Whole trees are transported into our yard either using our own lorry or a local contractor with a larger vehicle. The trees are then cross cut into 28 inch ( 71 cm ) lengths with chainsaws.
[left] Trees cut down by Salix at Paddock Wood.
Cricket bat willow (salix alba, var. cærulea) is a cultivated timber which grows in large plantations in wetland areas throughout Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. Each tree is individually planted by hand and during its natural life-span, the willow will be tended by the grower to ensure that the tree will be suitable for bat making. For each willow that is felled, two new trees are planted. In this way the industry, countryside and the actual species are protected. Cricket bat making is a craft based on conservation. For more information on cricket bat willow, see www.cricketbatwillow.com
Step 2 - Selecting the Timber
[left] Willow clefts ready for grading and machining.
All our timber is sourced either from local trees or from willow specialists. Choosing mature trees (between 15-30 yrs old), cutting them into rounds, then splitting out the clefts is an occasional luxury, as the majority of our time is dedicated to the actual making processes. The bulk of our willow therefore comes from willow specialists but each cleft is still selected by Andrew Kember by hand. The cleft has already been split from the round (section of the trunk), rough sawn, the ends waxed and then air or kiln dried to reduce the moisture content. The waxing is essential as it prevents quick moisture loss from the end grain which could cause cracks or drying 'cones'. Any clefts suffering from these cones are filtered out of production, or, if finished, sold only as substandards directly from the workshop.
Step 3 - Machining
[left] Machining a cleft to width.
Once in the workshop, the cleft undergoes various machining processes to be cut into the basic blade shape. Even at the machining stage, the craftsman's expertise is essential as the blade must be continually evaluated in order to maximise the natural potential of the willow; for example establishing the best end for the handle and leaving the most suitable wood for the driving area. There are no shortcuts as every willow cleft is unique and must be assessed throughout the production processes if quality, strength and honesty of grading are to be guaranteed. The skills involved in machining, and its importance to the integrity of bat production is why we have invested so heavily in our workshops. Self-sufficiency as a brand is paramount. Many companies sub-contract machining and pressing, or even buy in nearly-made bats (we ourselves provide a restricted machining service to a number of these brands).
Step 4 - Pressing the Blade
[left] Blades ready for pressing.
Once the blade has been correctly
graded and machined, the next stage is the pressing. The willow fibres have to be
compressed in order to strengthen the timber sufficiently to withstand the impact
of a cricket ball. But as pressing is a delicate balance between hardening the willow
for strength and leaving the blade soft enough to play well (over-pressing can deaden
the blade), Salix presses each blade individually. Generally, we press the blade
up to 4 times at up to 2,000lb per square inch. Again, inherent understanding of
the wood is essential to determine the right amount of pressure. The press itself,
which was custom built, is adapted for different models and constantly developed
to maximise performance and durability.
Step 5 - Fitting the Handle
[left] Handle being spliced into a blade.
The handle, a laminated construction of cane and rubber strips (treble sprung), is fitted through the precise splicing of the handle into the blade. The craftsman will set the handle slightly forward of the blade ensuring a perfect pick up once the bat is made. The handle is secured using a water resistant wood glue and left overnight to dry.
Step 6 - Hand Shaping
[left] Andrew Kember 'pulling off' a bat at the bench.
The blade is shaped by 'pulling off' the willow with the draw knife. The bat makers will leave maximum wood in the driving area whilst working the blade to establish the balance that is associated with the finest handmade bats. The coarse cuts of the draw knife are smoothed using wooden planes and the shoulders and handle are seamlessly blended with the spoke-shave. The toe is very carefully shaped to a distinctive angle for strength and protection.
As with all the other stages of production, the hand shaping is absolutely unique to each bat. During the shaping, the bat will be removed from the vice and tested for balance and form by the bat maker, using his knowledge of the game as a point of reference for balance and pick-up.
Step 7 - Sanding
[left] Drum Sanding.
Once shaped, the bat will be both course and fine sanded. Like the shaping, the sanding is dependant upon the eye and skill of the craftsman. The characteristic finish of a Salix bat can be attributed to very fastidious sanding, which has always been a point of pride.
Step 8 - Binding, Polishing & Labelling
[left] Binding a handle.
The handle is bound using the finest quality twine. The bat is mounted in a lathe which is controlled using a foot treadle; the handle is brushed with glue and whipped with the twine which provides strength at the top of the splice and throughout the length of the handle. The blade is then finely burnished using a compound wax which polishes and flattens the wood leaving a satin finish.
Note: traditionally bats were 'boned' instead of polished - the use of a bone or piece of cane to compress the fibres giving both the final finish and a final pressing. With Salix and any good bat production, if the pressing and sanding are correct, then the finish is obtained though burnishing, so 'boning' is never necessary. The key to our finish is not a bone or a clever polish, but the quality of the sanding.
Once bound, English grips are fitted to the handle and labels are applied to the face, back and sides of the bat. All our bats then undergo a final quality inspection, before being packaged and distributed to shops around the country. With each bat is carried the hope that the time and effort we expend will be rewarded by the owner's care and attention, and great success at the wicket.
There are many imperfections found in the English Willow Tree that go on to still be present in the finished bat. Here we give an overview of the most common to reassure the consumer that they are only cosmetic.
Probably the most common imperfection found is the small knot or "pin knot". These are generally up to 10 mm in diameter and are still living. Normally they will be present in the edge and / or back of the bat although sometimes they are visible on the face. They will not affect the playing of the bat at all.
"Speck" is another which is due entirely to the growing conditions of the tree. The tree has grown in earth containing a lot of gravel and / or stones. The tree has taken tiny molecules up into itself with water and this gets deposited along in between the grains. It is purely cosmetic and is also the sign of a strong bat that will last.
This is "Butterfly Stain", so called as it resembles the body and wings of a butterfly. It is actually attributed to the tree being of a hybrid of English Cricket Bat Willow, it is very strong and plays well. It is just a matter if you like to have a bat that looks a bit special.
This is a more pronounced form of Butterfly Stain and is known as Bar Stain. Again the wood is very strong and you can tell the difference from Butterfly Stain by the fact that this has many "Bars" of stain very close together.
A very common imperfection is the "False Growth". This is caused when for some reason the tree has stopped growing for maybe one season. It can be caused by drought, fire or weed killer. Nine times out of ten there is no weakness in the bat and they will certianly not break along the False Growth. It will normally run parallel to the normal grains.
This blade has a brown line down the middle as you can see in the photograph. It has been caused by the roots having been cut either by a digger or perhaps a plough. It is rot in the very early stages but not to the detriment of the playing ability.
This is a "dead knot". The tree has been trimmed up very late and the resulting branch has been left to grow for many years. Before this can be used to make a bat the knot is drilled out and filled. As long as it is not on the face of the bat it will have very little detrimental effect on the playability.
|All credit for this article goes to J.S Wright and Sons|