Some birch bark crafts

During one of our trips to my wife’s grandparents’ house, I snapped a few pics of some great birch bark crafts made by my wife’s grandfather. He is in his 70′s now, and I’m sure that when he was a boy, making crafts like these was a common way to get things you wanted. By the way, this is just a very small sampling of what can be done with this fantastic natural material. It was also often used to make boxes, containers, baskets and much more.

The best time to harvest birch bark is in the spring when the sap is flowing. It comes off easiest then. For my first project (the matchcase below), I felled a small birch that I used for projects, firewood, a felling and limbing demo etc. Some say you can remove bark from living trees and the tree will still be OK, and others say this is a big no-no.

Here are some pics of me harvesting the birch bark last spring. I tried to cut through the outer bark, but not the inner bark, and then carefully pry up the outer bark with my knife. It came off pretty easily.

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Supposedly, birch sap starts flowing when the first mosquitoes appear, and this also seems to be the best time to harvest the bark.

Peace be with you!

Whether you’re celebrating Christmas, a different holiday or no holiday at all, I hope you are all able to enjoy a relaxing break from work, quality time with family and friends and maybe even a little dirt-time as well. :)

Coming soon to The Weekend Woodsman: a new custom knife, a “blast from the past” trip report, traditional Finnish crafts, the rest of my gear series and much more!

My new winter bush hat

Up until last weekend, I didn’t really have a proper bush hat for the winter. I usually wear my beanie on winter outings and pull my very thin hood over it (one of those “tuck-in-the-collar hoods” made of a single layer of synthetic fabric). This was not really warm enough or versatile enough, plus I didn’t like wearing my “out and about in town hat” in the bush. I had to find a better solution.

And here it is:

I picked up this fake-fur hat for less than 10 Euros (13 Dollars) at a discount store on Saturday. I have no idea where it was made, but it is warm and comfy. The quality of the materials and workmanship are surprisingly good for a hat this cheap. Of course real fur would be more useful and nicer than fake fur, but what are you going to do.

One thing I really like about it is its versatility in use. The ear and neck flaps can be left up if I just want to keep my head warm. If I want to give my ears and neck a bit more protection, I can drop the flaps:

If there’s a lot of snow, wind and cold, I can secure the flaps under my chin:

The little mini-flaps seen above cover small grommeted holes. These flaps can be fastened up so you can hear better through the main flaps.

If I want to cover my head and ears, but not my cheeks and jaw, I can secure the flaps this way:

But wait! There’s more! The front fur flap can also be folded down after being unsnapped. This front flap can be pulled down over my eyes and the top of my nose, and when the ear/neck flaps are down as well, only the bottom part of my nose, mouth and the front part of my chin are exposed, so I can probably sleep in the hat as well. We shall see. (I’d likely want to wear my balaclava as well. It will all require experimentation.)

If the temperature ever manages to get cold enough this winter, maybe I’ll actually get a chance to USE it for real. ;)

The Weekend Woodsman’s shoulder bag

Last time, I covered my belt pouch, which contains a few essential and backup items. If I’m planning on doing more than just a 1- or 2-hour hike in a familiar area, say a half-day or day hike, I’ll also bring along my small shoulder bag, a military surplus Finnish army gas mask bag (5 Euros/7.50 Dollars). I like this bag because it’s rugged, has a decent number of snapping pockets inside and has secure shoulder and waist straps. The contents of my shoulder bag, along with my cutting tools (which will be covered later), could easily help me to survive an unplanned overnight stay if need be. Modifications include waterproofing and the addition of strap padding.

The shoulder bag contents (listed from top-left to bottom-right):

- Poncho: 9 Euros (13 Dollars)
- (Shoulder bag)
- Canteen: 4 Euros (5.50 Dollars)
- Spoon: 2 Euros (3 Dollars), stolen from the kitchen
- Small pot: 4 Euros (5.50 Dollars)
- Kuksa: 4 Euros (5.50 Dollars), bought used from consignment shop (boiled many times…)
- Birch bark, tinder lichen and fatwood: from mother nature
- First-aid kit: 5 Euros (7.50 Dollars), put together from items at home
- Bandana: 2 Euros (3 Dollars)
- Toilet paper: 0.50 Euro (0.75 Dollars), stolen from the bathroom
- Soap: 1 Euro (1.50 Dollars)
- Bug spray: 3 Euros (4 Dollars)
- Lip balm: 2 Euros (3 Dollars)
- Headlamp: 5 Euros (7.50 Dollars)
- Glow stick: 1 Euro (1.50 Dollars)
- Space blanket: 2 Euros (3 Dollars)
- Compass: 10 Euros (15 Dollars)
- Needles, thread and buttons: 2 Euros (3 Dollars), put together from items at home
- Tea, coffee and creamer: 1 Euro (1.50 Dollars), scavenged from the kitchen
- Sharpening stone: 5 Euros (7.50 Dollars)
- Pen: 0.50 Euros (0.75 Dollars)
- Twine and paracord: a few cents

Total cost: about 70 Euros (just shy of 100 Dollars)

This cost is very much an estimate, as I simply do not remember how much each of the individual items cost when purchased. If anything, I rounded up, so these items were at most this much, and likely cheaper. If you followed the comments on the belt pouch post, you’ll have read that I’ve been carrying my firesteel in my shoulder bag, however I had forgotten that I recently attached it to my knife, so I will cover it when I cover my cutting tools.

As you can see, this kit gives me a lot more capabilities than my belt pouch. I can navigate and orient with a map much better, fix boo-boos, shelter under a space blanket and poncho if need be, make sewing repairs, sharpen my blades, take care of hygiene needs, strain/boil/carry water, cook some small meals, keep the bugs away, take care of binding tasks and lots more. I have done overnight trips with just this shoulder bag, my belt pouch and a sleeping bag, and felt like I had more than enough equipment.

For the more extensive cooking, hygiene and shelter items desired for longer trips, I move up to the next level, which is my backpack. So if you don’t see some items above which you think should belong there, you’ll most likely come across them in my backpack gear list. Stay tuned…

By the way, I welcome any comments and suggestions. ;)

EDIT: About half the time, I will take this shoulder bag, my belt pouch and my cutting tools for a half-day or day trip. If, however, I also want to bring along books, extra clothing, etc. that won’t fit in the shoulder bag, I will put this shoulder bag in my backpack and take it like that instead.

The Weekend Woodsman’s belt pouch

This will be the first post in a series covering my gear selections/philosophies. Some of you may have seen my gear posts at The Sharpened Axe almost a year ago. Since then, I’ve stripped out some unused items and  made a few changes by adding some self-made and modified gear. Most of the changes to my loadout were spurred on by two factors, lessons learned from a few longer backpacking trips from the summer and the motivation/inspiration to tackle some projects which finally got my equipment the way I really want it. I’m sure there will be more changes in the future (there always are), but I have noticed that these changes are slowing down over time as I get a precise idea of how I like things to be.

There will be five parts to this series: belt pouch, shoulder bag, backpack, cutting tools and seasonal gear. This is the way I separate my gear, both in my mind and physically as well, so I thought this would be the best way to cover it. First up is my belt pouch.

I recycled the pouch itself from a small woman’s backpack made of leather which I got at a consignment shop for 2 Euros (3 Dollars). I cut out a pocket from the backpack, so let’s say the pocket itself cost 0.50 Euros (0.75 Dollars). I applied brown shoe polish to the pouch to change it from the original green color and also cut two slits in the back for my belt. Its approximate size is 10 cm x 8 cm x 4 cm (4″ x 3″ x 1.5″).

And the contents (listed going clockwise from the top):

1. Swiss card knock-off: 1.50 Euros (2 Dollars)
2. Birch bark match case: free, self-made
3. Mini fishing kit and needle: scavenged, say 1 Euro (1.50 Dollars)
4. Wenger Classic 07 SAK: 7 Euros (10 Dollars) bought used from consignment shop
5. Twine: cut from a spool, a few cents
6. Small flashlight: gift, probably about 2 Euros (3 Dollars)
7. Whistle: bought as part of a set, probably about 1 Euro (1.50 Dollars)
8. Small compass: bought as part of a set, probably about 1 Euro (1.50 Dollars)

Total cost: about 14 Euros (20 Dollars), plus a little time and effort

I decided to cover this belt pouch first because it is something that I ALWAYS have, whether it’s a 1-hour hike or a week-long trip. I will bring other items depending on the length of stay and purpose of the trip, but this belt pouch always comes long. The contents cover fire starting, light cutting tasks, hole punching, can opening, bottle opening, splinter removal, signaling (visual and auditory), general direction finding, lighting, general binding tasks, aid in shelter building (twine), sewing repairs and emergency fishing and possibly trap making.

The pouch itself is already about as full as it can get, and I’m not planning on adding anything to it. I keep other essential items in my shoulder bag and backpack, so I don’t consider this kit to be the ultimate of anything. It’s not intended to be a complete survival kit, emergency kit or anything like that. It contains often-used items which are nice to have in an easily accessible place. I like to keep them separate from my backpack and shoulder bag and secure to my body so that I still have some basic capabilities should I somehow lose those packs.

EDIT: Just to clear things up, this belt pouch does not contain my only means for fire lighting, navigation, fishing, cutting, lighting etc. It is a small part of my gear selection, and many of the items are backup items to better and more robust items in my shoulder bag, which is what I consider to be the “meat” of my kit, and which is attached to me even more securely than the belt pouch.

EDIT 2: The discussions and suggestions in the comments section have got me thinking. Being a person who would rather be safe than sorry, I’m going to take Perkunas’ advice and incorporate a firesteel either into my belt pouch or the new sheath knife I will be receiving. I know how much experience Perkunas has, and I listen to those with real experience (not word for word, and not blindly, but I value what they have to say). Should I somehow lose my shoulder bag (unlikely), it would be wise to have an extra firesteel tucked away somewhere. I’m not averse to using firesteels, I just prefer to keep mine in my shoulder bag. Seeing as how fire is extremely important, especially here in the north, it does make sense to be very well equipped with fire-making equipment.

This made me realize that this blog is a great way to tweak my gear thanks to readers’ input. So in subsequent parts of this gear series, I will welcome suggestions from readers. Be aware, though, that everything I carry and use is tried-and-tested, so don’t expect too much. ;) But if you have a great idea that hasn’t crossed my mind or experience, I won’t be too proud to incorporate suggestions into my gear loadout.

The “science” of batoning

Some people think it’s never a good idea to split wood with a knife and baton (“Knives aren’t made for that purpose, and they’re bound to break” etc., they say). Other people seem to do all their splitting with a “bushcraft knife” with a 4-inch blade and have never had any problems. Whether you agree or disagree with the practice of splitting wood with a knife, one thing that can’t be denied is that it works. It may not be perfect or ideal in every case, and there is plenty of evidence and examples of blades breaking, bending and getting stuck in knotty logs, but often enough, knives can be used successfully to split wood.

I first used a knife to split wood about 3 – 4 years ago. I split a lot of wood like that for a while, but nowadays I tend to use an axe for bigger stuff and only split kindling with a knife. One thing that I never really thought about until recently was whether there is a right way or wrong way to baton a knife. I usually just put the knife on the piece of wood and started hammering. This often worked, but I did run into problems with knotty pieces of wood and was concerned by several accounts of knives (thick-bladed, strong knives) breaking while being batoned. I had also experienced minor loosening of a handle on a stick-tang knife back a few years ago. After getting a new big blade recently, I wanted to make sure I didn’t mess the thing up by using it incorrectly.

This led me to think about splitting in a more “scientific” way. When we split with an axe, we apply the power of the swing and mass of the head to a relatively short cutting edge backed up by a wedge-shaped head. This is a very effective combination for splitting wood parallel with the grain. When splitting with a knife, there is a major reduction in the power of the swing (one-handed, using a baton) and the thickness of the blade. Instead of a swift and powerful blow with an axe, a knife is placed horizontally on the end of a piece of wood and hammered progressively deeper until the wood splits. Seeing as how this puts a greater amount of stress on a knife, I thought I would try to figure out the “best” way to baton to reduce the stress on the blade and handle, reduce the amount of energy expended and maximize the efficiency of splitting. I mainly focused on larger, heavier knives which could possibly compete with axes and hatchets. My findings don’t apply as much to smaller knives due to their light weight and short blade length, which make the physics of batoning less relevant and which I personally wouldn’t want to subject to heavy batoning anyway.

I started by thinking about the differences between how the force is applied to the wood when splitting with an axe and a knife. With an axe, the force is applied directly to the center of the end of the piece of wood (in most cases). If the axe gets stuck, the wood can continue to be pounded against a chopping block, further driving the axe head through. The force of the split is always in the axe head, and therefore centered in the wood. When batoning with a knife, the force is only centered in the wood when first pounding the blade into the wood. Once the spine of the knife is level with the top of the wood, force can no longer be applied to the center of the piece of wood (unless you use some kind of wedge on the spine). When the knife spine is flush with the wood, you have to start striking a part of the blade that is outside the piece of wood. What you now have is a lever (the knife) on a fulcrum (the point of tightest contact in the wood). When you strike down on one side of the blade, the other side goes up. This is less efficient than striking directly over the center of the wood.

One solution to this is to push the handle down while striking the blade sticking out of the other side of the wood, but this has been repeatedly shown to weaken and break knives (especially non-sandwich tang knives) due to the stress that results near the handle. So pushing down on the handle is not a good idea.

Striking the blade on the same side as the handle would require the handle to be held upward as the blows are struck. I think this would probably have a similar effect as described above and put unnecessary strain on the handle. I will look into this further, though.

So how do you make the best use of the force being applied while minimizing the lever effect and putting less stress on the knife? My solution is to arrange the knife and the wood in a way that directs the splitting force as close as possible to the center of the wood. The way to do this is to position the knife on the wood so the amount of blade that will be left sticking out on the tip side is just enough to be solidly struck with the baton, and also to strike the blade as close to the piece of wood as possible on the tip side (in other words, striking as close to the fulcrum as possible). Here, the mass and longer lever on the handle side counterbalance the baton blows on the tip side (the balance point of the knife itself should ideally be outside the piece of wood, on the handle side). These opposing forces on both sides of the knife enable the power of the blow to be directed as close to the center of the wood as possible, making splitting more effective. This greatly reduces the lever action of batoning, because the much shorter side of the lever (the tip side of the blade) is the side being struck.

After testing this “theory” I found that it worked surprisingly well in practice in both green and seasoned wood (I tested wood up to about 8 cm/3 inches thick with a 23 cm/9 inch blade), with and without knots. While I was testing, I did see a small amount of the lever effect, with the handle side starting to rise up, but it was only minor, and I just pushed the handle back down between baton blows (I kept my hand loosely on the handle just to keep the whole thing steady, but did not push down on the handle while batoning). I should mention that I started striking the spine of the knife directly over the center of the wood to get the split started and maximize the force. The results of my limited testing are very promising, and I will go out and try some thicker pieces of wood next time.

I would be very interested to know what you think about this and if anyone else has thought this much about this topic. :) If my ramblings don’t make a lot of sense, I can try to make a simple diagram to show what I mean.

A wet, winter-ish hike

Winter is still not here. It’s dark, it’s muddy and it’s wet, but that didn’t stop me from checking out a new place today. Instead of exploring more of the property I usually go to, as I had originally planned, I went to a public forested area not far from our neighborhood. I’m really glad I gave it a shot, because it’s a pretty decent place.

Right away, I spotted some more confused plants that think spring has arrived.

(Little ferns in the center):

Some snow was still left on the roads/trails from the storm we had.

But for the most part there wasn’t much of the white stuff to be seen.

The sad part about the next picture is that it was not intended to be in black-and-white.

A bit more than half-way through the hike, it started to snow. Unfortunately, the air wasn’t that cold, so the snow was wet and melted on my jacket (the temperature was juuuust above freezing). But it did look nice.

By the time I passed by the area near where I took the picture of the young ferns, this is what it looked like:

In all, I hiked for about 2 hours and 15 minutes, so I probably went about 8 – 10 km/5 – 6 mi. I’m embarrassed and annoyed that I hadn’t taken more time to check out this place until now, seeing as how close it is to our home. Well, now I know, and now I have a new place to hike nearby.