The first job of the batmaker is to roughly shape the clefts using a circular saw, the clefts are then left to dry out further and then graded to be assigned to a particular range.
Making a good bat begins with grading the willow. Grading willow is not an exact science. It is more a craft that is developed over time, where an intuitive feel for what a cleft can become is as important as any specific measurements.
At Laver & Wood we grade each piece of willow at least four times before it is turned into a bat. This is a time consuming process, but crucial to getting the best performance out of an individual cleft.
All Laver & Wood’s willow comes from JS Wright & Sons in Essex. Wright’s is widely recognised as one of the top, if not the top, willow merchants in the world. Wrights send us a variety of grades, and make sure that all bat makers take a range of willow from several different grades. Wright’s enforce very sensible purchasing rules making bat makers purchase a range of grades, rather than just the top of the line willow.
The Butterfly stain has a unique place in the world of the batmaker. Butterfly stained willow may not have the aesthetics of a true white grained cleft. They do, however, often perform exceptionally well. The ball can really ping off a bat with a butterfly stain, so much so that some professionals only use bats with butterfly stains.
Image: A bat made with a “Butterfly Stain” cleft
Butterfly stained bats have often come and gone as the market dictates. This is mainly to fashion, rather than a detailed understanding of what causes a butterfly stain, and what properties a bat with a butterfly stain contains.
Hugh Barty-King’s wonderful book ‘Quilt Winders and Pod Shavers: The History of Cricket Bat and Ball Manufacture’, eloquently describes how the stains are formed in the tree:
“Cracks caused by the trees swaying unduly in the wind, and taking with it some of the tannin from the bark. The rising and falling sap spread the stain slightly up and down, leaving faint lines like the wings of a butterfly. The process continuing year by year stained each succeeding ring to a greater or lesser degree, till finally the full design resembled a whole moth or butterfly. Such stains became known as ‘butterfly markings.”
Grain Structure & Willow Colour
Image: A cleft showing a dark streak of heartwood
One of the most common questions asked by cricketers is how different grains perform in cricket bats. There are a number of different factors to consider when discussing grains, and there are no absolutely right answers. The natural variation in willow means that there are rules, rather than hard laws, about grains in bats.
The number of grains affects the grade of the willow, and affects the look of the bat. From a batmaker’s perspective we like to get a balance between performance and durability. There is often, but not always, a trade off between the performance of the bat and its durability.
Some players will have had bats with a large number of grains that have performed better than any other bat they have used, so they want to stay with blades with a large number of grains. Others will have been disappointed that their tightly grained bat did not last very long, and prefer to go for a more conventional bat that has seven to nine grains. Batsmen of the calibre of Viv Richards and Sunil Gavaskar favoured bats with few grains, so a lot of the decisions about the number of grains ultimately comes down to personal preference.
Testing a Cleft
Part of the craft of handmaking bats is understanding the type of bat each individual cleft is capable of becoming. A good batmaker can turn an average cleft into a bat that performs well, and a good cleft into a bat that is absolutely stunning.
Image: Jeremy Ruggles and Mark Jiggins (l), of J.S. Wright & Sons, grade the quality of willow clefts
Each cleft has inherent qualities, two of the most important being density and weight. Bats that are very dense will not perform well, while bats that are not very dense may not be particularly durable.
Weight can be reduced by drying the cleft, though the batmaker has to be careful not to over-dry the cleft, which causes some of the strength of the willow will be reduced. Clefts that are overly dry will be light, and will perform exceptionally well, but will not necessarily last.
To find out more about how James & Toby test clefts please purchase Laver & Wood’s Cricket Bat Lore Volume I on Amazon.
This blog post is Part 2 of a four-part series exploring the art of cricket bat making, as told to us by the world-class makers of customised cricket bats, Laver & Wood. Be sure to read the other posts in the series:
- Laver & Wood: Cricket bat lore – Part 1
- Laver & Wood: Cricket bat lore – Part 2
- Laver & Wood: Cricket bat lore – Part 3
- Laver & Wood: Cricket bat lore – Part 4
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