Practical Skills: Making a Bark Basket

Baskets are very useful devices that help to facilitate the moving of items. Making a bark basket is a fairly simple thing.

One of the best barks for basket making is tulip poplar, although many other barks are quite effective as well. The tree should be harvested in the early spring, preferably from the edge of a forest where the tree grew straight, tall, and quickly. This also means that the bark will be thinner and easier to work with. This is not required, and any tulip popular will do. It is just preferable this way.

Once the tree is chopped down and the branches stripped the bark must be used immediately. Select a section of bark relatively free of knots that will be large enough to make a basket for your purposes. Using a knife, cut around the trunk, through the bark on both sides of the selected region. Then cut straight along the trunk from one side of the section to the other, making sure to be away from any knots. 

The next step is stripping the bark from the trunk. For this you must take care not to do several things. First, you have to be careful not to break the bark. Second, you have to be careful not to break your hand. The inner bark of tulip popular has sharp spines on it that are more than capable of cutting through human flesh. Some people recommend using a tool to assist you in this step. Generally a good technique is to remove half the bark from one direction, and then to turn around and start from the other side.

Now that the bark is removed you have to flatten it out. This must be done carefully as it is quite easy to break the bark at this stage. It takes pressure, care, and time to do this properly. As you do it more and more often you will become increasingly adept at this. If you accidentally make a minor break in the bark, which you are sure to do at first, a decent basket can still be made from it. However, if there are too many breaks the bark is wasted.

Once the bark is sufficiently flat (it does not and will not be completely flat) it is time to form our basket. From the middle of the bark, on the outside, draw a football shape from one edge to the other. This will be the bottom of the basket. There will be two lines in the middle of the piece of bark that meet on either edge of the bark but separate in a gentle curve in the middle. The place marked should be on the outer bark. Once you have lines, take your knife and score through the first few layers of bark, but do not go all the way through. If you did this right you should now be able to fold the pieces and form your basket.

Now, to finish your basket, you have to bind the pieces together using string. The easiest way to do this is to use a leather hole punch along the edges of the basket and to lace up your basket like you would your shoes. You can also add a strip of bark around the top of your basket for added strength, or along the seams to act like a handle. If you broke the basket before now you can remedy the situation by punching holes on either side of the break and lacing those up as well. If you want to be more authentic and use a awl, you can. But it is more difficult to make the holes that way.

If you needed to fix a break in the basket, put a plastic bag in the finished product and fill it with packed wet sand. The sand will keep the broken edges (which will tend to want to curve on their own) in line with the basket, improving the end product.

Once your basket dries it will remarkably hard and strong. The drying process takes a few days to finish, after which your basket could serve you for years. Enjoy.

-Benjamin Shender 

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7 Comments

  1. onyxblue said,

    June 22, 2006 at 4:48 pm

    Liriodendron tulipifera L. are my favorite trees.:-) In Illinois they’re generally called tulip trees, with the yellow poplar and tulip poplar common names being more used out east by you. The trees are not very common in Illinois. We’re at the far western edge of their range, I think. This map, http://www.na.fs.fed.us/pubs/silvics_manual/volume_2/liriodendron/tulipifera.htm, makes it look even more uncommon than I have seen.

    I know bark baskets get made in the midwest, but I can’t think what kind of bark is used.

  2. Aftermath said,

    June 22, 2006 at 5:32 pm

    I know you make a bark basket pretty much out of any tree, but the ash, any conifer, and the poplar are the best ones.

    – Miranda Vivian

  3. onyxblue said,

    June 22, 2006 at 5:58 pm

    Ash and pine are a lot more common out here than yellow poplar.:-)

  4. ChandraShakti said,

    September 2, 2006 at 10:58 pm

    ummm, those directions were clear as mud on the first reading. Am I correct that the basket you are making is NOT woven? How much of the outer bark do you use? Seems if you use all of it, the best tree for such in my area would be sycamore, as most of the rest have deeply ribbed outer barks which would be hard to shape. Or are you ONLY using the inner bark for this? If so, then I’d think there wouldn’t be much risk of breaking the bark though… On the other hand ash and pine which were suggested, have fairly deeply ribbed outer bark. So do you shave most of the ribbing off the outer bark but leave some intact? Also is it necessary to cut the tree down before harvesting the bark? As I recall, when birchbark is harvested, the tree is not sacrificed simply for the sake of a few vessels.

  5. Aftermath said,

    September 3, 2006 at 10:20 am

    When we learned about bark basket making, those directions were pretty hazy as well. They are one of those things that you learn and make at the same time. You blink in confusion at the directions until you start, and suddenly a light comes on over your head!
    It’s not woven, it is literally bark sewed together in the shape of a basket. You can use as much of the bark as you want to depending on how big you want your basket to be. Using deeply ribbed outer bark trees is fine. Pieces of the bark may fall off in the process, but you’ll still end up with a workable basket. You could probably get away without cutting down the tree, it would just be more difficult for you. When we did this the tulip poplars were already felled.
    I would tend to think that bark baskets are more pretty than functional, though they are functional. A twine basket would be more so, though. They are one of those things that you either make well, or, don’t make at all.

    – Miranda Vivian

  6. Aftermath said,

    September 6, 2006 at 1:16 pm

    The basket is not woven. The bark is folded and then sowed together. Once the bark dries it hardens into something close to the strength of hardwood.

    The amount of bark you use is exactly proportional to the size of the basket you want. More bark means a bigger basket.

    You could dry not cutting down the tree first, but the amount of bark required for this method is fatal to the tree. Unfortunately, this is not a case where you can have your cake and eat it to. However, once harvested the heartwood of the tree can be used for many other things. From fire to building materials. If you have nothing to use the tree for, which is probably a lacking of imagination more than anything else, something will eat it if you leave it out in the woods for long enough.

    Both the inner and outer bark are used. I can’t help you much with sycamore because I’m simply not very familiar with using sycamore. Around here Poplar is one of the best choices.

    Harvesting bark can be done in several ways. You can harvest some of the outer bark, which is typically not fatal to the tree. But, if you harvest the whole of the bark (like you need to for a basket) the wound will be fatal for the tree.

    Also, birch trees tend to shed their bark every so often. Not so with most other trees.

    -Benjamin Shender

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