On Sunday I met with other members of the Coppice Association NW (CANW) at Moss and Heights Spring Woods for a day of peeling oak bark.
The woods were worked for many years by legendary coppicer Bill Hogarth up until his death in 1999. The woods were then worked by other coppice workers before management was taken on by the Woodland Trust. Just a few weeks ago a deal was made for the woods to be leased to the Bill Hogarth Memorial Apprenticeship Trust (BHMAT) and managed by CANW. The timing fell ideally for us to go in and peel some oak bark, one of Bill’s favourite jobs.
Bark peeling is carried out in the spring, when the weather is warm (even in Cumbria) and the sap is rising in the trees. This makes it possible to strip the bark easily, using a special tool looking like a blunt carving gouge. The bark is collected, dried and sold to the J&FJ Baker in Colyton, Devon, the last tannery in Britain using oak for curing leather. Rebecca Oaks gave us an introduction and demonstration, along with the motivation that 1 tonne of dried bark is currently worth about £600 which sounds a fantastic, but that’s a lot of bark!
A dozen or so people soon organised themselves with a team felling the oak and bringing it over to where the peeling was taking place. These meetings are a great place to catch up with friends and meet new people from the local coppice and greenwood working network. There’s always plenty of news and banter which makes the day fly by. It’s a somehow very satisfying and tactile process and many people commented on the suprisingly sensual nature of it. For me it was much like skinning rabbits or deer – you start off with a tool to begin the peeling but then the best tools are your hands, pushing and teasing off the bark. Inside, the wood is wet with sap and glistens with newness.
In amongst the oak which was being coppiced were a good few birch trees which were also felled but put aside. I’ve got a developing interest in birch and all it’s uses so I decided to see if I could peel some birch bark. In more northern countries birch bark is widely used for making containers, canoes, roofing, clothes and many other items. The bark here in the UK is much thinner but should still be a useful material.
I selected a good clean looking trunk and scored the bark with a knife to remove a small length of bark. Initially I could see it splitting inside and thought I was damaging the bark but this was actually the thicker cambium layer which came away from the wood too. It was then possible to peel the bark away from the cambium though a lot of care was needed at this stage not to damage the bark. We’re a curious bunch and my peeling soon attracted a lot of interest when people saw the sheets of bark and felt how soft but strong they felt, like thin leather. A couple more members had a go and we went away with bark promising to share our experiences of working with it.
By the end of the day we had a several bundles of bark for drying and piles of naked looking oak poles. These can be used for rustic garden furniture making, firewood or charcoal; the secret of making coppice work economical is to use every part of the tree, something that Bill Hogarth was a master of.