This page gives an idea as to how the blades are manufactured and the processes that are gone through before dispatch to the customer. It also has hints and tips on choosing a bat and some idea of the grading and drying methods.
Whole trees are transported into our yard either using our own lorry or a local contractor with a larger vehicle. The trees are then cross cut into 28 inch ( 71 cm ) lengths with chainsaws.
Manufacturing the Bat Blade
Each length or roll is then divided up to the required size, hopefully obtaining an optimum number of pieces. Each piece (called in the trade a “cleft”) is then shaped to the rough shape of a cricket bat blade. It is important that the correct side of the cleft is chosen as the face as this is what will become the face of the finished bat. The “blade” as it is now known, then has both ends waxed to prevent splitting and then air dried to the required moisture content, however in India and Pakistan, the blade is still referred to as a cleft.
Before despatch to manufacturers in the UK and throughout the world the clefts are graded into various categories from wood suitable for the cheapest boy’s bat to that for the finest players who have obtained Test Match status. Grading is firstly done as soon as the blades are sawn to give an approximate idea of stock levels.
Then when the blades have been dried one of the directors Jeremy Ruggles grades each blade himself very carefully before dispatch to the customer. We have found this to be the only way to offer good, consistant quality.
We have many different grades, each one suitable for a particular market. Here we have outlined some details of the most popular. Please note that these descriptions are for rough sawn willow clefts / blades and NOT finished bats. Generally you will find less grains in finished bats as we saw the blades wider than the finished bat and therefore some grains are removed during processing.
A Grade 1 Blade
A Grade 1 is the best looking blade, though it will not necessarily play the best. There may be some red wood evident on the edge of the blade. The grain on the face will be straight and there will be a minimum of 6 grains visible. There may be the odd small knot or speck in the edge or back but the playing area should be clean.
A Grade 2 Blade
A Grade 2 blade is also very good quality and normally a larger amount of red wood can be seen on the edge of a blade, this has no effect on the playing ability of the bat it is purely cosmetic. Again there will be at least 6 straight grains on the face of the blade with maybe some blemishes, pin knots or “speck” visible, we also put the top 2% of the excellent quality butterfly blades that we get into Grade 2.
A Grade 3 Blade
This is a middle grade that is produced in much higher numbers than the top grades and it offers very good value for money. A Grade 3 Blade has up to half colour across the blade which again has no direct relation to the playing ability of the wood, it just has less visual attraction. There will be a minimum of 5 grains on the face of the blade which may not always be perfectly straight. Again some small knots or butterfly stain may be present with sometimes more prominent “speck”.
A Grade 4 Blade
A Grade 4 Blade is normally over half colour or contains butterfly stain (see our page on Imperfections in Willow). It will still play as well as the other grades. Any number of grains are possible with often only 4 grains, the willow containing ‘butterfly’ stain is very strong, there could also be more “speck” and other faults.
Other Grades and What makes a good bat?
We have many other Grades which have been developed over the years to satisfy the different demands from all the different markets across the world.
Q: “What makes a good bat?” The answer is that it depends on the taste of the customer and the skill of the bat maker. A bat should always be chosen on “feel” and not merely what it looks like. There are bound to be some small knots or blemishes on the bat, after all it is a natural product and cannot be expected to be perfect, with no faults at all.
The only main differences in the grade are the visual appearance of the wood including amounts of butterfly stain plus the number of blemishes or knots on the blade and the straightness of the grain. Generally the more colour in the blade the lower the grade, there is however negligible difference in the playing ability, it is purely a perception that if it looks good it will play well, this is not the case.
Butterfly stain (the stain resembles the shape of a butterfly), for example, used to be very popular for its superior strength and playing ability. Unfortunately, these days because it does not “look clean and white” people do not buy it. It does make very good bats that are very strong and perform well.
The Wide Grain Myth
Generally we would expect a blade to have wide grain if it has less than 6 grains on the face. The width of the grain is entirely dependent upon how fast the tree has grown, each grain represents one year’s growth. The factors that affect the rate of growth are the soil quality and amount of water available.
In these modern times when growers want a quick return on their investment, trees have been planted in the most ideal site for the tree to grow quickly. This means that in the future there are going to be less narrow grain trees available. Unfortunately when it takes all this time to grow a tree you cannot allow for changes in ‘fashion’ which could alter from year to year.
In this respect we have cut mature trees in as little as 10 years, but generally 12 to 18 years gives a wider grain with 25 years or more a narrower grain. A narrow grain bat will certainly play well, quicker, but will not have a particularly long life.
On the other hand a wider grain bat (with as little as 4 grains on the face) will play as well, given time, as a narrow grain, it will also , without doubt have a longer life span. The reason for this is that the wood is not as old, so it is stronger and will stand up better to the beating with some of the very hard balls used in matches.
We are finding with the climate changing and growing seasons getting longer, that the amount of narrow grain we are producing is getting less as a percentage. There is nothing we can do about it and players will have to adapt in the coming years to accepting more wider grains.
Weight of Cricket Bats
The two factors affecting the weight of the finished bat are the moisture content and the density of the wood. We are the only manufacturer supplying part-naturally dry cricket bat blades to the world market. This method (which takes months in top grades) has, by experience, proved the best method to dry cricket bat blades. The blades are allowed to lose moisture over a longer period of time which gives a far more even moisture content and means that you are far less likely to get moisture trapped inside the blade, which causes heavy weight. When they are put in our driers after air drying to get the correct moisture content the results are unbeatable. Although we can give no fixed guarantees on the moisture content and weight, we do test a few blades in each drying cycle to make sure the batch is ready to come out. Jeremy Ruggles has been fine tuning the drying method since he joined the company and our customers say that now we have the most consistently dried blades you can buy, of course we still get heavy blades as well.
Another factor affecting the weight of the finished bat is the density of the different trees, this varies not just from area to area but also from tree to tree and is varied by soil type, amount of sunlight, amount of water and other physical factors.
The final factor that can alter the weight of a bat is of course in the making. When choosing a cricket bat most players ask for a specific weight. In our opinion when choosing a bat more emphasis should be put on the pick-up and feel of the bat rather than any specific weight. A bat can weigh 2lb 14oz but if made a certain way with the weight distributed differently it could feel like a 2 lb 7 oz bat, it is basically down to the skill of the bat maker. One would argue that if asked to guess the weight of a bat to the nearest ounce no player could get it right more than once in ten guesses at the very best. We have also restricted the size of our blades to an optimum size that allows us to get a good number of blades per tree and allows the edges to be big enough to give extra power to the finished product.
The process of converting the tree into blades is still carried out in the traditional way but we are always looking at new methods to make the process more efficient or to give a better quality product for our customers. J.S.Wright & Sons Ltd. lead the way in the supply of willow from sites all over the British Isles to bat makers around the world. For J.S.Wright, the generation and re-generation of willow will continue to provide the unmistakable sound of leather on willow.