THE ART OF STICK MAKING
by Mr. Wilf
| I am
secretary of the
Border Stick Dressers Association (BSDA), founded on May 19, 1951 by a
group of shepherds and farmers in the Coquet Valley on the English side of the
border between England and Scotland. The BSDA is the oldest stick making
organisation in the UK. It was formed because the craft had virtually died out,
the practical need for shepherds crooks was increasingly being met by more
modern materials. However as more decorative sticks were being made this
revived the craft and in reality it is now an art form, principally due to the
efforts of Norman Tulip. BSDA members are now drawn from all walks of life, not
just the rural community, and have taken up the craft as a hobby.
The Scottish Crook makers are a separate organisation, apart from dual
membership of some of our members, and see themselves purely as crook makers
and have restricted decoration on the head of the crook in contrast to our
fancy sticks. There is also a relatively new organisation called the British
Stickmakers Guild. The skills required are passed on both at regular evening
classes and on a one to one basis.
Sticks are the second
oldest of the tools used by man, stones are a possible first, however sticks
are the first symbol of authority. The caveman with the biggest stick would
undoubtedly be the leader of the group. Even today in most religions, the staff
is a symbol of authority, denoting positions of influence and power. Animals
and birds use twigs and sticks to probe into termite holes and assorted nests
to dislodge the occupants.
Shepherds have used sticks since 'time immemorial', both as a weapon
against predators and as a tool to assist them in catching ailing and
recalcitrant sheep. Originally these sticks would be simple wood with a natural
curve at the end. At some point, someone carved the curve into the crook on
purpose when no natural one was available, but this would not be as strong as
the natural curve. Further down the road, another someone discovered that by
applying heat to horn it could be manipulated to form the correct curve for a
crook and so the horn headed shepherd's crook evolved.
The next innovation was to add further decoration to the stick. Originally
it was probably the name of the owner, or farm, that was simply scratched on
the market stick to identify it to the owner after a night of drinking to
celebrate after the sale of some stock at the local market. The Scottish
shepherds, being Scottish, then started to elaborate by carving a thistle
design on the nose of the crook and this was the only decoration used until
1933, when two men from the Coquet Valley, George Snaith and Ned Henderson,
each put a Brown Trout on the handle for the show at Thropton.
The next milestone was the founding in 1951 of the BSDA in the College
Valley by a group of men who included George Snaith. Even then, the fancy
sticks were only Trout or Thistle Sticks, the competitions being made up of
Neck and Leg Crooks, both horn and one piece wood, Market Sticks and Ladies
Sticks. The terms "crooks and sticks" tend to be interchangeable,
with most people understanding what a stick is, except U.S. visitors to the
U.K. are occasionally tempted to call them "canes".
Shortly after the founding of the BSDA, a young farmer by the name of
Norman Tulip sought out George Snaith who was acknowledged as the best stick
dresser at that time. He went to his isolated farm and knocked on the door,
which after a time was opened about six inches and he was asked brusquely what
he wanted, when Norman explained his mission, he was told to go away and make
some sticks and then come back with them. This he did and a few months later,
he knocked on the door and again it was opened the same six inches. Norman
stated he had brought the sticks, whereupon a hand reached out and took hold of
the sticks, withdrew them into the house and shut the door in Norman's face.
After what Norman said seemed like hours but in reality was only a few
minutes, the door opened and George said to him, "I think you have talent
and I will show you all I know, but you must promise me never to sell a
stick" and Norman never did. No one knows why George Snaith made Norman
Tulip make that promise, but he kept it and he told me that it was the best
promise he made because even when times were hard he was never tempted to sell
a stick. But sticks made by Norman have been presented to the Queen and Duke of
Edinburgh and when the Prince and Princess of Wales got married the Horners'
Guild in London asked Norman to make them a stick each for a wedding present.
The Queen Mother and several other members of the Royal family each have one of
All kinds of horn can be used to make the heads on sticks, as long as it is
true horn and not antler or ivory for although they can be used, they cannot be
manipulated with heat as can horn. Sheep horn is my favourite although buffalo
(water buffalo not bison) is used in increasing amounts because of its
availability. Cow horn is difficult because of the large core hole which has to
be reduced by compression. In Norman's collection there is a very nice Ayrshire
cow plain stick and a one made from the horn of one of the Chillingham Wild
cows, I myself have been unable to master the use of cow horns to make a stick,
maybe that is because I am more interested in making fancy sticks. Goat horn is
also used, but it tends to be flaky and needs a lot of work to bulk it up, and
when available, some types of antelope horn are suitable, especially of the
Of all sheep horns, the best is from a Dorset Horn, very rare now as most
of them are bred as polled sheep, but Blackface, Swaledale, Welsh Mountain and
other hill sheep are suitable. A good horn can also be obtained from the Jacob
Sheep and its dual colouring lends itself to a very natural fancy stick. I once
made one with a Border Collie on the heel and a Blackface ewe on the nose, this
went as a gift to one of my wife's cousins who was a shepherd at the time.
Merino sheep horns from Australia have proved to be a disappointment, being
very thin walled and flaky and thus easily cracked and broken.
Obviously the horns come from the tup, although a very simple working stick
can be fashioned from an old ewe's horn, and the older the tup the better,
because there is a much greater density of horn. With current farming methods,
many young tups are fed more concentrates than in the past and this makes the
horn more liable to damage and reduces the quality for stick dressing. Also
these pampered sheep are unable to sustain a long working life and seldom reach
With reference to concentrates fed to young tups, I think the best way I
can describe the problem of poor horn quality, although it hasn't been
scientifically proven, is to liken it to the difference between a tree grown on
fertile ground and a one grown in a harsh environment. The former grows rapidly
with wide annular rings whilst the later grows more slowly but is denser and
generally stronger and harder. It could also be that the irritation caused by
the sheep headfly results in greater damage to the softer horn. Fighting will
also cause a greater tendency for blood blisters to form in the horn of young
tups to blight the stickdresser when a good deal of work has been already
carried out on the horn. Being a natural material is one of the beauties and
strengths of horn but it is also one of its weaknesses, because you never know
what imperfection that you are going to come across, that is why I like making
fancy sticks - you can disguise some minor imperfections.
The shank of a stick can be made of any suitable wood, George Snaith only
used birch, whereas Norman favoured holly. The most common wood used is hazel,
because of its availability, strength and tendency to grow straight, however
blackthorn, plum, pear and other fruit woods are used. This group of woods are
generally, but not always, used with the bark on. Holly, ash and other woods
are usually used with the bark off. The best time to cut a good stick is when
you see it, if you don't someone else will. If you do see a good one, the best
time to cut it is in the winter after the leaves fall and when sap is at a
Hazel and that class of wood needs to be seasoned for at least one year and
needs to be cut slightly larger than the finished diameter to allow for
shrinkage, if cut in the summer this can be as much as twenty percent. Holly
and other hard woods are cut anywhere between two and four inches in diameter
to allow the bark to be removed as well as sufficient wood to expose a nice
grain pattern. They need to be seasoned for a greater period of time, Norman
kept some hard woods for fifteen years before using them in stickmaking.
The wood has to balance the horn, this makes the stick "clever"
to handle. If one goes back to the principle use of the stick, to catch and
herd sheep, then like all tools it must accomplish the job without placing an
additional burden or stress on the user.
As to length, always cut a stick longer than is needed, you can always
remove some but you cannot replace any, for a working stick usually up to five
feet long is about right, depending on the user and his personal preference. It
is also wise to remember that the shepherd's crook is not only his long arm it
is his third leg. He can put both hands on the crown, lean forward onto it and
take the weight of his feet, rather like Andrew Lang's drunk who uses a lamp
post more for support than for illumination. If one needs a stick for support
because of need, then the correct height can be obtained by holding the stick
up against the person and the crown of the stick should be level with the top
of the hip bone.
When you have gathered your horn and shank, you then need to look for the
tools. The first requirement is a large strong vice; I use what is called a
Blacksmiths' Single Leg Vice, these are unobtainable now except sometimes at
farm sales. This is used to hold the horn while you are shaping it, as well as
to compress and manipulate the horn. You also need several pieces of curved
scrap metal to help squeeze and shape the horn.
Due to the hardness of the horn, it is difficult to shape using a knife or
chisels, so you need a collection of files and rasps to remove the excess
material, and you even need some needle files to assist in the decoration. You
also need a pan in which to boil the horn in and some method of heating for
small sections of the horn. You also need a small soldering iron or pyrography
pen to burn the feathers, fins and other small details into the horn. Finally,
you need various grades of abrasive cloth to finish the horn and a colouring
medium if you have decorated the stick.
When you have selected your horn and shank, it is time to get down to some
work to turn them into a desirable stick. The first job is to cut the horn to
length, for a full size shepherd's crook you need at least 16 inches of usable
horn, and for a walking stick, eight inches. Of course if you are making a
really fancy stick, you need to retain as much of the horn as possible.
When you have cut the horn to length, then it has to be boiled for at least
two hours. I always boil them when my wife is not around because the smell is
certainly not attar of roses. Take the horn out of the boiling water and
squeeze it between two large metal plates, this is to flatten out the spiral so
you end up with a flat circle. Be careful not to flatten it too much, it should
be at least one and a quarter inches thick. You then leave the horn between the
plates until it has cooled down.
Once cooled, the horn cannot be boiled again or the spiral will return, so
it is necessary to use another form of heat on small portions of the horn at a
time. In the past the shepherds used the heat generated at the top of the
chimney of the old oil lamps, then they started to use spirit burners, and blow
torches but they were too hot. Now everyone uses hot air paint strippers and
they are ideal for directing heat to a small area.
A horn has a good side, convex, and a bad side, concave, with the bad side
always coming from the head side of the sheep. The objective of heating and
squeezing the horn in small sections is to try and fill the concave side of the
horn. Once this is done, experience will bring the knowledge of when the point
of no return is reached. It is then time to form the horn into the relevant
Always remember too much heat and the horn will become brittle and too
little heat and the horn will not compress or bend as you want it to. One of
the major problems in making the heads of sticks from sheep horn is the fact
that the horn has a "memory" of its original state and any heating or
bending encourages that portion of horn to return to that state. This is also
true, to a lesser degree, of the shanks.
In the past, the shepherds only used the solid end part of the horn, Norman
discovered that by using two halves of an old bearing sleeve, the core hole
could be closed up and make more horn available for use. The tip of the horn is
solid and the core hole is the growing part connected to the skull. It may be
necessary to cut the tip off the horn to get the sleeve in, but that is usually
going to be discard anyhow. It is also advisable to heat the sleeve as well as
the horn to compress the core hole and also to put a metal rod in the core hole
to stop the horn folding in on itself. Thick leather gloves are recommended as
are three hands.
Once the horn is squeezed and shaped to the required proportions, then it
is time to prepare the joint portion of the stick, the "marriage" on
the stick diagram. Looking at the stick from the back, it must be at a 180
degree angle to the shank and heel of the head, but looking from the side view,
it can either be at 180 degrees or slope back towards the heel. The
"marriage" should be below the nose of the stick. A hole of two to
three inches is then drilled into the heel of the horn, and a metal rod is
glued into this hole with a protrusion of two to three inches that will fit
into a hole drilled into the shank. The rod I use is continuous thread bolt
five eighths of an inch in diameter, which provides a good key for the two part
epoxy resin glue which everyone now uses for this purpose.
After the glue is set, one is able to shape the head using rasps and files
and care is needed to ensure that too much horn is not removed, because it
cannot be replaced. It is at this point that a decision is made as to whether
there is enough horn on the heel or nose to do any decorative carving. It is
always best to try, if you make a mess of it, then you can remove the carving
and end up with a plain stick. Remember, any carving must come out of the
original horn, nothing is glued on. A small hole is then drilled at the bottom
of the shank glue hole to allow the excess glue to escape, otherwise the shank
One of Norman's stories illustrates the dedication of a master stickmaker.
Norman used to keep bantam hens and one day a fox got one of the cockerels. He
thought that this would be a good subject for a stick, so he started to make a
one--but when he got to the cockerel carving, he need to borrow a cockerel from
a neighbour to get it right. He was working in the kitchen of the farmhouse
using the cockerel as a model and was so engrossed in his work that it wasn't
until the cockerel started crowing, waking up the entire household, that he
realised it was morning.
Competitions and demonstrations are held at agricultural shows throughout
the U.K., but principally in the Border Region. In addition, there are evening
classes where people are taught to make sticks and these classes are usually
The most asked homework
question in our email was: What is wool made of?
Answer: Wool is a natural protein fiber composed of keratin-type protein that
grows from the follicles of the sheep's skin. The proteins contain five
elements: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur. These five elements
are combined into 19 amino acids linked together in ladder-like polypeptide
American Wool Council
Just how much wool is in a
With the baseball spring training season upon us and the regular season not far
behind, one might wonder (or not) just how much wool is in a baseball. (Listen
up Regis, this might be a question/answer for your next millionaire.) The
answer is, according to Yale University professor of physics Robert K. Adair,
121 yards of blue-gray wool yarn, 45 yards of white wool yarn, along with 150
yards of fine cotton yarn. Batter up!
American Sheep Industry Association
by Winnie Bergere
The Origin of Our Favourite
Reprinted by kind permission of the author and publisher after appearing in
the Spring 1998 issue of Sheep
Canada, published quarterly by B&L Publishing, Editor
Cathy Gallivan, Suite 438, 11215
Jasper Ave., Edmonton, AB T5K 0L5
Sheep, it would seem, have been there
for us since time immemorial. Pick up any musty old history book and you're
bound to stumble over a reference to sheep. Poets, past and present, love
popping them into their verse. Ancient tapestries and frescos have depicted
them. They've been sung about, and to this day, are the brunt of many a fine
joke. Sheep go back a long way!
It is thought that, after the dog, sheep were possibly the second animal to
be domesticated. Somewhere, between 8000 and 6000 B.C., a mesolithic
dude, bent on a career change, set about capturing and taming some wild sheep;
thus becoming the first shepherd. The idea caught on and by 5000 B.C. sheep
were fully domesticated. Flocks, in all corners of the world evolved to suit
the needs of their people and their terrain.
Four types of primitive sheep still remain in the world. They are the
mouflon of Europe and Asia Minor, the urial of western Asia and
Afghanistan, the argali of central Asia and our very own bighorn
of North America and northern Asia. With the exception of the bighorn,
who's always been a bit of a snob and has refused to mingle, these sheep
represent the origins of present day flocks.
The Romans are credited with the development of the white woolled sheep. By
1500 A.D., there was documented proof of the existence of the fine woolled
Merino in Spain, but due to a prior news blackout the actual creation of the
Merino remains a mystery. Whatever the origins, the Spaniards knew they had a
good thing going in the Merino and forbade their export until 1765 when the
King sent some, as a gift, to pals in Germany.
Meanwhile, back on the British Isles, sheep were evolving also.
Neolithic tourists, arriving in Britain between 6000 and 3000 B.C.
apparently brought their sheep along for a boo and liking it, they stayed.
Later, the Romans imported their white faced sheep. By the Middle Ages, long
woolled, white faced sheep inhabited the lowland areas, while mixed sheep with
finer and shorter wool were kept in the hill country. Wool brought power and
wealth to England for 700 years, giving way to an increasing demand for meat in
the 1500's. In the 1800's changes in traditional British sheep breeds brought
about the New Leicester and the Southdown breeds. The Merino, coupled with
these new British breeds became the basis of most modern day sheep.
In 1493, some adventurous little Spanish churro sheep sailed to
North America with Columbus. After 1800, the flourishing sheep grazing industry
of the east coastal U.S. was strengthened by the importation of European
Merinos. In the 1840's, yet more adventurous sheep accompanied the early wagon
trains westward on the Oregon Trail.
Australia's incredible sheep industry began with the sheep who arrived with
the First Fleet in 1788 and with South African Merinos, imported in 1797. By
1800 there were 6,000 head of sheep. Eighty years later, Australia's flock
comprised 60 million head. Evidently the Aussies took their "woolies"
French speaking sheep arrived in Canada at the first permanent settlement
in "new France" in 1604. Importations of British breeds later
contributed to the existence of the two solitudes and ultimately to our
present day constitutional wrangling. Sheep numbers continued to grow,
nonetheless, and in 1965, we reached one million head, most of whom were
Today, sheep of infinite variety are scattered over the globe. They've fed
and clothed mankind since way back when. And we shepherds are still trying to
convince them that they are domesticated now. Some things never change!
Home on the Range
Nancy Weidel, Historian Department of
State Parks & Cultural Resources State Historic Preservation Office, State
It's hard to imagine Wyoming
without the sheepwagon, which played such an important role in the state's once
large sheep industry. One hundred and ten years after its introduction, the
sheep wagon can still be seen in parts of the state, a lonely silhouette on a
Large bands of sheep once fed on the grass and sagebrush of Wyoming; in the
yearly grazing cycle, sheep often moved hundreds of miles, from the winter
range of the lower elevations to the summer range in the mountains. A
sheepherder followed the bands of sheep to watch over them. Due to Wyoming's
harsh weather, the herder needed protection on the open range from the snow and
winds of winter and the mountain storms of summer.
The sheepwagon became the perfect home for the herder: 11 feet long and
6-1/2 feet wide, enclosed by a canvas top, with a stove for heat and cooking.
It was mo bile, a most important feature. Teams of horses pulled the compact,
efficient wagon over vast grazing areas. The herder and sheep lived in remote
locations; the camptender, who delivered supplies every ten days or so, might
be the herder's only contact with civilization for months at a time.
A number of people have noted the striking similarity between the interior
of a sheepwagon and a sailing vessel, which also served as a compact housing
unit. Rans Baker, a contemporary Rawlins historian, tells of two old
sheepherders in the area, both former sailors, who finally felt at home herding
sheep on the Red Desert, which they described "like being on a dry
sea". The similarities of a boat's cabin to the interior of a sheepwagon
are remarkable. Both have well-designed storage places. Many pleasure boats
have benches on either side of the main cabin that open to contain still more
storage. Compact beds are tucked away under the bow. Tables fold down when not
in use. Ever ything has its place in a boat as in a sheepwagon.
The Wyoming sheep industry developed during the 1870s in the southeastern
part of the state along the Union Pacific Railroad. James Candlish, a
blacksmith from Rawlins, Wyoming is often credited with the invention of the
sheepwagon in 1884, although others believe the wagon was not
"invented" so much as it evolved from English, European, and military
antecedents. The Schulte Hardware Company of Casper, Wyoming modified
Candlish's "Home on Wheels" and sheepwagons became standardized
around 1900. As sheep production increased during the twentieth century,
blacksmiths all around the state built sheepwagons for sheep ranchers, who
might own as many as twenty wagons.
Commercial manufacture of sheepwagons began at this same time, one could
purchase a sheepwagon from the Studebaker Company of Indiana or Wisconsin's
Bain Manufacturing, but the tradition of local building of the wagons by
blacksmiths and carpenters predominated and continued into the 1950s. Older
wagons were updated; rubber tires replaced original wooden wheels and sheet
metal, rather than canvas, covered the bow-top. Many of the sheepwagons one
sees today are seventy years or older and reflect this conversion.
By 1910, Wyoming boasted 5-1/2 million sheep; one sheepwagon and herder
cared for as many as 3,000 sheep. Although it is not possible to determine how
many sheepwagons existed at the height of the sheep industry, oldtimers tell of
seeing one on every hill top on the winter range, and it was not uncommon to
have twenty or thirty wagons and herders gathered at the foot of the summer
mountain range, waiting their turn on the sheep trail.
World War II changed the Wyoming sheep industry. Finding good help became a
problem as former sheepherders found better paying jobs elsewhere. Sheep
ranchers began to fence their large tracts of private land and left the sheep
without a herder. The pick up truck had an enormous impact; it replaced the
teams of horses that pulled the wagon, and the rancher could more easily check
on his untended flocks by traversing the rough terrain in newly developed
four-wheel drive vehicles.
The state's sheep industry has gradually declined in the last thirty years,
from 2,360,000 sheep in 1960 to only 620,000 in 1994. Sheepwagons are still
used in southwestern Wyoming and the Big Horn Basin, but elsewhere they are
more likely to be seen abandoned in a lonely setting. During the past decade,
sheepwagons were bought and restored, sold to tourists for high dollars, and
used as a guest room or a yard ornament. One can interpret this trend as an
attempt to preserve the most important cultural artifact of the sheep industry:
A cottage industry has developed in Wyoming and nearby states in recent
years. Individuals are buying sheepwagons and renovating them for high resale
value. The restored, often totally rebuilt wagons with gleaming deluxe
interiors, have been removed from their original context. They have acquired a
new function as a guest room, an office, a child's playroom, a decorative yard
ornament, or an expensive piece of trendy western memorabilia for the wealthy.
The sheepwagon is a marvel of practicality and compactness. The interior
configuration proved so efficient that 110 years after its
"invention", the same basic plan is used in the few sheepwagons made
today. Whether by design or accident, the sheepwagon interior also served as
the model for many modern campers. One can begin to appreciate the durability
of the sheepwagon's interior design when it is contrasted with the changes in
residential floor plans that have occurred over the past one hundred years, a
gradual evolution from small enclosed rooms to large open living areas. The
sheepwagon retained its original interior configuration because the space
worked so efficiently.
The sheepwagon, once scorned by those outside of the industry, is being
transformed, like the cowboy before it, into a romantic symbol of Wyoming and
the Old West. It seems the further the working sheepwagon recedes into our
past, the more popular it has be come as an icon.
Sheepwagons pop up in many places - on a café placemat, as Christmas
ornaments or mailboxes, on postcards and notecards, a logo for the Wyoming Wool
Growers. Old sheepwagons are being recycled for advertising purposes, as a
novelty accommmodation at a dude ranch, in rodeo parades, as Welcome Wagons on
the outskirts of a small town, or an information booth at Cheyenne Frontier
Days. Like an arrowhead that represents an earlier culture and relates
something of the history of a time and place, maybe the sheepwagon, as the most
important cultural artifact and symbol of the historic sheep industry, will
serve a similar purpose, as a vehicle to tell the story.
Nancy Weidel's book "Sheepwagon: Home on the Range" is available
from High Plains Press, P.O. Box 123, Glendo, Wyoming 82213.
SHEEP WAGON LINKS
Wyoming Territory displays photos of
custom built, restored, and museum quality sheepwagons on their vivid and well
designed website. Check out No. 31, a green and gold masterpiece of 1890's
vintage, originally built for Wyoming's Big Horn Basin.
The West: Episode
I Like You Very Much". Honeymoon sheepwagon on Muskrat Creek? Read
about it on this colorful page of love letters written to the schoolteacher
with the Ivy League education from her suitor, a Scottish sheepman who dreamed
of becoming a sheep baron or "mutton-aire" near Lander, Wyoming.
the Beaten Path from Cliff Naylor of KFYR-TV, Channel 5, in North Dakota
introduces you to Dale Donner. Donner is a covered wagon craftsman who also
builds wooden sheepwagons that sleep four and have woodburning stoves. Hit the
Real Audio video Enabled button to hear and see him in action, nailing classic
wagons together with one of today's power tools.
Sheepcamp Birdhouse by Seven Stars Artworks of Heber, Utah is a fully
functional birdhouse, handmade of pine and tin, advertised as "easy to
clean". It can be ordered in olive green, barn red, or blue in large,
small, or custom versions possessing more detail.
Sampling Fiber of Individual Animals
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