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White Birch Bark
The best time to harvest white birch bark in the north woods is June and July when it is dry enough to get out the logging roads but the sap content of the trees is still very high. When the moisture content is down in the winter, bark clings to a log. However, when the moisture content is high, bark can be removed easily.
Dead and live trees can yield high quality bark: "premium white" birch, which is very white, sells for about $5 a square foot. I was told there were "sub-species" of birch that yielded different patterns in the bark. I have never heard of that before but possibly it has to do with the fact that Gray and White Birch can cross-pollinate and "hybridize".
To harvest, the bark is scored with a razor knife or curved rug cutter and then some other utensil like a bark spud is used to pry and get behind the bark to "pop" it off. With dead trees, because the bark holds the moisture in so well, often times the centers are so rotten and crumbly you can knock them out. Because it is the "outer bark" that is harvested, technically the White Birch tree can heal over small, stripped areas although it really mars its appearance with ugly black scars. When the Indians harvested the bark for canoes they included the thicker, more rugged waterproof inner bark thus exposing the cambium layer and girdling the tree. Another bark harvester I spoke with said he had a deal where he could go into a logging job and peel the trees before they were cut down, thus getting prime, clean, and undamaged bark without worrying about scarring or killing the trees.
The trick, though, is to keep the bark flat. The same harvester told me he had to run to his truck to put weight on the sections of bark in the hot and dry weather this summer because they were literally curling in his hands. Although there are different methods, the bark sections are placed between thin sheets of commercial cardboard and then clamped between 3/4" plywood for a week or so. If the bark section has curled and dried too much, it can be placed in a plastic "kiddy" pool to soak and soften it before pressing.
Often times the bark is aged 3 - 4 months and the reverse side of the bark is used. In the case of bark from dead trees it is already aged. By cleaning the backside, a rich brown color is exposed rather than the pinkish underside of fresh bark. Although the browns can vary, what rustic furniture makers are usually after is a rich deep "leather brown" appearance. The craftsman I spoke with at the show alternated small white and rich brown panels in his clocks. They were beautiful.
© 2001 by David Mather. All rights reserved. No parts of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the written permission of the author.