How To Make A Cricket Bat
Updated: Jan 14, 2021
There exists a stick of wood that without which the game of cricket simply couldn't be played.
You can swap a genuine leather ball for a tennis ball. You can replace the stumps with a rubbish bin. However, there's one thing you just can't compromise on. From net practices, through village greens and county grounds, all the way up to the pinnacle of the game in the international arena, you can't play cricket without a bat.
Whether it's fashioned from plastic, wood, or even metal (à la Dennis Lillee in 1979), you need a bat to score the runs. I'm a bowler, so I rank the thrill of seeing splattered stumps a bit higher than the big hit - probably because I'm very unlikely ever to experience the latter - but for batsmen, planting a bowler back over his head for six is a feeling that's hard to beat.
All that poses the question, though - how exactly do you make a bat? Most cricket fans know that bats are made from willow. A few might know how long the process takes, but I would imagine there are not a lot of people, outside of manufacturing circles at least, who actually know the steps to turn tree into bat, including those who regularly play the game.
Well, if you've ever wanted to know, you've come to the right place. This week, I spoke to Wes Brookes, who manufactures his own under his brand Lionheart Cricket. Wes is a member of my local village club, Lightcliffe CC, and can often be found in the club's nets bowling to his son Finn. He explained the process to me.
"You have to start by planting a willow sett, which is a long thin piece of living willow from which your tree will grow. The sett is around four metres long, and you plant it around two feet into the soil.
"Wet soil is really important for willow; the wetter the soil, the quicker it will grow. Too dry, and it may not flourish. Most trees will take around fifteen years, but it can be anywhere between as fast as ten or as slow as twenty five.
"It's really important that you keep the tree straight while it's growing and once a year, you have to cut off any buds or branches that start to grow. If they're allowed to sprout, you'll end up with lots of branches in the tree and, consequently, knots in the bat."
You certainly are in it for the long haul! For context, that time the willow takes to grow is slightly shorter than Geoffrey Boycott's fastest Test fifty. What happens once the willow has reached the size it needs to?
"You can't rush a good bat! The size you need for the tree is about four-and-a-half feet in circumference. That's the point at which it's ready to cut down. Once you've cut it down, you can then further divide it into what's known as 'rounds', which are simply the more manageably-sized pieces of timber that you can then work on.
"The rounds are about 30 inches long, and I split them by hand - you can get machines to split them but I prefer the traditional methods. I then saw them to shape on a band saw, which produces a cleft.
Wes went on to tell me that you then need some more patience!
"You then need to dry the wood. Willow is a very wet wood, which is why it grows so fast, but they need drying out before you can do any work on them. They need time to air dry, so I leave it outside for a minimum of six months, and sometimes up to a year.
"Next comes the process of kiln drying, which is important because it allows the bat to become really light. That takes around three weeks, before at long last the clefts are ready to go and turn into bats! That's the point I can then take them back to my workshop and get going on them, which is the fun bit."
It's a big investment when you plant those first willow trees, but I have no doubt the pride when you produce the finished bat makes all the waiting worth it. How does cleft become bat in the final stage of the process?
"Once I have the cleft, I need to saw it down to size. After that's done, there's a particularly important moment, and this is a skill. I have to plane the face and remove the rough saw marks to decide upon the best looking piece of timber possible from each cleft. This will become the face of the bat. You can turn a possible grade 1 bat into a lower grade if you get this process wrong – and likewise you can upgrade timber if you know what you are doing during this stage.
A bat is something that players will use for a long time (well, mine doesn't often see long periods of use in one go, but a lot of others do) and become very proud of, so it's completely understandable they want their bat to have that sleek appearance. No machine can select the best looking piece of timber; that's solely down to the skill of the maker.
"Then comes the key part of the whole process, which is pressing. Because willow is such a wet wood when it grows, it almost behaves like a sponge in terms of the porous structure, and so that means if a ball was to hit it before it had been pressed, it would just leave a spongey dent and it wouldn't go anywhere."
Not ideal for the likes of Chris Gayle and David Warner if they try to plant a six into the stands and end up simply popping the ball back to the bowler and get a dent in their bat for their troubles! Wes explained how pressing works: "You have about an 8mm [1/3 inch] hard coating on the face of the bat, produced by the pressing process, and that ensures that a ball won't damage the bat. All the soft wood is behind that hard coating, and that provides the rebound that means the ball will ping away as it should.
"The reason pressing is so key is that you need to get that amount of hard coating just right. Not enough, and you don't solve the problem of denting and the ball not going anywhere. Too much, and the soft wood behind doesn't provide enough of a rebound and you're back to the ball not bouncing off the bat as well as it could. The ideal would be to press it to allow some additional light pressing for the perfect final crisp coating – which is known in the trade as ‘knocking a bat in’. " We're almost there with our bat. It's been sawn, dried and now it's been pressed. What's next?
"I then need to add the handle to it. I buy the handles in from India rather than making them here, and the reason for that is cane, which is the raw type of wood the handles are made from, is difficult to export from India because of legislation. That said, you can buy the handles in having been already made in India!
"You cut what's known as the splice, which is the V-shaped cut into the blade of the bat that the handle needs to go into. I knock the handle into place and glue it in, giving it 24 hours to allow that glue to dry. "Next comes the shaping, which produces the familiar outline of a cricket bat as people know it. Different manufacturers have their own methods for this, but the way I do it is to run it through a machine to get a rough basic shape and then use traditional tools to fine tune the exact shape. The traditional tools allow me to fine tune and perfect the shape using hand-eye skills.”
"I make a few final adjustments, including finishing off the shaping, and then sand it down, to ensure the bat is really smooth and aesthetically good. It now looks like a bat, and plays like a bat, so I finish off by making it my own. I put my Lionheart branding stickers on it, and then it's ready to play with!"
And there we have it, one finished bat! The process of making this crucial piece of equipment is a long one, and one that requires a great deal of skill to boot - like anything else, experience on the part of the maker counts for a lot.
Thank you very much to Wes for taking the time to speak to me. For me, I never fully realised the care that goes into making a bat, and it was fascinating to me to get an insight into the process. We must cherish independent makers like Wes, because the time and effort that goes into making a bat by hand is considerable. If you want to take a look at some of the products offered by Wes under the Lionheart brand, you can view his website via this link: http://lionheartcricket.co.uk/.
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