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Making a birch sled

Saturday 9 March 2002

Tucked away in a story about the 2002 Iditarod trail sled dog race is this description of a traditional Alaskan dog sled:

Making a birch sled is almost a lost art. First, the craftsman must go to a stand of birch and select a straight-grained tree. Usually this is done by “testing” a potential birch by stripping a fiber from the outer tree and noticing the straight­ness. Some birch, in some locations, are better than others. For sure, knots and twists in the wood are not acceptable.

Once a tree is selected, the birch is felled and quartered. With a hand-plane the sled-builder molds the quarters into runners and slats for the sled. The grain for the runners must run parallel to the outside of the tree. Just cutting boards with a saw is not acceptable because the runners would split and break.

Finally, the selected runner boards are placed on a bender and clamped. Some of the benders I have seen are generations old and made from the trunk and curved root of a dry spruce tree. The curve is very important to performance. The bender is usually wired to the ceiling and runners are cured with the heat from the stove.

In the last stages of construction, the parts are fitted and lashed together. Bolts and screws invariably break or work loose, and are not used. A good sled is a work of art and will last for many years.

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