In March when Kelley was looking for logs in Nelson County, he met someone who was building his own house, using poplar bark for siding. Kelley loved the look of the poplar bark siding. He wanted to explore the idea of using poplar bark to finish the gable ends of the log house. I, of course, was skeptical. When I asked if poplar bark would be long-lasting and low maintenance, Kelley pointed out that trees have bark for many years and do no maintenance at all. Which made sense to me–in a way. When I asked how it looked, Kelley found photos on the Internet that showed beautiful houses with rustic but elegant style. When I asked how expensive it was, Kelley told me that, since loggers routinely strip the bark off poplar trees and discard it, poplar bark is free if you know when and where to get it. “Free” is an enticing word.
We found a lot of information that indicated that using poplar bark to side houses, while perhaps eccentric, is not crazy. In fact bark is an extremely practical alternative to other siding materials. Bark shingles are durable and can last 100 years. They require no painting or other maintenance. They have a rustic textured appearance that complements the look of other natural materials, such as log and stone. Using poplar bark shingles is also an earth-friendly–the bark that is used would typically be left to rot, burned, or used for mulch.
Using bark for housing has a long history in this country, beginning with structures built by native American Indians. There are examples of more recent bark houses in New England and in the Northwest. In 1895, architect Henry Bacon, who is most famous for designing the Lincoln Memorial, designed a house sided with shingles made from American chestnut bark. This was probably the first use of bark shingles with sawed edges. The house was built in Linville, in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. Between 1895 and 1930, many stylish and expensive vacation and summer houses were built in that area using chestnut bark shingles. Chestnut blight, which began to strike trees around 1900, killed off the trees from which the bark was taken, and after about 1930, no more chestnut bark houses were built in that area. Some of the houses built during those years still stand. Many of the original chestnut shingles have been replaced with shingles from tulip (yellow) poplar. Since the mid-1990s, the use of poplar bark for siding has become popular in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains, often in high-end houses and resorts, and there are several manufacturers of poplar bark shingles in that area.
Although he could have purchased poplar bark shingles from North Carolina manufacturers, Kelley decided that it would be practical and interesting to track down some poplar logs locally and make shingles for the house. He and Lewis checked with loggers, lumber mills, and even the Forest Service to locate poplar logs. When loggers cut poplar trees, they drag the logs from the forest to their trucks and take it to lumber yards where the bark is stripped off and discarded. The bark is considered waste material, and after this rough treatment it is not suitable for shingle-making. Kelley and Lewis needed to locate logs still on the ground in the woods before they were dragged, trucked, and stripped. It was also important to find the logs in late spring or early summer, because this is when the trees create new growth and the bark slips off most easily.
After six weeks or so of searching, Lewis found out about someone cutting poplar on a remote mountainside between Craigsville and Goshen. He was willing to give the bark to us, so yesterday Kelley, Lewis, Aaron and Braxton took Lewis’s trailer to Goshen and found six sixteen-foot poplar logs lying in a meadow near the woods. And it wasn’t even raining.
To harvest the poplar bark, Lewis made a cut with his saw through the bark along the length of the log. Then he made crosswise cuts at twenty-inch intervals. Aaron, Braxton, and Kelley followed him, stripping the bark using bark spuds and loaded it into the trailer. Aaron and Braxton bought their antique bark spuds from Menno Kinsinger, who also sold us some logs. I will get a photo of a bark spud next week and post it. The bark spuds look something like a shortish hoe with a curved blade. The blade slips under the bark and helps to loosen the bark from the log.
When the bark arrived at our property, Aaron and Braxton unloaded it from the trailer and stacked it on pallets near the house. This morning I helped as Kelley sorted the bark slabs and restacked and stickered the pieces. Kelley weighted the stacks with cinderblocks so that the bark will flatten as it dries. Pretty soon he will take it to the Taylor and Boody kiln where it will dry for about a week. After that it will be ready to use.
Kelley and Lewis plan to get more poplar bark from the same site as soon as the ground is dry enough for the loggers to get back into the woods.
Kelley got great and friendly advice from Danny Heatherly, owner of Barkclad Natural Products (http://www.barkclad.com). Kelley called him after finding the company Website, and Danny was kind enough to share his knowledge about gathering the poplar bark. His Website has lots of interesting information, great photos of a much larger operation than ours, and a certain “mountains of North Carolina” flair.