Turn a Classic Wooden Bat
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Learn how to beat the chatter.
Almost every common wood has been used for bats at one time or another. However, a few species dominate the history of the sport. Traditionally northern ash has been the wood of choice, but currently—at least in the pros—it is a neck-and-neck race with hard maple. A few bats are still made of hickory and beech. For this project, I suggest buying a blank of ash or maple that has been graded for bats. The reason is not only superior performance, but also safety. A bat made from a graded bat blank is less likely to break in use.
Bat blanks are graded differently from regular furniture grade lumber. First, only straight-grained wood from slow-growing trees of moderate size make the grade. The blank must have tight, evenly spaced growth rings and be free of flaws like knots. The best blanks are often split from the log rather than sawn in order to follow the grain perfectly. Extra care is taken in the drying of bat blanks to create an even distribution of moisture throughout the entire thickness.
Tools and Supplies
To make a full-size baseball bat you will need a lathe that can handle lengths up to 36“ between centers. For Little League bats, a lathe with shorter capacity will work just fine. It is best to have a live center at the tailstock end, and drive with either a spur or cup drive. If you are duplicating a bat, you will need to fabricate a simple V-block system to hold the master bat (the one being duplicated) directly behind your blank.
The bat can be turned with three tools: a spindle-roughing gouge (11/4“ to 13/4“), a parting tool (1/4“ wide) and a spindle/detail gouge (3/8“ or 1/2“). If you are comfortable using a skew, a large one (1“ to 11/2“) can be added as an option for smoothing the shape and rounding the end of the barrel.
Complete your supplies with a pair of locking outside calipers. Make sure the caliper’s points are fully rounded smooth. Sharp points can catch when used to size your bat. Round the points with a file and smooth with sandpaper. A pair of dividers is helpful—although optional—for sizing the knob’s width. A plastic center finder is helpful in locating centers on round bat blanks.
Prepare the Blank
Determine the type of the bat you intend to turn: Major League, softball or Little League. This can be based on an old favorite you’d like to duplicate or from scratch using a drawing based on regulations dimension (see diagram). The blank should be 1 to 2 inches longer than the finished bat to allow for waste at both ends.
Mark the centers on the blank and mount it on the lathe. I place the barrel end of the bat at the tailstock. Then I true the cylinder to the axis of the lathe.
Shape the Barrel
Shape the widest part of the bat, called the barrel, first. You want to preserve the thick diameter on the blank as long as possible to avoid chatter from vibration. Start by making guide diameters on the first third of the blank with calipers and a parting tool. Set the calipers about 1/8“ wider than the desired diameter to allow for final shaping and sanding. If you’re duplicating a bat, place the master directly behind the mounted blank.
Next is a process of connecting the guide diameters with the spindle-roughing gouge. Shoot for smooth transitions between the guide diameters. Go ahead and roll over the end of the barrel at this time.
Shape the Handle
Mark and shape the middle third of the bat in the same way you shaped the barrel. When you reach the last third of the bat, remove some of the waste material towards the knob end first to give you some working room. Spindle work is best done from larger to smaller diameters because it produces the least amount of tearout. As you reduce the diameter of the bat, you will experience chatter. This usually shows up as spiral marks on the surface of the wood.
To reduce chatter, use a sharp tool and keep it firmly planted on the tool rest. Take light cuts. Avoid pushing hard or you’re bound to get chatter from the flexing blank. Even with all these tactics, you will need added support as the handle narrows. The traditional method is to support the narrow area with your hand. Another option is to employ a steady rest. I use a steady rest when I get to about the middle of the blank.
Continue the process of cutting and connecting the guide diameters working from the large diameters on either end towards the narrowest point on the handle.
Shape the Knob
As you approach the end of the bat, go ahead and lay out the knob area. Establish the knob’s width and diameter. Then reduce the diameter on the knob’s right side, blending into the handle. Leave a 1/2” to 1″ length of waste material past the end of the knob. After the handle area is completed, finish off the knob by rolling away the corners with the spindle/detail gouge.
Sand the entire piece, working through the different grits up to 180. Turn the waste material on both ends down to slightly larger than your lathe centers. Remove the bat, cut the waste off with a handsaw (such as a small Japanese saw), and finish sanding the ends of your bat by hand or a disc on the lathe.
Most bats have brands to indicate how the bat should be held. Always swing the bat with the label up to reduce the chances of breakage. The goal is to hit the ball on the radial grain, or what some woodworkers call the edge grain—rather than the tangential or face grain. So, put your brand on the grain that looks like chevrons rather than the edges of plywood. Use a woodburning tool to put whatever name or symbol you wish to use as your brand.
I recommend finishing your bat. A finish gives the bat a nicer look as it brings out the grain. Plus, it offers some protection from moisture. All types of finishes have been used for bats, including shellac, lacquer, varnish (water-based or oilbased). For this bat I am using a wipe-on poly; three coats is sufficient. Some players prefer the handle area to be free of finish—for better gripping and applying pine tar. Now, it’s time to hit the field!
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