Sunday, 8 May 2016

John Rhyder Bark Workshop

If you've ever been to the Weald and Downland open air museum you'll know that it's a fantastic and timeless place to visit and I had the double pleasure of doing a bark workshop with respected professional bushcraft instructor John Rhyder there.

I'd seen that he had done various courses at this location before and decided to message him via Facebook in late Autumn to see if he was doing any this year and managed to inadvertently do so whilst he was on holiday. He said he'd get back to me and, to his credit, he did and despite it being a bit of a drive I couldn't book this date quick enough.


It seemed strange getting to such a popular location with no other visitors there and it did give me the chance to take a person free shot of the main set of buildings. Ten of us formed up (even though I could have sworn it said eight maximum) and enthusiastic staff got us all a hot beverage to start the day off, in a proper china mug I'll have you know! The museum holds courses in various buildings and we were led to a custom made education room (number 30 on this map) which had a lot of antique tools on the walls which really set the tone. 

And as we entered John was  by several boxes of tools and handmade containers that he had brought for the day. I was under the impression that he was a fairly quietly spoken individual and that proved to the case, but he is but doesn't need to be loud because he was a good teacher with a sense of humour and was both both patient and encouraging and often referenced indiginous folks and their crafts.


He started by running through some of the afore mentioned items he had made, different barks that he has used and so on.


And it wasn't long before he tasked us with prepping our bark and duly did a sharps safety talk before demonstrating how to efficiently strip the outer bark off the wood he had cut for us. He said that he has a lot of Sweet Chestnut in his woods and that he'd harvested it at 6pm the previous night so it was nice and fresh. I've not really used any before and so was keen to see how it worked out and indeed to see what the purple tinted sap was like too.


The museum provided us with hot beverages and biscuits and cake and after stripping the outer bark John then cut, spudded, measured  and removed the all important  inner bark. He stripped several lengths throughout he day to make sure folk had spare if needed.

We then crowded around to watch the magic begin. I was surprised that I was the only one to bring a camera and I had it set to take multiple pictures. Good job I did as he has very dexterous hands and lots of shots were obscured by them. 


His woven basket soon came together and  he then tasked us with getting our own bark sorted. John made a four strand one but did advise that finishing it off can be a bit fiddly due to the narrowness of it so I did an eight strand one because as you can see in the above picture I had a single tannin laced beverage and lots of tannin laced strips!


I found the steel ruler difficult to hold steady due to the wet nature of the fresh bark and some of my strips did vary in length somewhat and another time I will simply do it by eye which I had initially decided to do. Still, I was more than happy with my attempt and John had explained several ways to finish it off and as I'd made mine wider I wanted to bury the ends inside. The good thing is that I had a wider neck to my container (everyone elses was half the width of mine of course) but as it took me longer I had to stop finishing it off and bring it home to do one evening.

Just before dinner I showed John a small length of lime bast cordage that I had made to get a his views on it's quality, and I'm pleased to say that it past muster. After a break for dinner (John lived so close that he went home for some!) he took us through the theory of a square version of the woven basket which took the skills needed from a two to a three dimensional weave if you will. They look fantastic but a beginner will earn his stripes making one methinks.

And onto containers made of a single piece of bark. We were taken through the process of making a fruit and berry basket with a concave base, and a flat bottomed container. again we were tasked with stripping our own logs and the warm day had made this task harder as the bark wasn't as giving this time round. At this stage it was also noticeable that my fingertips were a light purple colour and that the water ran dark when you washed your hands.

The staff  brought is in more refreshments as I set about making a flat bottomed one. I was rather satisfied with the result and even left a small leafy branch on  one of the pegs securing the shape. Actually John mentioned that tannin rich solutions are good at lining the stomach so inhibits absorption which is handy in this case.

As I did some fine adjustments I noticed that the brim was a little distented on one side, and I noticed that there was a little bit of outer bark and 'hard brown bits' that were so resistant to being removed that I left them on lest I punch a large hole in the bark. I guessed that this area was the cause of the problem and sorted it by pushing my tupperware lunch box into the basket and packed it out with outer bark shavings. Job done-nearly...Again this project will need further work at home, not because I didn't get it done in time but John said that sewing it up needed delaying to allow for the drying process to occur.

I had a smaller piece of bark left over but alas it wasn't the right dimensions to make a fruit and berry basket but the tannin stained scratchings out on this offcut caught my eye and did make me wonder if it would be possible to do some sort of artwork on a future basket, or indeed a herring bone pattern on strips.

The day drew to a close and I had another look at the bits John had brought along for us to see. Whatever the world's biggest car park (the M25) chucked at me I'd had a good day; it was a laid back group which was made up of men and women and we all did the weaved basket but some then did one piece baskets, one attempted the '3D' basic and one chap admirably stuck at finishing the first project. I am just starting a six month work sabbatical which is a long service award and I've been planing stuff for some time, one of John's Weald and Downland days was on the list for some time and I wasn't  disappointed. If you live within striking distance of this fantastic place do consider either visiting or doing one of John's or indeed any of the courses on offer. Have a look at this page for more details. 

Oh, and the M25 behaved itself there and back.

a look at the fine detail of John's arrows


  1. Nice post Austin. John is a great teacher.

  2. Thanks George, I have to say I was a little starstruck at first.