Hickory Bark Sheath

January 25, 2019

I recently received a shipment of Mora 106's from Morakniv for my students to use in classes I teach. The opportunity afforded me the ability to test out hickory inner bark as a sheath material. I have made birch bark sheaths and I love them, but paper birch (betula papyrifera) is not a common species in my area. Hickory bark seems like the next best option. What I've learned in this process of testing will hopefully be helpful to other sheath-less carvers.

 

I can't remember what type of hickory I'm using because I harvested it a few years ago when I went through my hickory bark harvesting phase. Since I don't have pictures of that process, I'm just going to start with my readers already having acquired hickory bark from either their own hickory tree or purchasing it.

 

 

The hickory bark I used was about 7/8 in. wide when dry. After I soaked it, it was at least 1 in. wide. I think I'm being conservative with this estimate. Do not give into the desire to trim the width while it's in this soft state. 7/8 in. is a decent width for a Mora. If you are sheathing a different knife feel free to change the width. Just keep this expansion in mind while you're configuring your sheath dimensions.

 

 

 

 After you have soaked the bark in water for at least 15 minutes, it should be pliable enough to cut into lengths. I found for a Mora 106, 13 1/2 inches the perfect amount needed to make a sheath.

 

 

Fold the bark in half, and then fold each half in on itself. Test it with a knife just to make sure you've got everything correct. Then, put it under a jar, or hold it with a clip of some kind until it dries out enough to hold it's shape a little. Hickory bark has a tendency to curl in on itself. To counteract that, I let my piece sit under a jar that contains my linseed oil over night. Then I let it dry over the dehumidifier fan. It stayed nice and flat...pretty snazzy...!

 

 

It's important that this component of the sheath is very dry because of the amount of shrinkage involved in using hickory bark. If you wrap a piece of spruce root around the hickory and it's not dry, the roots will become loose. Ain't nobody got time for that.

 

 

 

Next, you need to go to your friendly, neighborhood spruce tree and ask it nicely if you can have some roots. Then thank it for being so generous and understanding. Watch out for poison ivy. It's lurking.

 

On thing I noticed as I dug into the garden for spruce roots was white fuzz I was uncovering as I dug through the soil. I also ran into quite a few mushrooms. The picture below is a mushroom making it's way to the surface.

 

Seeing this reminded me of what Suzanne Simard (a professor of forest ecology in British Columbia) found in her research of trees. She found that trees actively share resources through a symbiotic relationship with fungi. This is called the mycorrhizal network. These fungi transfer nitrogen and phosphorus to trees and trees provide carbon to the fungi. Trees can use this network to send resources to smaller trees, or trees that are in more shaded areas. They also share resources outside of their species. Her research specifically showed a sharing or resources between birch and fir trees.

 

She also concluded that older trees (Mother trees or Hub trees) have larger networks and the ability to subsidize smaller trees and foster growth. This abiliity, in turn, creates a quicker re-growth if there is ecological damage in a forest ecosytem.

 

 

It's important to know what system you are tapping into if you are harvesting something from the forest, or are interested in becoming a woodworker. Everything is interconnected.

 

 

So, after I admired the fungal network attached to this spruce, I dug around for a nice juicy rootlet.

 

 

 I also made friends with a caterpillar.

 

 

 

Spruce roots in hand, I set to splitting them. I think I went about it a little backward (I split them first and then pulled the outer bark off). It's better if you put them in water and boil them to loosen up the outer-bark and then peel it off by scraping with the back of a knife. You can also see the outer-bark if you look at the end of the root (cross-section) and peel it with your fingernail. The root should be nice and bright and kind of slick.

 

 

After you've taken the outer bark off, split the root. You can do this easily by starting it with your knife and then holding both sides of the root with your fingers and gently pulling the sides away from one another with equal pressure. If the split starts to run off center, you can re-align it by pulling with more pressure towards the side that is splitting off. It's a lot like riving wood.

 

 

 

The above picture shows me pulling harder on one side to control the split. From the readers point of view the split was headed off too far on the left (and if I didn't correct the split it would have just peeled off the side) so I pulled MORE on the side that the split was veering off into. Doing this means I end up with two continuous pieces of cordage. If you have problems with this, you might be going a bit too quickly. Slow down when you get off center and think about what you're doing. If you are confused and upset, just leave it and go drink some tea. 

 

I'm reminded of a story my teacher, Karen Sherwood, told me when I was learning to weave cedar baskets. She was learning from a First Nations woman how to weave baskets the teacher said, "Whatever you are feeling and thinking when you weave is woven into your basket. So, be careful." Karen remembered a few younger girls who were sitting side by side and one was becoming frustrated. Every few minutes one of the girls would exclaim, "...Crap!....Crap!...". She was having problems with her weaving. Her friend admonished her by saying, "Be careful! You're going to weave crap into your basket!"

 

If something isn't working go do something else and return to it when you aren't full of crap.

 

 

 

 

Experienced spruce root users will note that the outer bark is still on this root. I decided to keep these photos instead of taking new ones so that I could tell everyone that I tried to make this sheath 4 times before I got everything correct. First, I tried using Hickory bark for the cordage, but it was too loose when it dried. The first time I thought it was loose because I spliced it, and the second time I realized it was just not suited for what I was trying to accomplish. I switched to spruce roots the third time, then realized that I hadn't taken off the outer bark properly. I got it right on the forth try. Let that be a lesson. Sometimes it takes a lot of tries before you get it right.

 

Anyway, the wrapping starts by tucking the end of the root up under the fold of the hickory bark. You then needle the root through the fold on the other side. When it comes through, you start wrapping around the outside of the bark sheath, maybe about 4 or 5 times.

 

Then you pry apart the outer layer of hickory from the inner, and send the root through that opening. This is seen in the picture above.

 

Below, you can see where we are wrapping. it's the left-hand side of the picture.

 

Next, as you flip the sheath over, you want to make a loop by sending the root through the two layers of bark, again. You are basically performing the same action, just on the other side on the sheath. The result should look like this:

 

 

Leave a little bit of room in that loop, because you are going to use it to lock in the root. Once again, feed the root through the outer and inner layers of hickory bark on the opposite side of the sheath, so that you end up back where your loop is. Feed the end of your root through the loop and tighten everything up. This requires some snugging up here and there. Sometimes its nice to use a butter knife or an awl (nothing sharp) to help hold on to the root while your tugging on it. 

 

 

The result should look like this:

 

 

On the right side, you can see the way that the "tail" end of the root is pulled through the loop and after everything is secure and tight, it's cut off.

 

It makes for a nice, secure way of keeping your blade sheathed. Have fun!

 

 

 

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© 2017 by Amy Umbel                                                                                                                                                         

Photography by Soula Pefkaros