In 1929, when he was asked by Bobby Jones to make a duplicate of his famed Jeanie Deans driver, J. Victor East said that Jones “inspected 5,000 pieces of first grade hickory to find four shafts” that were suitable, and of these four, two met the final requirements for his drivers.
You might notice that Bobby Jones didn’t inspect thousands of heads in trying to duplicate his beloved Jeanie Deans driver. You have control when building the head. You can control the shape, the size, the weight, and weight distribution. But the shaft is a different story. It is a natural product and the best you can do is sort and select what nature has provided, to get the characteristics you desire.
That fact that Bobby Jones spent so much time inspecting so many shafts indicates the importance of the shaft as a component of the golf club. I’m not sure exactly which characteristics he was looking for in the shafts, but I can tell you from personally turning thousands of pieces of hickory into shafts, there are many variables to consider and to get all those characteristics together in the same shaft is no small challenge. You are looking for straight grain, straightness (no warp), and no defects (ingrown bark, tight knots, bird pecks). You want the shaft to have what they described in the hickory era as “steely spring” quality, which means when you bend the shaft it returns to its original position quickly and firmly, not lazily or slowly. We would now call this flex. In the Hickory era, shafts could not be measured as precisely for flex as we can now measure them.
We have been making persimmon wood heads at Louisville Golf for four decades. We know how to control that part of the club and which specifications work best for golfers of different skill level. But when you put a piece of hickory in the lathe, you get what you get. You can increase or decrease the diameter of the shaft slightly to increase or decrease the flex, but you can’t straighten the grain, remove a defect, change the weight, or change the force with which that shaft returns to its original position when it is flexed. We cannot undo what Mother Nature has put into the wood. So how do you produce good hickory shafts?
It starts with the raw material, the hickory squares. We purchase our hickory in 1” x 1” squares 44” and 38” long. We are fortunate to have found a small family run saw mill that will cut the hickory to our specifications: straight grain, straightness (no warp), and clear of defects. We pay a premium for the hickory squares, but it is well worth it. When we receive the squares we use our 40 years of expertise of working with wood to sort the wood into categories. We sort for the best, straightest grain. Grain is most important on the longer shafts, such as the shafts for woods and the shafts for the longer irons. Shafts with marginal grain are used in putters, and shafts that have straight grain at the tip end but runs out at the grip end can be used for niblicks.
Next we sort for flex or stiffness. If you were to put 25 pieces of hickory in the lathe and turn them all the same size, they would yield flexes that varied from ladies to extra stiff. That is just the nature of hickory wood. So we sort the squares by flex. When we put the sorted squares in the lathe we can adjust the size of the shaft slightly so that we yield shafts that are primarily in the regular flex to stiff flex range.
We also sort for straightness of shaft. If the 1” x 1” square is not straight it will not go through the lathe. The high RPM’s of the lathe will cause the piece to whip and nearly jump out of the lathe.
The final sort for the square is for defects: ingrown bark, tight knots, and bird pecks. It is very frustrating to find a straight piece of hickory with straight grain, stiff flex, and then find a defect that makes it useless as a playable shaft. A good shaft is genuinely hard to find.
Many golfers we make clubs for probably don’t realize the effort we go through to provide quality shafts in their clubs to best fit their game. After turning a batch of shafts we inspect them for grain, straightness, and defects. The shafts that pass inspection are then checked for flex. We have 5 categories of flex for both our shafts in irons and for woods ranging from extra stiff to senior flex. This allows us to select shafts from these categories to build a set of clubs for each customer, with the goal of building a set where each club has the same feel throughout the entire set.
We build each club for our customers after the order is placed. We don’t just pull them off the shelf. This takes a little more time in getting the club to the customer but it insures that we put the shaft that is the best fit into each club for that particular customer. In the beginning we prebuilt sets of clubs, but found that most of the time the sets/clubs we prebuilt were not always the best fit for the customer. Now, with the way we sort the shafts, and by custom building clubs to the customer’s needs, we are able to provide a set of clubs that feels good and allows him to play his best golf.
The weight of hickory shafts can vary widely. As a rule of thumb the more dense heavy wood yields a stiffer shaft. The lighter less dense wood yields a more flexible shaft. But there are exceptions to every rule. The rare, and what I feel is a premium shaft, is a shaft that is light in weight, yet is stiff in flex; when you bend it, it returns to the original position quickly and forcefully. I would estimate that you only find one out of a hundred shafts that fall into this category. It’s the shaft Jones would have been searching for to put in his clubs. What the light shaft does is lowers the weight of the entire club, allowing you to swing it faster, thus hitting it a little farther. Or, if you’re not a fast swinger, swinging a lighter club will make you less fatigued at the end of an 18 hole round. A light shaft has its advantages, especially in a driver. The driver is the one club where we are trying to get the most distance. It is also the longest club and the hardest club to swing.
We haven’t started sorting the driver shafts for weight trying to find the light yet stiff shaft, but have started experimenting with the concept. I hope we don’t have as much difficulty finding these shafts as Jones did. If we can yield enough of these shafts, I would like to mark them as a premium shaft and put them in clubs as requested by the customer. Because of the extra sorting and weighing necessary to find these shafts, they will also command a premium price.
I know the shaft is a major component of building a good playing, good feeling golf club. We take great pains to insure that every shaft we use is not only a good quality shaft, but a shaft that is most suitable to each customer’s swing. It takes more time and time is expensive, but we are rewarded by having satisfied customers, many of whom take the time to call or email us with their satisfaction with the clubs. And that is our reward. Having a customer call and thank you for the clubs you have just sent him. It doesn’t get any better than that.