Traditional wood staining using Hemlock bark.

     For centuries the bark of the Hemlock tree, (Abies canadensis, Michaux. (Pinus canadensis, Linné;Picea canadensis, Link; Tsuga canadensis, Carrière).  has been used to create a stain for coloring wooden dishes among the North east woodland and great lakes nations of indigenous people.  This stain rendered from the boiled bark, not only colors the wood but also adds a protective oil, known as oleoresin. 


        (Harvesting outer and inner bark )

   Arthur C. Parker ‘ s book, “Parker on the Iroquois”, states that, the dishes were boiled in a solution of water and the bark of the Hemlock tree, producing a black color. These dishes were prized on the darkness of the color and the oil the wood held.

    Harvesting times play an important role in quality of color and in quantity of resinoids.
The best time I’ve found to harvest, yielding the best results are during winter and early spring when the oleoresins are condensed in greater quantities at the base of the tree.


Preparing the color:
    In my research on this natural stain, I’ve found it will produce three different colors depending on which part of the bark is used.  The preperation of this stain is fairly straight forward;  start with a pound or so of the bark, add water, and boil. Ive found the best reduction rate to be 10 gallons of water reduced to around 2 pints. The finished product should have the viscosity of milk.

     Application, and parts of bark used :
They’re are three ways of applying this stain,  all require the stain to be boiling.
The first method is to fully submerge the wood into the boiling liquid. I used both the outer bark and the cambium layer,  As a test piece for this method of application I used a cup carved from basswood  (tilla americana/ linden/ lime)
    After an hour of boiling the white wood took on a purple color, after 4 hours submerged it became pitch black.


    Second application, using only the outer bark or rough scales, I repeated the same reduction ratio. Using an Box Elder (Acer Negundo) burl cup, I poured the boiling liquid over the cup, and using a cotton rag I began rubbing the cup. As the liquid evaporated and cup began to cool small black dots of the oleoresin started to appear, the rubbing with the rag pushed the oils back into the wood. This method took between 6 and 8 applications, with cooling and dry time inbetween, to achieve the desired color. The final result was a blackish brown.
The only draw back was the rag absorbed alot of the color.


    Third method, using only the cambium layer, the same reduction ratio, and another Box Elder burl cup. I repeated the process of pouring on the boiling liquid,  instead of a rag I used a piece of cambium (which after boiling became soft and fibrous), the cambium which held color and oil allowed for a more uniform application of the stain, and instead of absorbing the color and oil like the cotton rag, it actually pushed more color into the wooden cup. This allowed for less applications of the stain, with a resulting color of a dark burgundy


     The applications for Hemlock stain are not limited to just eating ware, I use it on my mokotagen handles and many other pieces of carved wood.


Gunstock war club made of maple and colored with hemlock..

    The finishing process is an easy one,  once the Hemlock stain dries it will leave a dull powdery residue on the wood, this can be lightly sanded off or left on and let mix with your choice of oil. Personally I like to leave the residue on when I apply the mix of bear fat and bees wax, the oil rehydrates the dried residue and let’s it absorb into the wood further giving more bang for your buck.
After each application of oil/wax I’ll burnish the piece with a smooth section of whitetail antler, until the surface is smooth and shiny.
I’ll repeat this burnish and oiling at least three times.


6 thoughts on “Traditional wood staining using Hemlock bark.

  1. Love the look and the fact you are using traditional methods in you work.. We need to keep these methods and techniques alive.. Thanks for sharing my friend..

  2. Wouldn’t it be less harmful to the tree to use branches and twigs when the moon is full and the sap is running? The cambium would be full of the oils, and the tree would not have to recover from the wound.

  3. Even removing twigs and branches would leave a wound, and the amount of material needed from small branches would cause a greater affect than the small section of base bark removed.
    With anything harvested great care and respect is taken not to do any damage to the tree that would harm it in the long run. What’s not pictured is the mud patch put on the harvested area to form a band-aid of sorts.
    Bark has been harvested from many types of trees for eons without causing irreparable damages, cedar weavers are able to harvest the same forests for generations because of responsible harvesting techniques. As long as no more than 1/3 of the circumference of the tree is harvested , the tree will heal over and repair itself. We take only what is needed and no more.

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