Birch Bark Fly Rod Grip
Since I blogged about my faux birch bark rod grip and reel seat I’ve had a lot of visitors who arrive here after googling “birch bark fly rod grip”. I’m sure many of these were looking for natural birch bark grips. Well, it just so happens that I make those too!
I made this grip for a personal rod several years ago. The reel seat and tips of the grip are olive wood. The decorative bands are 3/16″ burnt cork surrounding burl cork. The main body of the grip is birch bark. Here is how I make them:
Collecting Birch Bark
Almost everyone is familiar with the white papery bark of the birch tree – that is not the stuff you want to use to make fly rod grips! Underneath the white papery bark, is the actual bark – typically 1/8″ or so thick. It can be peeled from the log in strips – I peel strips 6-8″ wide. One really important comment though – Please Do Not take the bark from living trees – it will kill the tree. Windblown birch trees are a perfect source and the bark is usable even on trees that have been downed for many years.
Use a sharp knife (a box cutter is perfect for this) and cut a slit about 6″ along the length of the log. Peel off the paper bark from around the log. Then, working at the slit you cut, slide the knife under that inner bark layer – it is easy to find where it separates from the wood underneath. Once you have started peeling the inner bark up, you can grip it with both hands and peel the bark off the tree. The bark will curl in to a roll. Collect a lot of bark!
Processing the Birch Bark
After collection, I stack the bark between 2 pieces of 1 by 8 pine and clamp them to keep them flat while they dry for a few weeks. A 12″ diameter tree will yield a strip about 37″ long so I cut these in half to make 18″ strips. My 1 by 8s are 20″ long. Use 4 clamps – 1 at each end and 2 spaced evenly between them. You don’t need to put the death squeeze on them, they just need to be held reasonably flat!
Once the strips are dry, I use a 1 1/2″ hole saw that has a 1/4″ pilot drill bit to make as many birch bark rings as I can get! I then quickly sand both sides of each ring on 220 grit sand paper glued to a sheet of glass (with spray contact cement). This helps remove any bumps and imperfections and provides a good glue surface for the next step.
Gluing Birch Bark Stacks
I like to glue up stacks of bark rings about 1 to 1 1/2″ tall and then glue these shorter stacks together to make the grip. You can also use these short stacks as accents on regular cork grips. These short stacks are glued up on 1/4″ by 2 1/2″ long bolts (with a hex head so you can get a wrench on it) so you can really get a lot of clamping pressure on them. You’ll also need 2 fender washers (1 1/2″ diameter) and a 1/4″ nut. You can use 2 disks of 1/2″ plywood instead of the fender washers if you prefer. I have 10 of these (bolt, 2 washers, nut) “clamps” so I can glue up enough stacks for a grip at one time. For glue, I’ve used Gorilla Glue and epoxy but lately I’ve been using Titebond 3 – it is a lot easier to use and is waterproof and works great.
Here’s how to glue up the stacks:
- slide a large fender washer on the bolt
- coat one side of a bark ring with Titebond 3 glue and slide it on the bolt with the dry side toward the washer
- now, coat both sides of a bark ring and slide it on the bolt – rotating it so its grain line is oriented 90° to the ring below it.
- repeat this with 8 to 20 more rings (rotating each one 90°) to make a stack 1 to 1 1/2″ tall
- coat one side of a bark ring and add that to the stack, glue side to glue
- slide another fender washer on the stack and screw on the 1/4″ nut
- use 2 wrenches to clamp the stack tightly
Once the glue is dry, release the nut and remove the washers and stack. You may have to screw the bolt out with a wrench – another reason to work with shorter stacks! Finally, ream the center hole with a 1/4″ drill to clean it up.
Gluing up the Birch Bark Grip
From this point, you basically glue up the grip just like you would glue up a cork grip. Just make sure to orient the grain lines on the ends of 2 stacks being glued together at 90° to each other. I use a 1/4″ threaded rod about 15″ long to glue up my cork and birch bark grips with a nut and fender washer at each end. Add enough birch bark stacks to create the length of grip you want (remember to glue them!) and tighten the nuts to apply clamping pressure. Once the glue is dry, you can remove the nuts, washers and birch bark cylinder. Again, you might have to back the threaded rod out with a wrench (and 2 nuts locked on it). If you want to add cork or wood accents – like the grip in the photo above – simply add those details as you glue up the stacks.
Tips on Turning the Birch Bark Grip on the Lathe
At this point, you can turn the grip on the lathe. I use a 1/4″ mandrel held between centers. Start with a sharp gouge to rough the grip in to a cylinder. If you have cork or wood accents, you need to be careful when you move from one material to another. Go slow and feel the tool cutting. I rough my grip to shape with the gouge until it is about 1/8″ over diameter from the final size. From this point I use sandpaper to complete the turning. Birch bark is harder than cork but not as hard as pine. It tears out easily so sandpaper is the way to go. I start with 60 grit and start to work down to final dimensions. Progress to 100 grit, 220 grit and finally 400 grit. Go slow and measure often. The completed grip should be smooth and silky feeling. Don’t worry if there are small imperfections in the bark – those little black “imperfections” sometimes pop out. We’ll fix those next. Here’s what the turned grip before applying the finish looks like:
Finishing the Birch Bark Grip
I finish my grips on the lathe starting with Tung Oil. I apply it with 600 grit sandpaper. This makes a slurry that fills in the birch bark imperfections nicely. Let the Tung oil dry between coats – I apply 3 coats. Once the last coat is dry, I use Tru-Oil as the final finish. I apply 8 light coats with a clean cotton cloth – letting the TruOil dry between coats. Finish with a paste wax if desired.
Here’s the final product glued on to a St Croix SCIV blank: