The handmade cricket bat process (or ‘pod shaving’ as it used to be known) dates back to the 17th century in the UK. The craft is still used today to produce bespoke cricket bats for players who like to specify customisation in their bats. The art of how to make a cricket bat is thought to be endangered as there are supposedly only about 20 skilled craftspeople left in the UK but this craft is also practiced in the other main cricket playing nations as well, especially Australia and India.
Regulations – Cricket Bat Dimension Restrictions
According to MCC regulations, the overall length of a bat (blade plus handle when handle insert is inserted) must not exceed 38in and the width must be no more than 4.25in.
Materials – English Willow
Cricket bat blades are almost always made out of English Willow (sometimes they are made of Kashmir Willow these days but they are less common) and the handles are made of cane. All professional cricket bats are made from English Willow.
The willows grow predominantly in East Anglia and Yorkshire in England and are mature at 12-15 years. At this age their average circumference is over 4ft.
Supply – Specialist Suppliers
The willow can be obtained from a willow specialist supplier. The trunks are cut into 28in rounds, from which are cut the ‘clefts’. Clefts are rough cut pieces of willow that are roughly in the form of a cricket bat blade and easy for shaping. The side of the cleft that will become the face of the blade is chosen at this early stage.
The cleft is now known as the ‘blade’ of the bat and is waxed at both ends to prevent against splitting and air dried down to the correct moisture content, after which the blades go on to be sorted according to grade.
The grades of the blades are not necessarily the grades of finished bats as the further processes remove more material from the edges, reducing the number of grains across the face. There are various grades for different markets from the cheapest bats for beginners up to the highest quality bats for those players who have attained test status.
Sometimes there can be blemishes in the grain such as knots or butterfly stains, which give extraordinary performance abnormalities. The ball can absolutely whiz off a bat with a butterfly stain to such an extent that some professional players will only use bats that contain this kind of blemish.
From here, the blades go on to the manufacture or can be bought by individuals who would like to hand make their own bats or become a bespoke bat maker themselves. Remember that grading is a constant process throughout manufacture due to the piece of wood changing as it goes through the various processes.
At this stage, the bat maker decides which end of the bat to cut the splice where the handle will be attached to the blade. It is important to select the right end because the end, which is the majority length of the blade, will form the playing surface.
This is a very important part of the process which ultimately determines the performance of the finished bat. At bulk manufacturing plants, bats will be machined by computer driven CNC machines, which treat each cleft generically, whereas at handmade practices, each cleft is treated individually and graded by the craftsman.
In the handmade process, the clefts are resized using custom designed jigs, planers and saws to provide the profile for the pressing processes.
The pressing process is fundamental to determining the shape, profile and performance of the bat. The blade is worked through a roller which presses down on the surface at around 2,000 lbs per sq. inch. This process is a delicately balanced art between firming up the surface and leaving enough softness for superlative performance. The object of this technique is to compress the fibers, producing greater strength and durability with optimal rebound.
Pressing also gives the bat its profile according to taste. The press can produce a flatter, more traditional face, or a more modern ‘bow’ profile.
Splicing and Fitting (Handles)
At the stage, the bat maker cuts a deep ‘V’ into both blade and handle. The handle is often a composite of cane and rubber strips, although a rubber/cork mix can also be used. The ‘V’ cut is so accurate that the handle is fitted precisely into the blade to give durability and responsiveness to the bat. The handles can be customised as Short or Long handle and can be fitted straight or slightly forward or backward of the blade depending on batsman’s preference and characteristics and bow of the blade.
In the handmade process, the parts are fitted together by hand and a specialist adhesive is applied. Then the bats are clamped and left to dry overnight.
The next stage is shaping, where the bat is locked into a vice for stability. The traditional method involves using a draw knife to pull the willow off the blade by hand and is very labour-intensive. Maximum wood is left in the driving area of the blade to ensure correct balance. The coarse cuts are smoothed using a plane. It is at this stage that the shoulders and splice are seamlessly integrated using a spoke-shave. The toe is also shaped at a precise angle for performance.
The bat is regularly removed from the vice so that the craftsman can continuously test the bat for balance and shape. This remarkable process requires intricate detail and precision to guarantee appropriate pick up, profile and “feel” of the bat.
After removal from the bench, the bat goes through the continued shaping process of sanding. The process is carried out using sanding grids and mills with the finishing touches done by hand. This process changes the bat from coarse piece of willow to a smooth, refined product.
The process involves several stages of sanding with a high quality finish being the ultimate objective. It is at this point the bat is thoroughly inspected for quality.
This is the process of shaping the handle, which ought usually to have an oval profile, but this can also depend on subtle differences in each blade’s individual characteristics.
Binding and Gripping
Once the handle has been shaped it is brushed with glue then mounted in a binding lathe with a foot peddle. One layer of traditional linen twine is entwined around the handle to give strength to the splice and all along the length of the handle. After the binding process the glue is allowed to dry and a moulded rubber handle grip is applied using a grip-cone.
Burnishing and Knocking In
The burnishing or oiling process is carried out with the aim of further compressing the outer fibers together to give the bat more resilience against the impact of a cricket ball and reduce the chance of damage. It also improves the performance of the bat. The blade is brushed with two coats of oil before being left to dry for 24 hours. The bat undergoes five treatments of this across five days until the oiling process is complete. No oil is applied to the handle, shoulders or splicing of the bat.
Knocking in is carried out by machine or with a mallet or even an old cricket ball. The force of the knocking is progressively increased until the intensity is the same as the impact of a cricket ball.
In order to add character (and branding) to the bat, stickers are applied to the blade and spine. The stickers are made of a highly durable polycarbonate material and the designs are sub surface printed to avoid damage to the designs.
And That’s How You Make a Cricket Bat
This concludes the process from Willow cleft to finished product. If you are a craftsman, why not have a go at making your own unique bat? Just get in touch with any specialist willow supplier, order your cleft and begin the process. Let me know what you think in the comments section below. Best of luck.