Cane shafts and shaft materials

Cane shafts 1600 to 1800
Cane shafts from the period 1600 to 1800 were usually made of wood, bamboo or rattans, occasionally bone or ivory.

The favorite shaft material without doubt was Malacca.  For more information on Malacca, please see the article “Wood Identification” and sub-article on Malacca.

Cane shafts 1800 to 1840
During 1800 to 1840, other popular shaft materials included walnut, rosewood, mahogany, oak, chestnut, maple, hickory and ebony.

Ebony is one of the hardest woods, used since ancient times. Although often intensely black, it is also found with a more pale color and sometimes stripped. It has a fine and intense texture and is difficult to scratch. If you can dent an alleged ebony shaft with your fingernail or scrape off the black, it is not true ebony, but is termed, “ebonized.” True ebony without varnish or pain, has a beautiful glossy and natural finish of its own. Note:  See article “Wood Identification” with sub-article “Ebony wood” for pictures and further information.

Shafts made from marine materials
Shafts made from whalebone or shark vertebrae threaded on  a steel rod have been dated to the middle of the 19th century and later. Shafts were also occasionally made of walnut or ebony and fitted with teeth or jaws from the whale.

Shark vertebrae
Norwegian shark spine cane, ca. 1890, with stag horn handle carved with a hunting dog on a shark vertebrae washer cane with a wide silver collar. Overall length 32-¾”. Image courtesy of Kimball M. Sterling Inc., #75, Norwegian Shark Spine Cane-Ca. 1890, February 7, 2015.

Beginning during the Civil War years, it became popular to make canes from the woods of ships, flagpoles, fortifications, and other sources, to commemorate an event or day. These are referred to as “relic” canes.

Cane shafts 1865 to 1920
Shafts of the period 1865-1920 continued to be made primarily of Malacca, bamboo, and various woods. Exotic woods were sometimes used and included Macassar ebony and Zircote rosewood, beautifully grained woods, and the spectacular snakewood.

Snakewood, found only in Guyana in Northeast South America, is a very rare and beautiful wood, highly prized by cane makers. See article “Wood Identification” with sub-article “Snakewood” for pictures and further information.

It is interesting to note that shafts of wood or vegetable matter are grown upside down, and therefore the root end becomes the handle or upper end of the cane and the upper, more tapered potion of the plant is the lower or ferrule end of the cane.

In various countries including British Isles, whole farms and plantations were devoted solely to growing shafts for canes and walking sticks. As the young tree grew to 3-4 feet, the lower branches were cut off close to the stalk and when the young sapling reached a length of 6-8 feet, the constant nipping of its buds left scars that grew over into fine bumps and projections. On some plantations, workmen using special tools that encompassed or encircled the bottom of the sapling, created deep scars in the young bark as the tool was pulled upward. When these had grown over in healing, interesting lines and patterned dots appeared as part of the wood itself, in a tattoo-like fashion.1

Other organic material used in cane shafts included ivory, sometimes segmented, rhinoceros horn, oryx horn, kelp, narwhal, shark spine, vertebra from other marine animals, as mentioned above, shagreen (hide from the bellies of stingray, sharks and dogfish) used to cover shafts, as was tortoiseshell, stingray tail, baleen, bovine or phallic (bull penis) – additional descriptions below.

Kelp is seaweed that grows to great lengths in shallow ocean waters. It has broad leaves and hollow shafts, which were threaded over bamboo and then sun dried to give a wrinkled skin-like surface. (Kelp is a material that has been used in stick making, specifically in marine-related canes.)

10667763_8_xShagreen was used in Europe for furniture and decorative purposes. It came back in fashion the last quarter of the 19th century, having earlier disappeared for over a hundred years. The nicest shagreen has large spots and comes from the back skin of a ray called Dasyatis Sephen, which lives in the Indo-Pacific Ocean.

Art Deco shagreen cane, French, beginning of the 20th century, large “Galluchat” or shagreen crook handle on a rose­wood shaft with flush set ivory collar and an ivory ferrule.
Stingray tail cane, 19th century. Fashioned from the tail of a giant stingray tail with a dark greenish needle with two barbed venom darts. The cane is topped by a T-shaped shagreen handle and fitted with a metal ferrule. Overall length 35″. Image courtesy of Kimball M. Sterling Inc., #23, Stingray Tail Cane-19th Century, November 17, 2012.

Split bamboo shaft
Split bamboo shafts are rarely seen. They are light, extremely hard, remain straight, and are not affected by air moisture. They were individually manufactured and exported to destinations where normal wood suffered from extreme weather conditions.

Narwhal (“unicorn of the sea”)images
Narwhal canes are extremely rare. Traditionally they were reserved for royalty and upper aristocracy. Francis H. Monek writes in his book Canes Through The Ages, “So fraught with mystery and superstition in the middle ages was the sea unicorn that it was reputed to counter the effects of poison. As a result, many emperors, kings, popes and aristocrats owned goblets carved from narwhal tusks. It makes a most desirable cane shaft, but it is hard to find.” The narwhal tusk is a natural artifact and comes from one tooth in the narwhal’s mouth that elongates as the males mature, sometimes to lengths of over ten feet.  It could be used as a food source locator, or possibly used to determine where the ice may be open and safe for the herd.  Recent discoveries have been made concerning its true purposes, and rather than being strictly a courting weapon among males, it has also been discovered to be a sensory device with a maze of nerve endings which sends information to the animal about the environment.  Please see for further information regarding this unusual and fascinating creature.

A 19th century narwhal cane with a 2″ elephant ivory handle, 36″ overall length.

A polished narwhal shaft (unusual presentation).

Paper canes
In the second part of the 19th century, due to delivery shortages of exotic woods, canes made of paper appeared on the market for a brief period, and several of their manufacturing processes were patented. One method employed paper washers of different colors, which were held tightly together on a steel rod.

Rhino horn
Rhino horn was one of the most precious organic materials used in canes. Its extremely high price made it affordable for the very few. To manufacture a cane of average length, one needed a giant horn with a large base, which could only come from what would be today almost an extinct, white or square mouth rhino. The core of the horn has a dark, rather black color over its entire length. The edges of the reversed funnel-shaped, wider base are generally honey-toned.

Inorganic materials included woven cord used for sailor made canes tied into sailor’s knots. Other inorganic materials used included beaded shafts and glass or “end of day” canes.


1.   Monek, Francis H., Canes through the Ages, P. 94, 96, 103-120.
2.   Canes through the Ages antique cane auction catalogs.
3.   Stein, Kurt, Canes & Walking Sticks.

For antique cane and walking stick enthusiasts