Making Cordage From Tree Bark (Part 1)

Think of the number of uses you have for cord, string, or rope. What would you do if you didn’t have any? In a wilderness setting cordage is highly valued as it takes time and skill to make it. The bark of certain trees can provide us with great raw materials for making cordage.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to harvesting, preparing, and making cordage using tree bark.

First, a quick bit of tree anatomy: Tree bark is made up of two portions, the inner bark or phloem (which passes the sugary sap around the tree), and the outer bark, which acts as the waterproof skin of the trunk, protecting from disease and extremes of temperature. The bit we’re interested in is the inner bark. It’s made of long fibers so forms an ideal raw material for cordage, weaving, and plaiting.

Not all tree species have inner bark suitable for cordage or other bushcraft uses. In the UK, the most reliable candidates are sweet chestnut, willow, elm, oak, and lime. Other parts of the world will have their own favorites. Birch bark is not suitable for making cordage but has many other uses and can be woven. The method described here can be applied to all but lime which needs quite a lengthy soaking to separate the inner and outer bark.

No tutorial like this is complete without some serious thoughts about your responsibility when harvesting from living trees.

The first step is to select a suitable tree. With experience, you’ll know what species and size of the tree will work but for starters think about branch diameter and length and match these to the intended use for your finished cordage.

Make sure the branch or tree is not too gnarly – aim for straight and free of side branches. Remembering our responsibilities, it’s handy that ideal trees will often be overcrowded in clumps where the trees in the middle are shooting up towards the light so bends and side branches are a waste of energy.

Once you have a suitable donor you can start working on releasing the inner bark. This is a two-stage process. First, you need to scrape off the outer bark. This is best done with a blunt but hard edge like the back of a knife or saw blade. Attempts to speed up the process and use the sharp side of the knife usually result in the blade digging in and damaging the inner bark so some patience is needed!

Next, you remove the inner bark. It needs to be kept as complete as possible so care and patience are required. The ideal time for doing this is in late spring and summer when the inner bark is awash with sap. If attempting this in the autumn, winter, or early spring you will likely have to resort to the whacking stick and a can of hot water.

I’d say this is a job best left until the sap flows again. The traditional woodsman’s tool for barking at a tree is called a spud – a blunt wooden wedge used to gently lever. The bark may be well connected around any side branches or knots. A little pounding with a stick will help to weaken any resistance! A knife cut straight down the pole will provide a start.

This should then leave you with a piece of the inner bark and a bare pole.

Next, with an eye on your intended use, the sheet of the inner bark is divided into strips. These should be as even as possible. Any shortcuts or mistakes at this stage will have a huge impact on the quality of the finished cordage. A good way to achieve even strips is by hammering your knife into a block with the blade facing away from you and then pulling the inner bark towards you onto the knife blade, using a guide to keep the strips even.

Note that the bark in this picture is being cut into strips to be woven into a basket so the strips are much wider than that needed for cordage. For cordage, you’ll probably want to cut into strips maybe 4 or 5mm wide (ish!).

At this stage, the inner bark can be treated to make it stronger and more flexible. I usually do this by adding the strips to a billy can containing the outer bark scrapings, wood ash, and water. Bring to a boil and simmer for an hour or two. This is basically the same process as tanning. The bark will emerge a darker color and you will notice it’s much more soft and pliable.

Whether you boil the bark up or decide to skip this step, the strips must now be dried before use. Like all plant cordage materials, the inner bark has a high moisture content. If you go ahead and make your cordage now the shrinkage as the moisture evaporates will result in loose and basically crappy cordage.

If all goes according to plan you now have nice even strips of soft pliable inner bark. To give you time to try this out and comment or ask questions we’ll take a break there.

Continue to Part 2 of Making Cordage from Tree Bark Tutorial.