Most bushcrafters will have heard of the value of Willow bark when making string from nature.
At this time of year Willow bark is very cooperative in peeling cleanly and easily away from the wood and you’ll only want to select the clean knot free and slender branches around finger to thumb thick when following this simple method to have a go at making your own length of willow cordage.
The beauty of only cutting the slender straight branches is that it will give you nice consistent grade bark to work with and if the branches are cut through nice and clean they will grow back year after year providing you with plenty of resources.
Try cutting the very tops of the branches you harvest off and push them firmly into damp ground to encourage them to take root and live on within the forest.
For good willow cordage we first want to scrape away all of the dark green outer bark which as the bark dries becomes brittle – not a property you want to include in your string!
Try using the back of your knife to carefully scrape away the outer bark which is very thin and easy to see when you have successfully removed it. Be mindful not to scrape too hard as it is easy to split and damage the inner much more pale bark.
Save all of the scrapings to boil up along with some wood ashes from your camp fire.
With the outer bark removed you can now score down to the wood all the way along one side of the branch and then simply peel the bark away from the wood.
The resulting strap of pale wet inner bark can easily be pulled apart into long narrow strips by hand or you can use your thumbnails to split strips off from one end to the other.
Aim to keep these strips less than 5mm as anything wider is hard to twist into cordage and thus more suitable for plaiting or weaving with.
Get a small camp fire going and suspend a pan of water over it to boil up the outer bark scrapings then add the inner bark strips and a scoop full of wood ashes which makes the mixture alkaline and helps to clean the fibres of the starchy sap leaving them a beautiful ruddy brown colour.
Once the water hits the boil try to keep it at a simmer for a good few hours and add more water if the pans starts to dry out – the bark needs to be submerged the whole time – if you have a pan lid then even better.
Once the solution has cooled down pull the inner bark fibres out and squeeze the liquid from them cleaning off any outer bark scrapings that stick to them.
Hang them up somewhere to dry gently and you can then store them dried until you are ready to work with them.
Many of you will be familiar with the two-ply method of twisting fibres such as nettle together to create cordage. It is a fascinating and satisfying process where once you get going you won’t want to stop! Learning to add in consistently and keep the two bundles of fibres an even volume will really help you create nice looking and strong cordage.
You should dampen your dried willow bark fibres before twisting them into string to make them more pliable, once they dry out they won’t unravel so long as you haven’t completely re soaked them and caused them to swell up.
This is just the beginning of discovering some of the applications of our Willow trees here in the UK. The wood is a great friction wood for conjuring fire, the same inner bark has analgesic properties and of course you will have heard that the young shoots are favoured for weaving baskets.
Why not join us on our Basketry and Bark work weekend this summer to discover all the tips and tricks for making your own willow baskets, bark containers and cordage!