In his first week with the Baltimore Police Department 24 years ago, Officer Joseph Hlafka broke five nightsticks while on duty.
"Four times I was protecting myself from people who refused to leave a corner," Officer Hlafka recently recalled.
The fifth nightstick fell from his hand and broke apart.
"So I started to make my own, and I got good at it, real good," Officer Hlafka said. "Mine don't break easily like some of the other ones."
In making the nightsticks, he uses woodworking skills he learned in the Police Boys Clubs, and stronger wood. His colleagues liked his first models and asked him to make theirs.
Since then, Officer Hlafka, known as "Nightstick Joe," has made thousands of nightsticks for fellow officers.
"I realized that I would get hurt if I continued to use their [the police department's] equipment," he said. "I just make a better nightstick. Once I made them, they started going like a house on fire."
The nightsticks that Officer Hlafka, 55, makes in the crowded basement workshop of his south Baltimore rowhouse are requested by police officers in Baltimore and other cities, and in Canada and France.
"They hear about me and get in touch with me and before too long, I can make them a good nightstick," Officer Hlafka said.
More than a dozen nightsticks sway from the ceiling of his workshop, waiting to be claimed by officers. Some officers have requested terms such as "Nighty Night," "Ouch," "The Man," "Bye Bye" and "Kiss Me" to be engraved on their nightsticks.
Several department-issue nightsticks are also in Officer Hlafka's basement. "This is a piece of junk," he says, grabbing one of the nightsticks that is lighter in weight than his. "I could snap it in a heartbeat."
Pine nightsticks, 21 1/2 -inches long, are issued to every trainee in the Baltimore Police Depatment Education and Training Division for use for self-defense and crowd control. City officers use only wooden nightsticks, which inflict less physical damage than the plastic nightsticks used by some other police departments.
Officer Hlafka uses strong bubinga wood from Brazil and South Africa, meticulously rounding each nightstick on a lathe. Then he sands the weapon -- 24 inches long and 2 inches in diameter -- until it is smooth.
It takes him about two hours to make a nightstick, a knocker in police parlance, and he charges $30 for it. He earns about $5 profit on each nightstick.
Sgt. Thomas Maly, who works in the education and training division, said it's somewhat of a tradition for new officers to buy nightsticks from Nightstick Joe.
"A lot of them seem to like his nightsticks," Sergeant Maly said. "They conform to the same standards but have a different finish. They're more perfect."
Officer Hlafka said he never imagined the popularity of his nightsticks.
"But I've done pretty well over the years and I guess the nightsticks have, too," he said. "I make it to last because it should last, and I make them any way that they want to have them made. I think that I've known every officer on the [city] force for the last 20 years."
A foot patrolman assigned to the tactical section at the Inner Harbor, he works an eight-hour night shift, then puts in four to six hours making the "Hlafka model" nightsticks.
When he's in his workshop, he and his wife communicate via an intercom system.
"The only thing that changes on each nightstick is the head. The rest of it is the same. People have different grips," he said. "When an officer grabs a piece of wood, it's got to feel comfortable."
Officer Hlafka said he's used two nightsticks since he began making them. "The first one I made, I had for almost 10 years until it got stolen. The one I have now I've had for 15 years," he said.
Capt. Michael Bass, of the Northern District, said Officer Hlafka is somewhat legendary because of his nightsticks.
"You mention his name and everybody says, 'Oh yeah, I know him,' " Captain Bass said.
He said when he was assigned to the police academy, Officer Hlafka would meet with most trainees, show them his nightsticks and take their orders.
"And then a couple of weeks later, he'll pull up and pass them out," Captain Bass said.