A joy for wood: on carving hiking sticks

Posted by | March 14, 2014

Please welcome guest author Jeff Forrester. When not busy crafting his custom walking sticks, Forrester has worked in retail management for most of the past 30+ years. He’s lived in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, and truly believes he’s at “home” in NE Tennessee. He loves the mountains that surround him and his family there and has really enjoyed learning the history of the area by hiking its beautiful trails.


I grew up outdoors. Native Oklahoman, the son of a hard working Kansas family man who loved spending weekends out on a riverbank fishing, picnicking in the park, or hiking in the woods with his family. No video games, no ESPN, no cell phones. I’ve always loved the warmth of the sun, the refreshing cooling effects of the wind, and the smell of a spring thunderstorm that brings out the wildflowers lining the trails.

Alum Cave Trail near LeConte Lodge on Mt. LeConte, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by Jason Horton

Alum Cave Trail near LeConte Lodge on Mt. LeConte, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by Jason Horton

My Grandfather had a joy for wood, and used the woodshop in his garage to make heirloom quality cradles, hall trees and other fine things for family members and friends. The smell of wood being sanded and the look of the grains in the wood after a nice stain and finish bring joyous memories of two very influential men in my life.

In the summer of 2011, my good friend, Larry Gullette, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, came to hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Early in the planning and training stages for our trip, I felt the need for a little assistance while hiking trails, especially ones with consistent strenuous elevation gains, descending steep grades and while fording small creeks and streams. I cut a small sapling in the woods behind my house (raw materials are easily found in the forests of the central and southern Appalachians), sanded it nicely, attached a lanyard cut from an old leather belt, and gave it a good coat of lacquer. The enjoyment of both hiking and woodworking had come together for the first time for me. I’ve made many different sticks with a variety of different uses, each allowing me to use what nature has given us and make it special for each recipient.

I made the first stick for someone other than myself for a work acquaintance and hiking buddy who absolutely lives to hike. Every chance he gets, he’s in the woods, and always welcomes me to tag along if I can. Jason enjoys writing about his trail experiences and shares each hike on his hiking blog. Thanks to Jason, I receive a tremendous amount of enjoyment and satisfaction getting to spend time in the woods hiking and making sticks for friends and family.

"The latest of my sticks, requested as a birthday gift, has a similar look to a shillelagh."

“The latest of my sticks, requested as a birthday gift, has a similar look to a shillelagh.”

The latest of my sticks, requested as a birthday gift, has a similar look to a shillelagh. With St. Patrick’s Day nearing, and the anticipation of a cold Guinness just around the corner, it seemed like a good time to brush up on the history of a unique and interesting style of “walking stick”.

The Shillelagh, pronounced shi-LAY-lee, was given the name by King Richard II for the people of the village of Shillelagh, and the Shillelagh Forest of County Wicklow, in Ireland around 1395. The shillelagh, also known by the Gaelic term for staff, “bata”, which means fighting stick, was used to settle disputes, similar to the way colonial America used pistols for dueling. These sticks were really more of a club, or cudgel, typically made from a sturdy stick with a large knob at the top, which was actually a part of the root ball of the tree. When they became illegal to carry, the club was elongated to appear as a walking stick, but could still be used as weapon if need be. The Scots also had their own “shillelagh” and called theirs a “kebbie” or “kebbie stick”.

Traditionally made from blackthorn wood or oak, because of the density and hardness, the wood was often times covered in butter or lard, and placed up a chimney to cure, which gave the shillelagh its typical black shiny appearance. They were also buried in a manure pile to cure. Shillelaghs were often hollowed out on the business end and filled with molten lead to increase their weight, and this type of shillelagh became known as a “loaded stick”. The length of this type stick is generally the distance from the floor to the wrist with the elbow slightly bent, and many have a strap attached, to secure to the wrist during a fight.

The shillelagh in today’s world is a symbolic souvenir of the Irish spirit.








3 Responses

  • David says:

    I`ve known Jeff seems like most of my life .. Mostly from our youth on a Basketball court where Jeff was all ways the tallest and best player .. Our team was Coached by Coach David Voss who for many years held records at the university of Tulsa , thats right the Golden Hurricane .. I saw Jeffs post on line and begin to follow Jeff on his hikes and the pictures; true! dont tell the story only Jeff could do that i`m sure over a cold one and a small audience.I saw a few of his sticks in the picturs and found my self drawn to them like a bear to honey and asked How much and would he make me one .. He replied and i sent money and got a stick which i might be more proud of it then anything in the house except for the lady of the house .. Hand made and with the scripture i wanted burned in so right and the Hammerhead shark up and down the body .. It is a great stick for someone with a ancestory that goes back to the ancient royal Wales around the Scots and the Irish we are known as Celtic legends .. My stick is so nice I almost don`t take it out , but that would hurt my friends feelings i`m sure so I have it with me at all times .. Who knows i might have to whoop some guys butt with just a stick . Thank You for letting me share and i love “The Stick ” thats what I call it …

  • Jeff Forrester says:

    Thanks David!

Leave a Reply

4 + = 8

↑ Back to top

This collection is copyright ©2006-2017 by Dave Tabler. All visuals are used in accordance with the Fair Use Law (Per Title 17—United States Code—Section 107) and remain the property of copyright owners. Site Design by Amaru Interactive