Iron Clubs

The old club makers were expert woodworkers but knew nothing of working metal. In the time of the feather ball few iron clubs were required and for those few the clubmakers got blacksmiths to make the metal heads and fitted the shafts into the sockets themselves.

Generally a blacksmith would make an iron club head by taking a straight piece of iron of the right thickness and cutting it to the length of the desired club face plus the length of the socket. He would then beat one end after heating it till the thickness was halved. This part he then hammered round the tapered end of a piece of iron called a mandrel., making a tapered socket. The two edges of the metal that joined to form the socket were completely fused together so that no join could be seen. This left the socket still in line with the face as one straight piece, so it was re-heated and, with the mandrel as a lever plus some further hammering, angled to the face by the right degree. A final procedure angled the face back, relative to the socket, to give it the right amount of loft. Such a blacksmith was an expert. If the line of fusion in the socket was visible he would consider the head sub standard and would sell it a lot cheaper to a player willing to make good the fault himself and so obtain a cheap club.

When the clubmaker received the metal clubhead he drilled a hole through the upper part of the hosel to take the fixing rivet, then selected a shaft which his experience told him was suitable for the weight of the head and the club's purpose. He tapered the end of the shaft to fit tightly into the hosel, further securing it with glue and the rivet. For still more security the blacksmith would have made a series of indentations round the top of the hosel, giving it a sawtooth appearance, to improve it's grip on the shaft. This indenting was called "knopping" or "knurling" and as the iron clubs were heavy it was large and crude as was the hosel itself.

The faces of early nineteenth-century clubheads were smooth and usually concave because wooden heads had always been shaped like that. They were also often concave in the other axis, rather like a hollow-ground razor blade. Whereas iron clubheads of the early nineteenth-century, despite being crude and heavy, were in general appearance like modern-day clubs, those of the eighteenth-century presented a bizarre appearance, for the clubhead had no"toe" the end of the club being cut off vertically.

Tom Morris.   The founding father of golf and winner of 4 Open Championships
Tom Morris. The founding father of golf and winner of 4 Open Championships

As the greater use of iron clubs quickly followed on the arrival, in 1884, of tough gutta-perch balls, and as the golfers grew rapidly in number, blacksmiths skilled at making iron club heads could make a living at it. Many smiths abandoned the other aspects of their trade and took up making club heads full-time. At this stage the concave face was abandoned and the flat one was adopted.

An iron which had been available for some years and now became more popular was the cleek, and from this the blacksmiths who specialized in making iron club heads became known as "cleekmakers". The club maker was the man made up a club from the iron head, and it was he who sold it, taking the credit and giving little to the cleekmaker. But as cleekmakers became more important they began asserting themselves by putting their own marks on the heads they made, so that most iron heads now had the club maker's name stamped on the back and the cleekmaker's mark in the corner. The marks were rather like the marks on pottery and porcelain, and they make interesting decorations on the iron clubs. Particular cleekmakers could be identified by such marks as pipes, anchors, crescent moons, crosses, diamonds, anvils, hearts, acorns and snakes. Some famous early cleekmakers were: John Gray of Prestwick, Condie of St Andrews, Wilson of St Andrews, Carrick of Musselburgh, Anderson of Anstruther. By the end of the first world war nearly all of these craftsmen had ceased trading. Later cleekmakers, such as Gilbson and Spalding, (both from the United States and set up in London) entered the mass production market and continued well into the 1930's.

Of the great variety of iron clubs eventually to be produced, all stemmed from just three early forms: the rutter, the cleek and the lofter. The rutter or rut-iron, evolved to meet the needs of early golfing, had a small head and was usually heavy. It was for playing out of bunkers and cart ruts, hence the head being so small (roughly the size of a golf ball). It was later to be modified into the niblick, which in turn was the forerunner of the pitching wedge and sand wedge. The cleek was an iron with little loft and was used for long iron shots, similar to today's 1, 2 and 3 irons. The lofter had more loft than the cleek and was deeper faced, this then lead onto the mashie and mashi-niblick. These clubs were similar to today's 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 irons. The matched set of irons did not appear until after the first world war. By the 1920's, the supply of good, properly seasoned hickory began to run out. So a tubular steel golf club shaft was developed in the United States, and in no time took over from the hickory shaft which had virtually disappeared in the early 1930's. Steel shafts were used in iron and wooden clubs, with the irons further improving in 1930 due to the introduction of rust-less chrome steel.

Now due to technical developments, we have such materials as carbon fibre (graphite) and aluminium shafts. Along with glass fibre and aluminium heads. All of these materials are in constant development, but doubtless one day a definitive "new club", the answer to every golfer's prayer, will emerge until it is replaced by yet another "breakthrough".  

 A scene from 1847
A scene from 1847


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