Working with Fatwood

Last week, in the Wet, Rusty, Dirty article, I made mention of fatwood. Fatwood, or pitchwood, is a product of resinous pine trees: After the tree dies, the sap (or resin) sinks to the lower end of the tree where it collects and begins to harden. Thus, fatwood comes primarily from stumps, though it is sometimes found in low branches, at the heart, or where the living tree had been significantly wounded and sap collected as it healed. Because it is rich with these pine resins, which contain highly volatile terpene, fatwood is highly combustible and burns at a higher temperature than less-pitchy wood. Also do to its resinous nature, fatwood is extremely water resistant, and does not become saturated with moisture even in very wet environments.

Though aged and dry on the weathered outside, fatwood has a closed grain, waxy-shiny appearance w/ greater luster to it’s color when cut.

Fatwood is considerably heavier, denser, than other dead pine. It also smells very rich, and may be slightly waxy or sticky. When cut, or split from non-fatwood, the appearance is markedly different as well: Fatwood appears much more close-grained, and may appear to be more shiny. Cutting it into usable pieces is probably best done with a hatchet or axe. A knife can be used to scrape, shave and feather it. Using a saw to process fatwood is possible, though the pitch tends to gum the saw and slow the cutting: If sawing it, be sure to place something to catch the sawdust, as its great fuzz.

Fatwood can be fuzzed, shaved, and feathered into a pile into which a spark can then be struck from a ferro-rod. Although some chemical tinders may ignite faster, fatwood can be reliably ignited within a few tries with a ferro-rod.

Fuzz – Shavings – Spark – Fire

Smaller fatwood fuzz will catch a spark very well, while larger shavings will burn for greater duration. Feathers coming off large pieces will begin the large pieces burning easily, and larger pieces/longer splinters can provide the consistent flame, and greater heat, needed to ignite damp or otherwise difficult kindling. Large pieces of fatwood can provide the body of a fire, if available, that will withstand a good amount of rain. On my recent camping trip, I used a couple good sized pieces of fatwood to keep the fire going in rain, and it burned well enough and hot enough to both withstand the rain and dry then ignite non-fatwood logs on the fire.
A good combination of fatwood fuzz and small shavings make a good base tinder from which to ignite other tinders, and small kindling. Preference with primary tinder materials (fatwood, various fire cubes, etc.) is to place them in the center of a larger tinder bundle made-up of dry grass, pine needles and similar materials.

Making fatwood fuzz is easy: Simply scrape the spine, if it is sharp cornered and not dehorned, or the edge of your knife back and forth along the fatwood, at a 45-degree angle to the wood. A good-sized pile of fuzz is necessary for best results, but can be created in just a minute or two.

Fuzzing Fatwood

Making shavings is similarly easy, as the waxy fatwood should cut very consistently with a sharp knife. Simply shave small, thin, pieces of fatwood from the main body using the edge of your knife, as you would make any other shavings from wood. The same for feathering, simply cut thick shavings without cutting them completely off the main body of the fatwood.

Small, but well constructed, tinder pile mixed and topped with fatwood shavings and fuzz.

A good fatwood tinder pile would be a larger pile of shavings, mixed lightly with fuzz, with a dense pile of fuzz in the center. This could be built up in the center of a tinder bundle of dried grasses, pine needles and such. You could then strike a spark into the fatwood fuzz, and move your tinder bundle into the center of your kindling structure, or slowly begin adding small kindling to your tinder-bundle as it flamed to life. Using heavier splinters, particularly feathered, of fatwood would give positive ignition in your kindling, and burn with a greater heat to help ensure initial ignition of larger materials.

Though many people carry chemical tinder materials (cottons treated with combustible waxes or petroleum jelly, or tinder cubes of the Fast Fire type) in their emergency fire starting kits, fatwood is a material not to be overlooked. It is a versatile material, that can be easily found in many areas, and can provide a great assist to a fire in less than ideal conditions, even when not used as a primary tinder. Fatwood can also be brought along with ease, as its relatively stable and hard to render useless from damage or environment.
Having several options available to you, both as layers of redundancy and for overkill surety, is a must for wilderness fire-making. My preference is to cheat like a sleaze, make use of every advantage, and use a multiple-layers of hot burning, easy igniting, materials as often as possible. Being able to cut a little fatwood and use it helps ensure I can also have those extra layers, if nothing else.

Although I sourced my fatwood locally, if you wish to get your own to practice with or carry along with you, it can be purchased online from retailers such as Going Gear very inexpensively.

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