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Processing Willow Bark for Cordage
 
 

Surely one of the best cordage materials; Willow bark is both abundant and relatively easy to process. This article will describe how to strip the bark (in Summer or Winter) and turn it into supple fibre strands ideal for cordage making. There is an accompanying tutorial which shows the techniques you'll need to transform these fibres into cordage or rope, to see this click here.

Firstly you need to find and cut down a living shoot/ branch of Willow between 4cm and 10cm thick. Look out for tall relatively straight 'poles' of willow that have as few side branches as possible. Willow will tolerate many growing conditions, but it prefers damp/wet places, so lake sides and river banks are good places to look. A coppiced woodland is a good place to find the straightest wood with few side branches. There are many varieties of Willow, Goat Willow and Crack willow are likely the most common. I have never tried processing Weeping Willow, although this would probably work too.


When to gather:

Spring and Summer time
It is best to collect your willow between Spring time and mid Summer (when the sap is up), this is when the bark will separate from the wood without much work. Strip the bark in the same way as for Lime bark (Basswood), click here to see the process

 

Autumn through Winter
Collecting your bark from late Summer/ Autumn and through the Winter time is a little more trouble since the bark sticks to the wood and can't be removed without the application of heat from the camp fire. This method is not well known and is a handy trick for gathering the bark if your Spring/ Summer supply has run out. The following steps show the process...

 
 

When first experimenting with this technique I started by trying to heat the complete log over the fire, then lifting up strips of bark at one end and pull them off, however I found that it's a lot easier to split the wood into quarters and heat each piece separately. You get nice even strips of bark this way too.

Heating the bark side over the fire...

 
     
 
 

Work each piece over the fire from one end to the other until suitably toasted. (this picture gives you some idea of the level of toasting, it's not burn so much to become crusty). If you listen closely you will hear a faint hissing sound when the bark is good and hot.

  This was my favourite way to remove the bark... while still hot, folding each piece of wood so that only the wood snaps.
 
 
   

You can completely snap the wood through and then pull the bark from each half of wood

Or, you can snap, then pull the bark down from under the hinged area. (Be careful not to burn yourself).

 
     
 

Bark strips from several staves of wood.

 
 

 

Processing the bark:

The rest of the process is the same no matter what the season... We need to remove the outer bark as this is a weak useless layer. What we are after is just the stringy leather-like inner bark

at the middle of each strip score lightly through just the outer bark with a sharp knife, beware not to cut too deeply
Fold the bark at this point
Pull the inner bark away from the outer bark. You'll find that to begin with the inner bark needs to be pulled backwards at quite an angle to separate it. Any strips of outer bark that get left behind will need to be separately peeled up and pulled pulled off along with the rest. 
 

continuing to separate the layers... With practice you'll get relatively quick at this.

 

 
 

I didn't have time to process all this bark in one day, so to save one batch from drying out I stored it in a bucket of water until I was ready to do the next stage.

 
 

The bark now needs to be Boiled in a mixture of wood ash and water. This average sized metal bucket has about 5 or 6 good handfuls of ash in.

(Above - The bark after boiling turns red.)

The boiling time varies depending on how soft you want the fibres to be. The more time the softer the fibres become, but also the weaker the fibres become. Some people suggest boiling for one hour, personally I'd rather boil for 15 mins and have much stronger fibres. Later on when these bark strips are pulled apart into finer fibres and then twisted into cordage they will become soft enough...

 
     
 

Now, hang the bark out to dry before storing away.

 
 
 
When you're ready to make cordage, briefly soak the bark strips in water until soft, then split the strips down into finer lengths of fibre. Simply pull the strip apart, the split will usually run straight from one end to the other.
 
 
 

From thick straps to fine fibre strips.

For a full article on cordage making techniques click here

 
 

 
     
     

Related Articles & eBooks
 

Cordage Making

Three techniques for cordage making explained plus list of suitable materials


 

Processing Lime bark fibres for cordage

How to strip and process the bark resulting in the finest cordage material of the woods. A truly excellent fibre.

Preparing Nettle for cordage

Step by step guide... How to separate the very strong cordage fibres from Nettle stems before twisting them into cord.

Net Making - Step by step guide
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