James Laver has carved out a career and a stellar reputation with some of the world's best cricketers lining up for his product.
Blond curls of English willow peel off under the sharp blade of the master "pod shaver's" drawknife as he begins the transformation of a heavy, clumsy block of wood into the balanced blade of a cricket bat.
In the tiny Hawke's Bay town of Waipawa, 45km south of Napier, is the Laver & Wood workshop. In a square room full of wood shavings and the scent of linseed oil, James Laver, widely regarded as the world's best bat maker, creates handmade, bespoke bats, individually crafted to the specifications of each cricketer.
Laver's approach is a mix of tradition and modern innovation. Each bat is carved using tools and techniques nearly identical to the way bats were made 100 years ago. But as cricket has evolved into big hit highlight reel formats, the bats have also evolved, and Laver's classic approach is matched by his innovation.
"You wake up at night and have an idea. I'll see something similar in a golf club. That is where my passion for the trade is so great. I love finding new ideas, I love looking at all sorts of different things," Laver said.
Laver was born in England and grew up in Kenya and the Solomon Islands where his father worked as a teacher and a minister. During his teens he spent a lot of time in Australia and New Zealand, and fell in love with the southern hemisphere.
Returning to the UK he graduated as a construction engineer in 1989, but in Margaret Thatcher's Britain it proved to be a flawed career choice, and Laver was made redundant from his first job.
Although not a natural cricket zealot, he discovered an opening for an apprentice at renowned bat makers Millichamp & Hall, and immediately enjoyed the hands-on work. Laver trained under founder Julian Millichamp and when Millichamp left the company in 1994, he took over running the workshop.
"That was a very steep learning curve. But it really did give me some top opportunities," Laver said.
Married to a Kiwi, Laver moved to Hawke's Bay ("I've always loved New Zealand, it's just a great place to live") and in 1999 established Laver & Wood, on a farm, in partnership with a croquet and polo mallet maker. In 2004 he bought out the company.
He makes up to 1200 bats a year by hand. The total labour on each bat is around four hours, but with the pressing and drying of the wood to increase density and reduce weight (a secret and confidential process), from start to finish it takes up to a week.
The workshop is filled with belt sanders, pressing machines and spinning wheels customised by Laver to perfectly suit the art of bat making. Along the back wall hang old bats he has made for international cricketers. Beneath them sit neatly stacked "clefts", the beginnings of a bat, rough, wooden blocks that look like giant Monopoly houses, weighing around 2.5kg. The clefts are the finest English willow, sent from Essex by J S Wright & Sons who, since 1894, have supplied 90 to 95 per cent of the world's best bat-making willow.
The wood is graded based on density and consistency of the grain, and checked for defects and storm damage.
"We only buy high grade timber and that puts us in a position where we've got to be very careful how we operate," Laver said.
While many big name brands have moved production to India, producing generic factory made bats, Laver relies on his bespoke product to attract batsmen looking for a specialised service.
Before a bat is made, the batsman receives a thorough interview. Inquiries are made about favourite shots and weakest areas, the most common type of dismissal, where you sit in the batting order, the type of pitches you are playing on and the level of cricket. Height and weight are measured.
"I am getting a picture of you in my mind. I need to know a lot of information. And I will have that in my mind as I make the bat. I can pretty much visualise you playing the game and I will apply that to the bat," Laver said.
After the cleft is cut into a familiar shape with the drawknife, he uses a curved blade block plane to carve out a steep backbone and refine the bat's profile. A belt sander with a soft cushion smooths the surfaces and he buffs out small imperfections by hand. He finishes the bat with a traditional polishing technique using a shin bone from horse, soaked in linseed oil for a year, which seals the timber.
Laver sourced his shin bone from a neighbour whose beloved family pony died. On the heap to be burnt, Laver was sent down with a hacksaw to cut through the bloated, rotting carcass.
"Eventually I got the shin off, and it was the worst thing I had ever done," he said.
Laver has made bats for the greatest cricketers of all time.
West Indies legend Brian Lara and former Australia captain Steve Waugh used bats made by Laver.
In the twilight of their careers the great English all rounder Ian Botham and the indomitable Viv Richards chose his bats.
And he was asked to work on perhaps the world's most famous bat, for Sachin Tendulkar, during India's tours to New Zealand.
One enduring fan is former Sri Lankan captain Sanath Jayasuriya who scored 200 with his first Laver bat (and then proceeded to break it), and never looked back.
"I caught up with him a little while ago and he always kept that first one, it is on his mantelpiece at home, it's his defining bat. He just loved it, that was exactly what he liked. Since then I made loads for him, he was ordering many, many bats every year," Laver said.
But Laver's work is often hidden beneath the stickers of the well known, high-paying, sponsors. The names of top New Zealand players are scrawled on tags hanging from bats around the workshop but he can't discuss which professional players he is currently working with.
The lack of celebrity publicity doesn't worry Laver. His business is built around word of mouth recommendations from cricket fanatics willing to spend up to $2400 for a bat package.
"You have to prove yourself. You are really asking people to trust your product and what you are doing rather than buying it because Ricky Ponting or Michael Clarke is using it," Laver said.
Around 90 to 95 per cent of Laver & Wood's business is exports. High costs and the intensive labour mean the bats are expensive and the average sale price is about $580, and quickly goes up. But many customers look at the product as more than sporting equipment.
Wealthy Indians living in the US are big buyers and look at a James Laver bat as a status symbol. They will often purchase the "Signature Package", featuring the top end Laver bat destined for the mantelpiece and a replica bat for game use.
"It's their bling. They could buy 10 bats for the money of our one," he said.
The reputation of his bats has spread quickly through Australia, where everyone from premier club players to 1st XI schoolboys are willing to pay for the best.
"They will spend their last dollars on a cricket bat," Laver said of the Australian market.
The New Zealand market is more of a struggle, where the back pocket and rugby dominate.
"It's a very different purchasing mentality. I learned that very quickly. It wasn't a market worth going after really hard," he said.
For the past three years the company has grown at around 20 per cent a year and turns over around $600,000. Despite the high price of willow, the steady growth has allowed Laver & Wood to keep expanding and orders keep coming in from around the world. Everything going to plan, the company believes it will comfortably be the world's dominant bespoke bat maker by 2015.
"I'm really stoked where we are sitting with our reputation and what we are doing. It has taken a lot of hard work in the last 14, 15 years," he said.
The mild English climate allows willow to grow at a steady rate that creates light, strong and resilient timber that can be easily compressed during the bat-making process creating a high rebound factor. Willow grown in the warm summers of New Zealand, Australia and India is more dense and brittle and will often split and crack under the pressing process. A mature cricket bat willow tree is usually 15 to 20 years old. After felling, the lower 3.5m of the trunk is sawn into three or four rounds each of about 700mm long. These are then split lengthways into clefts – the beginnings of a bat. Willow is also used to make artificial limbs, wooden toys, and baskets.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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