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Gear This Week: Ask The Bat Maker – Questions Answered

In Gear This Week, Ed Kemp brings you the highlights from an illuminating live web chat with a master bat maker: important reading for any aspiring – or perspiring – batsmen…

Ever wanted to know what goes into producing that century-making blade? And fancied a chance to take a few tips on how to pick out the perfect stick of willow? We gave you the chance to do just that – by putting your questions to one of the world’s leading experts, James Laver of Kiwi-based manufacturer Laver & Wood. James has been making bats for internationals as well as club players ever since his apprenticeship under the esteemed ‘father of the podshavers’ master bat maker Julian Millichamp formerly of Millichamp & Hall, Taunton.

A collection of cricket fans, apprentices, small-scale bat makers and general ‘all the gear’ tragics seemed to really enjoy our live Ask The Bat Maker session. Here’s the pick of the answers – including the winner of the Laver & Wood kit goodie bag for best question!

What are the real differences between the bats a professional would use and ones us ordinary Joes use? Would you ever get pros using off the shelf ones?

In all honesty, the way we work, because the bats are individually custom made, it makes no difference the level of cricket that you play.  I have a policy of not saving willow clefts for professional players as our main marketing strategy is to get great feedback from our standard customers and therefore want them to have access to the best possible bat we can produce.

Some professionals have come in and picked up ready made bats from our showroom, for sure.  Most seem to be focused on pick-up and balance so if something feels good to them then they’ll go with it!

I have had several bats with anti-scuff sheets and feel bats perform better without them… it feels like the anti-scuff absorbs some of the bounce … do you agree? Have you ever thought of trying to experiment with the anti-scuff sheet to make it performance enhancing?

We actually have the exact opposite opinion and feel that our scuff sheets do not reduce performance at all. We’d prefer not to go down the route of ‘performance-enhancing facings’ as this would possibly begin stretching the MCC laws. A facing is designed to enhance the life of the bat as opposed to the performance, and we’d prefer to keep thinking along those lines. The reality of the facing is that the performance remains more crisp for longer as it helps hold the timber surface together.

What part of the bat-making process did you find the hardest to master?

The sanding process was, and is, certainly the hardest to master.  There is so much subtlety to this stage that you must concentrate so hard and adapt so quickly!  Each piece of wood is very different and this is reflected in the different techniques I have to use when sanding each bat.  Some bats whiz through the sanding process but some take much longer and are much trickier.

In your opinion, do you already manufacture the perfect profile?

I believe that one can never have a perfect profile.  Most people are looking for a huge amount of wood in the hitting zone yet keeping the balance nice and light – this is what we almost always aim for.  The profile that has worked best in producing results is the old classic profile but some of the more modern specials with a high spine and big edges work well too.

Have you ever thought about using wood other than willow?

I have tried using different timber when making bats but nothing comes anywhere close to the quality of English willow.  We have tried using NZ grown willow but the exact same species produces a very different result.  It would be a lot easier and cheaper for us to use NZ timber but to produce the best bats we have to use the best materials and this is most definitely English willow.

What are your opinions about grains?

Personally I think that the best bats come out with between seven to eight grains.  This amount gives the best consistency in terms of actually making the bat and gives an awesome balance between performance and life.  They may take slightly longer to reach peak performance than more tightly grained clefts but this trade-off is more than worth it.

If you could make a bat for any player who would it be, past or present players?

I’d obviously love to have made bats for the real icons of the game – Don Bradman, WG Grace etc. I have made bats for many of my heroes but someone I’d love to have seen use one of my bats would have been Ken Barrington.  From watching footage of him batting you can see that he was a real purist and someone who took pride in his craft – something that sits very well with me.

What’s the best advice you have for a start-up maker?

There are so many start-ups and the reality is that it is very difficult to make an impact as there are so few master bat makers who are able and willing to train the next generation. The only way to really make a mark on the market is by producing top quality bats and backing it up with good service.  This can take a long time and is very difficult to maintain

Regarding advice for a start-up maker, don’t expect to sell a lot of bats quickly.  You have to be ready to be in it for the long haul as you have to generate a reputation for people to trust you.  Pay attention to small details too as cricketers focus on this sort of thing!

Why don’t bat makers offer all bats fully knocked in – there aren’t many things you pay over £200 for then spend an hour-and-a-half working before you can use it…

Fair question!  The reality of most bats is that the time between manufacture and the bat being in store and arriving with the customer could be up to six months or so.  Therefore if the bat has been knocked in in the factory the willow still has a lot of time to settle and recover from the process and hence I would always recommend knocking it in again if the bat is bought off the shelf.

Even with our processes the bat has been fully knocked in but, again, it can settle and recover from the process. We recommend having a couple of net sessions/throwdowns with the bat, mainly to help you get a feel for the new bat but also to make sure that the timber has not thrown a curveball at us with recovering from the knocking in process too quickly.  It is a natural product and does not always do exactly what we’d like it to.

The shoulders of a bat seem pointless, it only ever gets used for an edge to slips from a rising fast ball… do you think the bat shape would benefit from removing the shoulders and starting them further down the bat?

There is merit to the old Newbery Excalibur style but the trade off is that the centre of gravity would become lower in the bat and would therefore make its pick-up heavier. The shoulders are therefore important for creating a well balanced bat.

On average how many bats do you make a day, and roughly how long does an average bat take to make by an expert?

We do around a thousand bats a year – some days 10 bats are finished, some none depending on the stages we are working to.  Each bat takes around three to four hours of time – some more, some less.

In your opinion should you oil your bat and knock in or just put on the anti-scuff, knock in and forget about oiling? If you feel oiling a bat is beneficial, how often should you oil a bat?

Oiling is certainly an important part of bat maintenance.  We recommend only lightly oiling it though – about a teaspoon per coat. You can see plenty of information on this topic on our website but in essence we recommend lightly oiling the bat  a couple of times throughout the season and then again prior to the start of the season.

Is there a common weight that professionals use?

The most common weight for a professional would be 2lbs 8ozs to 2lbs 9ozs.  There are certain ones over 3lbs who can certainly hit the ball a long way, but bat-speed is key for most players.

And the winner of the goodie bag, Barry Warner, whose question came into AOC on Twitter. Congrats Barry!

How come some bats perform far better than others despite being similar looking willow?

Each piece of willow has it’s own properties which are never exactly the same. Factors such as moisture content, the distribution of density, position of imperfections under the playing service can have huge impacts on the performance of the blade.  This is even before starting to discuss handles etc…

Moisture content is a tricky one to rely on as it can change quickly depending on weather as well as other factors.  You can have an over-dried piece of willow that may then increase in moisture noticeably over time.

The chat took place on the Custom Bats Forum, a great place to chat with like-minded cricket gear obsessives, where members receive special AOC subscription offers

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