Harvesting Birch Bark





Introduction: Harvesting Birch Bark

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Birch bark is a lovely material that can be woven, folded, and lashed into a great variety of projects. If done mindfully, birch bark can be sustainably harvested without permanently damaging trees.

The images in this Instructable were taken by Alex Kamerling at Week in the Woods: http://weekinthewoods.org/

Step 1: Tools

Bark may be harvested without any tools, but it is nice to have a short sharp knife, ladder, string, ruler, straight edge, soft wax, and scissors.

Step 2: Time of Year

Birch bark should be harvested in the spring when the sap is running in the trees. In Alaska and Minnesota (and presumably many other places) the best time to harvest birch bark is when the wild roses bloom. When done at the right time of year the bark will literally pop off the tree. However, if done too late in the season the cambium (inner bark) will come off with the outer bark. If the cambium is damaged the tree may die. If done right, a tree will re-grow its bark over the course of 10-20 years. I have heard that the best bark comes from trees that have already been previously harvested, and traditionally people would return to harvest in the same grove over the course of several generations.

Step 3: Selecting a Tree

Bark can be harvested from any birch tree (at the right time of year). However, there is a danger that the tree will be injured in the harvesting process and many people do not like the look of a tree that has been harvested. For several years after a tree has been harvested the tree's bark will be black.

The majority of the bark used at Week in the Woods is harvested from logger's trees. Philosophically, the staff likes working with trees that have been, or are about to be, cut down. Loggers generally do not use the bark from their trees, and it is easier to remove large continuous sections of bark once the tree has been felled. Generally, the State of Alaska regards harvesting birch bark as a subsistence activity and allows people to harvest bark from State Land (please check with your local government before harvesting on public land).

Each tree is unique. There is a great variety of color in birch bark. The larger diameter the tree is - the wider the piece of bark will be. The longer it has been since the tree has been harvested the thicker the bark will be (the tree adds a thin layer of bark each year). The more gnarled the tree is - the more heterogenous the bark will be.

Step 4: Cutting

Make a cut down the tree trunk. To get the whole piece of bark the knife must cut down to the cambium. It is important that the cut be as vertical as possible. If the cambium is cut all the way around the tree (horizontally) the tree will die (this is called girdling a tree). Charlie Mayo, one of the teachers at Week in the Woods, contends that if you start high in the tree and make one short vertical cut, the tree can be unwrapped in one great downward spiral.

Step 5: Popping

If it is the perfect tree at the perfect time of year the bark will pop off as soon as the vertical cut is made. Usually, to remove the bark the harvester needs to push their hands between the outer bark and the cambium. By gently working their hands around the tree the bark will pop off.

Step 6: Project Decisions

Birch bark can be used as is directly off the tree. Large fresh pieces are ideal for origami and paper engineering style projects. However, for many projects bark will need to be stored, cut into strips, and/or thinned.

Step 7: Storing Bark

If bark is not going to be used immediately it should be rolled into a bundle. The bark should be rolled longways (down the trunk of the tree) to counteract the way it would naturally curl (around the tree). If it is not wrapped in this direction it may be impossible to use later. As the bark dries it will become less flexible and more brittle. Bark can be somewhat reinvigorated by exposing it to moisture and heat. John Manthei, camp director, recommends letting it relax in a hot sauna (steam bath).

Step 8: Making Strips

A straight edge, ruler, and utility knife or scissors can be used to cut bark into strips. There also are commercial bark stripping machines that use a guide and pizza-cutter-like wheel to produce uniform strips.

Step 9: Thinning

Each piece of bark is composed of many thin layers (one produced by the tree each year). Often bark is too thick and inflexible as it comes off the tree. Like starting a roll of tape, a fingernail can be pushed between the layers of bark at one of the corners. Working slowly and carefully, one may divide the entire piece of bark into two layers. I have also seen Charlie Mayo use a small wood plane to thin gnarly sections.

Step 10: Start a Project

Here are a few birch bark projects from Week in the Woods: http://weekinthewoods.org/

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    I have dwarf paper birch and I harvest the very thin layer that the tree sheds all on its own. I get smaller pieces and larger pieces but all are quite thin by 'bark' standards; they are quite like soft paper -- well, most of them. I use decoupage techniques and materials to affix the pieces to paper (kraft paper best so far) or corrugated cardboard boxes) and even on one very successful occasion to the front of a plastic notebook cover. (I came across it on my husband's desk just the other day and couldn't believe how 'woodlike' it looked -- nevermind that I'd made it!) As far as I know this shedding is perfectly normal and peeling the shedding away from the tree should be harmless. I have noticed that, after a season or two, a sort of scab or shallow scar has formed where the there were twigs on a given branch and it comes off with the shed bark, leaving a perfectly smooth and sound surface behind. Magical, that! I'm going to go look at the projects and see what ideas I can glean . . . . Thanks, Boreal House, for the post!

    The reason I came across this post, my granddaughter (8 years old) came to visit this weekend . She and I are always doing some project when she visits. She was all excited about harvesting birch bark, telling how she had learned of making things with it and it didn't harm the trees. When I tried to explain that it did harm the trees. She argued that "teacher said it and that made it so." She wouldn't take my word for it, so I had to look it up and prove it to her. A quick look at wikipedia and a few other sites, she was covinced. While looking I saw this post. Just because instructibles says it, does not make it so.
    The simple truth is, harvesting bark from healthy, live trees, harms the tree. Bark is the trees protective layer against insects and disease. If you investigate the subject at all, you will easily discover this to be the case.
    However if you have a forest of any size, there are always damaged, dieing or dead trees. So there should be no reason to damage a healthy tree.
    I have stockpiles of different types of lumber for my woodshop that I have taken from my forest. I have never taken a healthy tree. I also heat my woodshop and studio with wood taken the same way. Not only do I benefit with being warm while I'm building furniture. I keep the forest clear of fallen trees and widow makers.

    We're experiencing a terrible infestation of emerald ash borer here in Madison, Wisconsin, so the City Forestry has to go around and cut down many, many street trees. I've just discovered the ability to peel off the cambium with a knife and some string! Yah-hoo! Ash trees, since they're not a sustainable material for bark-harvest, aren't typically used in bark crafts, but I figured I'd see what I can make. Why not? Poor trees are dead, might as well not waste the materials.

    Of course, I will bake the finished product in a dry heat to be SURE there are no ash-borer eggs or larva still hanging around!

    Now I'm trying to figure out how to get the cambium separated from the bark--it's a very fibrous and flexible layer, so I'm thinking it would make a good craft material. Anyone have any ideas about that?

    trees need their bark, stripping them from their skin is quite cruel, trees will be more vulnerable and most likely would die, nature is already too stressed by human destruction...

    1 reply

    I must respectfully disagree. If people used more sustainable items, such as things made with birch bark instead of petroleum base materials, the stress on nature would be minimized. This technique has been used for milleniums by aboriginal people. If done properly, no harm is done to the tree.

    Great tutorial here, Boreal. House. Great information here in the comments about harvesting bark and making birch bark baskets. I have a detailed book on making two different kinds of birch bark baskets on Amazon.


    You have a little different way of making yours, but both of us make beautiful baskets!

    Still think its a great idea to find downed trees whenever possible. I have had good luck at beaver ponds. The beavers dont seem to mind sharing. Or even in folks woodpiles. They seem to get a kick out of someone wanting the bark for projects. Just Saying................. :-) Happy Projects.

    I have never heard that it is ok to take from living trees. I live in Alaska and make birch bark baskets. I think it might be a good idea to advertise a "best practice" of taking from trees harvested for other reasons, beaver downed trees etc... Thats my theory, Would be interested to know where you get your information? Mine is second hand and I am not sure if it is valid or not really. Enjoy your projects.

    1 reply

    In Alaska birchbark is considered a subsistence material and you are allowed to harvest from live trees as long as you follow the guidelines at the Alaska division of natural resources. You will need a permit for commercial use.

    incase you don't know, birch bark makes great tinder, so if you're lost in the woods, you can do this without having to cut it down

    Howdy fellow nature lovers! My name iss Jennifer, and I'm down here in Oregon, right at the mouth of the Columbia Gorge.. This last fall,I got to thinking "what to do for unique yet on the super cheap stuff can I make with what I have been gifted form our mother?" The things I decided on was a birch bark book that I made for a girlfriend of mine. peeld bark from some log rounds that had been felled a spring prior w/ box knife, putty knife, and 5 in 1 paint scraper tool. Then cut the base cover of book from HEAVY cardboard, the back of an old sketch pad should be about right, then scored one side of base to make shape of covers and spine, then pirced holes along new seams to be then took artificial sinew and reenforced the scoreing with stitches that made a double diamond pattern(One row on the inside of book to be one row on the outside of book to be) Once I felt the "scores" were reenforced enough, took to stitching cover together w/ peices of bark... used $ Tree Fix all Adhesive made by the super glue company to adhese stitched together bark on card board, but be aware, I had to glue then firmly clamp/weigh down in sections to make sure there was good adheseion. if you have questions, if I forgot a step, feel free to email me at foxyj2942@gmail.com Also, Betula bark makes super awesome coverings for any type of unfinished wooden boxes..if finished already, sand first then apply! Happy hunt and have a beautiful day!! Jennifer

    Me thinks I should have read through your entire instructable first :-) Nice information.

    Nice job! I'm into a lot of outdoor, survival, and stuff like that. Ive seen a lot on making birch containers, so i thought id look into it, and of course there's an intractable for that too!

    1 reply

    Also, I think it'd be cool too try putting some sap glue in the flap of that container on the last pics, and it could be used for water or other 'loose' items.

    Kudos for showing people the ecologically conscious way to harvest bark. I've harvested forest material for years, and it's disheartening to see the number of dead or dying trees in public parks because people don't employ common sense, and it's likely the reason for a sharp decline in white birch populations. I recall, as a child, you could strip a 4x8' piece of bark from a tree for canoe building. Now days, you're lucky if you can find a tree bigger than 10" in diameter. Keep doing what you're doing...It's working great.

    Many people have asked about damaging the tree and the author is correct and wrong. Yes, as long as you do not cut deep into the cambium layer (layer just below the bark), the tree will live long after you take the bark. However, the bark that grows back around the cambium layer to protect the tree is black. The black bark is nothing like the pretty white birch bark you took off and will look VERY ugly.

    I know this from firsthand knowledge because my mother has been harvesting birch bark for a couple decades. She found out about it the hard way when some family friends let us harvest bark from these very tall and old birch trees in their woods. After about a year, the once beautiful trees turned very ugly. Now, my mother only takes birch bark from recently cut trees (typically from professional loggers) or when the living trees are out of sight and the land owner does not mind what they look like.

    With this being said, I love the birch bark things she makes and cherish the pieces she has made for me. It is very enjoyable to harvest the bark and make something wonderful out of it. The feeling of putting your hands between the bark and the cambium layer is a very tactile experience.

    This is a really great howto. Do you know, if it's possible to use birch bark strips like leather-thongs to braid straps or do they need to be folded instead of being bended?

    I was wondering if there were any adverse effects other than if you cut and damage the cambium. Without bark, is there risk to parasites or the climate ect?

    1 reply

    I do not think that barked trees have a significant impact on the global climate. However, the micro climate immediately around the tree does change at the time of harvest. The bark pops off the tree when it is slick with sap. Removing the bark releases moisture and sugars often attracts insects.

    I am not sure weather a barked tree would be more susceptible to parasites. I know that the outer bark is a protective layer and believe that it plays a role in moisture retention, abrasion resistance, and fire control. Additionally, I know that our trees locally are having issues with parasites in the leaves and are facing moisture stresses. I'll consult with our lead botanist Jan Dawe, and try to get back to you.

    one of the layers is good paper for origami