Sunday, May 25, 2008

Making a Shepherd's Crook

One of the unique pleasures I have enjoyed with my blog is I get emails from very interesting people from around the world. I recently stuck up a conversation on shepherds crooks with a very pleasant gentleman from England. He excepted my request to write a little piece to share with you all on this blog. I have a collection of horn sticks and they are truly a work of art. They require quite a bit of skill and some hard to find materials so you don't run into a good stick maker every day. I hope you enjoy this information as much as I do. It's a real treat to view his website so I have provided a link to it as well. The following is the interesting notes on crook making Joe sent for me to post:

The shepherds crook. Cromach, Cruca, or Hyrdestav. Whatever you call it, it has been assisting shepherds and herders for many years. Originally a working tool, indispensable in removing a beast from pen or bog, it has become an icon of the shepherd and the sheepdog trialer.

Once a rough shaped bough with either a horn hook fitted or a hook cut direct from a branch with supporting stick or shank. It has become an art form which I am pleased to say I am part of.

The shepherds crook and its cousin the country walking stick have long enjoyed a place at most country fairs and shows within the UK, where stick makers would bring their creations and compete in a stick dressing competition placing their sticks in classes reflecting the different styles of crook or walking stick .

What was once a past time for the country man, has now become a very popular hobby in the UK and is spreading rapidly around the world. Notably in America.

It was at such a country show many years ago that I came across a stick dressers competition. I was struck by the beauty of the crooks before me. Not only were they hand made, of natural materials such as rams horn and hazel, but were functional items which I could use when out walking the fells.

My aim was to own one of these fine crooks, but owning was not enough for me, I had to make one.

There was my first mistake, believing that such a thing of beauty could be made by me. In my arrogance I could see no reason while I could not fashion a crook. Nature had never raised such a foolish child as me.

At the time there were few if any books on shepherds crooks and almost none showing the method of manufacture. Those that were available were sorely lacking in detail.

With time I discovered a group of stick makers who organised the very competitions I had been visiting and my education started.

It continues to this day. Although I now make shepherds crooks on a professional basis, the horn is my daily teacher and no rams horn is ever the same as the previous horn I have worked.

A traditional shepherds crook can take a number of forms. Firstly, the plain crook. With no decoration or carving to distract the eye. This crook has to be perfect to win at competition.

Secondly the decorated crook. This may take the form of painted scenes on the side of the crook head, or a carving of traditionally a border collie. Any manner of things may be carved on a crook, such as a Thistle for Scotland. Sheep, birds, fish and even people are carved on crook noses ( the curve at the front of the crook).

The traditional material for the crook head would be a rams horn, never a ewe horn which would be too small and thin. Buffalo horn from Asia is now being used in increasing quantities as rams horn becomes more difficult to find. In the UK, sheep are being taken of the fells and lowland breeds are starting to dominate. Breeds such as the Texel.

The wood used for the stick or shank would almost always the hazel. Hazel offers a light and strong stick, and a variety of bark colours which are highly prized by the competing stick maker. Slow growing hazel cut on high rocky ground generally make the best shanks, the slow growth ensures a tight grain and the best colours come from the rocky terrain.

The process of making a shepherds crook is a long and lengthy one. The main ingredients are of course the rams horn, plenty of heat and pressure.

The whole process starts with the boiling of the selected horn, after a couple of hours of boiling the horn is placed in a flat steel press and flattened. This is to take out the curl in the horn and to start the process of compression. Most rams horn, especially the larger hill breeds such as the Scottish Blackface have bulky horns, ( the welsh mountain have nice dinky horns which do not need a lot of work, but are not big enough to be carved) Within the horn resides a central white material which is not horn and should it be exposed will not polish. So the horn is compressed together with its core. This will result in some cases a almost translucent horn in parts.

After flattening, the horn goes through a further series of compression which results in a more circular cross section across the horn. At this stage the horn resembles a horse shoe more than the original horn. Heat is constantly applied during the compression stages and used throughout the whole of the shaping process.

To begin the final shaping, with the aid of heat once more the head end of the horn is now pressed between two steel channels, which straightens part of the horn and forms the neck ( the section arising from the hazel shank).

Further heating softens the horn so that it may now be forced around a wood former to give the basic crook shape.

The horn is left to cool and set and after hour or five hours removed from the former for the nose to worked upon.

To achieve the traditional curl at the bottom of a crook, a pair of grips is used and after sufficient heat has been applied to the nose area the grips force the horn over to form the curl. Once more the horn is set aside to cool, before further work can take place.

At this stage the horn is ready for a lot of rasping and filing. A hole is drilled in the end of the neck and a peg carved on the end of the hazel shank, both should fit snugly. Glued together, you now have your crook.

The time taken to achieve a finished crook can vary greatly depending on what you are doing to the crook, but at least ten hours is needed to finish a crook and a lot more if you decide to carve the nose with a dog.

This is only a very quick resume of making a crook. Every horn is different and requires to be treated as such, so you are constantly learning to accommodate the horn.

Welsh Mountain sheep have been mentioned and these sheep produce much smaller horns than the larger hill breeds and take a lot less work, especially in the finishing stages because there is simply not that much horn to file off. So certain publications which show a crook being made and use the Welsh Mountain horn in the process do not mention the fact that you are more likely to be buying a horn from a larger breed and the work involved in working this horn is going to be more demanding.

In the end no matter what horn you use it will always have the last say.

1 comment:

T Yamamoto said...


My question is how do you make horn whistles?

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