Peeling birch bark is surprisingly simple. All you need is a utility knife, and a tree.
Make a vertical cut, however long you want the piece to be…
….and by cut, I mean use the blade part of the knife – for, if you’re like me, Common Sense likes to take regular strolls along the beach. In the meantime, someone should probably take that knife away from you at this point (at least until CS is back from its walk).
Once you have the vertical cut, peel the rest with your hand – no need to use a knife for the horizontal part, as the bark will peel itself (and if you just breathed a sigh of relief..you’re not alone. Think of it as one less opportunity to accidentally stab yourself!)
Then comes the fun part!
Drawing, doodling, painting… or biting (a traditional Native art form where they bite a pattern into thin bark layers..it takes some serious chomping skills…I haven’t tried it but it’s fascinating to watch).
Different types of birch bark:
Gray birch (above): harder to peel, impossible to separate layers. Being readily available in New Brunswick, I’ve used this type of tree a lot in my bark drawings. The surface is a little flaky, and very rough on your pens (it tends to ruin the tip)…I’ve had many casualties in my dwindling Micron stock. Best for use with markers, charcoal, or garden variety ink.
White/paper/canoe birch (below): on mature trees, it’s possible to peel each individual layer. The surface looks yellow/orange, and is very smooth – good for using your archival ink, and oil paint. This bark is also waterproof, which means ink (or paint) won’t soak through or run.
One last thing: Be aware of peeling bark from living trees. I try to avoid this, by only using dead trees (those uprooted by storm surges, or that I find in a neighbour’s woodpile). Bark is essentially a tree’s skin – peeling the skin off of a living tree can leave it open to the elements (and possible infection), so you may end up killing it (and let’s face it – no one can afford bad karma these days).