Friday, August 8, 2014

Harvesting Birch Bark

A sheet of bark is flexible
In the spring, I received a commission to build a reproduction Beothuk birch bark quiver.  Birch bark can only be harvested during a relatively narrow window in the late spring/summer when the sap is running.  I tried to collect the bark that I needed in June, before leaving for the field, but it wasn't ready yet.  Birch trees have an inner and outer bark layer and for most of the year, those two layers are stuck together, so that if you try to peel the bark off, it will strip the tree down to bare wood.  Not only is the resulting bark too thick to work with, but this also hurts the tree.  However, if you peel the bark at the right time, the outer bark is loose, flexible, and unrolls easily leaving the inner bark attached to the wood to protect the tree and continue growing.
You can harvest birch bark with a pocket knife.  Just cut a ring around the tree at the top and bottom of the section that you want to peel and then cut a vertical slice to connect the two rings. 
When you peel the sheet off you get a square or rectangular sheet of bark.  

The bark is fairly tough and surprisingly flexible.  It has tendency to split where you cut through those little white lines on the edge (you can see daylight between my fingers), but if you are slow and cautious, its not too hard to get the sheets to come off in tact.

Some of the bark peels easier than others.  The vertical lines you can see on the inner bark here are from where I ran my pocket knife under the peeling bark to separate sticky parts.  But for the most part the gap between the two bark layers felt cool and damp and I could coax it apart by sliding my hand between the two layers.

The bark I collected is for Beothuk quivers to fit 3 foot long arrows.  The finished quiver won't be that long, but I looked for nice straight, knot free trees that were a little bit bigger around than a quiver and cut out 3 foot sections.
Hopefully at least one of these four pieces will work and I can complete a quiver or two in September when I have a chance to return to the project.  I'll need a little extra bark for details on the quiver.

In the meantime, I've rolled the bark back into tubes, about the same diameter as the finished quiver so that as the bark dries it will take on the correct shape.

Fresh off the tree the bark has a texture similar to a stiff leather, but much more fragile.  Splits like to start on those little white marks and will run around the bark and split the long tubes in two, if you aren't careful.
Photo Credits: Tim Rast

1 comment:

  1. Hi ElfShot, great post on harvesting birch bark. The only thing I do different is that I don't make a ring around the tree at the top and bottom of my vertical cut. I just make the one vertical cut. I'm always worried I'll go too deep and through the cambium layer if I go around the tree. The bark tears easily around the tree, so I haven't found a need to make those ring cuts. I show my method of harvesting birch bark in one of my books on making making birch bark baskets. Excellent article, and much appreciated! Hopefully people harvest the bark responsibly and make nice baskets with it!


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