Friday, December 2, 2016

Acquiring a Staff

UPDATE 12/12/16 - changed info on finding hardwood dowel, added staff URLs.

I’m using this post to distribute some information to folks who are going to start learning a Tai Chi Staff form from me in January. I’d have done it with an Acrobat file on Dropbox, but that turns out to be painful if recipients aren't already on Dropbox. I've discovered that you don't really have to join, but it's a pain.


I worry that I'm making this too much of a big deal. A staff is a smooth stick 4-5 feet long. Not complicated, not a big deal.

For the first few classes I will bring in a few staffs I have, so if you like you can try them out. But please do plan to acquire one. You can make a staff – which is really easy and cheap– or buy one. Some things apply whichever you do:

  •  The major rule about staffs in this class:

    No staff will be allowed that is more than 5 feet long; 4 feet is very much preferable.

    This is a safety rule, and I have to be strict about it. No exceptions. I’ll be saying more about safety in the first class, and repeatedly after that.

    I am actually allowing 5 foot staffs only because I repeatedly said in class that 5 is allowable. That was an error; I mistakenly thought mine was 5 feet. It's not. I'll be happier - and you'll be safer - if everybody has a 4 foot staff.

    My wanting to use shorter staffs in class is one reason this document is heavy on making your own. I haven't seen any 4 foot staffs for sale on the web. 
  • The best diameter for your staff depends on your hand size. When the staff is held in your palm, you should be able to grasp it comfortably with your thumb wrapping all the way around to your fingers. Overlapping your thumb on your fingers is fine.

For the record, my own staff is hardwood, 4 feet long, and 1¼ inches in diameter.

Making a Staff 

Making a staff is easy. Here are three ways, in order of simplicity:

  1. At a hardware store, buy a broom or mop handle. Cut it down to 4 feet, or at least cut off any threading on the end. Sand off any rough edges on the end where you cut it. Done.

    However, a mop handle is OK only for people with small hands, since such handles are skinny.
  2.  At a hardware store, buy a wooden closet pole, the kind you would put clothes hangers on. They’re in the lumber department. They’re plentiful, cheap, and thicker. You can find someone who will cut it off a 4 foot length for you. Then:

    a) Sand it down. You will be sliding your hands on the staff all the time, and you don’t want to get splinters or even have it rough. This isn’t much work; you’re not doing fine woodworking, and it’s not hard wood (it’s pine).

    b) If you think the raw wood looks less than beautiful, stain it to some color you prefer. Buy a tiny can of stain, and follow the directions; it’s easy. This is for aesthetics only, but hey, who wants an ugly staff?

    Be sure to use stain, not a shiny polyurethane finish or the like, just stain. Those finishes all seem to produce a non-slip surface, which you do not want. I did used a poly finish on mine before I knew what I was doing, and you’ll hear the squeaks of my hands sliding on it in class.

    Both the closet pole and the broom handle make lightweight staffs. This is OK, but not ideal. It’s preferable to have slightly more weight so you learn to use your hips/legs/dantien to produce power. So:

    3.     Get a hardwood dowel of the right length and diameter. Then do the same sanding & staining described for the closet pole.

Unfortunately, finding a hardwood dowel is easier said than done. I decided to verify what Home Depot said online, but when I went to the store that same SKU was on pine dowels, not hardwood. Lowe's has Poplar, which is better, but not quite as heavy as it should be. Ace has only pine. The guy in Lowe's offered to special order a mahogany one, saying it would be a lot more expensive. I didn't. Finally, after two more stops, I found:
     Consolidated Hardwoods
     11900 Vance St, Broomfield, CO 80020
     (Corner of Vance and 120th)
Where I managed to buy an appropriate hunk of dowel that they cut into three 49" lengths for me. I have one left, if anybody's interested. $6. 1.25" diameter, round, cherry wood.

Cherry was the best they had. It's not as heavy as oak, but noticeably better than pine. By the way, when I asked about hickory, he said nobody mills that; it's too hard.

Consolidated  is also an SOB to find, since it's right in the middle of the construction on 120th/287, and all the streets my Nav system said to take were blocked off. 

Buying A Staff

Staffs are available from martial arts stores online. I Google'd "tai chi staff for sale" and "staff weapon for sale," and Elizabeth also Googled something similar. We came up with

STRAIGHT HARDWOOD BO STAFF - this one explicitly says all the right things: straight staff, hardwood, 1 1/4 inch diameter, comes in the right length (50"). It says "bo" (see below), but also says straight (see below), so I'm assuming straight is it. It should be fine, but without handling it I can't be 100% sure. If you get it: 50" length, please.  $18.86.

Wooden Weapon - Hardwood Jo Staff - seems a little skinny, 1" diameter, but if you have small hands that may be good. It doesn't explicitly say straight. Maybe that's what "Jo" is, or maybe that's a typo. $17.18 (including added $1.99 for 50" length).

Purpleheart Armoury - you can get what appears to be a good one one, optionally engraved with your name and a Yin/Yang symbol (Taijitu). $47+ for 5" laminated hickory, engraved. He tests them for breaking strength; all testing out over 500 lbs.

Some things to watch out for when you search:
  • You’ll see many mentions of “bo staffs” or just “bo.” Wikipedia says this is Japanese (or maybe Okinawan) for "staff," and says bojutsu is a thing. Eh. For me this is questionable, since it also says "bang" is Chinese for staff, and I've used a "bang" in Chen style. It's not a staff. Not even close. They probably all mean "stick." Ignore the word "bo" and look at the detailed description.
  • It seems many bo staffs are tapered; that's not the kind we use. You want what seems to be called a straight staff. Be careful about that.
  • Many staffs I've seen online are too long, like 6 feet or more. If you get one of those, it’ll have to be cut shorter to use in class.

If you find any good links, or maybe a source of hardwood dowels, let me know. I’ll update this to include it.

That’s all, except for one OCD Grammar Nazi issue: I’ve consistently (I hope) used “staffs” as the plural of “staff” above, because what I suspect to be the real plural – “staves” – sounds affected and would probably confuse everybody. When I tried to check how bad I was being by using a Google search, I found myself in twisty little passages having to do with the use of singular and plural collective nouns. Bah.

(Purpleheart Armoury uses "staves." It also uses "Armoury," with a "u".)