Boulder Better (and Harder) with This Cheap, DIY Stick-Brush

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Efficiency is rarely a priority for the young. When I was a teenager and had the time to climb six days a week, I felt little urge to maximize my chances of success. Back then I believed in effort: If you wanted it enough, if you tried hard enough, you’d eventually reap your rewards. But, as we age, life has a way of getting between us and climbing. For most of the last 10 years, while I lived in New York City, my number of outdoor-climbing days was severely limited. And so when I did get out, there was suddenly pressure to make good use of my time.

I quickly became a devotee of efficiency—one of those climbers who leverages any and every tool or technique to maximize my chances of success. I warm up carefully. I bring a diverse quiver of shoes. I watch beta videos. I use tick marks. I ask for power-spots. I rappel down boulder problems to rehearse the moves. And I brush holds. I’m really, really into brushing holds.

(photo: Scottie Alexander)

Why brush holds?

First of all, brushing holds makes you climb harder. I find that I’m incredibly sensitive—both inside and out—not just to temperature-related friction (see my cold-weather bouldering guide) but to the amount of chalk on the holds. If there’s not enough chalk, I can’t use small holds because my fingers are too sweaty; if there’s too much chalk, I can’t use them because my fingers slide around like car tires on sandy pavement. As a friend (the guy who figured out the stick-brush design I’m sharing below) put it: “Cleaning holds is a way of maximizing your finger power and compensating for its weakness.”

Secondly, it’s good ethics. Cleaning holds—and removing tickmarks—keeps the rock clean for other climbers and minimizes our visual impact. A little chalk on a boulder isn’t, in my opinion, much of an eyesore; but a boulder that’s caked with a thick layer of chalk and marked by dozens of tickmarks absolutely is. Most climbers agree that we shouldn’t discard plastic water bottles and shredded bits of tape under our boulders; we should brush our holds too. It’s just part of being a good steward.

The advantages of a stick brush

On higher problems, you’ll often find yourself trying to brush holds you can’t reach from the ground. There are easy ways around this: You can recruit a taller friend to brush for you. You can stand on your stacked bouldering pads. You can stand on your friends’ back or shoulders. Or you can tape a brush to a stick.

But each of these ready-made methods comes with obvious drawbacks. Some holds will be out of your tall friend’s reach. Standing on pads means dismantling your landing area between burns. Standing on your friend’s back will hurt (even if just a little) that friend’s back, palms, and knees. And taping a brush to the stick (a) makes it hard to use that brush on holds that aren’t high up, and (b) means that the brush is stuck in a fixed angle, which can be ungainly for cleaning certain holds, especially slopers and underclings.

Enter the DIY adjustable stick brush. It allows you to attach and unattach various shapes and sizes of brush in just seconds. It allows you to articulate the angle of the brush based on the angle of the hold you’re trying to clean. And it only costs about $35, pole included.

Note: there used to be rubber at the ends of the clamps, but this stick has seen a bunch of use and the rubber has worn away. It’s no less functional, however.

How to build it

This process is incredibly simple. My friend—who came up with the design—basically just showed me a picture of his and was like, “Mimic it,” and I did. And it was easy.

Here’s what you’ll need:

There are really only two things to keep in mind when it comes to assembly:

  1. Situate your zip ties such that the front one sits on the threads of the angle adaptor (where the paint roller is designed to screw in), with the other zip tie behind the threads.
    Note the location of the zip ties.
  2. Tighten the zip ties down as hard as you possibly can.

Another tip: Because the angle adaptor screws into the pole, you can unscrew it and store it separately. I recommend doing this. The setup, though robust, does not hold up when you slam your car door on it. I learned this firsthand.