Walking sticks by Jilly Snelson, Dorset Coppice group

We cut material for walking sticks whilst we are coppicing or hedgelaying during the autumn and winter months.  Most of what we use is hazel as that is what grows in the largest quantity and is very straight and durable with a very attractive bark.  Another sought after wood is blackthorn which will polish up well and has interesting knobbly finish where the shoots have been.   But straight blackthorn is hard to find and very much valued.   We also come across a lot of self-seeded sycamore which although grows very straight, tends to be too brittle for a good stick,but could be used to practice on.  Sadly oak doesn't grow straight enough to use for sticks, unless you cut down a young tree before it has time to branch out, but of course destroying young oak trees is not recommended, however some people do actually grow their own specifically for the purpose of creating a stick.
After we cut the 'shanks' they are stored in an open fronted barn to season for between 6 months and a year.  Anywhere under cover would do, but good air circulation is important.  We then take selected shanks to our workshop to begin working into whatever style of stick is required.  We probably have about a dozen on the go at any one time.
Many of the ancient coppice woodlands have become neglected and the hazel allowed to grow unchecked and become 'overstood'.  Much of this hazel may not be suitable to use as walking sticks because it may have grown crooked whilst trying to find light in an unmanaged woodland.  The need for good coppice management is essential if it is to produce wood that is suitable for many different uses.

walking sticks

Crotch sticks

Clothes line/ fruit tree props are easy to make – a straight pole with a strong fork can be used for clothes-line props, any species and height to suit the task

Fascines and faggots

Fascines or faggots are a traditional product made from the tops or brash from coppicing operations, tied tightly in bundles. Long bundles are used for riverbank revetment and stabilisation. Each bundle is normally 2m (7') long and 300-400mm (12-16") diameter, tied tightly in three places with baler twine or similar. Chestnut brash is particularly suitable as it is more durable in water than other hardwoods.

Footpath construction
Faggots or other coppice material can be used as the base for paths through damp ground, especially in woodland locations. This base is then topped with a thick layer of woodchips to make a dry and comfortable walking surface.

Horse jumps

Birch tops 1.5-2m (5-6') long, bundled in 20s, are used by race courses and hunts.
Straight poles, at least 2.4m (8') long and 75-100mm (3-4") diameter are suitable for jumps and trotting poles at riding schools and arenas.

Using ash trees

"Ash wood is very strong, tough and elastic, and it is said that a joint of ash will bear more weight than any other wood. Chariot and coach axles were made of ash as were oars, tool handles and weaponry. The tree coppices well, giving strong straight poles for bean poles after five years or oars after twenty. Ash coppice stools seem to be able to go on producing poles almost indefinitely and an eighteen-foot-diameter stool in Suffolk has been estimated to be over a thousand years old. The density of the wood also makes it an ideal fuel, as is reflected in its Latin species name Fraxinus meaning firelight.
One of the traditional woods used as the yule log was ash. In some areas the Œlog¹ was actually a faggot, that is a tightly bound bundle of coppiced ash rods. To this day ash is the most highly valued firewood, burning for a long time with an intense heat, whether seasoned or green."
Used with permission. By  Paul Kendal,  Trees for Life

Phil from Malvern coppicing, uses every part of the ash tree. 

Nothing from an Ash tree of any size goes to waste.

Planks normally between 5 and 7ft long cut from logs at least 11" wide.
Logs from 9" to 12" in diameter for furniture and chair makers.
Logs about 5" in diameter cleaved, make excellent tent pegs.
I supply hedging stakes. Normally 5'6" but other sizes can be supplied. These are made predominantly from Ash.
Bean poles – clean rods 8ft long, 1.5" – 2" diameters at the butt end bundled in 10’s.
Flower stakes – 4 ft long straight rods 0.75 – 1.25 in diameter- sharpened
- bundles of 12.
Tree stakes – 6 – 7ft long sharpened poles, 1.5 – 2.5 butt diameter any wood.
Cordwood - Any wood over 2” in diameter cut to 4 ft lengths.
Stakes for dahlia and Chrysanthemums and small markers for your veg plot.
Any brash is turned into firewood, charcoal or made into dry hedges to keep the deer out of the freshly cut coppice.

Phil writes: In previous coppicing seasons I have been mainly cutting young Ash for use in my garden structures, Hedging stakes, bean poles and the like. Any large Ash that I have coppiced has been cut, split and sold as firewood. Although it made excellent quality firewood I have always thought that it was a waste of a fantastic resource.
I felled an Ash tree this September as part of my first order of Ash logs for a chair-maker from Warwickshire.
One of the logs was larger than requested, a nice log of about 13" in diameter and about 6 feet long. I got talking to my friend, Ron over a beer in the local pub, who was demonstrating his vintage sawmill at the Malvern Autumn show.
He offered to mill the log for me at the show as part of his demonstration. I watched with anticipation as the log was lowered onto the cutting bench by his vintage Matador crane.
After a couple of cuts I was handed a plank of white Ash. I had my first plank of top quality Ash. Within minutes people who had watched my log being converted into planks were giving my orders for Ash planks.
This weekend the chair maker collected his first order of Ash logs from me and once he examined the quality, made a repeat order. this is a great reward for the effort involved in felling and working the Ash from the wood.

Planking ash

Uses for willow

Previously used for Medicine (predecessor to Aspirin),

  • Cricket Bats (Salix Alba Caerulea),
  • Brooms, Bentwood Furniture (Larger rods of most willows),
  • Baskets and Fish Traps: (Triandra, Purpurea, some Alba Varieties, some Daphnoides - tend to be a bit big but lovely rich red to black colours if you can find some finer rods for highlights)
  • Hurdles: Depending on the look that you want you could use basketry willows or the finer viminalis rods. These are best done with hazel uprights as willow does not last in the ground. It is also advisable to use a preservative (e.g. 50/50 turps & linseed oil) on the willow hurdle.
  • Plant supports: Combination of thicker rods for the uprights and finer flexible rods for the weaving.
  • Sculptures: As basketry plus flexible Viminalis varieties
  • Rooting liquid: from willow bark - any variety
  • Bee Fodder: Salix Viminalis, Purpurea and Capreas
  • Biomass:  Viminalis and some Triandra x Viminalis varieties. There are super willows available such as Tora, Torhild and Olof.
  • Charcoal: Any variety. The larger the charcoal you want to make, the larger the willow you can use – Basketry type for Artists charcoal, Viminalis varieties for lump wood charcoal.
  • Bio filtration in land reclamation projects:  Viminalis are the most suitable as they are hardy and fast growing.
  • Riverbank reclamation & Soil Erosion Control: Most Viminalis, Tora and Torhild
  • Shelter / windbreaks: All willows will provide shelter, especially if coppiced. There are some that branch out more than others and so are ideal as windbreaks, e.g. Salix Viminalis Reifenweide, Salix Viminalis, Readers Red and Salix Viminalis Irish Rods. Smaller branching decorative willows such as Salix Alba x fragilis Golden Willow, Salix Alba Chermesina Yelverton provide lovely winter colour.
  • Tree bogs: Viminalis seem to be recommended for tree bogs due to their vigorous growth.
  • Wildlife habitat: Willow provides a free food store for birds. Many insects like willow. The insects come, the birds follow. The sound of the birds in a willow bed in summer is almost rowdy!
  • Wood chip, fuel wood for wood or multi-fuel burners, Fuel for Ceramic / masonry stoves: While biomass willows are best for any volume of production, waste, or willows of any sort that you do not have a use for can be used as fuel. It should not be used in an open fireplace due to concerns over the release of Salicylates. On a more practical level it does burn very quickly and takes a fair while to dry out. Sparks can also be quite a problem with open fires.
  • Binders for hedgelaying: The long rods from Viminalis varieties are ideal for binders in hedgelaying. Any other variety that grows long enough would also serve the purpose.
  • Whistles: Any willow of the right diameter – usually the taller varieties i.e. not basketry. These are best made when the sap has risen, as the bark is slightly loose at that time.

Thanks to Christine from Redstone willows for the information on wilows.

Further reading

Mark Allery, a member of the Surrey Sussex Coppice group has written a useful introduction to bean poles and pea sticks on his blog.

Cultivation and Use of Basket Willow 2001 - A Guide to Growing Basket Willow, Basketmakers Association & Long Ashton Research Station
Handmade Baskets from Natures Colourful Materials, Susie Vaughan – a Starter Baskety book with easy to follow instructions to make baskets from willow and other suitable hedgerow materials.
How to Make Hurdles from Willow (Osier), Andrew Basham
The Complete book of Basketry Techniques - Sue Gabriel and Sally Goymer

Comments on this article

Graham Coulbeck 21 July, 2011

Hi I have just started making Windsor chairs.I have found someone to supply me with elm, but I am finding it difficult to find a supply of good straight ash. At the moment I am using ash from a friends wood but it has lots of knots making conversion difficult.
Hope someone can help
Grahm Coulbeck.

Tracy 19 January, 2012

Hi Grahm, have you asked your local coppice group? I am sure someone there could help

Liz O@Connor 20 May, 2012

Hi, does anyone have information on where I could source a woodmans vice. Many thanks

Carol-Anne Conway 20 May, 2013

I am looking for a local source of faggots to use in a stream restoration project. Is this something that you could help with?

Christopher Routledge 2 September, 2013

I want to repair an old pathway across intertidal mud. I believe the present path was made about 50 years ago using hazel faggots topped with interlocking steel temporary runway track and concrete paviors. Can you give me any advice?

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