Stripping Poplar Bark

We held an open skills day of stripping poplar bark on April 21, 2012!

scoring bark

Primal Knowledge held a one day experimental workshop on stripping bark for use in primitive shelter building.

We used both stone and modern tools. We attempted to store the bark in a fashion to prevent it from curling.

Some of our supporters joined us for the experience. Eventually, the bark is intended to be used as the roofing for a primitive long house construction.

Our Experience with the Experimental Archaeology Project

The tree crashed to the ground and Mark yelled "That's something that you don't see everyday". We had just dropped a second large Poplar tree. The object of the activity was to test prehistoric and modern methods for stripping poplar bark. Eventually the bark was intended to be used in a shelter building project, planned for next year. Most of our experimenting was done with modern tools. I had no experience with bark removal, so I felt I had plenty of experience to gain ether way.

We were a small but dedicated group, and had spent the first part of the day chopping out old tree "hunting" steps from the first Poplar tree to fall. From the top section of this tree, above the tree steps, we removed the first whole section of bark slab. The bark pealed harder then I expected, even though our timing was perfect. It was mid May, and with the leaves just recently pushed out, the trees were dripping wet under the bark.

peeling bark

When we were stripping the log free of its bark, I found that it was most effective to have one person lever out the bark, and then a second or third person insert their pry bar into the space created and continue the process. Once the bark was loose on both sides of the log it was easy to stand on the bark and "rock" the log off the remaining section of bark under the log.

We did discover that if the tree was even slightly bent, any bark taken off that section would have a permanent bulge, rendering it nearly useless. The bulge would not flatten out, and lay flat, no matter what you did. The tree "needs" to be straight to produce nice flat sections of bark.

During discussions about our progress, we decided that without a chainsaw we could not have striped the bark off the trees, the way we were doing it. Once a tree was on the ground, if it could not be cut up into sections, as we did with the chainsaw, it would have been impossible to get the bark out from the section under the tree. The only way possible would have been to lift the tree, since it could not have been "rolled" as we were doing with the sections. To finish removing the bark from the section of tree laying on the ground, the tree had to be cut into sections.

After some discussion, we came up with a theory. The answer was to remove the bark from the tree while it was still standing. I believe that it was probably easiest to do this job, not from a crudely made ladder, but most probably, from one lighter man standing on the shoulders of a stronger man. This combination would be about the right height, for cutting a ring around the tree at an 8 to 10 ft. height. The 8 to 10 ft. length seems the most practical size to handle. A piece of bark this size, when wet, was all that a small crew of men would want to carry at one time. (Wet bark is heavy) If two men were to work cooperatively, the lower man could grab the tree to steady himself, and walk around the tree as the top man cut the upper ring. Once the top ring was cut a straight cut down the tree could be made, and then finished with a ring cut around the base. I suspect that only the best, most straight, and uniform trees were selected for bark harvesting.
Primal-Knowledge's Bark Stripping photoset Primal-Knowledge's Bark Stripping photoset -- Click the photos to see more!

Working with primitive tools and no pickup truck to move the bark, I think that primitive peoples would have gone to the middle of a grove of poplar trees and selected a collecting spot to store the bark slabs until they were dry. After they had dried, and lost most of there weight, they would have made the final move to the selected building site. This would make the final move much easier. We found that the weight of each bark slab was useful in weighing down the slabs under it.

I also think that all effort would have been made by primitive people, to control the curling that naturally wants to occur in drying bark. I can see how cross sticks would be very helpful, to both facilitate drying as well as control the tendency for the bark to curl.

So in summary, my theory is that a lot of planning would have taken place months in advance of harvesting the bark. Groves of trees would have been selected; straight sticks would have been collected and stored at the drying stations. The timing for stripping the trees would have been calculated to be most easily done in the spring. Drying would have been planned to have the slabs ready for a summer build of the housing. All of this would have probably been decided the fall before the rebuilding project would have been undertaken. It seems that this would have needed to be a community project.

For our own needs, we are about 30 sheets short of what we need to finish our planned shelter. So, there is plenty of opportunity to experiment yet. I would like to try, at least once, cutting the bark from a standing tree and see how practical the theory of one man standing on another's shoulders would be as a method of stripping bark. Even if it proves unpractical as a modern method, it may have been used prehistorically. Prehistoric man was probably a lot tougher then I am. Any volunteers?

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