Finding and Collecting Cottonwood Bark
By Alex Bisso
Part 3 — Tools for Collecting and Cleaning
I use a number to tools and equipment to safely collect and process bark:
Gloves – The outer crust on cottonwood bark can be very hard and abrasive and good gloves are important to avoid damage to your hands. Whatever gloves you use, they are likely to wear out quickly if you handle a lot of bark. Heavy cloth work gloves seem to hold up fairly well and are far superior to gloves made of soft leather. Soft leather gloves feel good but are quickly ruined when handling bark. Stiff leather work gloves hold up for quite a while before holes are worn in the finger tips. One of my favorite type of gloves is a woven mesh glove that has a ribbed rubber coating on the palms and fingers. These are very comfortable, especially in warm weather, and wear surprisingly well.
Flat pry-bar and medium sized crowbar – My main tool for removing bark from a dead tree is a flat pry-bar. Sometimes however it will not pry the bark far enough from the tree to free it and then the thicker crowbar comes in handy. The crowbar also can serve as a hammer to drive the edge of the pry-bar into a bark crack to get it deep enough under the bark so it can be pried off. Although I do most of the bark cleaning at home, the flat end of the pry-bar is useful for removing a lot crud from the back of the bark in the field.
Extension ladder and/or pole – I have found that these come in very handy when you find that there is good bark that is loosely attached to a standing tree and higher up the tree than you can reach. This can be a hazardous operation so it is important to position yourself and/or the ladder behind and to the side of the area of bark that you plan to pry or push off the tree. Sometimes when you push on a piece of bark you just knock of that piece, but sometimes when you push on a piece a huge slab (could be 2′ wide x 10′ tall or more) comes crashing down so you have to be careful. Wearing a hard hat while doing this is also a good idea.
Tools for transporting bark out of the woods – My favorite tool for this is a lightweight but strong, wide, shallow garden cart as it allows me to haul a very large amount of bark through fairly rough terrain. I fill the lower part of the cart with smaller pieces which fit there and then start laying larger pieces lengthwise over the front and back edges of the cart. I typically stack the bark on the cart in this manner up to 2.5 feet over the top edge of the cart. Then I use several bungee cords hooked under the edge of the cart and over the bark to the other side to hold the bark in place during transport. I also have a heavy canvas army duffle bag with shoulder straps that I like to wear when hiking through an area looking for sources. This allows me to pack some select pieces out if I find anything good. I have also used this to pack out bark from locations that were just too hard to get to with a cart. If I find some really good bark a long way from reasonable access I sometimes bring a rigid backpack frame to the location to pack bark. The one I have has a frame at the bottom that makes sort of a shelf that supports the bark. To load it, I lay the backpack frame on the ground, back up, and carefully lay the best pieces of bark across the pack, stacking on it as many as I think I can handle. Then I use both bungee cords and nylon straps to secure the bark to the frame. To get it on my back I normally have to hoist the bottom of the frame up on a stump or log to hold it up as I get the straps over my shoulders. Some years ago I used to do a lot of this but as I have gotten older I find it easier to accept that some bark is just too hard to get out to be worth collecting.
Getting it home – a pickup truck would be nice but since I do not have one I haul my bark either in the back and on top of my Chevy blazer or in a 4′ x 8′ x 2′ sides utility trailer. Many times the locations where I find good bark are quite far, up to 150 miles, from where I live. I do not mind going that far if I have located a really good bark source in an area that far away (usually done on a trip for other purposes) but when I do go to collect it I want to get as much as I can at a time so the Blazer and utility trailer are essential tools for me.
Bark Cleaning Tools – Most bark has lots of shredded cambium layer material and other crude on the back side that needs to be removed and a lot of bark is also dirty on the outside and should be cleaned before storage and use. I do some cleaning of dirt and waste material off the back of the bark in the field with the wide, flat edge of the pry-bar but most is done at home. If the weather is warm enough, I usually lay all of the bark that appears to be really dirty out on the grass in my yard and spray it with a hose and jet nozzle. Bark pieces knocked from standing trees usually does not require this step. After a day or two for drying I move the bark to a location where I clean any loose material from the back side. My essential tool for this is a machete or bolo knife (and gloves of course). I have a couple of bolo/machete type knives that I got on e-bay that are ideal for the job because the cutting edge of the blade is curved such that it fits in the inward curve on the back of the bark. While I am doing this I also slice off any bark from the front that is badly delaminating and not solid enough for carving.
This year there was extensive flooding along the rivers and lots of bark was coated with a thick layer of silt. Although I hosed bark more thoroughly than usual, when cleaning the back of it I noticed that it was still quite dirty and will need further cleaning before carving/finishing. This is something I recommend be done with each piece of bark before it is carved and a good way to do it is in the sink or tub with liquid soap and a scrub brush. This will not hurt the bark and will make it easier to carve and finish. When it is too cold to water blast the bark I sometimes lay it out on the lawn and just sweep it with a broom – one pass of sweeping from each direction. I have also found a hand brush or whisk broom to be useful to clean cobwebs and dust off pieces of bark as I select them for use or sale.
Coming up in Part 4 — Bark Cleaning and Storage
Alex Bisso with a Cottonwood Monarch.
Alex Bisso is a woodcarver, and collector and seller of cottonwood bark and other found wood. To view some of Alex’s carvings and cottonwood bark supply at Be So Good Wood, click HERE.