15 May 2013

Fielke Cricket Bats – South Australian owned

Fielke Cricket Bats
has a rich history dating back to over 100 years and remains the only South Australian based cricket bat manufacturing setup, now run solely by Robert “Bob” Fielke (pronounced: Fill-key).

I attended a presentation of Bob Fielke’s setup out in Gawler, regional South Australia. At this presentation Bob gave a look into the history of the cricket bat, a thorough breakdown of the Fielke company’s history in Australia, and lastly showed us how he has fine crafted his bat making skills to keep the family business on the go from his small workshop.

The company is best seen as a small-privately owned cricket bat specialist company. Bob now does everything on his own, using his own skills and expertise. He has a definite sense of pride and passion for the Fielke brand and gets a real buzz when discussing the history of the cricket bat, knowing his family is connected to it in some way.

He has a showroom where not only does he display some of his most recent, modern cricket bats manufactured in his back garden (literally) but he has also collected a variety of bats dating back to the early-to-mid 1900s, when the business was initially operating under Kumnick Bats in Lobethal, South Australia.

Bob’s son, Noel Fielke, played state cricket for South Australia. He is featured in a team photo on the wall, celebrating a centenary of Sheffield Shield Cricket in a match between South Australia and New South Wales (1992). Another photo of Noel shows him batting that same season, the caption text highlighting how he established a new South Australian Cricket Association record by scoring 1,102 runs in a season for Salisbury District Cricket Club. The family even features in the history books on the cricket field.  

Alongside cricket bat manufacturing and refurbishing, Bob has manufactured all sorts of merchandise and household novelties; my best one being a full length bat that can hold wine glasses or a bunch of pints. He has also impressively taken the time to produce replica bats to demonstrate how they evolved throughout the known history of the game.

Each of the historic bats Bob pulls out has a story of its origins and intended purpose as to how the game
The history display at the Fielke showroom.
was at that estimated period in time. It’s intriguing to be reminded every now and then how this great game of ours came to be. Some of these replica bats of his can be found at the Adelaide Oval Museum, although these are probably stashed away as the ground is well into redevelopment.

The history behind Fielke bats dates back to 1894 when the company was founded by Mr. Ewald Kumnick, who was from a family of German descent, as is the Fielke family. He began manufacturing cricket bats in Lobethal, South Australia, with the factory being based in an old church. Much experimentation with a variety of timber was done until English Willow became the standard timber used and Kumnick bats gradually founded a strong reputation as good quality cricket bats.

In the 1900s before the Second World War, the infamous company Spalding approached Kumnick to manufacture cricket bats for them to their then known and well regarded standards, but Spalding wanted their branding to appear on the bat. The agreement was made and with an initial work force of sixteen employees, Kumnick grew and was able to churn out approximately 10,000 to 15,000 bats a year. This was unfortunately brought to an end when the Second World War erupted. Ships were no longer coming to Australian shores with the timber needed for the bats and, as a result, the working relationship with Spalding came to an end and never renewed after the War.

Mr. Kumnick died in 1948 and not long after his passing, Slazenger started to manufacture and dominate the market in Sydney and other competitors began to enter the market.

Fielke cricket bats came to be in the 1960s, specifically 1965 as per the branding.
Bob Fielke’s father, Laurie Fielke, was able to revamp the Kumnick legacy by tapping into knowledge and insight from Kumnick relatives and former employees. Progressively he went from refurbishing cricket bats to manufacturing them from scratch and this brought to life Fielke Cricket Bats.
With modern day bats seeing further innovation and change, Fielke gave a specialised, low-key focus on catering for the South Australian market with high quality bats, a tradition that would continue to be.

Bob's workshop where he manufactures Fielke bats.
Bob and his brother (Ron Fielke) eventually took on the trade to keep Fielke bats going and could at best produce 150 new bats a year, with a fair share of focus initially on producing Kashmir Willow bats for younger cricketers. Fielke bats became a specialist company operating on a smaller scale, recognising a greater demand growing for cricket bat refurbishing. This has since become a strong focus of Bob’s, which is essentially how the company itself came to be.

Bob’s workshop is situated in his back yard and is approximately 5 by 9 metres. He gave a step by step guide as to how he produces Fielke bats. I will try and give as best a breakdown as possible.

1 - First a block of English Willow is received at his workshop. Wax is found on each end to preserve the willow so it doesn’t dry up (a serious problem in Adelaide Hills Willow).
2 - Then, he saws this chunk of English Willow into a size that will accommodate the approximately correct measurements deemed legal for a bat. This of course will eventually become the body of the bat.
3 - Next is to press the face of the bat, which will help make the outer surface of the wood a bit denser, stronger, while not losing too much “spring”.
4 - Then the back of the bat is shaped to give it that “splice” look, using a draw knife before the wood chunk then undergoes its next step of transformation which is the shaping of the bat shoulders and splice down the middle, where the handle will fit. This is done using a customised jig.
5 - The Bat handle (imported from a New Zealand founded company in Indonesia) is then cut and shaped with the rubber springs already in place as these are found naturally in the wood (see images below).
6 - With the bat having a recognisable appearance now, glue is placed in the splice and the handle is hammered into place with a steel hammer. The bat is then placed in a vice for 24 hours.
7 - Once this is set, the bat gets trimmed of all excess wood and is given a smoothened finish with the additional use of the draw knife and sand paper. The bat is also weighed and the balance is tested by Bob with a simple back lift until the feel is just right!
8 - With the physical bat now in shape, string is tightly wrapped around the handle to ensure both the handle and springs stay in place. Glue is used in conjunction to keep it secure.
9 - Lastly, the bat is left so the glue can dry and then it’s simply a case of placing the Fielke stickers onto the bat and giving it a fine coating of raw linseed oil if needed.

With all of this done by Bob alone, it was admirable to see how he manages the entire process and how patient he must have been over all these years to keep the company going on such a small, personal scale.

Word-of-mouth has always been the company’s main form of advertising and marketing was done by closely networking and engaging with all the local clubs in and around Adelaide.
Interestingly the brand was given accelerated recognition during the public memorial service for Sir Donald Bradman, as when The Don’s hearse drove past a particular point; a sole bat was held up in salutation. This bat was in fact a Fielke bat and the branding was clearly seen and broadcast across all major television stations.

Over the years manufacturing has slowed down as, in fact, Bob has such an immense interest in the history of cricket bats, he is now well into writing and researching a book that will look into this well discussed and debated topic.

He already has one book titled Cricket Bat Making in South Australia (ISBN number 0-646-36240-2), which looks at the Kumnick and Fielke tradition dating over 100 years.  With research well into his latest book and time best focused there, manufacturing has slowed down and there isn’t a set handover to continue the tradition as of yet.

As bigger brands used by both professional and club cricketers can be found in most of the leading sports retail stores around the globe at competitive prices, along with mass commercialisation and manufacturing capabilities strongly in place, smaller companies have been hit out of the ground.  

Fielke Cricket Bats will however always have a special place in South Australian cricketing history. Quality is the focus from Bob and he makes mighty sure that this is delivered. Whether it is someone purchasing a new Fielke bat or someone needing a new bat handle, the personal touch always seems to be there as it was when his father brought the company into existence using knowledge and expertise dating back to 1894. 

Chunks of bat handles, with the "springs" visible in the core.

Chunks of English Willow modified from raw form.

A bat in place to get string fastened around the new handle.
A vice for guiding the shoulder and splice cuts can be seen.

A bat on the table ready for branding.

A look at Bob's workshop, with Bob in picture.

Some completed Fielke bats on display, ready for sale!

Just some of Bob's Fielke merchandise.

The image of Bob's son, Noel Fielke.

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James said...

Love it! Not many actual bat makers in Australia. Bradbury, Callen, Fisher, Screaming Cat are a few others. Some other Aussie cricket bat labels on here

Ian said...

Hi James,

Thanks for the comment, glad you enjoyed the article.

Not aware of all those brands you mentioned there so will take a look into it.

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