No Gut, No Glory
A gut shooting string: when I wrote my last article on putting together and Old School/New School stick, I mentioned that it would be interesting to try one. Mission accomplished, and the new gut string can be seen in the header image. It’s not obvious at first glance, so you may have to squint. But there it is, twisted around the top of the lacing from side to side, course, slightly translucent. The second string is a hockey lace; if you look closely on the right, you can see the weave of its fabric.
But why? Why turn back the clock to such an outlandishly ancient technique?
We’ll get there, but first, a clarification: although the material used to create shooting strings and the gut wall of wooden sticks was usually not “gut,” which would be intestinal material (though this material has been used).
Instead, most of the material used was and is rawhide, which is untanned leather. Rawhide is pliable when wet and an odd combination of hard and springy when dry. Drumheads were often made of rawhide, to give you an feel for its properties. It should be noted that though rawhide can be shaped when wet, it must be very wet; woodstick lacrosse players often played in the rain (as I did in Oregon), and the rawhide disintegrating or noticibly softening was not a problem. The rawhide would get clammy, but the moisture wouldn’t reach far enough into the material to cause it to lose its form or its function. After a rainy day game, you just put your stick somewhere sheltered to dry out, and you’re good to go the next day. You can see the rawhide shooting string in the picture of my old middie stick (and the top of the gut wall that connects the crook of the stick back to the handle).
The purpose of the old school top shooting string. In his book, Coaching Lacrosse, Carl Runk claims that modern sticks throw the ball straight out of the pocket — I am dying to get a high-speed movie camera and a calibrated ball to check this out. In a stick with tradional (trad) lacing, however, the ball rolls out of the pocket along the leathers and out the top. When everything is right, the ball exits smoothly at pretty much cannon speeds. You don’t want the ball bumping on anything that would alter its
rolling motion, especially the unforgiving material of the stick head. The top shooting string is the last thing the ball rolls over before it crosses the edge of the head. You want this sting to be stiff enough not to deflect downwards very much as the ball rolls over it, which would allow the ball to bump on the edge of the head on its way out (and pitch the ball into the ground). On the other hand, you want it to give a little so that it itself doesn’t cause a bump (and pitch the ball into the ground).
Rawhide as a top shooting string. Rawhide’s combination of stiffness and springyness, noted before, makes it an ideal top shooting string for introducing the rolling ball to the edge of the stick head. Throwing with a stick strung this way, the rawhide string seems to actually spring the ball
out off the top of the stick. Nylon can be somewhat the same, but needs to be pulled very tight to get the job done, or be of a less-yielding thickness, or both. But nylon is slick: re-tightening a nylon top string is a constant job. If rawhide can work in a modern stick with trad lacing, it could end up being both effective and low-maintanence. Despite what Coach Runk says about a stick with modern lacing, it would be intriguing to try one of those with a ’hide shooting string, too.
Sourcing the rawhide. Contrary to my usual online purchase
habits noted in this column, I went out to an honest-to-gawd bricks-and-mortar leather goods shop for my rawhide. For about 20 bucks, I came home with enough rawhide for a whole bunch of shooting strings. I imagine there are online sources, too.
A gut top shooting string for my attack stick. I removed the nylon top string from my old school/new school attack stick featured in my last article, and used it to measure how much rawhide to spin out from my roll. I’ll say right now that it wasn’t enough — you should work with a third more; but I’ll pretend I got the right amount right away for the moment. I heated it in water, split the hide, and wove it into the lacing, as pictured in the header. Since I’m about to go into detail with my goalie stick, I’ll leave it at that. I took it out to the park, found a goal, and threw with it. As far as I am concerned, my shots had noticibly more punch and accuracy. Again in my personal opinion, my feel for the ball was increased. All that is to say that I like it, I like it a lot.
Goalie head top shooting string. I loved it on my attack stick; how would it work for a goalie stick? I like a minimal length goalie stick. A short stick is perfect for the hand-to-hand combat in front of the crease. But to lose the shaft length means the head must throw like a rocket. Maybe a gut shooting can get some zip on the ball. Following is the process I used.
Step One, heat the ’hide in water. I had my rawhide and I cut it to length, a third longer than the nylon string I’d taken off the head. I stuck the rawhide into hot water, and turned the heat down to warm. It took about one-half to three-quarters of an hour before the rawhide was soft enough to work.
Step Two, split the rawhide. The rawhide thonging I purchased was wide and flat, luckily, about twice as wide as was needed. Once the ’hide was soft, I found it pretty easy to trim. First I tried an exacto knife, but this ended up making an uneven thong. I have a pair of titanium, super sharp scissors that I though I’d try. Bingo. The length of the blade provided a good visual reference for cutting. When I was done, I had created two shooting strings.
Step Three, dying the rawhide. Could rawhide be dyed? I didn’t know. I’d never seen a stick with dyed rawhide. On the other hand, rawhide is skin, and folks get tatoos all the time. Our skin seems to take color pretty well. I was replacing a dark blue nylon shooting string, so I thought I’d try for the same color for the gut replacement. I lowered the rawhide into near boiling water and navy blue Rit dye. At first it didn’t seem to be taking up the dye, so I over-reacted and added some black. In ten
minutes, I ended up with a pretty much jet-black rawhide thong.
Step Four, lace it in. I twisted the gut through the mesh just as I would have a nylon string. The biggest difference is that the rawhide does not need to be pulled tight to work. In fact, I broke strings more than once by torquing on them the way I would a nylon string. Don’t fret if it’s fairly loose: it will dry hard as it lays, with all the stiffness necessary. A note from lacing my attack stick: its holes were smaller than much of the wet rawhide thong. I found that drawing the too-thick ’hide through the hard plastic hole “cut” the material to the perfect diameter! Looked pretty much like a plane curling
off wood shavings. When the shooting string is laced through, cut off any extraneous rawhide and tie it off with a simple knot. There is no sense making complex knots where you finish the lace, since it kind of “ossifies” in place and won’t come loose.
Step five, let it dry. When the lacing is done, it’s scary: it feels loose and unsubstantial as spagetti. As it dries overnight (drying takes a while), all that changes. It hardens in place. On my goalie head, it feels just right, not too stiff, not too slack. This even given the expanse of the head compared to the attack stick. The black top sting in the photo below is the finished dyed rawhide shooting string.
Replacing the string? OK, you’ve got this new rawhide shooting string, what if you hate it? Can you unstring it? Short answer: no. Unless you want to soak the whole head of your stick — I’m not going to do that. No, if I want the strings off my attack and goalie heads, I’ll cut them off with an exacto knife. A new length of rawhide is so cheap that trying to save an old shooting string makes no sense. But unless you don’t like the feel of it, there probably won’t be a need to replace it. Rawhide is really rugged, and might last as long as your head or its lacing will.
Frozen in a freak accident called life, Mark Bocek was only recently thawed. Upon his resuscitation, he discovered that the game of lacrosse had changed in a multitude of ways. Back when men were men and sticks were made from trees, Bocek was a four-year starter in goal for Bishop Dagwell Hall, now Oregon Episcopal School. Back in the swing, Mark coaches goal and D for North Seattle Lacrosse. He writes a blog, “The Gut Wall,” which appears on his own site, gutwall.com, and can also be seen at Emerald Lax. In the big picture, Bocek is a partner at Dreamhand Design Studios, a freelance partnership specializing web and print design and implementation.