Manufacturing

Cricket Bat Willow

Cricket Bat willow

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Cricket bat willow (salix alba, var. cærulea) is a cultivated timber which grows predominantly in large plantations in wetland areas throughout East Anglia. Only English cricket bat willow is suitable for professional bat making, offering the properties necessary to produce a bat which is sufficiently light, yet fibrous enough to withstand pressing and ultimate use against a cricket ball.
Since 1990, with the exception of occasionally felling our own trees, we have sourced all our clefts from two of the finest cricket bat willow specialists in England: JS Wright & Sons and GR Green.
The best clefts derive from mature, well-tended trees. Cricket bat willow is a crop which is specifically planted for the industry so skilled splitting and sawing are central to producing the best possible cuts of timber from the tree. We only purchase the top 3 grades, yet a tree will yield many more much lower grades (grade ones currently account for less than 4%); we therefore work only with willow specialists whose quality is the highest possible due to their expertise, relationships with farmers and landowners, and of course the sheer volume of trees felled.
We purchase clefts throughout the year in large batches which are all always hand selected and collected by Andrew. Although already dried, we generally carry out our initial grading and machining processes then store in our drying barn to continue that gradual loss of moisture which is central to well-balanced bats. We always hold a substantial surplus of clefts on top of the many hundreds of blades and bats in production to ensure that we always have the quality of wood necessary for our manufacturing.
Pressure of demand and more challenging weather conditions necessitate huge investment in clefts to attain the top grades required for the finest batmaking; it also makes the early stages of cleft preparation even more important which is why we keep all of this in house.

Timber Grading

Grading the wood

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For Salix grading of timber is an ongoing process throughout bat manufacture.
Traditionally willow is graded according to the sapwood, i.e. grade one: sapwood right across the blade with clean straight grain, grade two: some heartwood and twig marks, grade three: more prominent marks and more heartwood.
The heartwood is the red coloured timber from the centre of the tree which is drier as the sap has moved out into the sapwood (whiter wood) towards the bark. Sapwood is more desirable as retention of the tree's natural moisture (sap) contributes to durability; logically drier wood is more brittle and hence more vulnerable to damage.
These are not hard and fast rules - with correct maintenance, oiling and protective facing, bats of any grade should offer durability. Furthermore, with expert machining and pressing, all grades from Salix offer outstanding performance. However, these are basic principles which are the bedrock of grading, and still relate to the cost, and value, of the finished bat. As grade ones are in such short supply, professional manufacturers are obliged to buy throughout the grades to attain them. Hence our 'Finite' grade which is literally in finite supply, and only possible through investing in many hundreds of clefts per Finite blade.
This guidance on grading hopefully helps players in making an informed judgment when selecting a bat and of course looking after it properly in use. Heartwood on the inside edge for example should be given extra protection with facing and glass tape. Some players prefer heartwood and deliberately choose grade threes for this reason, but to do so involves accepting these properties and looking after the bat accordingly.
Wood must be used in cricket bat making to comply with the laws of the game, but it does not lose its fundamental characteristics when made into a cricket bat.

Machining

Machining

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Machining of cricket bat willow, from cleft into blade, is arguably the most important and most specialised side of manufacturing, which will govern the quality and performance of the resulting bat. Our clefts are resized in length, depth and width using unique jigs, planers and saws to ensure that the best part of the timber becomes the driving/playing area and to provide the profile for subsequent pressing (traditional or modern).
Throughout this multitude of very specialist machining processes, all our clefts are treated individually by hand at every stage. This is highly unusual as most cricket bats are made using CNC machines, in this country as well as overseas. A CNC will conduct multiple processes at once, therefore treating clefts much more generically, and many ‘handmade’ brands start their making after CNC treatment.
At Salix, we have always used machines by hand – every stage is conducted and calibrated separately by the maker. Throughout these stages, the craftsman's expertise is essential as the blade must be continually evaluated in order to maximise the natural potential of the willow. There are no shortcuts as every willow cleft is different and must be assessed throughout the production processes if performance, quality, strength and honesty of grading are to be guaranteed.
These stages define professional cricket bat manufacturing.

Pressing

Pressing the blade

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The unique way in which Salix manufactures involves various presses and pressings throughout the blade's journey into becoming a bat. The main aim of pressing has always been to compress the fibres for strength and also for rebound. Our various techniques are applied at different stages as all of our processes are inter-connected; the shaping and profiling are both inextricably linked to pressing.
As pressing is a delicate balance between hardening the willow for strength and leaving the blade soft enough to play well, Salix presses each blade individually. Generally, we press the blade around 4 times at up to 2,000lb per square inch. Again, inherent understanding of the wood is essential to determine the right amount of pressure and every cleft is treated individually. Since setting up we have designed and built many presses from scratch, whilst also continually developing rollers and pressing techniques. Our pressing is as personal to us as a signature; it is the most fundamental part of batmaking and will often be the difference between a good bat and a great bat.

Fitting

Fitting the handle

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The handle, a laminated construction of cane and rubber strips, is fitted through the precise splicing of the handle into the blade. A splicing saw is used to cut the deep V into both blade and handle, using special jigs, so that the handle and blade fit together perfectly.
Our splicing saw and jigs are unique to us – fitting is also a signature process and is vital to achieving both balance and performance.
The blade and handle are fitted together by hand using a specialist glue then clamped and left to dry overnight. Traditionally handles are set slightly forward of the blade, although as with all stages of Salix production this is adjusted to each blade individually according to the bow and the particular characteristics of the blade.

Shaping

Shaping the bat

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The blade is shaped traditionally by 'pulling off' the willow with the draw knife. We leave maximum wood in the driving area whilst working the blade to establish the balance that is associated with the finest handmade bats.
The coarse cuts of the draw knife are smoothed using wooden planes and the shoulders and handle are seamlessly blended with the spoke-shave. The toe is very carefully shaped to a distinctive angle for strength and protection. As with all the other stages of production, the hand shaping is absolutely unique to each bat.
During the shaping, the bat will be intermittently removed from the vice and tested for balance and form by the bat maker, using his knowledge of the game as a point of reference for balance and pick-up.

Sanding

Sanding

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After the bench, the bat will continue to be shaped throughout the sanding processes which are again multiple and specialised. Our sanding is not just to refine the surface of the bat but is an extension of the shaping at the bench, it is where the shapes are clarified. Our bats go through a minimum of five separate coarse sanding and three fine sanding processes. This is labour intensive, fastidious and the bedrock of our renowned finish, which has always been a point of pride.
We are often asked what wax or coating we use to achieve the glass like polish on the wood but the answer is simple – it is the sanding processes which achieve the finish, the wax merely seals it.

Rasping

Rasping

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Once the bat has been shaped and sanded, the last element in blending handle and blade together seamlessly is to rasp the handle. This again is a very skilled process and is essential in obtaining the right feel to the bat.
The handle naturally becomes subtly oval and the shape is set before binding and gripping, but differences in face profile involve careful adjustments to the handle shape to give the best balance, feel and performance.
Rasping is the basis of a handle's shape – if this is not correct then no amount of binding or gripping will make the bat feel good.

Binding

Cricket bat handle binding

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The handle is bound with a traditional linen thread which is applied on a custom-made binding lathe.
The bat is mounted in the lathe which is controlled using a foot treadle; the handle is brushed with glue and whipped with the twine which provides strength at the top of the splice and throughout the length of the handle.
The handles are then left to dry before polishing.

Polishing

Polishing the bat

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Once the glue on the binding has fully dried, the bat is burnished using a compound wax which polishes and flattens the wood leaving a satin finish.
Traditionally bats were 'boned' instead of polished - the use of a bone or piece of cane to compress the fibres giving both the final finish and a final pressing. With Salix and any good bat production, if the pressing and sanding are correct, then the finish is obtained though final burnishing. Again, the key to our finish is the quality of the sanding.

Labelling

Labelling

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The bound and polished bats are then brought through into the finishing room to be very carefully labelled.
As with most of the components in the bats, the labels are again a specialist product manufactured for us in England but which we design ourselves up to print. The labels truly express us as a brand and our in house design enables us to develop ideas and artwork throughout the season.
The labels are sub surface printed onto durable polycarbonate to avoid damage to the designs from impact of the ball. The adhesive is always Scotch 3M™ which is strong enough to affix the labels to dramatic bat profiles. Labelling is time consuming and must be precise to emphasise the profile and finish of each bat.

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