How to Make a Walking or Hiking Stick

Mature male hiker looking away in forest
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A walking stick is a traditional way to improve balance while walking and hiking, especially on natural trails. Many hikers also use a set of trekking poles with techniques for maintaining stability and assisting in going uphill and downhill. Making your own walking or hiking stick can be a fun and rewarding experience. You can control the process, choose the decorative touches, and take pride in crafting this useful tool from start to finish.

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 height, weight, and knots. The instructions below assume you're using mesquite, but you can use many different types of wood for your walking 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 is fine, and in fact, many people prefer the look of a twist.

  • Height: For casual walks and support, the height from the floor to your wrist is optimal. If you're using it as a hiking stick on hilly terrain, then it should be about shoulder height. A longer stick can always be used as a casual walking stick but will be a little heavier.
  • Diameter: The heavier a person is, the larger the diameter of the stick should be to support them. If you're using it for hiking, the heavier the stick, the more tiring it may become on extended hikes, but it should also be thick enough to withstand the wear and tear of heavy hiking.
  • Weight: The ideal weight depends on your strength, condition, and how you'll use it. Normally healthy adults used to hiking shouldn't be too concerned, but if you have some physical limitations, then pay closer attention to the stick's weight.
  • Knots: Formed by branches growing from the main stick, knots can provide character to the walking stick, but they can also have a weakening effect. Knots are also more difficult to sand and finish. Unless there's a great number of large, weakened knots, it's not usually a problem with mesquite, a wood known for its durability.
  • Branches: Some sticks have branches growing from the main stick and can be used as natural handles. Branches farther down the stick could be used as a second foot at the end.
  • Insects: The condition of the stick can vary due to insect infestation and rot. Usually, insects won't bore down into the heartwood—the dense inner part of the wood—but if you see any infestation, the stick will have to be a large enough diameter so that you can remove the sapwood and still have the girth you need. That said, minor infestations can create some interesting patterns in the wood.
  • Strength: If the wood has been down for a long time and has rotted, 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 shouldn't 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. Be careful—you can be injured if the stick snaps.

Tools Required to Make a Walking or Hiking Stick

As with any woodworking, use caution around sharp tools. These instructions assume you understand basic woodworking safety and how to work with the equipment. If you don't have the experience, consult websites, books, or experts for help.

  • Work Gloves
  • Wood
  • Saw (Exacto-style, carpenter's, keyhole, etc.)
  • Box cutter
  • Sandpaper (100, 200, and 400 grit) or an electrical sander
  • 2x4 block (if using sandpaper)
  • Tack rag (or lint-free cotton rag)
  • Tung or boiled linseed oil
  • Paste wax
  • Optional decor

6 Steps to Making a Walking or Hiking Stick

For our method, we used already dried mesquite, which is far more durable and sturdy than fresh wood. If you have freshly cut mesquite, it'll 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.)

  1. Trim the stick: If there are small branches protruding from the stick, cut them with a hand saw 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-style or keyhole saw will work. Otherwise, a regular carpenter's combination hand saw with a somewhat flexible blade is a good choice.
  2. Remove the bark: Some people recommend removing the bark right away to cut down on the possibility of insect infestation. Always push the box 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—let it do the cutting with minimum 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. Continue until you can see the red layer under the outer bark, taking off any remnants until you reach the layer that looks firmly attached to the wood. You're done when you can gently scrape the cutter at a very low angle without catching any wood fibers.
  3. Sand the wood: While wearing a sanding mask, sand the knots flush with the stick using 100 grit sandpaper wrapped around a 2x4 block to ensure a flush sanding. (A belt sander or combination sander will make the job quicker.) Once the knots are sanded down, 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. Once completed, if you haven't used a power tool sander, do another round of sanding with the 200 grit, then the 400 grit, paying close attention to any imperfections that need smoothing over, particularly the end grain and knots.
  4. Wipe the stick: Take a tack rag and wipe the surfaces down to remove any remaining sawdust. Tack rags can be purchased from a hardware store or made on your own with a piece of lint-free cotton cloth and 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.
  5. Oil and finish: Insert a cup or regular screw at the bottom of the stick. Find a dust-free area to hang the stick from the hook using string or wire ties, attaching them to an object that will support the stick, inverted. Regardless of which oil you choose, soak the rag or cloth with the oil and apply it liberally to the surfaces 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, letting it dry per the instructions.
  6. Sand again: Lightly sand the stick again using the 400 grit sandpaper and use a tack cloth to remove the dust. Reapply the finish, let it dry, sand again with the 400 grit paper, and use the tack cloth. Apply the finish again. After the finish has dried, use some paste wax—floor paste wax works well—and apply it per the instructions. Usually, it's rubbed on and when it dulls, it's buffed with a cotton cloth.

Add Some Creativity

After you've made your stick, you can embellish it with 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

Never cut sticks or branches from live trees. Search your neighborhood, parks, and local forests for downed branches. When in doubt, ask a park or forest ranger for information on the most environmentally friendly choice. Enjoy the outdoors and keep moving.

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