Illustrations by Joseph Smith
If you’re building a log cabin or some other sort of log structure, your instructions will likely tell you to peel the logs first. Peeling the bark off logs increases the longevity of the wood because bark provides both a home for damaging insects and a place for moisture to collect, which can ultimately lead to rot.
Perhaps you’ve tried peeling a log or two and, after considerable effort, have ended up with a bruised and gouged piece of wood, not at all like the smooth logs pictured in the log home catalogs. Peeling logs can be very easy or very difficult, depending on when and how you go about it.
The keys to an easy peel are to cut the tree when it is actively growing, which only happens in the spring of the year, and peel it as soon as possible thereafter. In spring, the cambium is dividing rapidly and creating new wood, resulting in a soft, slippery layer beneath the bark. This allows the bark to be peeled away easily. Loggers know to be careful not to bump up against trees at this time of year (generally mud season to mid summer), since just a light bump against the “loose” bark of the season can cause a large section to be stripped completely off.
By the time autumn rolls around, the sapwood and cambium are drier and the bark has tightened. If you try to peel a tree in autumn, you’ll find the bark is practically glued to the wood. The most important part of any log-peeling task, therefore, is planning.
If you have a quantity of fresh, spring-cut logs to peel, the right tool for the job is a bark spud. No, not a potato, but a long, curved metal blade on the end of a wooden handle, looking something like a giant, sharpened spatula or an oversized, curved chisel. To peel the log, first make a “zipper” with an axe by lightly scoring the bark along the length of the log, just deep enough to reach the sapwood. Then insert the spud into the bark zipper, perpendicular to the length of the log, with the curve in the blade matching the curve of the log. Then slide the spud in under the bark, a little bit at a time, as you lever the handle to pry the bark away from the wood.
You can also use an axe to do the same task, though a spud makes the job easier. With a spud and an axe, you ought to be able to completely remove the bark from a large log in a matter of minutes. One word of caution: a spring-peeled log will be slicker than a greased pig, so plan on allowing your freshly peeled logs to dry for a few days before hauling them in to place on your project. If you aren’t going to start building right away, you can keep the peeled logs from molding and staining by rinsing them in a dilute bleach solution.
If you haven’t planned ahead and need to peel logs whose bark has already tightened up and dried out, a drawknife is the best option, but the work will be very time consuming. Unless you are thorough and patient, you’ll leave behind streaky brown bands of inner bark. Better to plan the job in advance and do the harvesting and peeling in the spring.
Carl Demrow is a trail consultant and carpenter when he’s not busy tending his woodlot in Washington, Vermont.