Tips for Appraising an Antique Golf Club
Before buying a vintage golf club, you must get into the habit of appraising it properly. Unfortunately, most of us at some time have had the experience of giving a club a simple once-over glance and then finding out after we’ve purchased it that it has serious defects!
Here’s some advice to help you appraise vintage wooden shafted golf clubs. The most important thing is to start at one end of the club and methodically work along it being careful to inspect all of its components. I like to start with the “business end”…
Usually the first thing people look for is the makers mark and so we’ll tackle this first. Some individuals are immediately turned off by a club if no marks are plainly visible. They quickly decide that it is uninteresting and put it down again. This can often mean they miss clubs which are in fact quite rare and valuable. Experienced collectors, especially those who have an interest in early irons, know this and will be able to appraise a club fully even if no marks are evident. For now, we’ll assume there are some marks evident. It is worth carrying a small magnifying glass if you’re going to a venue where you’re likely to find some antique clubs. Before rust resistant heads became popular in the 1930’s it was common practice for caddies to clean the heads of irons using fine grained sandpaper. If this happened every week over several years, one can imagine that the makers marks ( or cleek marks as they are known ) were steadily worn away. On pre-1900 irons often only a few disjointed letters, or parts of letters and symbols, can be seen. On a number of occasions I have been able to identify the maker of an iron club by just seeing the smallest of marks. Perhaps it’s the top of the letter’s W , P and A which originally would have read W. PARK, MUSSELBURGH. With experience you’ll come to know where on the club heads, be they woods or irons, makers placed their stamps.
Iron Club Heads
Maker & Retailers Stamp
If the markings on the back of an iron club head are easily readable they usually provide two pieces of information: who made the head, and who sold it to the golfer. The maker may have stamped their actual name, or they may have stamped their cleekmark, which is usually a symbol or picture of some kind. Several hundred cleekmarks of different sizes and shapes including hearts, birds, spurs, crosses, crowns, feathers, knights in armour, wheels and roses, to name but a few have been recorded. New collectors with an appetite for learning are advised to buy one of the published reference books on cleekmarks to quickly build up their knowledge. A list of some of the more common cleekmarks is given here. The seller of the club was commonly a golf professional operating from a small shop on a golf course. He would have bought the iron heads in from the maker’s foundry already stamped with his own name and usually the golf course location. Some sources suggest that the club professional stamped the iron head by hand using a formed stamp and a hammer. This is simply not possible due to the force required; this can only have been done at the foundry using heavy duty equipment , usually a steam powered press capable of exerting several tones of pressure when the metal was still hot. It is not uncommon to find iron headed clubs of identical form and shape made by a major maker such as Tom Stewart of St.Andrews with different club professionals’ stamps. If a club pro’s name is not evident it may be that the club was sold through one of the larger mail order companies which sent goods all over the world ( for instance the London based Army & Navy Co-operative Stores Ltd mark was “ANCSL” ), or through a large department store; there are many clubs stamped Harrods, London ).
The marking of iron club heads was first popularized by some early makers in approximately the 1870’s and became common in the 1880’s. Those to look out for include CARRICK, J.GRAY , ROBERT WHITE, R.FORGAN, W.THOMSON, ANDERSON of ANSTRUTHER and Wm.PARK. Note, some of these makers used the same markings over several decades so even if you are fortunate enough to find such a marked club it does not mean it is from the 1870’s, although it is still a very good find!
When I first started collecting antique golf clubs I read that the heads of all irons made before 1850 had smooth hitting faces. I found such a smooth faced hickory shafted club in an antique shop and purchased it. I thought I had found a real valuable treasure. What I didn’t realize at the time was that 99% of irons which date before 1905 were made with smooth faces! So having no face markings is a good indication that the club was made before 1905, but to date the club accurately one has to look at all the characteristics of the head. It is also worth bearing in mind that there are many antique golf irons that started life as smooth faced and were then hand stamped or scored perhaps two or more decades after it was made. This importantly means that even if markings are present it might still be an old and rare club. With very little experience one can recognize whether face markings are machine made. They are very regular in pattern, form and depth. Once you’ve seen some hand markings the difference is clear. Hand punched dots or scored lines are by comparison quite irregular and sometimes totally haphazard. So in your appraisal you have to ask yourself the question; are these face markings original or have they been added at a later date? If face markings have been applied to a pre-1900 iron this will affect its value to an experienced collector, however it would be unwise to reject buying such a club for this reason alone.
Hosel to Top of Blade Join
As a general rule, on irons which date before 1890 the top of the blade meets the hosel in a sharp corner. There is no attempt to blend each area into one another. Some makers retained the unblended corner style within their forging tools right up to 1905, so again this feature is only a guideline in date. It is however, a good feature for the novice to look for. When I started collecting I had probably looked at at over 200 clubs before I actually saw one with this sharp join feature. I didn’t actually buy the club though because it was seriously corroded, and although for many weeks I thought I’d passed up a nice addition to my growing collection I now realize this was the right decision.
Before about 1920 the heads of all golf irons were made using mild steel. This material corrodes extremely quickly when left in the slightest of moist conditions. Like brake discs on a car when exposed to the elements, iron golf club heads will form spots of bright orange surface rust even when left for a few hours in damp conditions. This type of corrosion is not a problem and can be removed within a few seconds by gently rubbing some fine wire wool on the affected spots. If such a club were to be left for a period of several months, or even years, in damp conditions then it would lead to more extensive corrosion. Many club heads have a dark even colouring, almost like charcoal. I really like this type of patina as it adds great character to a head and is the result of many decades of natural ageing. There is also zero danger that this corrosion will deteriorate any further if the club is kept in normal conditions. In my opinion this type of corrosion should be just left as is. The most advanced type of head corrosion is when the surface appears almost bubbly and largish flakes of metal are liable to fall away. Once a club head has reached this stage any mechanical cleaning or renovation is hopeless. To make the most of the club I simply apply a coat of dark wax over the corrosion and give it some very gentle polishing with a soft cloth. The golden rule is that unless you know what you are doing when employing mechanical or chemical rust removal actions it is by far best to leave the club alone apart from applying some wax polish. It is most annoying to find an interesting and potentially valuable old club head that has undergone “trial by mechanical grinder”. All of its appeal and value has been grinded away and can never be replaced.
For hundreds of years golf irons were made following special requests to local blacksmiths. Irons dating to before 1860 are commonly termed “blacksmith made”, they are vary rare and sought after, and display crude features. One such feature is the sharp cuts called knicking at the top of the iron hosel where it meets the incoming wooden shaft. These cuts were the result of the blacksmith hammering a chisel into the metal hosel to tighten the shaft into the head. Knicking continued to be done by hand by several makers into the first couple of decades of the 20th century. Gradually, as more and more automated operations were brought into club making the need for secondary knicking operations to ensure a tight shaft fit diminished. However, clubmakers would often put a pattern around this area of the hosel for decorative purposes to give clubs a traditional look. Hand knicking is identifiable by its non-uniformity and on early clubs the knicking is often sharp to the touch. Generally speaking, the more cruder the knicking, the earlier the club.
The Hosel Pin
Iron club heads were secured in place on the wood shafts with the aid of a metal pin usually visible about half an inch from the top of the hosel. Some people have suggested that if the pin can be clearly seen the shaft must have been replaced at some time. This is definitely not true. There are no hard and fast rules on this – the visibility of the pin ends largely depends on the techniques used for making the club and the material of the club head. Earlier forged mild steel has properties which mean the pin end can be blended into the club head material and less of a join is visible. Consequently, hosel pins tend to be more readily visible on stainless steel club heads which dominated the market from about 1920. Several things when considered together can give valuable clues as to whether the shaft ( and pin ) is original. If the pin is made of brass, the shaft is likely to be a replacement. If there are file marks around the pin ends it is likely to be a replacement. On large numbers of antique irons it is not unusual for there to be some play between the shaft and the head. This might be because of a poor quality reshaft, or because the wood of the shaft has shrunk over time within the hosel, or indeed both. As in evident in many pieces of antique furniture, wood does tend to shrink over many decades. Some people recommend placing the club head/shaft into a bucket of water to swell the wood and take up any play. Personally, I would strongly advise against this unless the hickory club is being used for play; you are more likely to do damage and cause the shaft to eventually rot away. A very large clue as to whether a reshaft has taken place is to inspect the end grain of the shaft. See later.
Inspecting the shaft
It is very important to inspect the shaft carefully for cracks, woodworm and rot. Probably about 20% of shafts I inspect have one of these defects.
Cracks can occur anywhere along the length of the shaft but they are most common in the 5 inches of wood just above the hosel as this is the section which is designed to flex the most and would have taken most of the stress when the club was used. Cracks can be very hard to spot and I still occasionally buy a club and then afterwards find a crack in the shaft ( doh!). A “hosel” crack is local to the region of the shaft that fits into the club head – these tend to be quite easy to spot visually. Another type of crack is that which I categorize as “spiral”. The club itself may feel quite solid when handled normally, but a very small rotation of the head when the grip is firmly held will reveal a surprisingly large crack of several inches and usually very deep along the middle of the shaft. I find the hardest crack to spot is that which I call “compound”. This split occurs across the shaft in a localized area and often slivers of wood may have sprung away from the main structure – if the crack has been waxed or varnished over they are very tricky to spot. Here’s what I recommend to help you spot shaft cracks. Firstly, place the shaft in the fingers of one hand and rotate the club using the other hand. Whilst maintaining a very soft pressure move your feeling hand along the length of the shaft. Your finger tips are very sensitive to surface defects and can pick up quite easily that which the eye can miss. Secondly, gently flex the shaft between your hands and also give the head a little twist relative to the grip whilst looking at the shaft ( always ask the seller if they are present if you can do this – I have found that people don’t mind me inspecting shafts clubs if I ask their permission and tell them what I’m doing. Also, if they’ve repaired a crack they are more likely to tell you and save you opening it up again! ). Thirdly, ( and this again usually demands the sellers permission ) , if I’m buying a club to play with I can usually tell if there’s a crack in the shaft by gently bouncing the grip end of the club on a solid surface and listening to the sound it makes. Solid shafts tend to make a clear “thwock” sound . Cracked shafts usually make a sound with a high pitched “tizz” in there and you’ll also feel more vibration in your hand. This technique does take some practice but it is very reliable if you’re looking to buy hickory clubs to play with. Another thing to look (and feel for) on a hickory shaft are very small ring markings caused by whipping that has been wrapped around the shaft and subsequently removed. This nearly always signifies that a crack of some kind is present in the shaft in that area and that it has been at some time bound up for continued play. Some people have suggested that extra binding was applied to increase shaft stiffness even when no crack was present but I have only seen this once or twice over the years. There may of course still be whipping visible anywhere on the shaft length.
If you do find a crack in a shaft, or whipping covering a crack is still visible, the club should not be automatically rejected as a potential purchase unless you are planning on playing golf with it. The head may be of particular interest and if the crack cannot be easily repaired to an acceptable standard for display there is always the option of fitting a replacement. Click this link for more information about reshafting hickory golf clubs.
The first time I found a worm hole in an old club I’d bought relatively cheap I went into a bit of a panic. I had visions of my whole collection turning to dust over the next few weeks. I segregated the club from the rest and liberally applied some liquid worm treatment. I then did some more research into the lifecycle of the woodworm and came to understand that by the time the hole has appeared the danger has already passed and the bug has literally flown. It’s in the year or two beforehand that the grub is merrily munching away. I still get very nervous about placing clubs with worm holes with valuable others. The question to ask is whether the worm is active? Literature suggests you should look for fine wood dust being displaced from the holes when the object is shaken or tapped. Unfortunately, whenever I’ve tapped most clubs some bits of debris always seem to fall out of the holes! What I generally do is to look carefully at the worm hole; if it is very sharp edged and very light coloured wood is visible inside the hole this may suggest it is quite recent. If the hole is dark and the edges are irregular then it is likely the hole is very old and no active worm is present. If one or two holes are present in the shaft of a club I like then after purchase I’ll treat the area with liquid worm killer and fill the hole in with a little spot of wood filler or liquid tar so improve the aesthetic appearance. I have seen some club heads and shafts so infested that there are more holes than wood. These should be definitely avoided in my opinion no matter how “rare” they are. It is worth checking over any club that you buy that it has not been previously treated and filled. Unfortunately there are “rare” pieces out there which have been filled and refinished – so if a club looks too new ask yourself why?
It isn’t uncommon to find wood shafts that have rotten ends at the butt end of the club. The club may have been left in damp conditions for a very long time. The wood may be literally falling apart or it may just be very soft. A gentle pressing with a finger nail on the tip can reveal any underlying condition. If the tip is falling away then you can consider chopping a few inches off but you would need to know by how much before solid wood is reached. If the wood is very soft then providing it is only for display a few liberal coats of varnish can stabilize it and make it quite hard.
Whilst inspecting the grip end of the shaft one should also look for other features. If the end is nicely rounded, or has very small file marks around the rim this is indicative that the shaft may be of original length. If on the other hand the shaft end is completely square it may have been shortened – a dead giveway is of course when lateral saw marks are present. One should also consider the colour of the shaft tip. A patina similar to the middle of the shaft, or much darker ( caused by continual rubbing the bottom of the bag ), is a definite good sign. A much lighter colour is usually evidence that the shaft has been shortened. Also look to see if there are little holes where previous grips were tacked on when the club was in regular use. It is not uncommon to see the shank of the tack ( nail ) still in the wood, and if it is corroded all the better. It is also instructive to take a golfing stance with the club and see whether the length feels right. In my experience clubs were made generally shorter than their modern counterparts. Also, the club may have been made for a lady or junior. The grip can also give a large clue as to the original shaft length.
The End Grain of the Shaft
When viewing the butt end of the shaft end on, with the club face lined up as if hitting a ball, the grain of the wood should generally run left to right and not top to bottom. This is so that the shaft is less likely to split when the club is used in play. I do see quite a number of clubs where the grain is not in a general left to right direction and this is an indication that it was not fitted by a skilled maker. The shaft could have been refitted and turned through 90 degrees by it’s original owner if there was excessive play and they did not want to go to the expense of a new shaft, or it could be a sign of a botched modern refit. An inspection of the hosel pin may help decide which is the case.
Small shaft grain markings
In many clubs dating from before 1890 that I have inspected I have noticed very small cross-grain abrasions on the main section of shaft. I believe these are evidence that the club in question was likely to have been carried in the arms of the player of caddie before golf bags came into use. It is useful as corroborating evidence as to whether the shaft may be original or a very early replacement.
Inspecting the grip.
In my experience only about 25% of antique golf clubs have their original grip. The older the club the more chance it has been regripped when in use. Grips on hickory clubs tend to come in two main types: softish suede or hard leather. More information about antique golf grips here. The biggest clue as to whether a grip is original is to look for small tacks (nails) or holes in the shaft from previous fittings at the bottom, and particularly, the top of the grip. Previous holes at the bottom may of course be covered by the newer grip, but it is very hard to disguise completely the holes or tacks at the top. Of course, one should also look at the condition in terms of wear on the grip. Reproduction grips recently fitted will generally look new unless skillfully aged. As regripping was a common occurrence, the fact that a grip is not original is not usually a factor when I decide whether to buy a club. If a modern reproduction grip has been fitted I sometimes will fit a genuine old grip taken from a donor club to give the club a true authentic look and feel.
Tips for inspecting Wooden Headed Clubs
In line with previous notes for iron clubs most people will first inspect a wooden headed club with the intention of identifying the maker or retailer. On the vast majority of woods ( and this covers wooden headed putters aswell ) any stamp on the top of the head is usually still evident because they were not cleaned in an abrasive manner. Occasionally, the stamp may be a little feint but a small amount of moisture spread on by a finger tends to work wonders. If no maker’s stamp is evident see if one exists on the shaft near the bottom of the grip. If no markings at all are evident it may be that the club was a cheaper product in its day, or it may have been totally sanded and re-varnished at some time in its life, be that some decades ago or quite recent.