Took awhile to juggle things so they fit together. One side-effect was an unexpected daytrip to China's Yellow Mountain, Huangshan, a two-hour bus ride from the Yangtze, the day before Nanjing.
I didn't know much about it, just that many pilgrims came here to see the dawn rise through the mountains, and that it inspired classic Chinese painting. But Huangshan turned out to be one of the bigger emotional charges I got from the trip. I was only in the touristed areas, and so couldn't pay undivided attention, but I'd like to go back some day, spend more time walking among the mountains.
Souvenir shops there sell walking sticks, made from local wood. These are half-height canes, rather than 3/4 or full-height staffs. Many have Derby screw-on handles, but some also have steam-bent hooks. These canes are tree-branches, full of character, not a smooth milled cylinder of wood. I haven't been able to find any photos in California websearch, so I'm suffering Flickr guilt in not setting up a camera to try to give an idea. I examined many and brought back two, at less than US$1.50 apiece, as raw stock to customize at home.
I liked the feel of the wood, used as a walking stick... firm and unbending, yet not very heavy and responsive in the hand. The knots and bends in some of the sticks may imply that it would shatter if struck, but it's a very nice piece of wood.
After filing and sanding and oiling these sticks, I'm pretty sure it's the same type of wood used in the "Golden Wood" or "Cocus Wood" canes from Canemasters. Both these and the Huangshan canes are dense and take a good effort to file down, resulting in a soft golden dust. They respond to mineral oil in the same way, darkening and changing colors. Both have that combination of strength and lightness.
I can't confirm it, due to lack of source information, but I'm willing to bet that the funky gnarly canes sold on Huangshan Mountain are the same type of stock. The wood from Canemasters is of higher quality, straight (although prone to warping) and with even grain... definitely worth the price differential. But after examining dozens of funky branches I found two whose character spoke to me, and that counts for something too.
The new canes I like end up using the same wood as the old canes I like. I don't know precisely where my smooth canes were grown, but I know my gnarly tree-branches saw the sun rise through the fog on Huangshan Mountain many, many mornings. Holding it in my hand, I can feel that.
What type of work am I doing on these canes? After sawing down the end so it's just about half my height, and after applying a 1-inch or 1.5-inch rubber tip for walking, I've mostly been concentrating on the handle -- rasping, filing, sanding it down.
The key idea is to notice, during daily use, where the hand bone presses against a convexity, and to turn that into a concavity -- to maximize the surface area connecting the hand and the stick. It's an iterative process... use the cane, notice where it presses, flatten that area out, try it again.
There are four main pressure points. The most important is the top of the crook, on the outside as you're holding it, where the palm bears the weight on a down-step. The more of the palm which is bearing weight, the less pressure on any particular point of bone. Besides the palm, the forefinger and thumb are constantly directing the shaft, and they want to wear away smooth spots nearly opposite each other. There's also a spot near the shaft under the crook, where the middle finger bears the cane's weight as it's repositioned for a step. As more convexities are turned into concavities in these areas, the cane becomes more comfortable to use.
The top-of-the-hook area requires the most wood removal. A raw cane is usually just a cylinder of wood, steam-bent into a hook. The cylinder is not very ergonomic to the palm -- a cylinder tries to offer only a single point as a tangent. The top of the cane should slant down to the outside, giving the palm the maximum surface area to press against. Rasp it away, run a file to smooth it, then sandpaper to make it touchable, and give it a coat of mineral oil... let it dry, use it a few times, then start with the rasp again, refining it.
The forefinger and thumb areas are trickier. The surface here bulges out, following the natural shape of a cylinder. But we don't want just a single point of contact with the thumb bone... we want to use the whole thumb pad to securely press against the wood. A little bit of cross-filing, a little bit of chisel, I'm not yet sure of the best way to shape this area of the shaft.
These four areas need to be sculpted on both sides of the hook -- in the normal shaft-out-the-thumbside forward grip, and in the reverse grip, where the shaft comes out the pinkie side of the hand. Doesn't have to be precise... you just want to be able to securely guide the cane with the forefinger, be able to put weight atop the cane without pressure points.
I don't see many of the cane shops talking about this area of hook-shaping. People do make grips, but these are commonly on the shaft itself, used when swinging it around and hitting things... almost superfluous, and a little odd. If you're going to use the cane, it needs to fit well in the hand during daily use. Modifying the wood so that it more naturally melds with the hand seems an obvious priority.