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Fatwood: Its History And Uses

Posted by Self Reliance Outfitters on August 05, 2013  

For those looking to hone their bushcraft, some familiarity with fatwood goes a long way. This material has a long history with humankind, and remains highly valuable to anyone roaming the backwoods.

Fatwood most commonly refers to the resin-imbued heartwood of pine trees; in fact, it’s sometimes called “heart pine.” Heartwood is the tough interior tissue of a tree; the layers of wood surrounding it make up the sapwood, which is then enclosed in inner and outer bark.

Subject to a variety of environmental processes, a cut or felled pine tree may become a great reservoir of fatwood in its standing stump. Resin accumulated and hardened in the trunk base confers natural rot resistance. Fatwood may also develop where a pine is injured—as when a windstorm breaks off a branch, or lightning scars the trunk.

PITCH AND PINE TAR

The products of pine resin called pitch and tar have been used for hundreds of years as preservatives and sealants for wood, rope, and other materials. Burning fatwood in a controlled environment—through dry distilling—causes viscous pitch and less gummy tar to leach out (while the wood turns to charcoal).

In the era of wooden ships, these substances were major commercial products, used to seal beams to ensure seaworthy vessels. The great pinewoods of the American colonies, for example, became critical sources of pitch and tar for England’s naval fleet in the early 1700s.

FIRE-STARTING WITH FATWOOD

For the outdoors enthusiast, fatwood is more interesting as a fire starter—a capability that’s earned it plenty of other nicknames, such as “lighter knot,” “rich lighter,” and “fat lighter.” It makes fantastic kindling for outside use, as the resinous, terpene-saturated wood burns hot and fast even if damp. Using yoursurvival knife, you can also pare off fatwood shavings to create spark-catching tinder. A bit of fatwood can be rewardingly toted with your survival gear.

In woods with a decent pine component, you often won’t have to look long to find a likely source of fatwood. A pine stump, particularly one in which the outer sapwood has rotted away to expose the strong core, is ideal. A fallen log is often more decomposed, but the exposed roots are commonly resin-packed. A knot on a snag, representing a point where a branch sloughed off and resins accumulated, can produce good fatwood parings via a hatchet or survival knife; so can a solitary fallen pine branch, suitably weathered.

You can usually gauge fatwood by its scent: It will have a strong, even overwhelming resinous aroma.

Remember, a good chunk of fatwood can be used again and again to produce tinder and kindling. You can stow fatwood shavings in your fire kit with your other survival gear for future needs. For pre-packaged fatwood check out our Fatwood Kindlin in The Pathfinder Store.

All things considered, it’s amazing to think how lifesaving the old core of a long-dead pine can be in a wilderness-emergency situation.

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