Editor, McLerran Journal
Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX
*Please note that a few trade secrets have been omitted at the request of the participating craftsmen.
What is a baton and why do we use it?
Imagine you are asked to sing the national anthem in perfect unison with eighty other individuals. When do you start? How loudly are you going to sing? How fast is the song supposed to go? Are the words all going to touch one another or should there be space between the syllables?
Originally, musicians were led by either the pianist or concertmaster (principal violinist), but as the traditional ensemble was expanded, this method became problematic. When the players could not see, or hear the leader, the music was in danger of breaking apart. In the 1600’s, conductors began to stand in front of the ensemble in order to organize the chaos. Instead of playing an instrument, musical directors carried large wooden staves that were banged loudly against the stage floor. This was a noisy, ineffective method that actually cost the life of the famous French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. Legend states that Lully accidentally stabbed himself with the point of his staff during a performance, refused medical treatment for the wound, and died from an infection only two months later. By the 1800’s, the baton as we know it was gaining popularity. Conductors use the lightweight wand to beat patterns in the air and cue musical entrances.
FUN FACT: Some sources believe that the modern conductor’s baton is a descendant of the concertmaster’s bow which would have been waved in front of the ensemble to show tempo.
Step 1: Making the Handle
Modern conductors take pride in having a unique baton (or several unique batons as the case may be). Handles are available in a large variety of colors and multiple shapes including rounded, egg-shaped, hour-glass, and more. Several professional conductors believe that different handles are appropriate for different musical styles (ex: rounded handles allow for more fluidity in legato phrases). Conductors should also take into consideration the size of their hands and the length of their fingers when selecting a handle.
To make the handle, a conductor must first select a material. Contemporary baton handles are made out of a variety of mediums; wood, metal, plastic, rubber, etc. For the purposes of this article, we will use a wooden handle. To begin, the craftsman must sand a wood block into the appropriate shape using various types of woodturning tools including a lathe, spindle gauge, scraper tools, and skew chisel. It is imperative that there be a small hole in the middle of the block for the shaft to be connected at a later time. At this point, it is necessary to determine the shape of the handle; round, egg, hour-glass, etc. The expert will sand down the material into the appropriate form. The craftsman must be extremely careful not to forget the handle is hollow and will crack if sanded down too much. Next, it is necessary for the material to then be sanded and “finished” so that there are no flat or sharp areas. This process can involve wood lacquer, CA glue finish, a friction polish, or a combination of these substances depending on the type of wood.
Step 2: Making the Shaft
The shaft of the baton is the long tapered portion of the instrument. Typically, this portion of the baton is white to make it easier to see against the darkness that musicians face in a concert setting; conductors may order batons in a large variety of colors if their rehearsal space is mostly white or if they simply wish to break with tradition.
The shaft can be made of almost any material, including birch, maple, fiberglass, carbon fiber, and graphite. For the purposes of this article, we will use (the traditional) wood. Wooden shafts weigh less than the alternatives but do tend to splinter or warp more easily. This step involves sanding the material down (using a belt sander or by hand) to the desired diameter and ensuring the end tapers slightly; this gives the ensemble one precise point to focus on for direction. This piece will also go through the “finishing” process.
Step 3: Connecting the Pieces
Next, it is necessary to connect the handle and the shaft of the baton. The shaft is inserted into the opening in the handle and secured using wood glue or rubber cement. Some craftsmen will decide to decorate their batons further with colorful string or engravings at this point. Finally, it is necessary to check the baton for quality. The length of the entire instrument should correspond to the length between the conductor’s elbow and fingertips. Quality batons should also be balanced precisely at the point where the handle meets the shaft (unless the customer specifically requests otherwise). A hand-crafted baton can cost anywhere from fifty to one hundred and fifty dollars. Depending on the materials, a conductor’s baton should last for the duration of their career.
It is necessary to properly store batons so that they do not break or become warped. Leather cases that hold more than one baton are extremely popular currently and range from approximately fifty to two hundred dollars. Depending on the conductor’s preference, cases can be customized with engravings, jewels, or artwork.
Special thanks to the craftsmen who shared their expertise for this article.
Chris Blount, Custom Batons. www.custom-batons.com
Guy Lake, GL Custom Batons. www.glcustombatons.com
Tate and Maribeth Newland, Newland Custom Batons, Inc. www.newlandbatons.com
“History of the Conductor’s Baton.” The Piano Staff. The Piano. SGMusic Pte. Ltd. N.d. Web. 25
“How to Make a Conductor’s Baton.” Instructables. Autodesk Incorporated. N.p.N.d. Web. 25
“A Pre-History of Orchestra Conductors.” Guion, David. Musicology For Everyone. 3 September
2012. Web. 28 May 2017. <http://music.allpurposeguru.com/2012/09/a-pre-history-of-
“Jean-Baptiste Lully.” The Editors of the Encylopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Encyclopaedia Brittanica Incorporated. 02 March 2017. Web. 30 June 2017.
Chris Blount. Baton Craftsman. Custom Batons. New Brighton, MN. www.custom-batons.com
Guy Lake. Conductor and Baton Craftsman. GL Custom Batons. www.glcustombatons.com
Tate & Maribeth Newland. Custom baton craftsmen. Newland Custom Batons,