If you're looking to make a durable, appealing, functional basket, look no further than the black ash tree. The Black Ash (Fraxinus nigra), also called the basket tree, is the northern-most native ash. It is found in the wet soils of cold swamps and peat bogs where drainage is poor, and at the boundaries of coniferous and hardwood forests. Because of its habitat it is rare to encounter a black ash that reaches over 1 foot in diameter. The top of the tree will often appear to be "half-sick" with a sort of halloweenish silhouette. The strong thick branches of the tree are found in a crown at the top with an absence of small twigs. The leaflets are bunched in groups of 7-11 and are opposite each other and attach directly (no leaf stalk) to a central 12-16" lead-stem. Individual leaves are broad and lance-shaped with finely serrated edges.
Example of Black Ash Leaves
The bark is distinctive and resembles that of an elm. It is gray in color, corky in nature, and fissures into soft scaly parts. When selecting a tree look for the straightest one you can find that provides a log at least 8 or 10" thick and 10-12 feet long. Stuart Soboleski, Sterling's farm manager, cut us a nice black ash prior to our class and brought along his friend and mentor, master basket maker Irene Ames to teach us the splint harvesting technique. We carried two 6' sized log sections from the cedar swamp to our work space. You'll want to harvest the splints soon after cutting the tree as you will need the wood to be moist and pliable. If the tree dries out between cutting and working it you can soak it in a body of water or a trough. Note the bark coloring and pattern.
The next step is to remove the bark from the tree. Use a knife or fingers to break away a piece of the spongy outer bark. As long as it is still wet you should be able to work your hands underneath the bark and peel it off in one piece or nearly so. If not, use a draw knife to remove the bark.
After removing the bark, prop one or both ends of the tree up on a notched log to keep it off the ground and prevent it from rolling around. Use an iron or wooden mallet or 2-3 pound short handled sledge hammer to pound the log down its length. This will crush the connecting fibers between growth rings allowing the splints to peel off in strips to use as weaving material and uprights for your basket. Propping the log up ensures that the log absorbs most of the impact, not the ground. You will need to hit the log with significant force but do not hit so hard that you fissure the wood. Allow the weight of the mallet to do most of the work. For ease in peeling off the splints make sure you overlap your blows several times, perhaps as many as 16 times per square inch for the top layer. The hits will send shock waves through the entire log helping to loosen some lower layers as well. Native Americans coated the log with mud to show where their pounding stopped as well as to prevent the log from drying out.
After you thoroughly pound down the length of the log a few times covering a width of about 6", make two cuts a few inches apart at one end of the log into the growth ring of the surface layer. Work the knife blade underneath the ring from the end to pry a piece up and start your splint. You should then be able to take a knife and work it underneath the growth ring, prying and cutting if necessary with one hand while pulling and wiggling with the other, and a splint of wood should come free in one long strip. If the splint starts to stick to the layer underneath it continue to pound the area with your mallet then try peeling off the splint and pounding again until it comes free. The outer most layers are new growth rings and will still be somewhat spongy and stuck together so they will likely not be of much use. Working through these first couple layers is key to getting down to the strong supple inner layers. Once you begin to see rings of a uniform darker brown you have hit pay dirt. Remove these layers in approximately 2" wide strips and set aside for further refinement. As you get down to the heartwood you will probably start to notice more knots that will break up the length of the splints. There will still be workable material between these knots but eventually as you get closer to the center you will come to a point where it is no longer worth the trouble.
After you harvest several workable splints that are the length of the tree you can begin to shave off some of the cambium that may be stuck to the splint by using a knife and a leather patch.
After cleaning your splints you may want to split some of them into thinner thicknesses (1 to 2mm maybe) depending on your plans for weaving. Some thicker splints can be saved for uprights and handles but thinner pieces are ideal for weaving and will remain extremely strong. Using a knife, cut halfway through the end of your splint about an inch from the top. You should be able to fold over a tab so that you now have two sides at the tip of the splint in a V shape. Next you will need the splitting device seen below. It is simple and cheap to make on your own or you can do the next step by hand. Feed the V end of the splint through the hole in the side of one of the splitting device legs. Bring it up through the mouth of the device and compress the two legs with your knees. Keep the tips of the legs even and pull each side of the splint away from the middle with slow, consistent force. You should see the splint begin to split into two thinner splints. If one side begins to get thinner than the other add more pressure with your knee to the thin side to raise the thin side leg above the other leg and even out the splint.
Once you have your splint at the desired thickness you can change the width by using a straight edge to rip the wood by drawing a blade down the length of the splint. Depending on your basket, about a 1/2" to 1/4" width may be ideal for weavers, and a 1" to 3/4" width for uprights. Below are two examples of unfinished splints in varying thickness and width. The splints are rolled for storage and should be soaked prior to weaving or reworking to make them more supple.
Thank you to Stuart Soboleski for helping with this project and thank you to Irene Ames for dedicating your time, knowledge, and skill to teaching us this craft. For more information on Black/Brown Ash Basketry visit Irene's website at http://www.imabasket.com/. Stay tuned for next week when we cover the weaving and finishing technique for creating beautiful, long lasting baskets.
Identification/Preparation/Historical Info from:
McGuire, John E. Old New England Splint Baskets and how to make them. Schiffer Publishing, Ltd: Westchester, PA 1985.