A Companie of Cunning Folk
   
 

Making a Traditional
Witches' Besom

The DVD of Making A Traditional Witches' Besom is now available here,
with an extra hour of history and Lore for just $19.95

For several years I scoured the internet and craft books, looking for instructions on how to make a real besom, as used in British Traditional Crafting. I never found more than a hint here, a snippet there... what information does exist online is about making brooms with broomcorn or straw. So I took my life and memories of a besom-making demonstration from a fair fifteen years ago, and gave it my best shot.

Despite it being my first attempt, it came out very well, and I had the foresight to videotape it, and have my wife take photos. So here it is, for the first time online: how to make a real traditional witches' besom or broom...

Step by Step Instructions for Making a Besom

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Start with two handfuls of birch twigs at least three feet long. I got mine from a place that supplies them for wreath-making. Traditionally, you would grip them in the jaws of the vice on your broom horse, but I don't have one... so I'm 'gripping' them with 14-inch cable ties from my local computer store (Fry's)

Here I've put my cable ties on (one at the end, and one either side of where I'm going to bind with the willow. The strip of stuff in my hand is a willow withie, obtained online from a basket-weaving supply store. The withies have been soaking in a bucket of water for at least 48 hours.
My lovely assistant, Karen, holds the end of the withie tight while I wrap it around the birch. Do at least three full wraps, and make sure you catch the end you started with under at least one of the wraps.
When your three wraps (or more) are complete, take your bond poker and shove it under the wraps to create a channel through which you pass the end of the withie. Do this two or three times. The bond poker is - in this case - a piece ofcopper pipe that I removed half of for a few inches, so it has a concave 'blade'. Traditionally it was made from the thigh-bone of a goose.
Here wrap one is completed, and I'm starting in wrap two. Rural tradition has two withie or wire wraps, but this is for Cunning folk, so I'm doing three.
Once again, the bond poker let's me poke the end of the withie under the wrapped part, in order to create a knot. I generally pass the end under the wraps twice, then pass it through the first one that "wraps around the wraps" in order to create a sort of knot. Then I pass it under the wraps once more so I can cut it off where it pokes out from underneath.

Another shot of passing the end through the bond poker, just to make sure you've got the idea.

After cutting the excess from the last wrap, it is time to remove the cable ties and see if my workmanship holds true...

 

... lucky me, it holds. Not bad for a first attempt, eh?
Now the fun part - trimming the top of the brush. Traditionally, a machette-type blade is used, or in some areas, an axe. Having neither, and failing miserably with the pruning shears, I resorted to power tools. I ended up using my chainsaw, but I don't have a picture of that, as I needed all hands to hold everything steady while I used two hands to control the chainsaw - if I'd had a table saw, it would have done a neater job.
Having survived the making of the broomhead, I take a nice piece of ash, which I have already ground to a point with a belt sander. Once again, a departure from tradition, where I should have whittled it with my knife, but the sander was quicker. By the way, when you are using a natural ash branch rather than a dowell (yuck!), the narrower end is the one that you turn the point on.
Carefully place the point in the center of the nicely cut birch, and once you have gently pushed the head on enough to hold its position, bang it down on the stick so the point is driven well into the head. You are aiming to have the ash pass through all three willow bindings.
If you kept everything nice and tight, the added tightness of inserting the stick will ensure the head stays on. If you are not sure, then before you attach the head, drill a hole in the stick so you can insert a wooden dowell or a horseshoe nail into it through the birch to make sure it stays put. Mine didn't need that, it is on to stay.
And there you have it, the finished besom, crossed with the temporary one we're replacing with it (thanks, Steve, for the old one), along with our stang and cauldron. The lovely Karen, by the way, has just completed her treatment for breast cancer, and the very day we did this besom-making, was declared cancer free!