We recently had to order a lot of arnis sticks for our martial arts school, and I thought I'd give you some perspective on what it's been like for us to order them, work with them, keep them in repair for as long as possible, and pros and cons of different materials that I have experience with.
You may have different opinions and experiences - and if you do, please do make comments because I'd love to collect all sorts of tips on this topic!
NOTE: We work with 26-28" long sticks in my style. Yours may be longer or shorter, and go with the same length and diameter your partners work with.
Rattan is the most common material used in arnis/escrima/kali/eskrima. Rattan is easily confused with bamboo, but bamboo is hollow where rattan is not.
If all you need is a small quantity - one or two pairs of sticks - then buy from a martial arts supplier like Century Martial Arts or Asian World of Martial Arts. Your local martial arts supply store might actually have a pair or two in stock.
You can make your own by buying longer lengths of rattan and cutting them down, and here's some excellent guides to do that:
But I don't have the time or inclination to make my own, so I purchase them pre-cut (28") and pre-straightened.
For day-in, day-out work I like to buy the rattan that has NOT been shaved, because I think it feels more substantial in the hand. You may prefer shaved sticks - I don't think it matters much in terms of durability, as a training partner of mine has shaved sticks and his have lasted several years now. Shaved sticks are noticeably lighter than sticks that have not been shaved.
One thing to really understand is that a small difference in diameter - a matter of 1/4 inch (about 6mm for our friends who use metric) bigger or smaller - results in a HUGE difference in the size of the stick in the hand.
Below are 3/4 inch (1.9 cm), 1 inch (2.5 cm), and 1-1/4 inch (3.175 cm) diameter sticks.
We often use the 3/4 inch for kids. Our adults have been loving the 1-1/4 inch for the workout they provide (they are heavy!). I typically work with a 1 inch diameter stick.
One note - I find that the thinner the stick, the more likely it seems to be for people to put out a thumb or finger to steady the stick, for some reason. I'm not sure exactly why this is, but it seems to be true - heavier sticks seem to train people to keep a proper closed grip. Maybe they feel like they have to, I guess, or the stick will fly out?
As for glossy finishes, burn patterns, and what have you - if you enjoy that stuff, have at it. Personally, I can take it or leave it. The glossy finishes can chip and flake over time and feel sorta sticky in my hand sometimes, and I don't seem to get that slightly-burning hot rattan smell when we're playing hard and fast.
I strongly prefer to avoid the fancy carvings in the ends. I think it weakens the stick a little bit, and I'm always afraid of getting a cut from one of those notches. For me, pretty sticks are for awards or display, not for training.
Working sticks are going to get broken, taped over, and will eventually die an honorable death if you hit hard at all, so they won't get to be pretty forever anyway!
Oil curing rattan sticks: it's not something I've done, but you can buy oiled sticks (for example here) or oil cure your own. Since I found ZERO reference online on how to do this, I asked my friend Stickgrappler over on Facebook if he had a reference, and his friends Don Wagner and Kevin Badger Jones chimed in with the following advice:
Get a 1 meter/3 foot PVC pipe (longer than your stick) and get two caps for it. Cap it, and fill the pvc with linseed oil. You can try drying out your sticks in an oven at 350 degrees until they stop steaming, but Don (in favor) and Kevin (not in favor) were split on this step. Put the stick in the PVC pipe, and leave it for a few weeks. Then remove the stick, wipe it clean, let it dry, and cover the ends with glue.
Any mistakes here are in my own understanding, not in their advice.
Again, I've never done it, but that's the advice I've been given - let me know if you do it and how it works for you.
I've worked with rattan, white waxwood, polypropylene, bahi sticks and foam sticks/ActionFlex sticks.
I like white waxwood a lot. They're tough (I have a pair I bought in 2009 that are still going strong), they vibrate less in the hand, they're not very heavy (about the same as rattan) and they feel really good in the palm. The problem is that they are incredibly LOUD and if used repeatedly against rattan sticks, will cause the rattan stick to break a little sooner than they should. I think if you go the white waxwood route, everybody training should use the same material. But be aware that if you do, it's going to get REALLY loud in small enclosed spaces, like a garage. I found white waxwood HERE and HERE.
I do not like the Cold Steel polypropylene sticks much, personally, but I see why other people are liking them a lot. They're incredibly durable, so the cost is very reasonable all things considered, and they are a little quieter than natural woods. But... by default they come far too long for my art and cutting them down is harder than you'd think. We've done that, and the cut end isn't quite as... finished... as the other end.
The poly sticks are also a VERY dead stick in the hand (white waxwood still vibrates, just not as much as rattan), are very heavy, and honestly, I don't find them to be comfortable in my hand like the natural woods are. I suspect you'll have the "shred rattan" problem white waxwood, bahi, and other hard woods would have vs. rattan, because they're so hard. I also question the safety of their use versus rattan (I can imagine some VERY purple knuckles resulting from them). I use mine for bag work only. You can find poly sticks almost anywhere (including Century and Amazon).
There is a new version of the poly stick, the Ron Balicki Stick, that Cold Steel has put out there. Some people swear by them. I haven't used them myself, but if you do, let me know how you like them. You can buy them HERE.
Bahi - I love, love, love my bahi sticks. BUT - not for everyday use. First, they're slightly too long by default (no way I'm cutting them), they're heavy, they can dent vs. other hardwoods, and honestly, I wouldn't want to get accidentally hit by them (versus rattan, which sucks but doesn't hurt much by comparison). I think you could end up with something broken! My bahi sticks are real-deal fighting sticks, not training sticks. I use them for bag work and for forms when I want to be fancy. They feel AWESOME in the palm and are very dense and heavy - the best of all the sticks I own.
Bahi is sometimes known as black palm in the US.
An alternate and very common tropical hardwood you'll find is iron wood, or kamagong. You can buy sticks made of this material at almost all the regular FMA suppliers. I don't own any sticks with this material, but I do own a sword. Substantial, and all of the comments I made about bahi apply to kamagong.
Foam or Actionflex sticks are often used for stick sparring or for kids to work with. I don't think it's necessary for kids to work with padded sticks over rattan. I've seen littles work with rattan just fine and I think padded sticks give a false sense of security and encourage sloppy stick work. I've stick sparred using ActionFlex and they're great to work with (allows for very little protection so you get good negative feedback) BUT they are more like swords than sticks, as they have a handle. They're also way too floppy to attempt some techniques we learn. But they're a good alternative if you want to spar but don't want to have heavy protective equipment. You can find the foam sticks at just about any martial arts supplier.
There are other padded stick manufacturers out there, including sticks that don't have a "handle" and can be used more like a real stick. Smoking Sticks sells some HERE, there's a site called SofStx that offers all sorts of foam training weapons. You can find them at the major martial arts suppliers as well, but be careful, as I have personally seen the foam sticks with PVC break.
PREPPING RATTAN STICKS FOR USE:
If you want to cure or burn your rattan sticks, see the above links for tips. I typically never do this, myself. I'm just too lazy for it, and honestly, my working sticks are there to work, not look super pretty. If you need to straighten them - sometimes happens - do look at the first link above (Stickgrappler's post) which has some great tips on straightening the rattan.
Even run-of-the-mill but straight plain-jane rattan sticks might have rough edges, either at the tips or along the nodes. You can use a Dremmel tool or sandpaper to smooth the edges out on the tips and at the nodes, and to remove jagged pieces of rattan skin that might be left. Some people like to tape the nodes with electrical tape.
For "kid" sticks, you might want to cut down sticks to 24" or so (depending on the child) if you use 26-28" or longer sticks like we do. If you do cut them down, be sure to sand down the cut edge. Sharp edges easily lead to cuts.
Always be sure to mark the end of your sticks with a something to tell that they're yours. Most people use their initials or a symbol (I use the number 23). If your tips are burned and darkened, you can use liquid white-out or a bright fingernail polish.
CARE OF STICKS:
Long story short, if you hit stuff with your rattan sticks, they are going to eventually crack and break. When they crack, unless they are BUSTED (like below), you can easily repair it with electrical tape. Wrap it around the crack a few times, and you're back in business.
Then, you really should hold the end with the tape to extend the life of your stick as much as possible.
We used to use duct tape, which is stronger than electrical, but over time, it gets gummy and heavy, and it made it difficult to use the duct-taped side of the stick. It becomes a club.
We keep electrical tape in our stick bag for repairs - but I've heard some people use medical tape as well, which is even lighter than electrical. You can also use hockey tape, which some people absolutely swear by.
Over time, you'll find yourself preferring one end of the stick to the other, and by default, the other less-preferred end will get most of the damage. Don't get too attached to the idea that your stick has a "handle", because that way, making the switch to primarily using the other end is much easier.
One big downside of heavily taped sticks, though, is that they tend to get "sticky" to other sticks. This can cause a hitch or two in drills like sumbrada.
Don't let your sticks get (and stay) wet, because rattan will absorb the water and warp. I tend to keep my sticks in my stick bag (which is just a re-purposed softball bag), away from the elements if at all possible.
Just to be extra cautious, you might want to store them long-term flat (versus standing up), especially if you live somewhere really humid. Longer weapons like staffs, if stored leaning against something, will warp. I've never had that happen to any of my rattan (or white waxwood or other) sticks but theoretically, I would suppose it's possible with rattan as well, although I've never seen it personally (I've lived in relatively dry environments since I started playing Arnis).
Eventually, your rattan stick is probably going to end up like this if you hit with any kind of power at all:
Depending on where the break is, you can cut it down and use it as a palmstick (dulo-dulo) or as a training knife.
Some styles hit very lightly, and their sticks can last decades. Us, well... we're "bangers", and we break sticks, eventually!
So there's my thoughts on the acquisition, preparation, and care of arnis sticks. I'd like to hear YOUR experiences and tips!