Birch bark carving knife pair (SPRAD knives)

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Project by Dave Polaschek posted 08-15-2019 09:46 AM 2055 views 0 times favorited 34 comments Add to Favorites Watch

This is the story of the pair of knives I made to send to MaFe, with the plan that he would pick one of the knives for himself, and then send me a sheath for the other knife in return. As I wasn’t sure of the size of his hands, I made the knives similar in size, sized more for my large hands than his, but figuring he could always remove birch make a smaller handle, which he did.

The knives start, as in picture 2, stacking birch bark on the tang of the knife, plus a brass bolster I set on the tang. The knife blank comes from Morakniv and I like their 106 and 120 blanks. The birch bark comes from Russia, and there are a number of vendors on eBay who sell stacks of birch bark. I’ve found that the Russian vendors tend to have the best price (even including shipping) for prepared bark. Buying birch bark stacks from the US, I end up with a lot more waste, because the bark hasn’t been scraped as well.

I punch the holes in the bark using a leather punch, making a line of three, two or one hole, depending on which portion of the tang the piece of bark is going on. I also use a shop made tool to compress the bark as I work, making sure the layers are stacked as tightly as I can. I also thread the tail end of the tang at this point. Due to the square tang, what I usually do is thread it first with a 10-32 die, then thread it again with an 8-32. I want about a quarter inch of threads to work with. I’m sure there are metric sizes that will work well, but having the pair of dies with the same threads means I can do this as a two-step process, rather than having to anneal the last bit of tang so I could thread it in one step.

Once I have nearly enough layers on, I compress the handle further using a shop-made vise (picture 3), and I put the handles into the toaster oven at 225F (105C) for a few hours. This will soften the pitch in the bark, and will somewhat “weld” the handle together. This step isn’t absolutely necessary, but I’ve found that I get a better handle by doing it. I can also tighten the vise down a little more after the handle has been baked, further compressing the bark.

Some will put the handles into boiling water at this point, but I think that’s hard on the steel. Others will compress the bark in a stack, boil it, and then drill a hole for the tang of the knife. But as with most woodworking, there’s more than one way to do it.

After the handles have been baked, I’ll add a few more layers of bark, then cap that off with a few washers, then an 8-32 nut. I try not to crank this down too tightly, and if there’s room, I’ll add more layers of bark to fill the space so the end of the tang barely protrudes from the nut as in picture 4. I’ve also used a piece of brass for a bolster, but the stack of washers is quick and easy, and looks good to my eye.

That will leave me with the very rough handle. I will rough that in using the bandsaw (very messy) or a carving knife (less messy, but slower)

Then I move to the belt sander. Make sure to wear a dust mask at this point, as the birch bark may contain fungi or other things that will be bad for your lungs. I work to a square first, then add a taper as in picture 5. The rectangular bolster serves as a reference for me at this point.

Then I octagonalize the handle, maintaining the taper. This is when I will sand down the nut and washers if I want to make them look less like they came from a hardware store. My “look” is still evolving, and I’m not sure what I like best. Then work to round the handle last. This is a fairly slow process, with lots of pauses to check my work along the way. In the case of these knives, Mads had said he preferred an octagonal handle, so I stopped without making his handle round.

And that gets us to picture 1 which is the pair of knives that I sent from America to Denmark to put the AD on the knives. You can pick up the story at Mads’s blog posting and read how he shaped his knife handle further and made the sheaths for the knives.

-- Dave - Santa Fe

34 comments so far

View EarlS's profile


4754 posts in 3592 days

#1 posted 08-15-2019 11:09 AM

Great idea, a sort of swap approach!!!

I initially thought the handles were cork. I’ll bet the bark handles are easy on the hands and easy to keep a grip on. Have you tried stabilizing the bark beyond baking it?

-- Earl "I'm a pessamist - generally that increases the chance that things will turn out better than expected"

View Oldtool's profile


3323 posts in 3435 days

#2 posted 08-15-2019 11:11 AM

This dual LJ member project is very interesting and a great way to make distant friends, nice. Regarding the knives discussion, nicely detailed and good advice on the birch bark vendors here and abroad.
Great story, thanks for posting.

-- "I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The point is to bring them the real facts." - Abraham Lincoln

View Dave Polaschek's profile

Dave Polaschek

8435 posts in 1826 days

#3 posted 08-15-2019 11:21 AM

Earl, any other stabilizing would make them too solid, I think. I will soak mine in linseed oil and then let it cure for a month or so once I get it back from Mads. That ends up being a pretty nice feel, but anything stiffer, and I might as well use wood. Not bad, just not why I like birch bark.

Tom, Mads and I have been exchanging messages for a while, and yes, I thought this was a good way to work with a distant LJ.

I wish I could find a good domestic source, especially for yellow birch bark (it makes a very nice contrast with the white), but most of the vendors I’ve tried in the states don’t scrape the bark as clean as those in Russia.

-- Dave - Santa Fe

View oldrivers's profile


2728 posts in 2811 days

#4 posted 08-15-2019 11:23 AM

Neat project, looks to be time consuming, enjoyable and rewarding, great job.

-- Soli Deo gloria!

View Don W's profile

Don W

20180 posts in 3812 days

#5 posted 08-15-2019 11:53 AM

Interesting technique. I knew you could stack leather this way, never thought about bark.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View Brit's profile


8445 posts in 4087 days

#6 posted 08-15-2019 12:24 PM

Thanks Dave. I’ve seen a few knives that use birch bark handles and they look great. I’m sure they feel nice in the hand too. You can’t beat those Mora knives in my opinion and they are great value for money.

-- Andy - Old Chinese proverb says: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."

View Dave Polaschek's profile

Dave Polaschek

8435 posts in 1826 days

#7 posted 08-15-2019 12:36 PM

Slightly time consuming, but other than blisters from the leather punch slowing me down halfway through, not too bad. Relaxing work, and doing two at a time seemed to make it go quicker.

Don, birch bark is traditional for handles in Scandinavian countries and Russia. It’s good and grippy in the hand, and doesn’t freeze to your fingers in the cold. I like it a lot. Have to see how it holds up once I move to New Mexico. It may not be as comfortable in the heat.

Andy, they’re pretty comfortable. Also easy to reshape, which means I’ve been experimenting more with different handle shapes and sizes. I like a lot bigger handle than almost anyone else makes, and as Mads pointed out, a large bark handle is still usable even by those with smaller hands.

-- Dave - Santa Fe

View HokieKen's profile


19391 posts in 2383 days

#8 posted 08-15-2019 01:13 PM

Nicely done Dave and a cool story to boot :-)

-- I collect hobbies. There is no sense in limiting yourself (Don W) - - - - - - - - Kenny in SW VA

View Dave Polaschek's profile

Dave Polaschek

8435 posts in 1826 days

#9 posted 08-15-2019 01:40 PM

Thanks, Kenny. And it all started when I saw Mads’ previous blog about making a sheath for another knife, and I thought to myself, “Hey self! Wouldn’t it be neat to have a sheath like that for a knife I made?” We agreed, messages were sent to my Danish friend, and then knives went transatlantic. Good community here, and I find collaborations like this are fun. Next thing you know, I’ll be sending you a 4×4 and you’ll be sending me coasters. ;-)

-- Dave - Santa Fe

View SMP's profile


4836 posts in 1150 days

#10 posted 08-15-2019 02:02 PM

Ineresting, It kind of reminds me of the stacked meat like in the streets of mexico that they carve for tacos.

View Dave Polaschek's profile

Dave Polaschek

8435 posts in 1826 days

#11 posted 08-15-2019 02:39 PM

Not as delicioso, I’m betting.

-- Dave - Santa Fe

View ZAGREB's profile


1276 posts in 2894 days

#12 posted 08-15-2019 07:55 PM

nice idea,Dave,well done

-- bambi

View James E McIntyre's profile

James E McIntyre

1496 posts in 2536 days

#13 posted 08-15-2019 08:43 PM

Great project. Looks like you had a lot of fun making them.
Would you consider soaking them in tung oil? It drys harder and doesn’t melt under higher temperatures.

-- James E McIntyre

View doubleDD's profile


10706 posts in 3287 days

#14 posted 08-15-2019 09:13 PM

That’s super cool Dave. I bet they feel great to use. great story to go along with it.

-- Dave, Downers Grove, Il. -------- When you run out of ideas, start building your dreams.

View ClaudeF's profile


1383 posts in 2951 days

#15 posted 08-15-2019 09:16 PM

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