When we say, “Take me out to the ball game,” we’re not talking about action on a modern field. This project to make a vintage baseball bat will take you back to the turn of the century – and we mean the last one, not this one.
bat: (noun) a usu. wooden implement used for hitting the ball in various games.
– Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary
In the early years of baseball, around 1845, bats were homemade, rough-cut with an axe and finished on a shaving horse using a drawknife. With no official regulations on their construction, bats were made in all sizes and shapes. Some were as short as 24", while others were as long as 48" (allowing an unbelievable 8' swinging arc!).
Early bat makers experimented with curved bats, bats with a narrow slit cut down the center, and even flat bats. If you didn’t have the means to turn a bat back then, players weren’t picky – a cut handle from a rake or a pitchfork would do just fine. In short, a player could use just about anything he wanted.
Early regulations entered the scene in 1859, but even they weren’t that strict: Barrels were limited to 2 1/2" in diameter, but players could still use any length they desired. Ten years later the bat length was limited to 42", and in 1895 the maximum barrel diameter was increased to 2 3/4". Bats weighed in the 24-48 oz. range (today’s bats weigh about 33 oz.), and cost around 25-40 cents for an unfinished bat and up to 85 cents finished.
While regulations were beginning to govern bat size, they didn’t limit creativity. Some bats were adorned with decorative shapes on the bat knob, such as a mushroom, a carved baseball or an acorn. One of the most unique bats that appeared in the early 1900s was the double-knob, also known as the double-ring handle, that had a standard knob at the end and second knob 6" above that. This bat was favored by such greats as Ty Cobb (Detroit Tigers, Philadelphia Athletics), Nap Lajoie (Cleveland Bronchos and Indians; Philadelphia Phillies and Athletics), and Honus Wagner (Louisville Colonels and Pittsburgh Pirates). This is the bat we’ll make for this project.
In the years of the transition from the horse and buggy to the automobile, tongues from wagon wheels were a perfect source of bat blanks and it was not uncommon to see ads soliciting the public to make bats. The first bat patent was issued in 1864, while the first manufactured bat came 20 years later in 1884. The first baseball bat factory and trademarked bat were established in 1887.
Getting on deck
Bats have been made from many types of wood, including ash, oak, maple and hickory. As the years went by, the players found that a bat made of ash would hit the ball best. Ash makes a medium-weight bat which allows a batter to swing at the advancing ball quickly. This became important as the speed of the pitch increased.
As you plan your bat, first determine whether you want to make one for actual use, or for display purposes; this will help you decide what species of wood to turn. We’ll be turning ash in this project, but if you plan to display your finished bat, you can use just about any wood at all that would make for a handsome showpiece.
Start with a turning blank in your chosen wood (Fig. 1). Ready-made blanks are available from a number of sources in both square and rounded stock, or you could have one cut to order at your local lumber supplier.
Find and mark the center of each end of the blank (Fig. 2). Then set your lathe’s spur center on your marks and tap it firmly into place with a mallet (Fig. 3). (You could also cut a pair of 1/8"-deep grooves following the centerlines you marked, for easier mounting with your spur center already in place on the lathe.) With the blank now mounted on the lathe, check that it’s secure between centers (Fig. 4).
(Note: For easier turning, you might want to remove the four corners of the square blank and create a roughly octagonal shape before mounting on the lathe. You can use a band saw or hand saw before mounting.)
Roughing into first
At this point, you can move the tool rest into place and begin roughing the blank into a cylinder using a gouge. I usually run my lathe between 600-1,000 rpm for this step (Fig. 5). For the double-knob bat we’re making here, the cylinder will be a maximum of 23/8" at the barrel end, so rough your entire blank to about 1/8" above that diameter. Using a caliper, check frequently to be sure you don’t remove too much waste (Fig. 6). While it’s generally best to keep the thickest portion of your turning – the barrel end of the bat, in this case – near the headstock, if you should inadvertently take off too much from the headstock end, you can simply plan to make that end of the blank your handle instead.
Keep working the blank until it has been turned to a uniform diameter.
Shaping into second
The next step is to decide on what style or profile bat you want to produce. Here’s where you can be creative or follow a certain era’s specifications as mentioned at the beginning of the article.
You can enlarge and cut out either of the profiles pictured on page 27 to make a turning template, or come up with a similar profile of your own. If making your own, draw a sketch with dimensions at key transition points or even better, make a profile cutout to follow.
As already stated, the double-knob bat we’re making here measures 23/8" in diameter at its widest point; overall length is 35". Starting from the barrel end, our bat tapers very slightly – only 1/8" – over the first 8". From that point it tapers a bit more steeply to a diameter of 2" at the 12" mark, 13/8" at 18", down to 11/16" at the 25" point. From there to the front of the first knob the shaft remains a uniform 11/16". The handle portion between the two knobs flares very slightly from 11/16" just behind the first knob, to 11/8" just in front of the second. The front knob is 111/16" in diameter at its widest point, while the end knob is 13/4".
Remember to start and end your profile about 1" from the blank ends (if you have a very long blank, it’s all right to leave more than 1"). Using a caliper and pencil, transfer your key transition points that will define the shape of your bat to the blank, as in Fig. 7. Now you’re ready to start making your own piece of baseball history come to life.
Turning into third
Using a caliper frequently to check your progress, cut on these lines to the diameter, plus about 1/8". As the double-knob handle is the most intricate part of this bat, we’ve elected to start on the handle end (Fig. 8).
Begin to shape your profile between the handle and the rest of the barrel using the roughing gouge (Fig. 9). I usually run my lathe between 1,000-1,800 rpm for this step.
Once you’ve completely roughed the shape of the bat profile, increase the lathe speed and use a skew along with the calipers to finish turning the bat. I usually run my lathe up to 2,600 rpm for this step.
Finishing into home
When you’re satisfied with shaping, proceed through increasing grits of sandpaper to arrive at a nice, smooth surface (Fig. 10). The last step before removing your bat is to burnish the surface. Do this by gently but firmly rubbing several handfuls of shavings across the spinning surface as in (Fig. 11). You’ll actually be able to see a shine developing on the wood.
Using your parting tool, turn the waste at each end of the spindle to 1/4" or so as in Fig. 12, then remove the bat from the lathe. Cut off the waste tips at the ends, and hand-sand and smooth the cutoff nubs from the ends.
I like to stain my bats and seal them with a coat of paste wax. But with historical reproductions, you can arrive at a final finished look and still be true to the originals. In the case of your new bat, you can top it off with a plain linseed oil, tung oil or Danish oil finish. You can stain it if you like, or even paint it. Of course, you can always just leave it natural.
Ken Weaver’s company, K&P Weaver, is one of the country’s foremost providers of authentic historical baseball uniforms and gear. Weaver does special projects for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and supplied the uniform of the ghost of Babe Ruth for the HBO documentary, “The Curse of the Bambino.”
Ash 27/8" x 27/8" x 37"
#152795 @ $29.95