Wood Bats are quickly regaining popularity since the aluminum bat basically took over baseball in the 70’s. Most of todays baseball players, young and old, really don’t know a lot about wood bats. We have put this page together to try to explain the facts and fictions about wood bats as accurately and honestly as possible. Making a wood bat is part art and part science. There is a lot more to it than meets the eye! Hopefully after reading this, you will have a little better idea on how it all works!
Over the years, wood bat manufacturers have tried about every species of wood imaginable to make their bats out of. Ash was traditionally used because it is easy to work with, is naturally straight grained, holds up fairly well, and is inexpensive. Many other species were tried, but they all had too many disadvantages to be commercially used. With the introduction of modern kiln drying processes, there are a few species of wood that have made their way into mainstream baseball.
Maple is by far the most popular non-ash bat out there today. Maple is much stronger and more durable than ash. It was used some in the past, but it was just too heavy to be accepted in the mainstream. Modern kiln drying processes have made it possible. A common perception of maple is that it’s stronger than ash, but heavier. That is actually only partly true. Maple is definitely stronger and more dense than ash, but that does not necessarily mean that a maple bat will be heavier than an ash bat. That will be explained in detail below. There are several different species of maple, but they all fit into two categories, hard maple, and soft maple. Hard maple is what is used for bats. To be specific, sugar maple is the species that bats are made of. It is most commonly called hard maple, sugar maple, or rock maple, but they all refer to sugar maple. Soft maple is not great for bats. Although still a hardwood, soft maple will not last near as long as hard maple will in a bat. There are some manufacturers that do use soft maple for some of their bats. It is easier to work with, and half the price of hard maple. It takes a highly trained eye to look at a bat and tell if it is hard or soft maple.
There are several different characteristics of both wood species, and bat design that contribute to how the bat performs at the plate. The characteristics of each species of wood is controlled by Mother Nature, but the same species growing in different climates will have slight differences.
Since Mother Nature controls the characteristics of the species, it only makes sense that it is an uncontrollable variable. That is not totally the case. Every different species of wood has certain climate conditions that it thrives best in. As you get farther from it’s preferred conditions, it does not do as well, and the overall quality of the wood deteriorates. By only using wood that was grown in certain areas, you can control the quality. This is not a new concept. In the high end furniture industry, as well as the bat industry this was figured out long ago. The best quality hardwoods in the world come out of the northeastern part of the US, and southeastern Canada. In the high end furniture industry, it is a well known fact that the best Cherry in the world comes out of the forests of southern New York, and northern Pennsylvania. Louisville Slugger figured this out long ago, and even though they are based in Kentucky, their biggest sawmills (where their wood comes from) are in northern Pennsylvania and southern New York. The problem is, the location of the bat company has nothing to do with where they get their wood from, so there is no real easy way to tell where they are getting their wood.
Now we’ll compare the differences between ash and maple. Maple has a much higher density than ash, so it only makes sense that maple is heavier. That higher density is one of the things that makes maple stronger than ash. The main reason maple was not widely used in the past was because of the high density. It was just too heavy. This is where the moisture content of the wood comes into play. Moisture content contributes to two things, the weight of the wood, and how flexible the wood is. Just think of a small branch on a tree, compared to a twig that has been on the ground for a while. The branch on the tree is very flexible, and much heavier, while the twig that has been on the ground for a while will break before you can bend it much, and is much lighter. The lower the moisture content in a piece of wood the lighter and less flexible it will be. If the moisture content gets too low, the wood will become brittle, and will break very easily.
The standard for drying wood in the furniture industry is 6-8% moisture content. Ash bats are dried to a 10-12% moisture content. This is because at 10-12% moisture content, the weight of the wood is the easiest to work with. Even though hard maple has a higher density than ash, by drying it to a lower moisture content, you can make them weigh the same as an ash bat that is dried to a higher moisture content. Basically you get the same bat weight in the end, but the maple is much stronger.
Grain structure is very important in a wood bat. When talking about grain structure, we are actually referring to the straightness of the grain, and the strength of the grain seperations between different species of wood. For wood bats, as a general rule the straighter the grain the better.
The difference in the grain structure between hard maple and ash contributes to maple lasting longer. The grain structure in hard maple is very tight, with only a small visible line separating the grains of the wood. The grain structure in ash is very porus, which makes the bat very susceptible to flaking after extended use. The biggest difference between ash and maple to a ballplayer is the characteristics of the wood itself. With ash, there are several different grades of bats, all based on grain count. The higher the number of grains per inch the lower quality the bat. Since the grain separations in ash are so porus, they are weak, therefore the higher the number of grains in a bat, the higher the chance the bat will break. Due to the nature of how ash grows, the lower the grain count per inch, the stronger the grain is. The problem is that only a very small percentage of ash bats have the very low grain counts (top quality ash bats). The percentage is so small, that bat manufacturers will only sell those top quality ash bats to their pro customers. Even the minor leagues can not usually get the top quality ash. By the time you get down to the ash bats you can buy at a store, the only thing you can get is the lower quality ash. They may still be advertised as the same bats the pro’s use, and they very well could be the same model, but not the same wood quality. This is the main reason that maple is becoming so popular. Ash will always be in pro ball, because the top quality ash bats are very good bats. With maple, the only thing that separates high quality bats from low quality bats is the straightness of the grain and physical defects in the wood. No matter what species of wood you are using, straightness of the grain and defects is the first thing that the wood is sorted for, and it’s not considered to be good for a bat unless the grain is straight, and there are no defects. What this means is with maple you can actually get the same quality wood as the pro’s use! Even our youth bats are made out of the same quality wood that we make our pro bats out of. That’s not a just a pitch for our youth bats, it’s just that all other variables being equal, so long as the grain is straight and there are no defects, there are no wood quality differences with maple.