Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | February 12, 2012

Carving Walking Sticks, Revisited

Back in 2009, I posted an article about carving walking sticks and it remains one of my most looked at postings today.  After all, carving walking sticks has almost become a freestanding art form.  Of course there are differing degrees of carving but almost everyone has done some degree of carving on a walking stick even if it was to simply carve their initials in it or peel off bark.  Who has not found a stick in the woods and carried it while walking?  Perhaps you even brought it home from a camping trip with you.  I firmly believe that one of the reasons walking sticks carry so much fascination has to do with the magic in them.  Okay, a lot of you reading this just said to yourself… “Hurrumpff, there is no such thing as magic.”   Well, I beg to differ… magic may be found wherever we look for it or place it.  And, what better place than a fine personally selected, personally carved walking stick.

In my life, I must have carved something in the neighborhood of 100 walking sticks… some were pretty detailed and some were fairly plain.  There are really no rules about what one does to create a walking stick.  If it is to be a gift, I suggest carving something on it that is identified with the recipient… something that makes it meaningful to them.  Of course, if it is a commission, the subject matter is going to be whatever the buyer is asking for.  Walking sticks can be carved from just about any wood but I suggest that it be a hard wood.  If you select a softer wood, in order to provide strength, you may have to go to a larger diameter stick.  Another consideration is that softer woods dent too.

Personally, I like to find sticks in the woods that have character such as small burls, crooks, outgrowths and anything that makes them interesting.  Diamond Willow is a classic example of what I am talking about…. my absolute favorite.  I prefer to carve whatever subject that I have selected right into my stick.  I don’t really like adding things to sticks.  If you do choose to add a headpiece, I suggest that it be carved from a harder wood as well as you don’t want it dented or broken from dropping it on a rock or from fighting off a charging lion.  Headpieces can easily be added by using a short piece of screw rod.  Seams can be covered up with a leather collar.  You can also cut a recess into the headpiece so that the stick fits into the headpiece and the seam is hidden.

An added benefit to me in selecting a natural piece of wood is the adventure of looking for it.  I love being in the woods and it is so exciting to find a fine stick.  I have many times come across a straight, small tree.  I have dug down around the roots to explore what the root feels like.  If it is simply a straight root (like a carrot), I leave it and cover up my diggings best I can.  I don’t want to up root a tree just to throw it aside.  If, however, it feels like it has an interesting root clump that would lend itself to something cool, I will harvest it.  If it is mainly the root that will be carved, it will likely take saws and grinders as roots are made of tuff, hard, and twisting wood.  Some roots are gorgeous simply finished naturally.  You might recall Gandalf the Grey’s staff (vs. Gandalf the White).  It was natural root stock with a crystal in it.

Unless you take care in curing green wood, it will surely split.  I make sure that I place curing sticks out of direct sun and out of any extreme dryness.  And, every 30 days or so, I turn the sticks so that any warpage is minimalized and the stick stays straight.  If I am going to carve a stick with a knife and palm gouges, I try to do so prior to the stick getting completely dry and hard.  As you probably know, it is pretty hard to whittle on a piece of dry fruit wood or the like.  If you will be using power, I find that it is best to wait until it is “hard hard.”

In addition to the procedure described above, if I am concerned about the root ball splitting, I paint the thing with log sealer.  Latex paint will work as well, in a pinch.  I use a log sealer sold by  The only issue there is that you need to buy a 5 gallon bucket.  I bought 5 gallons about 6 years ago and I still have about half of it… and I use it a lot.

Once I have carved the stick, I slather it down with Howard Feed-n-Wax.  I use Feed-N-Wax on everything and if I want color, I just add tint.  I love it.

For final touches, you can add a leather lanyard or a medallion.  Treeline offers a huge selection of medallions for walking sticks.  Personally, if I can’t carve the item into the stick, I leave it off.  But, I can also see where military personnel may want a military medallion on his or her stick.  Treeline also has a selection of “feet” for sticks.

I believe walking sticks should be made to be used and therefore should not be so delicate that they can be easily broken if dropped.  A couple of years ago, I was commissioned by a woman from near Sydney, Australia to carve a walking stick depicting some North Coast Indian symbols from her native British Columbia.  In the process of ordering it, she told me that she loved to be in the woods and since guns are illegal in Australia, she wanted a comfortable, hard stick that could be used to fend of snakes or anything else that she might come across that proved to be unfriendly.

Good luck with your stick carving.

Stay sharp and be “carveful.”

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