Originally published in
Volume 9 Issue 2
Text: Antti Kymäläinen
Photography: Markus Männistö
Why not try something for your next rod grip or handle? Unique materials for making truly custom fittings may be as close as your own backyard.
Finland is a land of forests and lakes. Birch have to been said to be a Finland’s national tree. True, but birch is widely used in handcraft works all over northern hemisphere, where you can find birch growing. One could write a long article about many ways to use birch, bit this article will concentrate on birch bark and its usability to rod builders.
Past year I have been greatly intrigued by the method how knife makers have been using birch bark to make such a beautiful handles for their knives. I did a lot research of implementing this technique to rod building. Unfortunately I didn’t find anyone who had made that already. All I got, was a suspicion towards my thoughts although many were interested this subject.
Birch bark as a material
Growing birches can be found at northern hemisphere. White birch is the best to use in craft work. The best time to take bark of the wood is on spring or early summer. That time bark can be peeled off most easily and it’s thickest. Cut the bark all the way to hard inner wood and peel bark off around the trunk. Bark can be gathered from fallen trees and taking bark from living tree is not advised. Removing bark from living tree, it may cause it to die.
After bark is removed, make rings out of soon after removal. If you intend to use bark sheets later, lay out the sheets and put some weight over them. This prevents bark to curl up, which they have a tendency to do on its own. Store them at dry place.
Bark can be also bought from craft stores, who sell items for knife making. Another good source could be birch bark canoe makers, who might sell you small leftovers from their projects.
Preparing bark rings
When you have bark sheets ready for processing, you need some tools to do it. There is two options to cut bark down to usable sizes. You can just use a knife or scissors to cut bark to squares of 35x35mm. By choosing this way, you need to do much more work while sanding a grip. Better is to use an arbor, which inner diameter is 33-35 mm. Example of a bigger arbor is shown at left on picture 1. Place bark sheet over wood pole and with hammer and arbor make as many rings you need.
After adequate amount of rings are done, they need to be cleaned. All bark’s surface material (white) needs to be removed. It will peel of easily with a knife. If the bark is very inflexible or inner side of it is very thick, remove enough material from there as well. You want pieces to be clean and flexible so they are easy to use.
Last thing to do is to make a hole to center of bark ring. Diameter is this hole is same as diameter of threaded rod you are going to use. You can do these with a smaller arbor shown at left in picture 1. Other items needed are nuts for you threaded rod and big washer (bigger than you bark rings)
Making bark insert
Since you are making bark handle, you need to have a drawing of a handle with measurements made before start to glue bark rings. In a drawing length of bark sections are decided. Bark rings need to be glued on together in small parts. I have used a rule not to glue more than 20 rings at one time. At project of mine, I had four stacks of about 20 rings.
First use candle and rub it to threaded rod to prevent glueing rings permanently to threaded rod. Wind nut to rod, put the washer in and slide first bark ring next to washer. Apply slow cure epoxy to bark ring at rod and slide next bark ring top of it. Make sure you turn the second ring 90 degrees before putting it top of the first bark ring. Third ring is turned 90 degrees when compared to second ring. Alignment of rings is shown at picture 2. By laying rings with this manner, it increases the strength of the grip.
After all rings are glued, put second washer to other end and tighten the packet so that all extra glue will be squeezed out. Wipe excess glue off and let dry and keep packet unopened for couple of days. If you need to make another 20 ring sets, do it now. Example of ready set is shown in picture 3. This example set is not glued, but it is here to show approximate size of a bark ring set you can glue up together at one time. Also pay attention to size of a washer, which needs to be bigger than a bark ring.
After all bark ring sets are dry, remove 20 ring packets from threaded rods and glue them together. Let the packet dry again under adequate pressure in threaded rod. After the drying it’s time to assemble the handle.
Putting handle together
If you examine closer the structure of a bark ring, you can see it is made up of layers. Even though bark rings are glued together, bark section can easily break in two in you bend it. Hence you can’t start or end handle with bark. There needs to be something solid in both ends. You can use impregnated wood or cork at handle ends.
Now you have all sections of bark rings ready, it is time to put whole handle together. You can use still the same threaded rod or mandrel for this. I use mandrels from Andy Dear. Glue all parts together with slow cure epoxy and let dry.
After drying it is time to put mandrel to lathe and start turning it. Start with rough sanding paper to get close to the look you prefer. When approaching wanted shape, start using finer and finer papers. The last touch I made with 1000 grid sand paper.
When wanted shape is ready, it is time to put some protection to handle. Although bark is water resistant at to some point, it is better to add some extra protection to it. I use Birchwood Casey’s Tru-oil to add additional protection to handle. Two thin coats are enough for it.
Reaming the handle
When tru-oil is dried, remove the handle from mandrel. Keep in mind that when you remove the handle from mandrel, the bark section is again with no support. There’s again risk to snap it in two if you bend it too much. Keep this in mind when you ream the handle to fit it to your blank.