Most of my early attempts at carving hockey sticks ended the same way. They got chopped up and shoved into my woodstove. But that’s okay. Like a musician who spends a lifetime practising scales and arpeggios, you build your skills through repetition.
In the old days, the sticks were cut to a rough shape with a primitive tool called a square saw. Then the craftsmen used crooked knives and a drawknife to carve the sticks to the correct form and thickness.
I used a circular saw and jig saw to rough out the shape of the sticks from the thick yellow birch slabs. Then it was time to carve the sticks.
For removing the bulk of the material, I used a hand plane that was common in the 1800s, a scrub plane. This plane looks like a regular hand plane but with some key differences. It has a rounded, thick blade that easily plows through hardwood.
The shafts of the early sticks were not perfectly straight. It seems like the early carvers followed the grain, sacrificing straightness for strength. You can see this slight curvature in early photos of players with their sticks. Even the drawings of sticks in the old print ads clearly show a curved shaft. I did my best to re-create this and ended up with a gently undulating result that is oddly pleasing, at least to my eye.
If you’ve held a hockey stick, you know the blade is thinner than the shaft. But have you ever looked at how the shaft transitions into the blade? It’s a very graceful changeover from thicker to thinner. For me, this was the hardest part of the job.
The woodgrain where the tree curves is a woodworker’s nightmare. The grain here is curled, which looks like ice cream with lots of butterscotch ripples. Both maple and birch can have this curly grain and people love it. Find a photo of Ace Frehley’s tiger-striped maple guitar and you’ll see why curly woodgrain is so popular.
Curly grain develops in trees that grow in tough conditions, almost as if the tree creates a series of super-strong ribs to help defend itself from wind or weight stresses. If it strengthens a tree, it can strengthen a hockey stick. You can see this curly grain on the blades of old one-piece hockey sticks, a sure sign a stick is not made from a steam-bent board.
The curly grain at the bend was beyond challenging to carve because the curls were much harder than the surrounding wood. There was no consistency to the grain and no single tool could handle cutting it. I started with a drawknife but also needed a spokeshave and a low angle block plane.
Near the end I abandoned all the bladed tools and switched to a file. After a few hours of filing – and a few blisters – the stick was ready for a final smoothing and a coat of oil.
Come back next time and see the finished product. We might even look for a friendly NHL player to sign the sticks.
Bruce MacNab is a Red Seal carpenter from Nova Scotia who teaches at Nunavut Arctic College in Rankin Inlet. Visit him at thisshouldwork.ca