What to look for to get the best wooden baseball bat?

Where baseball bat wood comes from and a comparison of the different types

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, which means if you purchase after clicking the link I may receive compensation.

I love bats. 

Whether it's wood, aluminum, alloy, composite, baseball or softball, the bat has been a tool that has interested me since the first time I walked into a sporting goods store as a kid. 

When you first pick it up, it has it's own life. A story waiting to be written A presence that demands to be used. 

For me, the most iconic thing in baseball is the wooden baseball bat. It's been a part of the game since the sport first began to evolve. In the early days, bats were made from just about any wood object that would fit the bill. Cartwheel spokes, table legs, fence posts all served a role in hitting early baseballs. 

Players often made their own bat, or if lucky, knew a local woodworker that would make them. In the 1880s, when pro baseball was in its infancy, Bud Hillerich made a bat for Pete Browning of the Louisville Eclipse baseball club. After getting 3 hits with it, Browning dubbed it "the Louisville Slugger". Legend has it, that was the beginning of professional bat making. 

Today, there are many giants in the bat manufacturing business. Along with them are medium and smaller size bat makers doing what they love, to provide solid lumber for ball players. 

It was my love of bats that led me to start my own wood bat company. It was the interest in bats that drove me to learn about the process and the raw materials needed to produce high quality sticks. Having 20 years of horticulture experience helps me in choosing and evaluating a good billet, too 

Every good bat maker must learn to "read" the wood.

The process of bat making differs between manufacturers but it's the wood that makes the bat. For a century, ash was practically the exclusive wood used in bats. 

Today, maple is the frontrunner, but other woods have a presence in the race. Ash is still relevant. Birch is becoming a rising star. Beechwood and bamboo are gaining followings of their own. And composites have their own players that swear by them. 

So, with all of these options for wood type how do you pick which one to go with? Which one is right for you?

How good bat wood is made

Nature does the hard work when it comes to making wood. It doesn't grow on trees, it is the tree. 

The woods used in baseball bats usually come from deciduous (drops leaves) trees, although there are a few exeptions. Ash (Fraxinus), maple (Acer) and birch (Betula) all have different properties that give them distinctive looks when they grow.  Each has a wide range in which they can live. For example, I can raise all of these trees here in the California coastal valleys. But the wood from trees grown here would be a poor choice to make a bat from. 

That's because where the wood grows is as important a factor as which wood species is used. Trees are living things. The weather and climate of its growing area play a big role in its development. Everything from rain, daytime hours, soil, growing season, cold season and growth population impacts the development of the tree in general and the fibers of the wood specifically. 

For the most part, the best wood for bats comes from trees that grow in cooler climates with plenty of precipitation, good natural soil makeup, medium long daytime hours and very pronounced growing and cold seasons. 

In North America that tends to be Canada, the pacific northwest, the northeast, Great Lakes region and some parts of the east coast. 

The trees that grow in these places tend to have a higher density along with straighter fiber and grain structures. These factor into the overall strength of the finished bat. 

The age of the tree is a factor. A young tree isn't going to produce much wood, and what it does produce is going to be weak and pliable. 

Wood strengthens with age. Tree trunks grow from the outer layer each year. The new year's layer grows over the previous year's. Each layer within the trunk adds more pressure to the layers beneath it. This contributes to density and grain straightness. 

That means a healthy growth population is important. Trees of varying ages grow together and create a micro climate that is beneficial for the all the trees in the grove. From here, trees can be chosen for harvest based on age, and trunk quality while younger trees are left in place to develop and birth new saplings where the older trees were removed. 

Bat billets and where they go

After selection and harvest, the trees will go through a preparation and milling process. Much of the lumber produced will go to other things such as furniture or building stock. The milling byproducts, sawdust, bark and cutoffs, go for other uses. Very little of the tree goes to waste.

The straightest cuts will be set aside for bat billets. These will usually be pretty raw to start. Different processes use different methods but they will go through various milling, splitting and drying stages before they become the 2.75" × 37" round billet that is most commonly known. 

After the final milling to this size, it goes to a final drying process. The final moisture content target varies between each of the different wood types but will usually fall in the range of 8-12%. 

Then comes time for grading, sorting and storage. 

Storage is typically in dry, climate controlled places. Too wet and the billets gain weight. Too warm and the billets dry out and crack. Storage is important in keeping the billet in the best condition for turning. Note: later on, how you store the bat will contribute to it's life span, too.

Grading is straightforward but takes a trained eye. You're looking for straightness of grain, weight/density, billet warping, end checking (cracks), knots, honeycombing and other potential defects. 

Companies classify their billets differently but a common grading scale is 

1. prime/pro (exceptional) 

2. "A" grade (very good, free of most if not all defects)

3. "B" grade (usable but varying quality, possible defects but still worthy for many bats)

4. High density (on the heavy side, usually used for very thin profile bats, training bats, trophy bats and youth bats)

5. Not bat worthy (not suitable for baseball bats, will be sold for other uses).

A few bat companies cut and process their own wood. Others purchase them from large wholesalers. Still others may obtain them through 3rd parties, such as another bat company. 

Regardless of how the billets get into the hands of the bat maker, they will be inspected again and possibly regraded to meet that companies own standards. 

Generally, the best billets are used for the manufacturers' top shelf and professional use bats. The next best will be their mid priced bats and lower quality billets will be the mass produced value priced bats. 

Does that mean any of them are bad bats? Not necessarily. I've bought bats from every price point in the past. I've broken top shelf bats and I have some value bats that are still good after thousands of hits. 

Where you will see the biggest difference is that the premium priced bats will typically have a little more pop and have exceptionally straight grain. They suitable for practically all turning models, are more uniform from bat to bat and will be sold by the model, weight and length standards you desire. 

The mid priced are still great quality and often are found as high end stock bats seen  in sporting goods stores. If you order them directly from the maker,, you can get them customized. Even in stock form they meet the height/weight parameters that are most common. For the typical amateur that wants an already made stock bat, this is a top notch value. 

The lower priced bats are typically mass produced and distributed to chain stores. They are found online or in sporting goods stores and are usually at the lowest price points. You still get a good range of lengths to choose from. But the model selection is very limited and the weights are usually random. You can still find good bats in this category, but your luck is better if you hold and swing it before buying it. 

Characteristics of the different wood choices

There are a lot of differences in Ash, Maple and Birch. To better understand them, there are a few things about wood properties to consider. 

Grain structure

There are two primary types of grain structure in hard woods, ring porous and diffuse porous. The differences are caused by the way wood develops in each tree species during growing seasons. 


Ring porous, or closed grain wood has a very defined grain. It's easy to see visually. In these types of woods, the pores where water and nutrients move within the tree are aligned fairly straight along the grain layers. The growth stages of the tree create defined layers between each grain. This causes the wood to be like a sandwich. The grain is dense and the layers between are not as dense. So the hardest part of the wood is the grain itself. This "sandwich" attribute is why ash tends to split or flake when it breaks.

Some types of wood that are closed grain are ash, hickory and oak. In these wood types, the label is placed on the face grain and you hit the ball with the side grain. 

Diffuse porous, or open grain wood, has a less defined grain. In these, the pores are more spread out, or diffuse, within each layer of the wood. Their growth stages are more continuous. This creates a more uniform density between growth layers. 

Open grain wood types are maple and birch. Because of the uniform density of these, breakage is more likely to be a shatter instead of flaking. 

For use in MLB, open grain woods require the ink dot test. The ink dot allows you to see the orientation of the wood fibers to measure the slope of grain more easily with the naked eye. A slope of grain of less than 3% is required for use in MLB. This came into effect in 2009 after a high percentage of maple bats where shattering in games and a study was conducted to figure out why. 

And it comes down to the different properties of the wood.  Forces resonate through open grain differently than closed grain woods. Grain fiber orientation on the face grain is more important for strength in maple.

In open grain woods, the ink dot is on the face grain and the label placed on the side grain. You hit the ball with the face grain. The study found slightly less incidence of breakage hitting with this orientation. 

Note: where the label is and hitting orientation does not necessarily indicate the "strongest" part of the bat. It is considered the most durable and least likely to cause catastrophic failure. A small difference but one to be aware of. 

Hardness and flexibility

The hardness of the wood will play a role in its performance. Flexibility does as well. Because these two attributes can be counter to each other, it makes choosing which wood is best for you a tougher decision. Much of the decision will come down to your preferences on the feel when the ball comes off the bat and your swing type. Balancing the pros and cons of hardness and flexibility will help figure out your preferred wood choice.

Relative wood hardness is demonstrated in what's called the "janka hardness scale". This test measures how much force is needed to press a roughly 11mm ball bearing halfway into a piece of wood. 

Ratings on the scale for the three main wood types are 1450 for rock maple, 1320 for white ash and 1260 for yellow birch. Maple is hardest, birch is softest and ash is in between. For reference, hickory's rating is 1820. Harder woods have less give on impact.

Coupled with that hardness is the flexibility of each wood. Maple is the stiffest of the three with birch and ash being more similar to each other in their ability to flex. 

Flexibility can be an important factor in determining what wood you like. More flexible bats tend to have a softer feel on the hands when hitting the ball and usually sting less on a miss hit ball. It can also add a trampolining effect at the point of striking the ball caused by the whip action it can produce. 

Hitting a baseball is essentially transferring potential force in the bat, to the ball. Both hardness and flexibility factor into how that force is transfered.

Finding the right combination of hardness and flex is a key in choosing the wood you want to swing. 

Reviewing the Baseball Bat wood types

Now that we've gone over how the woods grow and are processed and what sets them apart, let's break each one down to understand them.

Ash baseball bats


Ash was the standard for baseball bats for a century. For most of that time it was the only wood commonly used for baseball bats. 

It's hardness and flexibility make for a good all around stick. It has good strength, even in lower density billets, so it's a good choice for bigger barrel bats without compromising strength too much. 

When you hit a ball off the end, it's fairly forgiving, but when you get one on the hands it's likely going to let you know. 

When it breaks, it's breakage pattern is predictable and usually will stay in one piece or split down a grain.

Ash is a great starter bat for those new to wood. But those that have used wood for years may love it for its familiar feel and proven track record.

Maple baseball bats


The most used wood in bats today is maple. This trend began in the early 2000s when Barry Bonds made the switch late in his career. Since then it has dominated the bat market. 

In the first years of its use, bat breakage skyrocketed. But after study and changes made to maple bat standards, breakage is more in line with ash. When maple breaks, though, it's often unpredictable and tends to shatter and shards can come flying off.

Maple baseball bats are hard and fairly rigid. Because of this, the ball bounces off it well. The hardness of it allows for a thinner handle to be used. However, because it breaks easier at lower densities, have caution if getting a thin handled bat with a big barrel. 

Maple is not very forgiving. It's stiffness causes ball strikes to reverberate down the length of bat. This has it's pluses and minuses. It gives you definite feedback. That feedback is great when you get the ball on the sweet spot, but not very nice when you hit the ball on the handle or end of the bat. 

Maple is a good choice for power hitters that swing through the ball well or contact hitters that use the bounce off the wood to their advantage. There's a reason it's the most popular wood bat type.

Birch baseball bats


Compared to maple and ash, birch is on the softer side. It often will get ball marks in the barrel until the fiber of the wood compress. 

This is actually a feature that I think is underrated about birch baseball bats. The more you hit the ball on the sweet spot, the more that spot will compress and harden. Adding that to the flex and softness of the rest of the bat, you have a hard sweet spot with a bat that gives a good trampoline effect. 

It's softer nature is a hand saver, too. Birch has the easiest feel of the woods when making contact. The softer wood absorbs and distributes vibration better, so miss hits won't sting as much. 

It's breakage tendencies are similar to maple due to its grain structure. Though anecdotally, I've had far fewer breaks with birch compared to maple and ash. But the ones I've had have been extreme breaks. 

Deciding to use birch can give you a bat that will develop good pop over time while maintaining good flexibility. While I personally swing every type of wood bat, if I could only choose one, birch would be my personal choice.

Other "wood" bats

Composite baseball bats

Aside from the big three wood types, there are other catagories to consider. 

Most professional leagues require a bat to be made of a single solid piece of wood. But many amateur leagues and the lowest minor leagues allow exceptions. That exception is composite baseball bats

The most basic definition of a composite wood bat is a bat made of more than one piece of wood or wood and another material. 

Examples include maple composites made up of multiple pieces of maple glued together, maple/bamboo composites made up of a maple barrel and bamboo handle or maple/carbon composites made up of a maple barrel and carbon fiber handle. 

There are many combinations of composites baseball bats available. Whether a league allows them is up to the individual league or their governing body. It's always good to check it they are allowed before buying one. 

Theoretically, a composite is not supposed to give a performance advantage over a solid wood bat. They should be BBCOR certified ensuring they meet allowable standards for game play. 

So if there's not a performance advantage to composites, what is their purpose?

The answer to that is durability. While composites can still break, they are designed to be able to hold up better to more abuse than a solid wood bat. Many of the top composite bats will last for years or decades. 

Unfortunately, there can be a trade off. While durability is higher, the sweet spot might be smaller or the vibration might be higher. Every composite brand and model feels different depending on manufacturing and material used.

Composites can be a great choice for those that want a bat that they won't have to replace anytime soon. They tend to be pricier up front, but their durability can give great value over the long haul.

Bamboo

Bamboo is a composite, but it has some characteristics that are different from other composites and wood.

Bamboo is basically a large type of grass. To make it into a bat, the pieces are glued, pressed and sawn to make thin billets. These smaller billets are then glued together to make a larger billet. From there, it is turned like a regular bat. 

Bamboo is growing in popularity for use as baseball bats. It grows very fast so its attractive to producers because the material regenerates quickly.  This also keeps the price of bamboo bats lower than most other composite bats and some wood bats. 

It's feel is similar to other composites. If you hit the sweet spot it feels great. If you don't, you might pay for it. 

While Bamboo is pretty durable, it's usually not quite as durable as other composites on the market. 

Choosing Bamboo  can be the way to go if you are looking for the benefit of composites but in a more affordable price range.

Other considerations for wood bats

Breakage


As discussed, the typical breakage patterns of wood bats will vary by wood type. But one thing is true for all wood bats. 

The most common point of failure is in the handle & taper areas. That's in an area about 5" to 20" from the knob. It makes sense. It is the thinnest part of the bat and experiences the most lateral forces during contact. 

While failures in the barrel happen, like flaking in ash bats, breakage is in the handle more often than not. 

In ash bats a straight side grain is more important. 

In maple and birch a straight face grain is more important.

While straightness of grain is good for the entire bat, it's most important in the first 20" from the knob. Straighter grain adds strength and helps the wood handle flex better and more uniformly. 

Variances in wood

Wood comes from a living thing. Because of this, no two pieces of wood are exactly the same. Even if they come out of the same round of the same tree, there will be slight differences in grain, density and fiber orientation. 

Because of this, wood bats are unpredictable. You can get two bats from the same lot, hit the ball in the exact same way and one might break on the first swing while the other might not break after 1000s. 

Some bat companies might have a short limited warranty on their premium lines of bats. But this is the exception, not the rule. 

Hitting the ball on the sweet spot greatly reduces the chance of a break, but it's not a guarantee. 

Turning models

Getting the right turning model can be as or more important than the type of wood you choose. There are hundreds of models that batmakers have available. 

Some models have been around for decades and stand the test of time. You can find these from most bat companies. Examples are 243, 271, 110 models. 

Other models might be more exclusive to certain manufacturers. These may be entirely different models or small tweaks of more well know models. 

A small bunch of batmakers offer full model customization. This is a model turned to specifications unique to the batter. This treatment is how new signature models are created for many of the pros. Smaller niche companies, like mine, offer this to amateurs, too. 

Choosing a model can be very personal. It depends on the feel you like, your strength, swing and bat handling. Endloaded bats may not be right for contact hitters while power hitters might shy away from balanced bats. 

While any model can be made with any of the bat woods, some models are better suited to certain woods. Knowing the characteristics in this article can help you decide which way to go. 

In the end it comes down to personal preference. 

What bat wood is right for you?

Every hitter is different and because of that, their choice of bat and its wood type is an individual decision. 

If you are new to swinging wood, starting off with birch or ash may be a good idea. Their  forgiving nature and soft feel on the hands can make the transition to wood better for you. 

If you are experienced or a hard swinger, maple might be the choice for you. The harder wood coupled with a hard swing can create incredible results for some hitters.

If price is a big consideration, trying bamboo is a good compromise. You'll get a bat that you can grow into at a price that you can live with. 

And if you want to get a bat and not have to worry about getting another for a while, you may go the route of composites, if your league allows it. They can provide good long term value, they come in many popular turning models and their durability is a big advantage. 

There are a lot of options out there waiting for you. 

If you are new to wood baseball bats, I hope this article helps you decide which type of wood fits you best. If you want to check out a wide selection of options, take a look at my blog's Baseball Gear page.

If you are a veteran of wood, hopefully it gives more insight into how the wood goes from trees to your bat bag. 

Whichever is the case, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments. 

Get your swing on.

⚾️⚾️⚾️

Play ball








Comments

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