Birch uses and dry distillation

In my next few blogs, I will be taking a closer look at birch and its uses, our two native species being silver birch (Betula pendula) and downey birch (Betula pubescens) before focusing on its bark and the properties it holds. We will look at further uses through dry distillation, and how we can look at achieving this using modern materials, before looking at how our ancestors may have achieved this some 200,000 years ago without them.

Beaver dam from birch (Sweden)

Our ancestors and four fathers have been utilising this amazing tree streatching from North America, Scandinavia, Finland, Russia and across to China for an incredible amount of uses. Both the Romans and the Greeks used it as a glue. Otzi’s copper axe was held in place with birch tar dating some 5,000 years ago.

The mighty birch

Some of the uses for birch include basketry, cups, spoons, knife handles, back packs, hats, snaps cup, hydration, birch sap wine, poncho, canoes, fire lighting, shoes, torches and associated fungi in horses hoof Fungi (Fomes fomentarius) for a fine ember extender in the form of amadou, birch polypore (Piptoporus betullinus) for plasters, knife strop and ember extender and chaga (Inonotus obliquus) as a tinder and its antioxidant benefits.

My spoon carved from birch and stained in birch oil

The list goes on and on, many of which involve the bark and with good reason, it has some amazing properties. The birch bark cells contain fatty waxy acids making it, waterproof, flexible and resistant to moderate Acids and Oils. The bark also contains betulinol which is antiseptic and resistant to micro-organisms, making it great for food containers and storing perishable items, but if containers are made with modern glues and ply board, they destroy the natural qualities of the material.

Harvesting of birch bark

Birch bark also contains oils which can be extracted through dry distillation, this is thought to be the oldest transformative process known to man, believed to date back as far as some 200,000 years.

Dry distillation of birch oil

This oil can be used in the tanning of leather, which Russian leather is renowned for, mainly used for making of shoes, bags, or saddle goods. Originally, this type of leather was tanned with willow bark or birch bark and greased with birch tar oil for waterproofing, which in turn is good for waterproofing clothing. It also repels insects, helps with cuts with its antiseptic, astringent and disinfectant qualities helping to protect skin from bacterial & fungal infections, this also helps with skin conditions like eczema. It is rot resistant and is good for the care for tool handles and doubles up as a nice wood stain. Containing volatile oils, it is also useful as fuel for oil lamps or for lighting a fire.

Birch oil from dry distillation

This oil can then be rendered down by evaporating the volatiles to produce a tar. This is made up of Betulene, Betulenol, Creosol, Cresol, Guaiacol, Phenols and Xylenol. The tar is a thermos-plastic that is:

  • 18°C Solid
  • 30°C Softer (Can be moulded in your hands)
  • 40°C Medium stiff putty
  • 57°C soft sticky putty
  • 178°C Boiling point

This tar can then be used fixing bindings securing fletching’s and projectile points helping to protect them from weather and rot, as well as sealing birch bark containers and much more.

Jay’s talk on birch and dry distillation at a show

Next time well look at a modern step by step process for dry distillation that you can try yourself.


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