The method of transforming a Ram’s horn into a beautiful handle on a walking stick has changed considerably over time. The main difference is the horn itself. Back in the days of common land and shepherds, rams were allowed to live much longer and therefore produced much larger horns. Then, only the solid tips of the horns were bent and made into the handle of choice (usually a shepherd’s crook or market stick).
Nowadays, as only predominantly smaller horns are available, the solid tip of the horn is not enough to make a handle so the horn needs to be compressed and bent repeatedly until the right shape and a solid handle is achieved. This is a very long and slow process and that is why you won’t find any cheap walking sticks with curly ram’s horn handles!
But wait we are getting ahead of ourselves.
When the ram’s horns are cut from the skull of the animal (this is usually as a bi-product of the meat trade) they are then left to dry out for at least a year. Then the best ones are selected, for example ones that don’t have splits or blood clots (blood clots or blood blisters can be caused by fighting and produce a red mark on the surface) in them.
For a crook handle, you need at least 40cm of hollow horn for it to be a success. The best way to measure this is by pushing a length of slightly bendy wire down the horn until it reaches the solid tip and then marking the 40 centimetres on the horn and cutting off the surplus.
The thickness of the walls needs to be at least 6mm otherwise the walls are in danger of collapsing when heat and pressure processes begin.
If the above measurements don’t quite make it then all is not lost. If you only have 30 centimetres with a wall thickness of 6mm then you could make a market stick instead.
The first step is to remove the quick (this is the core inside the horn which can extend to about a third of the horn’s length). After drying out for a year, the quick should be dislodged quite easily with a sharp tap. If not then the horn can be boiled, dried and then tapped again.
The next step then is to reduce the size of the cavity that the removal of the quick has left to make the horn suitable as a walking stick handle. This is done by a process of heating and compressing. The horn is boiled for 30 minutes and then placed in a mould and clamped in a vice overnight. A bolt is inserted into the cavity at this early stage to prevent the horn from collapsing.
When the horn has been left to cool overnight, the next step is to take out the natural curl in the horn. This is achieved by reheating the horn with a hot air gun and clamping it to a metal plate. The horn is gradually heated and pressed down onto the metal plate until it is flat against the plate. It is then clamped into place and left to cool overnight again. While cooling down, the hole in the neck that was left by the bolt can be filled with a resin (a liquid that sets hard when left to dry). This will eventually be drilled to make a hole for a dowel that will attach the handle to the walking stick shank.
So now you have the basic shape of the crook, the next step is to apply more heat and pressure to squeeze the crook into the best shape and finish possible. Starting at the neck of the handle heat and pressure is applied working right the way to the nose (i.e in the opposite direction to where the shank will meet the handle base). This stage can be done in one go and the result should be a nice looking crook handle with rounded edges.
The final stage is to create a curl in the nose so that it curls outwards. This is done again be heating, bending and clamping until the right shape is achieved. The heating and pressure process is possible because ram’s horn is not bone (which cannot be bent and shaped like this) it is more like hair in it’s properties.
For the finish, a good polish is the best thing. Polishing brings out all of the lovely patterns and colours in the horn and the beauty of it can be realised. Shaped ram’s horn handles command a high price because of the extensive and careful work that goes into forming one so don’t go and ruin it was lashings of varnish!
The only downside to working with ram’s horn or indeed with any animal horn is the smell! Horn has a really pungent smell that gets everywhere and is difficult to escape. So if you are interested in a project like this then an outdoor workshop away from your home is recommended!