Saturday, 30 January 2016

Making Birch Tar

I try to get out to practice skills in the woods as much as possible, and winter is often the best time. Its quiet, and there's less pressure on time needed for teaching or preparing for the courses I run. Its also a greater test as the weather can make things difficult both physically and mentally. Looking out that window just before setting off knowing there's going to be a storm coming in or a big sudden difference in temperature can sway your mind.

But know its play time, and all will be well. Its also a very good excuse to light a fire so this time I thought I'd bring a bowdrill set along, gather all the firewood and make up a batch of Birch Tar. I managed to score this large Panettone tin to load up the birch bark. I have quite a lot of Birch bark at the moment that I've been saving for my barkcraft sessions. There is always left overs and unusable bits, so they all got tightly stuffed into the big tin. If you've not seen this done before, you punch a hole in the base of the tin and push on the lid when full of bark. 
Then bury a smaller tin most of the way into the ground as pictured and place the bigger tin on to it, carefully locating the punched hole over its centre. The two tins should make good contact. To help with this and to reduce air to the gap between them, add a little earth around the join of the two and overlap the base of the big tin.

Then light a fire around the big tin. I started small with just an ember from the bowdrill (warms you up on a cold day) into my tinder bundle of dry bracken, grass and thistle heads. Then add on your kindling - match thick, pencil thick upto finger/thumb thick. At this stage I keep adding finger thick material to create a lot of heat which you need to extract the oil held within the bark and encourage it to run into the lower container. 

Once I get a good fire going all around the tin I keep it going for around an hour. Now is time grab a cup of tea and relax and just add on fuel as needed.

Let the fire die down and the tins cool, this can take a couple of hours and its worth waiting for to get all the last drops of oil out. Then use as required. It can be used as a natural medicine for skin complaints, a water proofing for cordage and leather, a glue when reduced down by simmering, and a decorative finish and preservative for wood. Useful stuff, and it smells nice too.

Originally inspired by The Belarus/Partisans episode of Extreme Survival by Ray Mears.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Kuksas and shrink pots – Branched handles and practical use

Most of my spare time when not carving items for the shop or nipping out to the woods, has lately been spent on refining kuksa shapes, working out the problems with using straight grained wood, and trying out a few new things I’ve not seen done before.

I’m seriously thinking of writing an e-book on the subject as lots of people ask me the same questions all the time regarding splitting on drying or when adding hot fluids.
Another problem with kuksas is that as much as I love them, even large ones tend to be on the small side when it comes to a big cup of tea or a pint of ale. Fine if you have a tea pot, but still a faff adding milk and sugar again like being in a tea party.

So I started to think about shrink pots and making them water tight, then adding a handle for better function and to add some interest. But how to do this? Well, luckily I got the chance to slip on the rope and harness and do some tree climbing and dismantling operations just before Christmas with some Birch - Betula pendula Trees near a chap’s house.

They were full of interesting sections for making things from so I started to cut them out with the saw and put them to one side for projects.

I started with a large 2 pint shrink pot, complete with a side handle for starters and it was a success. I thought the knots and branch unions would be too difficult to work through but it wasn’t too bad, perhaps because it was so green. It was on the large side though so next up, came a one pint shrink pot this time with the outer bark on and a side branch again. This worked a treat too and is now my standard drinking vessel for ales. Its holding up really well after plenty of use.


But I couldn’t leave the kuksas behind now could I, so I tried the side branch idea again, mainly so that I could achieve an upswept handle without requiring a large diameter log that then needed a lot wasting away. I made two in quick succession. Both successfully hold hot drinks, so one flew the nest and now lives in Spain, and the other, well I’m keeping it as its one of the nicest things I think I’ve made during all the crafting I’ve done over the years.


 I hope this gives you some inspiration to think a little out of the box, and not to always do things by the book. The knots all held and as long as you are used to gouge work, not too much bother to work with, and so far all is well with the items apart from a recent fixable split in the 2 pinter due to a hot room and too tight a base. I’m still learning all the time though and it keeps you humble and searching for answers, which is the way it should be.

If you fancy learning about bowls and kuksa carving, there are courses in the events section of the Website
Be good to see you there. Tea and coffee provided, just make your cup ;)