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Lifestyle feature: The versatility of bark

Big trees are unsuitable for fine work but can be used for roofing

Big trees are unsuitable for fine work but can be used for roofing

This month John Rhyder from the Woodcraft School takes us on a journey through the joys of bark.

Although it is hard to visualise, spring is on its way and a not-so-young man’s thoughts turn to those of bark.

Many of the skills I study are seasonal and working with bark is no exception, but we need to wait until the sap is rising before this wonderful material falls easily from the stem.

As a general rule, this begins as the buds start to burst, which varies from year to year and location to location.

It is very dependent on the local temperature and exposure to sunlight.

Experimenting

Some of us will be familiar with the use of birch bark in other regions of the world to create anything from containers to canoes.

It is indeed an amazing substance and filled with a flammable oil which makes it ideal for fire-lighting but also acts as a preservative and keeps it relatively supple.

I am sure you will have seen old logs of birch completely rotted out, but with the bark still intact.

Unfortunately, in the UK birch bark rarely gets thick enough to be of use for craft work.

With this in mind I spent a good deal of time over the years experimenting with native trees to try to find a suitable alternative.

It seemed a little pointless and frankly unethical to import bark to run workshops and courses!

When working with bark, we have two options – we can use the outer layers as is practised with birch, or the inner bark or phloem.

This latter layer is to be found in between the wood and the outer bark and is responsible for the transportation of sugars around the tree.

In some trees both of these layers can be removed in sheets, making them very useful for craft work.

Along with birch, the outer bark of cherry can be used, but it is fiddly to work with.

It has large lenticels, which are the openings from the trunk to the outside world, all trees have them but the wild cherry has exceptionally big ones.

Folding and weaving this material can lead to the craft pieces tearing at these points, which is very frustrating.

Phloem

With UK trees, the phloem layer is the most useful and can be woven or folded to make a range of products.

There is a tradition of using bark in this way from many places in the world, but perhaps the most diverse, or indeed relevant, to our environment is the work of west coast Native Americans and the Western Red cedar tree.

Not only did they weave and fold the bark of their sacred tree, they also beat the phloem layer into fibres and made clothing from it using ingenious looms.

It was the work of these people that inspired me to research the possibilities offered by our own timbers.

Species found in the UK suitable for weaving include, sweet chestnut, elm, lime, willow and, widely planted as a timber tree, the red cedar.

Removal of the phloem layer will result in the death of the tree and so only trees which are being felled should be used.

With all the sweet chestnut coppice in Sussex it isn’t too hard to find a woodsman who will find you some bark.

The bark closely resembles wood, it has a grain and will follow any undulations and defects in the tree it comes from.

If you choose to take material from a twisty knot filled stave of wood, your bark will also be knotty and twisted.

Straight timber free from branches is therefore the key to good craft work.

The larger the stem generally, the thicker the bark, there is a point where large trees become unusable.

The bark of such trees is just too thick to manipulate.

Outer bark

For folded projects, the outer bark can be left on subject to its initial thickness but to weave bark, this layer should be removed.

I tend to do this with the back of a folding saw, although any metal bar with a right angle will do.

The secret is to scratch away the outer stuff, but not damage the inner bark underneath. This material can then be cut into strips and woven, the thinner the strips the more supple the end result will be.

As the bark dries it does generally go stiff, turning woody.

It is a wonderful material, when fresh it resembles leather and when dry, a fine veneer, and is something our own Mesolithic ancestors would have been very familiar with.

 

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