It has been noted that the earliest golf clubs did not have grips. Gentlemen golfers would simply wear gloves to protect their hands from the exposed wood and to ensure an element of friction to protect their investment from “flying off the handle” so to speak. To conjure up the notion of what these early golfers looked like we only need to look at Major League baseball players, sans chewing tobacco, Velcro and lucrative contracts. Clubs like the Huntley putter, which have a thumb groove ploughed out of the top foot or so of the handle, were never meant to have grips applied. I also have in my possession a Freddie Tait putter, made by George Nicoll, which has depressions in the handle for each of the player’s 10 fingers. At some point in the course of the game’s evolution it must have been concluded that applying grips to clubs would eliminate the need for a costly pair of gloves and provide all the traction that was necessary for the two-fisted grip prevalent in the early years of golf.
The grip was perhaps the most replaced element of the club as it was the most abused portion of the instrument. Pitch, pine tar, and wax were often applied to provide a safe connection to the player’s hands. As these layers built up and were soiled they lost their effectiveness and were most likely replaced with a pristine new wrap that was destined to be coated and, in time, replaced as well. I think that initially the grips were perhaps made of sheepskin; after all we are talking about Scotland. Featheries were most likely sewn from this material, as cowhide and pigskin seem too thick and difficult to manipulate into a small sphere. With all that sheep skin on hand, it takes a very small leap toget from sphere to strip.
Removing a grip
A lot can be learned from the removal of an existing grip. We first recognize that there was no prescribed diameter or length for gripping clubs. Niblicks tend to have the longest of grips, which may be explained by the “choking down” aspect on short pitches or the lofted shot over the occasional stymie. Fourteen inches appears to be the average length of grip for hickory clubs. Grips on pre-1900 clubs appear stouter than clubs from the early twentieth century through the end of the hickory era, which often had grips that were applied to the bare shaft itself with little or no underwrap. Large grips tend to take the hands out of the swing and lessen the swing weight of the club.
The forensic nature of grip removal allows us to reverse the process and alter it to meet our needs. Most grips that I have removed have been wound in a counterclockwise direction as you look down the shaft from the butt of the handle. Some grips were made of cork. Other grips were stitched lengthwise and slid on to the club like a sausage casing. But the most prevalent method was to wrap the grip and secure it at the top and the bottom with small tacks and whipping. An additional discovery of removing or cleaning old grips is the fact that they were not always black. Orange, red, green, blue, pink, and brown are just a few of the colors I have discovered on the reverse side of the grips I have removed. Pitch and pine tar have served to darken the grips to the point where they appear black.
Once you have removed the grip you will be presented with the question as to whether it is worth saving. There are those collectors who want original grips and you may set the old ones aside, in a dry environment, should they come calling. But if you want a functional club that will be used and not admired through a pane of glass, put on a new grip.
The dimensions of the removed grip can tell us a lot. The top cut, or initial taper, differs in length from club to club, depending upon the diameter at the butt end, but is generally of the same shape. Take note of this shape and length proportionate to the diameter of the shaft. The taper of the grip can be extreme (1-1/2 to 5/8ths of an inch over three feet) or minor (1-1/4 to 1-1/8 over the same length). The taper of the grip and the diameter of the shaft will have some impact on the amount of taper needed when cutting the leather strip. Again, there is no right width or amount of taper. Experiment with different sizes and see what works best for you.
I have found that the leather should be cut in the direction that provides the least amount of stretch. If you have a half cow from which to cut your grip I would recommend cutting from spine to belly.
Another discovery we make when we remove an old grip is the “listing” that was used to flair and build up the diameter of the grip. The grips from the late nineteenth century and into the late 20s had a common “thread,” if you will, of wool banding that was used to build up the grip diameter underneath the leather. I get the feeling that club makers tore their pajamas in strips since the same charcoal grey with white stripe material has been revealed in more than just a few old relics I have restored.
The listing material was often secured to the grip with pitch or bitumen. It was often nailed into place as well. It is not uncommon to find upwards of four to six small tacks under the grip of an old club.
Very often the shaft portion underneath the grip will be knurled (see photo). It appears that some form of machine was used to provide a cross hatching pattern that provided additional friction to secure the listing material.
The discovery of listing is perhaps the best indicator of the age and originality of the grip. Often the discovery of additional but empty tack holes will indicate the use of subsequent grips over time.
Some grips were fastened to the shaft with only the use of bitumen or pitch. These grips are often difficult to remove and even harder to save. You may even find a grip that is fastened only by the whipping or recent applications of electrical tape. This furthers the argument that there is no true prescribed manner in which to grip a club.
You may be re-gripping a club as part of the restoration process. You may also be replacing a damaged or worn grip or one that has lost that magic feel. Whatever the reason for it being replaced, a new grip can be added without the need to restore or refinish the entire club.
Preparing a new grip
Now that we have the grip off, it is time to put a new one in its place. If we are restoring the club, let’s assume that the shaft has been scraped, sanded, stained and had at least three coats of finish applied. We must now determine the diameter, or thickness, of the finished grip and work toward that diameter with tape, underwrap, friction tape, and the finished leather.
Here’s a description of what I mean by these supplies:
- Tape – One-inch wide, cloth-based sports tape, in any color.
- Underwrap – A 2½-inch wide foam tape that is without adhesive qualities. It is used by athletes under adhesive tape to minimize the amount of skin and hair that is removed when the adhesive tape is removed. It is an excellent means of enhancing the thickness of the grip when lengths of wool fabric (listing) are not readily available.
- Friction tape – A ¾-inch usually black tape that is sold for use by hockey players to add stickiness to the end of the hockey stick. It has adhesive qualities on both sides and provides a tacky surface that allows the leather wrap to adhere to the grip.
- Leather – A strip of cowhide that is 36 inches long and tapered from 11/8-inch one to 7/8 inch. The grip can be applied with either the smooth side or suede side exposed. The use of colored leather is the preference of the user.
- Listing – This is the original product used to increase the diameter of the grip prior to the application of the leather itself….it was often a three quarter inch wide strip of wool.
There is no prescribed diameter for a grip. Just as there is regular, mid-size and jumbo on modern clubs, so, too, do hickory club grips vary in thickness. Find a diameter in a finished club that suits your feel and make the pre-leathered grip slightly smaller. That is, find a club with a finished grip that is to your liking and make the pre-leather diameter (the diameter of the tapes and underwrap before the finished leather is added) slightly less. That way, when the leather is applied, the resulting grip will not be too large or too small.
Bear in mind that the leather you apply will thicken the shaft by two times its thickness. After a few tries you will develop a feel for what the pre-leathered diameter should be. You may wish to put a thicker grip on your putter or a thinner grip on your brassie in order to work shots. If you wish to be specific you can use a caliper to determine the finished diameter and subtract two times the thickness of the leather in arriving at the desired thickness of tape and underwrap.
Beginning on the butt end of the shaft, apply, in a counterclockwise
direction, a layer of adhesive tape. I prefer black, but any color will suffice. Over that layer, in the same counterclockwise direction, apply a tapered layer of underwrap. Underwrap is used by athletes to prevent athletic tape from sticking to the skin when that tape is removed. The foam nature of underwrap allows the grip to be built up without adding the weight of many additional layers of tape.
In order to flair the butt end of the grip it is necessary to add two wraps of friction tape one quarter of an inch in width covered by two wraps of friction tape one half inch in width. Now, in a clockwise direction, apply friction tape to the entire grip section. (see photo) You are now ready to apply the tapered leather wrap that was previously cut.
Lay the tapered end of the cut grip (see photo) along side the butt end of the shaft with the cut edge facing away (upward) from the club head. Place a small tack in a hole punched into the end of the taper. Lightly hammer this tack through the friction tape, underwrap and adhesive tape and into the shaft itself.
Now, in a counterclockwise direction, wrap the grip once around the shaft, ensuring that the tack is covered before heading down the shaft at a forty-five degree angle. As you wrap the grip, be certain to ensure that the edges of the leather fit snugly against each other. It takes a bit of wrist strength, so be patient and ensure a tight fit.
When you have reached the end of the friction tape, cut the grip off so that a straight edge is provided at the head end of the grip. (see photo) I like to fasten this end of the grip to the shaft with a 1/4-inch strip of adhesive tape. This secures the grip and provides a small taper over which the whipping is applied.
We will cover whipping in another article.
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