Located in the epicenter of this wood in Upstate New York, Leatherstocking sits squarely entrenched in some of the best hard ash, maple and birch growths anywhere in the world. "This is the best area in the world for the woods we need for baseball bats," says Dave Rama of Leatherstocking.
The Leatherstocking process starts with raw timber, sometimes still standing, all found within a 300-mile radius of the company's headquarters. And it ends with a hand-split billet, basically a bat blank dowelled and cut to specific lengths for sale to the world's leading bat manufacturers.
"We are the guys behind the scenes," Rama says. "We are like Switzerland in that we sell to a bunch of customers who compete with each other and are all starting with the same billet."
The process starts with the wood. Leatherstocking buys standing timber and manages crews to cut it. Sometimes they also buy already cut timber. Either way, they need to truck in the logs, cut it down to raw lengths, essentially cutting bolts of wood, and then process those bolts in their mill at roughly 40 inches in length. From there, says Rama, comes the part that separates them from everybody else.
Leatherstocking hand splits.
"The difference between a sawn billet and a split billet is huge and is the reason we are split mill," he says. "When you split wood, which you know very well if you have done it, is once you start splitting it goes where it wants to go." Each split follows the tangential grain direction of the wood, ultimately letting the tree tell the saw where it wants to go.
Historically, wooden bats required the splitting of logs that then turned from triangular staves into round billets. Today, a typical wood bats gets sawn in a mill, cutting across the radial and often tangential slope of the grain, weakening the bat. Because the tangential grain is difficult to see with the naked eye, it is easy to overlook it. Now MLB mandates an ink dot on the tangential grain, which helps indicate the direction but doesn't eliminate sawn billets and poor slope of grain.
"When trees grow, the majority do not grow straight up and down," Rama says. "Most of them, due to sun and wind exposure, slightly and slowly twist when they grow. It is that twist that creates a grain that is not straight. When splitting, the grain is apparent and we are following that grain. When you are sawing you are hoping the grain is straight, but a high percentage of the time the grain is not going to be straight."
Rama says the reason for the extra step, done by hand as an operator uses a specialized log-splitting machine, comes down to safety and performance. He says that poor grain slope—a cut that crosses the tangential grain—can fail more easily, causing more dramatic splintering, shattering and potential dangerous situations. While bats made of split stock can and will still break, they typically crack instead of splinter, a much safer break.
Once split in the Oneonta mill, all wood dries in vacuum kilns and then dowelled and graded. Leatherstocking puts a focus on a few finished billet lengths, with 37 inches the standard length, although some customers prefer 36. They also split 34.5, 33 and 31 lengths for differing styles of bats.
Roughly 75 percent of the billets produced at Leatherstocking fall under hard maple, with ash and birch both secondary items. Birch has seen a slight bump in interest, while ash has turned less and less popular, especially with the emerald ash borer pest impacting ash production. Rama says the sustainability of hard maple makes it the most readily available.
Leatherstocking says a shift toward wood bats at all levels exciting—Rama finds it fascinating that baseball teaches younger players to play with one type of equipment before changing them to something completely different if they want to turn professional. As up to 40 percent of MLB players use wood that originated in the New York facility, Leatherstocking will continue to make billets the way it believes produces the best possible product: hand-split.
Tim Newcomb covers gear and business for Baseball America. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.