What is a Painter's Mahl Stick?

This Simple Support Will Help You Paint Better

Artist using a mahl stick
A mahl stick helps prevent you accidentally smudging wet paint. Ken Wramton/Getty Images

Do you find that you need extra support under your arm while painting? The solution is a simple artist tool called a mahl stick. It is both easy to use and inexpensive to buy or make yourself.

What is a Mahl Stick?

A mahl stick is a stick or thin pole that is about 1 meter (3 feet) in length with a ball-shaped pad at one end. It is used as an aid in painting, particularly in oil painting because it takes so long to dry. 

The mahl stick has two primary purposes:

  • To steady your hand while painting. Holding your arm away from a surface while painting can cause your arm to tire. This may cause your hand to shake and the mahl stick helps alleviate the problem.
  • To give you a support to rest your hand on. Many people have a tendency to rest their hand on a piece of paper while drawing. When painting, this is not a good idea because you are working with wet paint and, often, a soft canvas with no support behind it.

You will find that a mahl stick is useful when painting details and a steady hand is absolutely crucial. It is also handy when painting near wet paint that you want to avoid touching accidentally.

How to Use a Mahl Stick

There really is no magic trick to using a mahl stick: it is a support held in front of the canvas to use as a hand rest while painting. However, it does takes some time to get used to and you will want to know a few tips before starting.

  1. Rest the ball-end of the mahl stick on the edge of the canvas, on the easel, or on a spot of the painting that you're sure is dry.
  2. Hold the other end with your non-painting hand and steady your arm that is holding the brush on the stick while you paint.

If you rest the mahl stick on the little finger and forearm of your non-painting arm, you can use the other fingers of that hand to hold your palette and extra brushes. It takes a bit of practice but is possible and very efficient.

Buy vs. DIY: Your Options for a Mahl Stick

A mahl stick is a very simple device and you can choose to buy one from an art store or make it yourself. It is a matter of personal preference and whether or not you already have a suitable stick available. If you consider purchasing one, it should cost less than $30.

To make a mahl stick, you will need a piece of bamboo, a dowel, or a similar round stick:

  • Simply tie a small piece of folded cloth to one end of the stick with a piece of string or an elastic band.
  • Ideally, you want to choose a cloth that won't slip or scratch the canvas; a piece of chamois leather is ideal.
  • A round stick is better than a square one. With a square stick, you will find yourself turning it often so your arm is not resting on a pointy edge.

Other DIY options for a mahl stick include a walking stick (hook the handle over the edge of a canvas) or an old golf club. It doesn't have to be a thing of beauty, just stiff and not too heavy.

If you do not have a stick available, you can even use your arm for support.