The crack of a hardwood bat echoes through the Homewood Bat Company’s Pro Shop in Homewood, Illinois, twenty-five miles south of Chicago. Todd Pals, Homewood’s founder, is watching a customer try out one of the company’s custom hardwood bats in the pro shop’s indoor batting cage. Behind him, over a hundred game-ready bats hang on the wall, waiting to be sampled.
Taking a few swings in the showroom is important for the players that choose Homewood. “The ability to try out the bat is what sets us apart. A lot of our customers may have never swung a wood bat before,” Todd says. The models might look similar, but there’s a lot of subtle variation. “More goes into selecting the right bat than you’d think.”
Homewood Bat customers can pick from a large variety of models, lengths, weights, colors and engraving. This process leads to a bat that is distinctly theirs. Some models have steeply tapered handles and other are straight to the end knob. There are many different barrel sizes to choose from as well. "We have over 400 bat profiles programmed into our CNC lathe”
The Right Timber
A professional bat starts with top-grade lumber. Homewood’s shop is lined with 37-inch dowels of ash, birch, and maple, sorted into bins by weight. “The manufacturing process starts with getting the best wood possible,” Todd says. “We buy the highest grade available, then we grade it again.”
Any dowels with knots or an uneven grain are set aside for use as ornamental trophy bats; Homewood’s game bats are made from the most flawless cuts of timber. “Selecting the wood is actually the most time consuming part of the manufacturing process,” Todd says. The bat must be capable of withstanding a full season of violent collisions with 95 mile-per-hour fastballs. That’s why Homewood sources its wood from New England and southern Canada, where short growing seasons and copious rainfall combine to produce straight, tight-grained timber.
In the shop, Todd takes care to keep the dowels conditioned. “The bat has to have a significant amount of moisture in the wood, which lets it flex with the shock,” he says. “So we control the climate and introduce mist and water to keep the moisture content in these dowels stable.”
Todd picks up a maple dowel and examines the grain. “This is a lighter piece,” he says, pointing to the number on its end. “It’s 87.8 ounces. About two-thirds of that wood will be cut off by the machine, so this will become a lightweight bat.” In recent years, players have been moving towards lighter, more agile bats. “With pitching being so fast right now,” Todd explains, “players need a bat they can easily control.”
Turning the Bat
Once the right dowel has been selected, Homewood’s computer-controlled lathe makes quick work of shaping the bat. “This lathe cuts the bat in a single pass and sands it on the return,” Todd says. The machine spins the dowel rapidly as its cutting arm glides down the length of the wood, effortlessly cutting the round blank into a precisely tapered bat.
“Once it’s cut, we examine the wood again,” Todd says. “We check again to make sure no new knots or splits appeared in the grain. If it all looks good, we’ll cut off the ends with a band saw and take it to our finishing room.”
In the finishing, bats receive a protective coating. “This system is quite easy,” Todd says, pointing to a row of PVC pipes filled with lacquer. “We dip the bat completely in the tube and pull it back out.” The MLB only allows four colors on its bats, but players can choose any two-tone combination. “In this case, we’re going to put on a medium natural finish,” Todd says. “That’s our most popular finish.”
He slides the bat onto a long conveyor, where over a hundred bats are curing. “It’s going to dry overnight, then we’ll sand it down, apply our sticker, and put on another coat of lacquer.” Once the finish has completely dried, an engraving machine will carve the player’s full name into the wood, making the bat a true custom piece.
After a final coat of lacquer, the bat will go back onto a lathe to be cupped. “This is the final step of the manufacturing process,” Todd says, watching the machine’s blade cut a shallow bowl-shaped indentation into the top of a finished bat’s barrel. The lathe scoops out a three-quarter-inch cut, removing almost an ounce of wood. “Cupping allows us to use a heavier, stronger piece of wood and take some weight out of the end to make it more swingable.”
For the Love of the Game
Homewood makes bats for players at every level. “A lot of players enter the wood market at age 15,” Todd says. While most high schools still use aluminum bats, wooden bat youth tournaments are gaining popularity. “Scouts like to see how a player can handle a wood bat. It’s a truer test of hitting ability.”
The majority of Homewood’s bats are destined for professional use. “The professional market is really wide,” Todd says. “You might think of the Big Leagues, but for every MLB team, there are seven minor league affiliates, plus the independent leagues. Chicago has such a great baseball tradition,” Todd says. “And it’s the players that really drive us to be our best. We’ve built a relationship with these guys, and I love seeing them succeed with our bats.”