hiker looking away in forest
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Making a walking stick is a fun and rewarding experience. When you create the stick from the beginning, you control the process and decide on the finishing touches. Then you can use your stick for casual walking or hiking or give it as a gift.

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. These instructions assume you are using mesquite, but you can use many different types of wood for your stick.

Selecting a 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, the length of the floor to the wrist of the walking hand will be best 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 who 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 effect 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 if 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 types 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 to Making a Walking or Hiking Stick

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

1. Trim the Stick

A pair of heavy work gloves are 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. A regular carpenters combination hand saw with a somewhat flexible blade is a good choice.

2. Remove the Bark and Dry

The assumption here is that the mesquite has been dried properly by placing it 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.

Avoid kiln drying 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.

A standard heavy-duty box cutter works well to remove the bark. 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. 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.

3. Sand

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 another 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.

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) 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.

5. Oil and Finish

The finish I prefer is tung oil, but some others use boiled linseed oil. The steps are the same. 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 Up

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

Some people put a cane tip on their walking stick, especially if using it indoors or on the sidewalk. You may want to drill a hole to add leather, cord, or fabric strap. Finishing the top end with a knob is another way to customize it. You may want to wrap it with a leather cord in the area where you will be gripping it.

Woodburning or carving designs, names, dates, and other personal details is another way to make your stick unique.

A Word From Verywell

A hiking stick is a traditional way to add stability for walking and hiking on natural trails. Many hikers also use a set of trekking poles with techniques for maintaining stability and assisting in going uphill and downhill. It's a personal choice whether you use one stick or two, wood or metal. Enjoy the outdoors and keep moving.

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