Birch bark

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A man with a hat made from birch bark in Hankasalmi, Central Finland

Birch bark or birchbark is the bark of several Eurasian and North American birch trees of the genus Betula.

The strong and water-resistant cardboard-like bark can be easily cut, bent, and sewn, which has made it a valuable building, crafting, and writing material, since pre-historic times. Even today, birch bark remains a popular type of wood for various handicrafts and arts.

Birch bark also contains substances of medicinal and chemical interest. Some of those products (such as betulin) also have fungicidal properties that help preserve bark artifacts, as well as food preserved in bark containers.

A Russian birch bark letter (14th century)

Collection and storage

Removing birch bark from live trees is harmful to tree health and should be avoided. Instead, it can be removed fairly easily from the trunk or branches of dead wood, by cutting a slit lengthwise through the bark and pulling or prying it away from the wood. The best time for collection is spring or early summer, as the bark is of better quality and most easily removed.

Removing the outer (light) layer of bark from the trunk of a living tree may not kill it, but probably weakens it and makes it more prone to infections. Removal of the inner (dark) layer, the phloem, kills the tree by preventing the flow of sap to the roots.

To prevent it from rolling up during storage, the bark should be spread open and kept pressed flat.

Birchbark box with lid and bottom of birch wood


Contemporary quillwork design on birch bark, by Ferdy Goode

Birch bark can be cut with a sharp knife, and worked like cardboard. For sharp bending, the fold should be scored (scratched) first with a blunt stylus.

Fresh bark can be worked as is; bark that has dried up (before or after collection) should be softened by steaming, by soaking in warm water, or over a fire.


Finnish fishing net weights made out of birch bark and stones
North American birchbark canoe
Birchbark knife handle

Birch bark was a valuable construction material in any part of the world where birch trees were available. Containers like wrappings, bags, baskets, boxes, or quivers were made by most societies well before pottery was invented[citation needed]. Other uses include:

Birch bark also makes an outstanding tinder, as the inner layers will stay dry even through heavy rainstorms. To render birch bark useless as tinder, it must be soaked for an extended period of time.

See also


  1. ^ Tom Vennum, Charles Weber, Earl Nyholm (Director) (1999). Earl's Canoe: A Traditional Ojibwe Craft. Smithsonian Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies. Archived from the original on 2013-01-04. Retrieved 2012-12-03. 
  2. ^ Hayes, Derek. Historical Atlas of Canada: Canada's History Illustrated with Original Maps. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd, 2002. p. 152.
  3. ^ Boszhardt, Robert F. (2003). Deep Cave Rock Art in the Upper Mississippi Valley. St. Paul: Prairie Smoke Press. pp. 54–55. ISBN 0-9704482-3-6. 
  4. ^ Kozowyk, P. R. B.; Soressi, M.; Pomstra, D.; Langejans, G. H. J. (2017-08-31). "Experimental methods for the Palaeolithic dry distillation of birch bark: implications for the origin and development of Neandertal adhesive technology". Scientific Reports. 7 (1). doi:10.1038/s41598-017-08106-7. ISSN 2045-2322. 

Further reading

Winter bark etching on canoe
  • McPhee, John, The Survival of the Bark Canoe, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1975.
  • Adney, Edwin Tappan and Howard Chapelle, Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2007, 2014.
  • Jennings, John, Bark Canoes: The Art and Obsession of Tappan Adney, Firefly Books Ltd., 2004.
  • Behne, C. Ted, editor, The Travel Journals of Tappan Adney, 1887-1890, Estate of Tappan Adney, 2010.
  • Goode, F.W., Ojibwe Birch Bark Canoes: Anishinaabe Wigwassi-Jiimaan, Beaver Bark Canoes, 2012.

External links

  • Birchbark articles from the NativeTech site.
  • Birch and Birch Bark, an article by John Zasada at a University of Minnesota site.
  • Birch Bark Canoe page on the site of the Algonquins of Pikwàganagàn.
  • César's Bark Canoe—Watch a documentary on how to build a Birch bark canoe
  • Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions Digital Image Collection at Marquette University; keyword: birch bark.
  • Wiigwaasi-Jiimaan: These Canoes Carry Culture—Short documentary featuring the building of an Anishinaabe-Ojibwe birchbark canoe in Wisconsin.
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