For those of you who have nice, thin-barked hardwoods; who enjoy the rustic bark look; or who don’t have to be concerned about infestation, dirt and other debris – you can skip this post entirely. But for those of you who are planning to build any type of structure with chunky-barked softwoods; who prefer the blonde wood look; or who don’t feel like living with critters, dry rot and constant sweeping up – this post is for you!
Poles made from felled timber on your property can be used for a multitude of things. Sizes can range from 1-2 inch diameter saplings all the way up to huge lodge posts. In our location, we have many smallish white and black spruces, which range from 4 feet to 20 feet high. Due to the unique growing season in Alaska, most of these trees are very straight and very fine-grained. This makes them excellent for smaller building poles. However, spruce bark is gnarly and chunky, and tends to flake horribly – this kind of mess is fine for a quick outdoor shelter or shed, but wretched for use indoors or near the house. There’s also a horrible problem with bark beetle infestation, so peeling and burning the bark is recommended to interrupt the lifecycle (eggs are laid under the bark in the late summer and fall, hatch in the spring and the larvae bore into the tender sapwood, killing the tree).
I highly recommend using a drawknife on poles larger than 6 inches in diameter. This tool is essentially a blade with two handles that you “draw” towards yourself with both hands. They can usually be found at finer woodworking stores, but you can sometimes still find them in the more old-timey hardware stores. They come straight (which is slightly curved) or rounded (which has a more pronounced curve) in several different lengths. I prefer the straight blades because I can control them better, but it’s a matter of personal preference and you should try out both types if you have the opportunity. However, this post is going to focus on using a fixed blade knife (like a survival knife) to peel smaller, green, softwood saplings since these are much more prevalent and are just the right size to make all sorts of nifty stuff for your home, garden and shop.
SAFETY FIRST! Make sure your knife is sharp. A dull knife is a deadly knife… plus, you’re going to break your body trying to shove a dull knife through bark!
Once you have felled and cut your poles to length, organize them in a clear workspace to begin peeling. Depending on the length you’re working with, it is entirely too easy to get hung up on something, knock something over, and potentially brain or stab yourself with the pole you are working on! So take a few moments to make sure your work area is free of obstacles in as much of the radius you will be working in… yes, even behind you.
Wear denim or heavy canvas pants, and for those of you who sometimes don’t know your own strength or have trouble controlling a blade, I’d also recommend either leather chaps or at least a piece of heavy leather to cover your thigh(s). While a long-sleeved shirt isn’t mandatory for safety, you will get covered in sap and bark shavings so you might want to wear one anyway. Thick leather shoes with a high ankle and good gripping sole are also recommended. Heavy leather gloves are essential since you WILL be gripping the blade at one point or another, and softwoods are known for knots which can easily make a blade jump right at your other hand. Eye protection is optional, but recommended… a pair of sunglasses or eyeglasses is adequate since you’re only keeping dirt and bark bits out of your eyes, not warding off high-ballistic missiles like those created from chainsaws and power tools.
If you have many poles to peel, you may want to consider building a jig at a comfortable working height with stops at the ends to hold your poles in place, and simples “dogs” (loose clamps) to keep it from rolling. Otherwise, I’ve found it easiest to sit on a stool with my knees slightly higher than my waist and then use various parts of my body as my stops and dogs. G-man finds it easier to sit on the stool, but to have blocks anchored at appropriate distances to act as blocks (i.e. not use his body parts). The following details are how I’ve found it works best for me… it’s not a Bible, just an example. Once you understand the concept, experiment a bit to find out what methods work best for you.
First, I peel the bark off the ends by placing one end directly out in front of me, using my foot as an anchor, and then paring (towards myself) about 3-6 inches off the end that is facing me using the same motion that you would use to cut an apple in half… placing your thumb on the butt and then using your fingers to draw the knife (gently) toward your thumb. Keep the blade angle shallow, or else you will cut into the harder wood beneath… we’re peeling, not whittling! Once the outer bark is removed, you will need to scrape the soft inner bark and sapwood (pith) off the exposed section. With your hand in the same position, flip the blade of the knife away from you so that the flat of the knife is angled almost exactly even with the blade’s bevel (almost parallel to the pole). Now, grasp the point of the knife loosely with your other hand and pull with both hands back toward yourself to scrape off the pith, rotating the pole until you have denuded the entire diameter.
Once you have cleaned both ends, it’s time to start on the middle. Depending on the length of your pole, this may only require a single pass, or may need to be done in several passes. A single pass is the maximum distance you can achieve with a blade stroke without leaning forward or back too much (back strain!) or extending your elbows or wrists fully (repetitive stress injury & loss of blade control!). If seated on a stool as described, an average comfortable pass will be from breast height to just below the knee if you have the pole angled in front or behind you; if you have the pole angled across yourself, it will be from just below your shoulder to just below your hip. (I don’t recommend cross-wise passes as they are somewhat awkward and hard on your wrists). Remember, each pole can easily take up to one hundred strokes to completely remove the bark and pith so be kind to your body and don’t over-extend your passes… especially if you have, say, 20 poles to peel for your project!
First, examine your pole to see if there are any obvious knots and whether they grow predominantly in a single direction. If you’re lucky, there won’t be too many knots, and most of them will be in one direction… knots wreak havoc with your blade pass because they interrupt your stroke. If you have lots of knots, any larger ones, or they grow in all directions I would advise you to hack off the offenders before trying to remove the bark. I’ve found that smaller knots are easier to remove if you strike them downward/away from you with a slight chipping motion in the direction of growth, whereas thicker knots are easier to manage if you strike them upward/toward yourself with several short, two-handed yanks. Some tenacious knots may need to be sawed off, and a survival knife with a serration either on the back side or the hilt-side third work well for this purpose (I prefer a blade with hilt-side serration myself because I don’t have to keep flipping the blade over and I can safely use my other hand on the back of the blade for added pressure). Making the effort to remove, or at least reduce, the knots ahead of time will make debarking much easier since you have a higher probability of achieving a long, smooth, unobstructed blade pass that takes off a maximum of bark with a minimum of effort.
Next, determine which way you are more comfortable removing the bark keeping in mind that you will be exerting some force on the blade and it is likely to skip if you encounter a knot. I’m a magnet for blade-related injuries, so I prefer to cut down and away from myself with a single-handed stroke… don’t be dumb, cut toward your chum, not your thumb. However, if you aren’t comfortable with a single handed stroke, or have better control cutting towards yourself with a hand on either side of the knife, it is still effective as long as you are careful. In fact, I tend to alternate my stroke to avoid hand fatigue if I’m peeling several poles even though I tend to cut just a little too deep coming up than going down (Gungnir has the opposite issue). Just keep safety at the front of your mind at all times. Cutting down away from yourself you have your heavy pants and boots to protect you, cutting up towards yourself it’s very easy to slip and cut your less protected arms or throat. Remember, every knot you encounter is a possibility that your knife will slip out of the wood or even out of your hand!
OK, assuming that you are cutting down away from yourself, place one end of the pole on the ground and anchor it with the foot corresponding with your knife-hand. If the pole is short, place the other end on your non-knife shoulder and hold it with your hand. If the pole is long, it may be easier to anchor the high end under your arm-pit and use your non-knife for stabilization as needed. Starting roughly breast-height, begin your stroke keeping the blade angle shallow… you’re only trying to remove the bark, not cut into any of the harder wood beneath. Apply pressure cleanly until you get to the end of the bark (you might have to lean over a bit at first) raising the blade up slightly as you reach the end (almost a flick, like shooing a fly) to separate the bark strip. Continue rotating the pole until you have removed the bark from the entire section.
Then lift the butt end up, anchored on your knee, with the back end down anchored beneath your other knee (you may need to spread your legs, or also anchor the pole on the ground with your foot). Flip the blade over and scrape the pith as described above. Leaving the pith on while you remove the bark from the entire pole lets it dry out too much and it becomes a horrible sticky mess that is very difficult to remove; if you have a long pole, it’s best to remove the pith in sections as you go even though this means teeter-tottering the pole and repositioning it.
As you move up/back the pole, the butt end will be moved farther and farther from you, which will reduce the angle of the pole. Eventually, you may find that it is easiest to anchor the high end between your elbow and waist, the crook of your thigh or between your knee and elbow. Whichever method you use, just make sure that you can keep the pole from rolling while you remove the bark. On a very long pole, it is likely that you will not be able to reverse the angle to allow you to scrape down towards yourself. At this point, leave the pole in the barking position, bracing it in your arm pit, and scrape up towards you. On very long poles, I often find that I must brace the butt against my breast bone and scrape up towards my chest… but that’s only for the very last section.
When you’re finished with your poles for the day, promptly collect all the bark and pith shavings and dispose of them where they aren’t a fire risk… a small backyard bonfire is an excellent idea if infestation is a problem in your area! Clean your knife well to remove the sap and embedded bark flotsam… a rag dipped in kerosene or turpentine will work, but Hoppe’s #9 Solvent seems to work best. Sharpen your blade, oil it, and return it to its sheath and happy home. Lay your poles out to dry side-by-side, they will be sticky with sap so stacking them can sometimes make them stick together… if it looks like rain, cover them lightly with a tarp. Go inside, peel off your sappy clothes, and scrub yourself with the same solution you used to clean your knife… tomorrow you’ll have pretty poles to build with :)