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Secrets of Rattan

(written around 1996)

I got my nickname "Stickman" from supplying rattan to many Stockton escrimadors about 10 years ago. Since I don't make much rattan anymore, I might as well pass along some of my secrets. You can quickly see why making good rattan sticks is labor intensive, but the results will, if done properly, be worth the effort. The steps are simple, but there is a lot of technique in doing it right. A very Zen exercise, actually, as loss of focus at any stage can ruin a "perfect" stick.

First, I cut it to the length I want. I then grind the ends flat on a disk sander, then bevel the edges to eliminate sharp edges and prevent splintering. Next I sand down the nodes until they are smooth, again to prevent splintering. This involves angling the side of the stick against the rim of the sanding disk; an improper angle will gouge into the wood and the stick must be turned constantly to avoid flat spots.

After the sanding is done, I use a propane torch to bring the oils to the surface of the wood. Again, the stick must be kept in motion to avoid burning it, and hot pads are used because the stick can get very hot and retain the heat a long time. I will usually bring the oils up on one half of a stick, then put on my burn pattern, before switching ends and doing the other half. I like a "leopard spot" pattern, which involves darkening patches of the wood. It is imperative to keep the stick moving, and as soon as coloration begins, to get off the spot. One can see poor burn technique on most commercial sticks. In the burnt area there will be little blisters or holes in the skin where the oils popped from the heat. These weaken the wood from over-drying. A little color is better than too much. One trick for burnt areas, also good for the sanded nodes, is to rub the oil from your nose onto the wood (you can use your fingers; this is as fine a grade of natural oil as sperm whale oil, the finest grade sought by old-time whalers. Also good for repairing scratches in furniture, musical instruments etc., or defogging your glasses).

During this stage, I also like to burn the ends of the stick. I will basically light the end like a candle, then keep turning it to prevent deep burns, finally blowng it out.

Another burn pattern, called "tiger stripes", can be done by rolling the sticks across an electric stove element. I learned this one from Sonny Umpad. Some Hawaiian escrimadors I trained with would throw their sticks on the bbq after cooking their meat, to bake the wood and get their patterns off the grill. Reversing the stick angle can give a cross hatch pattern).

After this stage, I bake the sticks in an oven at about 375 degrees for 10-15 minutes. It is important to monitor the sticks constantly, so they don't over-bake. During this process, steam will come out of the end of the stick (you may see some of this with the torch as well). As soon as the steam stops, the stick is done! Sometimes one end will finish before the other; let the dry end stick out of the oven. I like to pull the sticks out and tap the ends on tile. A wet sound means "not finished". As soon as it has a crisp click, it's ready. By constant monitoring, the sticks get moved and turned, so they don't overbake on one side or one end.

If a stick is crooked, straighten it out while still hot. I just lay it on the floor and bend the other end up (using hot pads). As it cools, the stick will retain the adjustment. A properly heat treated stick is essentially hollow; you can blow on one end and feel warm breath come out the other end! The again, an over-dry stick will do the same . . .

Finally, when the stick is warm, I rub it down with the bone. You can hear little crackles as parts of the wood or skin compress. Finally, I buff the stick out on a buffing wheel. This gives it a good shine, spreads the natural oils evenly, and improves the adhesion of the grip. It feels much nicer than lacquer and will give off the familiar "burning" smell during training.

These, then, are my 7 steps: cut, sand, burn, bake, bend, bone, buff. Using this process, I've had some rattan last for years, such as my bo staffs made in 1986, which I still use for contact drills, with no splintering. The biggest problem is over-drying; that'll kill a stick quickly. A "perfect" stick is rare; I usually can spot my blemishes, but done right, these will last as well as can be expected for rattan.

BTW, one reason to train with power is to get used to handling it, a point well emphasized by the Dog Bros. I can finesse lots of my students, but when a big strong guy comes along, I either handle it or not, and that is experience. I'm not saying power is necessary to deal with power, but if you haven't felt it (or haven't worked with it recently) it can be a rude surprise. Again, really well prepared rattan should handle power, though obviously not as well as other materials such as certain hardwoods, plastics or metals.