How to build your own Mahl Stick

Mahl Stick

The Mahl Stick is an essential tool for the professional painter. In this article you will learn how to build your own Mahl Stick.

What is a Mahl Stick?

Painting on an easel, the vertical position of the canvas makes it difficult to paint small details. This is because the hand is not used to being suspended in the air. In fact, when you learned to write, you grew accustomed to resting your palm on the table. Painting with the canvas on an easel, in the vertical position, you have no table on which to rest the palm and this means that the hand tends to shake and make it difficult to work on details. The old masters solved the problem by using a stick whose end was covered with a cloth so that it could be placed on the painting without damaging it.

In the Art of Painting by Vermeer you can see the painter with a Mahl Stick while portraying a female figure.

Mahl Stick - Vermeer

If you do not have a Mahl Stick, what can you use?

As Mahl Stick you can use everything. I’ve seen and also I have used everything. The classic beginner’s Mahl Stick is the “broom stick”. If you lift it with the hand it appears light, but hold it in an hand for a long time the arm will get tired. Furthermore, it is certainly not possible to place it on the painting unless wrap it in some way with rags to prevent damage to the painting. Surely it is better the curtains rod because it is lighter and with only 10-15 Euro you can have a functional Mahl Stick. The cost is, however, comparable to a real Mahl Stick like this one. The problem is that the stick must be protected in some way to the end otherwise you can not rest on the painting without the risk of damaging it. So the ideal would be to buy a ready made Mahl Stick. Unfortunately it is not easy. I live in Rome and I can assure you that in this city is not easy to find a store that sells them. Those few that are on the market are really not robust. Once, I was in a store and I saw an extensible Mahl Stick. I stretched it a little and placed my hand on it. The result was that it was almost breaking.

What to do then?

Generally, as long as I can, if I need a product, I always try to buy it and never built it by myself. This is because I consider my time a resource more important than money. I’m not saying that I am a rich man, but if I have to choose between spending 15 Euro and immediately get the object or spend 8/9 Euro and losing a week to built it, I always choose the first option. In this case, however, the only possible alternative was to build it by myself.

What materials do I use?

The first problem was the choice of materials to buy. To build a Mahl Stick you need  a stick of diameter of 1 cm and 1 meter long. You can buy both aluminum and wood stick in shops like Brico, Leroy Merlin or similar. I opted for a light and elegant aluminum stick which costs about 2,50 Euro from Leroy Merlin. Then you need a Styrofoam ball with a diameter of 7 cm (but slightly smaller or larger fair enough). The cost is about 40 cents in any art store. Then you need a piece of suede fabric. I found a piece of suede fabric that is used for patches on the jackets. Unfortunately I do not remember exactly the size. I remember that it was about 22 cm wide and long more or less double. Glue to use is not the one shown in the first figure. You have to use Vinavil which costs just over 1 Euro. Then you need a string of a color similar to the color of the suede fabric. Finally, you need an old rag and some string that are not shown in the figure.

If you decide to buy a stick of wood instead of aluminum I think it’s even better. The final result will be a stick less elegant but you will save money and wood and polystyrene definitely adhere more with the glue. The choice of  Vinavil came when I raised the issue of how to glue aluminum with polystyrene. All multimaterial glues like the one shown in the figure eat away the polystyrene. By doing a search on the Internet I discovered, to my surprise, that aluminum and polystyrene glue perfectly with the Vinavil.

Mahl Stick - Materials

Let’s start to build your own Mahl Stick.

Press firmly with the stick inside the sphere up to the red line. You do not have to break through the ball the other way.

Mahl Stick - Styrofoam ball and stick union

Mahl Stick - Styrofoam ball and stick union

We remove the stick and pour the Vinavil glue in the hole of polystyrene.

Mahl Stick - Glue stick and sphere

Let styrofoam ball and stick aluminum from sticking together. It needs about 1 day for the bonding.

Mahl Stick - Glued stick and sphere

Strengthen the union between the Styrofoam ball and aluminum stick with the scotch wrapping.

Mahl Stick - Strengthen the union between stick and sphere

Wrap a rag around the ball trying to get a few folds that do little thick. Binds the cloth with string.

Mahl Stick - Wrap rag

Cut off the excess fabric.

Mahl Stick - Cut rag excess

At this point, one must coat the ends of the stick with the suede fabric. Get the piece of fabric and creates two holes to the left (at a distance of 1.5 cm) and two to the right as shown in the figure. The distance of the two pairs of holes is about 20/22 cm. The location of these holes is crucial, if you fail the result will be disastrous. Make first some experiments with a piece of old rag to locate the precise positioning of the holes.

Mahl Stick - Suede Fabric

Pass the string between the holes as shown in the following two figures.

Mahl Stick - Suede Fabric and string

Mahl Stick - Suede Fabric and string

At this point the piece of fabric wrap around the sphere. This is the most delicate and difficult step. You need to create a few good-looking folds, which do little volume. Make the operation with calm and take all the necessary time. When all the folds will appear to be correct tied the string twice.

Mahl Stick - Ball coated

Remove the excess fabric. Do not gather out too much. The rag underneath should not be visible. If the visual appearance of the cut does not feel pleasant the next step will eliminate this perception.

Mahl Stick - Ball coated and cut

Untied the string and reopen the piece of fabric. The piece of fabric will be cut to the sides in a zig-zag way. Refine cutting removing the minimum necessary to make more precise cut as shown in the figure. Do not worry if the two sides do not appear perfectly symmetrical, when you will wrap the fabric again all appear very beautiful and harmonious.

Mahl Stick - Trimming cloth

This is the finished Mahl Stick.

You have completed your Mahl Stick that will pop up as shown in the following pictures.

Mahl Stick

The following two photos show the detail of the sphere covered with suede fabric.

Mahl Stick - - Detail

Mahl Stick - - Detail

What's Next?

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  2. Great plans; easy to follow. I had a long wooden stick that had been coated with liquid rubber on one end (the kind you use to coat tool handles with), but it was tricky to get it in a position where it would stay still when I used it. Used your plans to put a ball on the other end. So now I have a mahl stick with a rubber-coated grip. Thanks for posting !

  3. I am wanting an extending mahl stick that has a clamp on the end instead of a styrofoam ball. The clamp will hold onto the easel or the canvas where I can allow to dangle or hold at an angle without to much concern it will fall off.

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