He just stood there with that dirty chunk of hickory firewood in his
I'd tried to tell him that hickory wasn't ever used for what he was
asking it to do but he just stood there, looking at me, the way a ten
year old boy can look at you and ask you so much with his eyes. Those
purple blue eyes looked so awful much like his Daddy's as to make me
"Are you OK, Uncle Tom?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. I think I got a bit of . . . just gimme that
piece of shagbark, Billy."
On a closer look, it was a pretty nice piece of hickory. It was
straight grained, which was damned unusual for the hickory around our
parts. It was unusually light, too. I gave it a whack against the
metal vise and saw the boy cringe a little.
"Well, you're lucky in your piece, cause it rings a bit", says
"Does that mean you'll make it for me?"
I need to tell you now that Billy's Dad and me had grown up together
and played, hunted, fished and trapped together, from the time that we
were about eight. We'd dated girls together and got drunk for the
first time together and generally did everything together that two
young boys can do without getting put in jail.
But our greatest bond was baseball.
From the time we were pups to the time that it didn't matter anymore,
our Mothers had turned us out on Summer mornings to go to the town
park and play baseball all day. Me and Big Billy (although that was
not to be his name until he'd had Little Billy) would set out for the
playground with brown bag lunches and would not return home until
dinner time. Thinking back, it was as near to being heaven as I have
"Will it make a good bat, Uncle Tom?"
I guess I should also tell you, if you haven't already figured it out,
that I wasn't really Billy's Uncle and that Uncle is an honorific
bestowed on close male family friends around our parts. When Billy's
Dad had passed the year before, of a cancer that no one could figure
in a man so young and so strong; I'd told him I'd make sure that young
Billy would turn out alright.
"We'll have to see, Billy. We'll just have to see."
It was a damned unusual piece of hickory.
Hickory has been used for tool handles for as long as there have been
tools, near as I can figure. It's strong to the point of being
unbreakable but a lot of the strength comes from the interlocked grain
it most often has.
This piece was different.
It was mild grained and didn't run to the surface the way most hickory
did. It came from a backyard tree over at Big/Little Billy's place
that had been cut to make way for an addition to the house. To Little
Billy it was the tree that he'd hung his first swing in. To Big
Billy, it was something that needed to be cut to make room for the
I remember watching both of them out in the yard when they took it
down. Big Bill talking to Little Billy about how it was a needed
thing, and Little Bill trying to be a man and not to cry.
"Will you show me how to run the lathe?", says Little Bill.
"Well, there's a fair amount to do before we get to the
lathe." says I.
You know, I thought it might make a decent bat. It was hard but it
was also light. It had a good deal of spring to it. I'd made bats
before and had even made one for Billy shortly after he was born. It
was small and it was made out of ash, the way I'd been taught that
bats should be made.
I'd tried to get young Billy to accept a bat made out of ash but he
wouldn't hear of it.
He wanted a bat made out of that hickory, that had sat in his yard
since his Dad had passed.
That addition hadn't gotten done, either. Big Bill had gotten sick
"First we need to scrape her down." says Uncle Tom.
"Can I help?"
I showed young Billy how to fix the hickory chunk into the vise. We
sharpened the drawknife together and I showed him how to drip just a
bit of cutting oil onto the stone and how to stroke her down just
He was good at it, that boy. He had good hands, just like his Daddy.
I was surprised by his young strength and the confidence that he
showed while sharpening that blade.
That was nothing compared to my amazement over his handling of the
drawknife on that hickory stick. His strokes were sure and
knowledgeable, way beyond his age. His Daddy had been a pretty good
woodworker, even though he'd made his money at being an electrician.
This boy could feel the grain and ride it. He knew instinctively when
to bail out on a cut, so as to not damage the stick. It was damned
odd to look at.
"How's that look, Uncle Tom?"
Well, how does a perfectly bucked up turning blank look that was done
by a ten year old boy who'd never had a lick of instruction.
"I guess we're ready for the lathe, Billy."
I chucked up the blank for him. I grabbed a roughing gouge and
started to turn the blank.
"I'd like it to have a nice big knob on the end, Uncle Tom."
Well, that was fine. His Daddy had always liked a nice big knob on
his bats and I'm sure the boy had heard this from jump.
"Can I try?"
Now, I'd just done with the rough turning. The blank was more or less
a cylinder and I'd had no thought of letting this ten year old boy
near it until we got to the sanding part.
"I know how to do it, I've been watching."
I put my hand over Billy's and we fed the gouge into the blank. The
boy showed none of the hesitancy of those who I'd taught to turn
"I can do it. I know how."
He did know how, too. I took my hands away as I sensed that I was
holding him back. The curls flew off the billet like Excelsior flying
out of a carelessly opened Christmas package. The round went quickly
to the shape of a bat. When he'd formed the knob, he stopped.
"Can we sand it
So, we sanded.
Billy took that hickory bat with him to Little League. He didn't do
anything extraordinary with it, he just played baseball. And that boy
did love baseball.
I watched him play as I would have watched my own son play, and he did
He used the hickory bat until he was about fourteen and then he went
on to a bigger stick. He did passing well with the new bat.
Billy is about thirty now. He has children of his own. The hickory
bat sits next to the fireplace, waiting to be part of young Billy's
children's games. I'm guessing that Big Billy would be satisfied.
Tom Watson - Woodworker
Gulph Mills, Pennsylvania