When Eden Prairie resident Dan Little took a swing at making wooden bats, it was a hit. He’s now made approximately 200 of the bats, which he sells through his website apexbats.com.
Both of Little’s kids, 12- and 14-year-old boys, play baseball, and Dan has found whittling to be a way to keep his hands busy while sitting at their practices. He originally picked up woodworking from building with the scraps from his mom’s woodshop when he was a kid, and now enjoys not only whittling, but carving, woodturning, and more.
A couple of years ago, he wanted to set himself a challenge of making a “fungo bat,” a long, slender bat that coaches or parents use during practice. “It’s something I’d use with my kids, so I just thought, ‘this is something I want to try,’” Little said.
“As soon as I made that bat, the kids were like, ‘well, I want a bat,’ so they each got a bat,” Little said. Then he showed one to a coworker whose son also plays baseball, and got another request, “and then it just started to escalate from there,” Little said.
Ink dot quality check
Little makes all of the bats in a small woodshop in a corner of his garage during evenings and weekends. He’s an engineer by day, and he said, “from the start, I’ve approached (bat making) as an engineering problem, where I want to understand the material that I’m using and everything that’s going into it.”
He starts with large chunks, or “billets” of wood. Generally, it’s maple or ash wood, with the occasional birch or beech. Most critical for Little’s purposes is the density of the wood which, in combination with the bat’s design, impacts the weight of the bat. Bats for adults generally use higher-density wood – sometimes extra dense if it’s meant to be a heavier training bat – while he tends to make kids’ bats from lighter, lower-density pieces.
He also tests the quality of the wood using an ink dot test. This involves putting a drop of wet ink on a piece of bare wood, then observing how far it deviates from a center line as the ink bleeds. He’s adapted this test from a Major League Baseball requirement that the ink bleed no more than 2.86 degrees away from the center line. “It’s really just saying ‘Is your grain straight in this wood?’” Little said. “If it’s not, then it’s gonna have much more likelihood of breaking. It’s a quality check: I don’t want to have a kid break a bat because I used poor quality wood.”
‘Billet to bat on the lathe‘
As far as building the bats goes, most of the work is done on his woodturning lathe. “It goes from billet to bat on the lathe,” Little said. “From a woodturning standpoint, it’s actually a pretty basic technique.”
Customers can choose how the weight is distributed through the barrel of the bat (whether it’s balanced or end-loaded); the bat’s length and weight; how much the knob tapers for their personal comfort; and barrel and handle diameter. “Some like to just feel a little thinner in the hand, and some like it to feel a little thicker,” Little said.
They can also choose to have the bats “cupped,” or somewhat hollowed out, on the end. Cupping a bat, Little said, can help remove some weight or balance a bat out so it swings a bit lighter. “The big companies have machines that are dedicated to bat cupping, but I obviously don’t have the resources for that, so that was kind of a fun challenge to figure out,” he said. “I start by drilling a center hole, and then I use a router with a guide pin to kind of cut out the rest, and then I go back with a larger drill bit to drill it out again, because it leaves kind of a core.”
Personalized colors, engravings
Customers also get to choose the colors of their bat, and what they want written on the barrel.
For the colors, Little uses oil-based stains, applied by hand. “On a bat where it’s two colors, I’ll tape off and stain one side and, when that’s dry, stain the other side,” he said. “The red stain is really tricky: if I touch it with my fingers before I put the stain on, then the stain doesn’t apply the same way because there’s oils on there. So, before I stain or do anything, I give it a final sanding just to make sure everything is a nice, clean surface.”
He applies the Apex Bats logo to his bats with an ink transfer: “I literally use a small piece of freezer paper, because it’s kind of plastic-y on one side, and I tape that to a 8×10 sheet of paper and print it off in a mirror image, just on my regular printer, then quickly flip it over and rub it on. I like the way it looks, and it’s embedded into the wood, so it’s never gonna come off,” Little said.
He can also apply personalized messages by burning them in with a small laser engraver. For instance, Little said he made bats for his cousin’s daughter’s softball team. “I had each of the players sign their name on a recipe card, and then I took those signatures and scanned them in and, using the laser engraver, laser engraved the signatures of the entire team through the barrel of the bat,” he said.
Wood bat nostalgia
Those softball bats, Little said, “are game quality bats,” as most of his are. About half are for kids, with most of his customer base currently being in the Eden Prairie and Lakeville regions.
“With two boys playing, you can see it spread through a team, and then it’ll jump to another team and then it kind of spreads through that team, as teammates and friends place orders,” Little said.
While he’s not pursuing the lengthy and costly process to become an approved bat vendor for Major League Baseball, Little is interested in reaching out to town ball teams, and has made bats for wood bat tournaments.
“Especially in high school baseball, you almost never see wood bats being used, unless it’s specifically a wood bat tournament or something,” Little said. “The performance isn’t quite the same relative to the high-tech composite bats that you can buy now.”
His coworker’s son, however, liked the wood bat Little made him so much that he used it through his school season at Lakeville North and for the rest of the summer season. “It was kind of cool to see one of my bats being used successfully when no one else was using them,” Little said. “I don’t know if it’s a nostalgia thing, or if people are just looking for something different.”
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