Sunday, May 2, 2010

Birch Bark Basket

Last autumn Zoe took up knitting so I decided to make a basket to hold her knitting. In keeping with a hand made theme I decided to make a birch bark basket. Collecting the materials for any project is half the fun but it takes on a whole new experience when the materials are found in nature and forces you to get outside.

On a recent outing to the Fort a la corne forest I spent some time digging in the sandy soil for roots that would be used to lash the basket together. The natives traditionaly prefered Black Spruce roots but White Spruce and Jack Pine were also used in emergencies.

A bracket with a slot in it clamped down worked well for peeling the roots that were no more than the width of a pencil and after splitting the roots were rolled for storage until they were ready for use.

Peeling the roots

Before and after peeling (black spruce and jack pine)

At the time that I collected the bark it was 1/8 of and inch thick and much too stiff to work with so I thinned it by peeling layers off until it was half of its original thickness. The next step was to make a template from a piece of paper, I then traced the pattern onto the inside of the bark.

Birch bark and pattern

After cutting the bark I soaked it in boiling water to soften it and to prevent it from cracking while bending the sides up. It's amazing how quickly and how flexible the bark becomes. (I wasn't able to get any photos of the soaking and bending process because I had to work quickly) I used clothes pins to hold everything in place.

Clothes pins holding everything together while drying

When it had dried I used a three sided awl to work holes in the bark, along the corners so that I could lash the end flaps together. From what I've read a three sided awl is supposed to work better for making holes in birch bark, it doesn't split the bark like a round awl would. I quickly made an awl out of a punch that was part of a screw driver set.

Three sided awl made from a punch

The spruce roots that I had collected earlier had dried out and were very stiff and brittle. To make them pliable again I boiled them for 5 to 10 minutes. Again it's amazing how boiling water can soften wood. (Zoe was not happy with the sticky residue that was left in the pot after I had boiled the bundle of roots) I used a double thong lashing to lace up the corners.

Boiling roots in Zoe's good chili pot
End flap secured with a double thong lashing

For the rim and handle I collected red willows which had sections that were around 1/2 inch in diameter, I peeled them and cold bent them initially to attain the rough shape then held them in place with clothes pins while I lashed them on with roots.

The finished basket

Things that I learned:
  • when selecting bark look for a tree that is completely free of imperfections, ie. small branches, bruises, blisters, splits in the bark, any little imperfection on the outside shows on the inside.
  • an ideal birch tree can be very tough to find in the woods
  • black spruce roots are very easy to split, they grow in the shape that is similar to a figure 8 and splits easily along the groove that is made between the upper and lower portions of the 8.
  • if I were to make another basket I would thin the bark even thinner, maybe to 1/32 inch.
  • birch bark and roots become very pliable when warm and moist
  • Spruce roots make a very strong lashing material and are relatively easy to dig up


Pawistik said...

Hi Mark,
The basket looks great.

Where did you get your crooked knife?


Wildpaddler said...

Thanks Bryan,

It was a great learning experience.

The crooked knife works good but the hook is a real pain to sharpen. If I were to make one it would have a more gradual curve throughout the entire length of the blade.


dragonlady said...

Your basket looks so nice! Thanks for the tips too.

Unknown said...

Hi Mark,
Great looking basket. Would you be able to provide the exact measurements for the template?
Thanks, Leonard

G R said...

Hi Mark,

I have been working on a basket for most of the day. I can't seem to get a good pattern. Can you tell me the measurements of the pattern you used?

Thanks, G