Do you (a) buy cake, (b) make it from scratch, or (c) throw a mix into a disposable foil pan with warm water and a flourish? It depends, of course. Do you want it "right," or right now? Every make-it-or-buy-it decision is the result of trade-offs. Can you make it better? Can they deliver it by Thursday? Can you afford it? Can they monogram it? Can you find the ingredients?
Mahl stick: Make it or Buy it?
A visitor to my new art supply store was disappointed that we didn't have any mahl sticks. That was a great learning opportunity for me. It had never occurred to me that anybody has a store-bought mahl stick. Woodworkers make their own push sticks, dressmakers sew their own pincushions and artists make their own mahl sticks, don't they? Well, not always. Sometimes, store-bought is better, and sometimes store-bought is easier, and sometimes, store-bought makes a nice gift. I should have mahl sticks in my store, for all of those "sometimes."
A mahl stick is a lightweight stick used by artists, scenic designers and sign-painters to support the working hand to avoid touching a vertical working surface. The Oxford English dictionary reports that it's also been called a maulstick, mol stick, mostick, and mallstick.
Any stick will do provided it's easy to grip on one end and
has some sort of bulk on the other to keep it a bit off the surface.
Traditionally, the bulky end has a ball or wad of cotton on it,
wrapped in soft leather or chamois. The chamois keeps it from skidding, and can be cleaned or replaced when it gets grubby.
How to use a mahl stick
When you're working upright at an easel, you sometimes need to steady your hand. If the surface is delicate, or wet, you can't just plop your hand on the work. That's when you need a mahl stick. You grip one end with your (non-working) hand and press the bulky end on a dry spot somewhere across the other side of the work, or, ideally, beyond the art altogether. That creates a bridge across the picture where you can stabilize your working hand.
If you need to steady your hand when doing tabletop work, you can use an artist's bridge: a freestanding shelf that straddles the artwork. Most of us improvise: prop a board on a couple of bricks, or lay a t-square across the table, elevated by phone books. You could even use a mahl stick. There are some lovely clear acrylic bridges commercially available, if you know where to look. (See "Relevant Links" below.)
You can buy a mahl stick
There are commercially manufactured mahl sticks available for sale, but you'll have better luck shopping in sign-making stores than art supply shops. Luxury mahl sticks have a high price tag because of their beautiful wood finishes.
The aluminum mahl sticks are made in two or three parts,
light and collapsible for travel.
Prices vary hugely, and they're a trick to find in Canada, but I can give you some ballpark figures.
At the time of this writing (January 2006),
a clear acrylic artist's bridge retails for $20 to $30 CDN,
a plain aluminum mahl stick will run you about $15 CDN,
and a fine wooden one can set you back at least $50 CDN. [For a few points of comparison, also at the time of this writing, my sweetie and I can see a first-release movie for roughly $25 CDN (if we don't want popcorn). A paperback novel costs about $12 CDN and a litre of milk costs about $2 CDN.]
You can improvise a mahl stick
All you need is a stick that will support your working hand without slipping or marking the work. What can you lay your hands on at your studio? Scrap dowel, or a pool cue? A broken hockey stick, or part of a fishing rod? Your cane, your umbrella, your putter? The advantage of using a cane as a makeshift mahl stick is that you can hang it from the drawing board until you need it next.
For example, looking around my studio, I see some prospects: the skeleton of crook-handled umbrella, the orphaned tubular aluminum legs of an old TV tray, bamboo poles, cardboard tubing, golf clubs, and an old folding easel I might sacrifice if I wanted to build a telescoping mahl stick.
You can make a mahl stick
My buddy Paul built me an excellent mahl stick last week from a spare length of doweling and a wooden ball.
Want to build one for yourself? Start with a convenient piece of dowel or rod in the neighbourhood of a meter long. (To my American friends: a meter is in the neighbourhood of a yard. Or "neighborhood.") It should be strong enough to resist bowing under the weight of your hand, without being a burden to hold up. Like athletes, we want our equipment to be strong and light. (This would be a great way to recycle a broken ski pole or other sports equipment made from "space age materials.")
Make one end "grippy" (optional). Paul dipped the dowel in Plasti Dip (TM), the stuff you use to rubberize tool handles. Aluminum mahl sticks usually have a knurled (textured) grip. If you're feeling sporty, buy some tape and wrap the end like a hockey stick or tennis racket.
Make the other end bulky. Paul put a wooden ball in a drill press to bore a hole, then he jammed the ball onto the dowel. You want the bulky end to be round, or round-ish, lifting the stick two to four centimetres off the surface. The traditional material is wadded fibre (such as wool or cotton), or a cork ball.
In the interests of research, we tried a variety of end-pieces. Some failed. The playground favourite, the red/white/blue striped ball, was too squishy to drill. Hollow balls, such as ping pong balls and squeaky pet toys, collapse under pressure. Safety tip: No golf balls. I don't know what's inside golf balls, but Paul blanched when I asked about drilling. Not safe. Not safe at all. Paul has no sense of humour about airborne fragments.
We quite liked the results with:
- Superballs & silicone balls, which might be a bit heavy, but they sure look cool!
- Cane tips & rubber leg tips, which are available off-the-shelf in several standard diameters.
- A yellow happy face stress release squeeze ball. After the debacle trying to drill the red/white/blue ball, we didn't risk power tools on the happy face. We used a utility knife to notch a suitable hole.
- A fishing "cork" bobber, expensive ($3.50 CDN) but so pretty!
- Our favourite: Styrofoam balls, ten for a buck from the local dollar store. They drilled like a treat. It was equally easy to ram one onto a stick by hand, like skewering a very stale marshmallow for roasting.
Make the bulky end non-slip. Traditionalists wrap the end of the mahl stick in a patch of chamois or other soft leather, tied at the neck as shown. A clean rag will do. [Here's a secret. Paul actually dipped both ends of my mahl stick in Plasti Dip, so I don't need the leather wrapping. The wooden ball at the end is already non-skid and easy to clean.]
Make the stick nice (optional). Sanding, staining and varnishing will make a wooden mahl stick easy on the eyes and hands. Clean-up's a breeze, too. But if you don't care about paw-prints and splinters, that's your business.
You can find anything on the web if you look hard enough. When I went looking for relevant stuff, I found useful things at these links. However, the web changes every day. If one of these links should fade, you could use my description to do your own keyword search for similar relevant sites.
This site sells sign-painting tutorials.
The free sample lesson includes a short video loop of a
sign-painter's hands doing script lettering, using a mahl stick.
- A keyword search on "mahl stick" was all it took to find a variety of mahl sticks in the online catalogues of Cheap Joe's, Dick Blick, Mister Art, and Ziggy Art before the fun wore off.
Dick Blick Art Materials also carries see-through artist's bridges.
- Love wood? Oklahoma Wood Art has some beautiful turned mahl sticks in exotic woods.
Make it or Buy it?
Paul and I had almost everything we needed on hand, including dowels and leather and Plasti Dip. I raided a dollar store for balls. If you own a drill press, making a mahl stick is easy, and you'd have a hard time spending more than $15 CDN to do it. At the time of this writing (January 2006) a suitable dowel cost $1.50 CDN. If you don't own a drill press, you may have to get by with cotton wadding like our forebears, but it's still easy!
If I needed a folding, collapsing, or screw-together mahl stick, I'd buy it. If I wanted to give someone a beautiful heirloom tool for their studio or workshop, I might buy it. Who makes their own mahl stick? Traditionalists, thrifty shoppers, and anyone who's handy and/or fussy about their tools. In general, if I wanted a mahl stick, I'd make it. But now I'll also stock them in my store, because I know that for someone else, store-bought might be better.
Mahl stick: Make it!