I did it. I made it out to the woods today to look for fatwood and make a video about it. I found a treasure.
Fatwood is the really resinous stuff that remains in the ground after a pine tree is destroyed by weather or logging. It can be found on the nubs of broken limbs when the trees are still alive, or in the stumps and roots long after most of the tree has rotted away. In the picture above, the little orange-ish sliver by the hatchet is a chunk of pure resin taken from my massive stump. Tiny, I know, but that isn’t even fatwood, it’s pure resin with no wood left at all.
How fatwood happens: When a resinous conifer is damaged, the root of the tree will start pumping resin toward the wound. Sometimes that’s a broken branch, sometimes a cutoff stump. This process continues for a long time, but eventually, most of the heartwood becomes saturated with resin to the point that it resists insects, decay, etc, and smells of turpentine (which is made from this same kind of resin).
That leads directly to how it is found. In forests where these trees have grown, stumps will remain in the ground for a very long time with the hardened resin inside. The stumps can look a bit beat up and gnarly, but on the inside they are perfectly preserved wood with a golden, orange, or reddish color. I set out this morning first to locate one piece before firing up the camera, and I found a pine root in minutes that was loaded with the stuff.
What makes fatwood special?
The resin in fatwood is the real breadwinner. In fact, pine resin can be harvested directly from live trees for years, but that takes a good bit of work and effort. Finding a stump is a bit easier, and it’s already cured for several years. Fatwood doesn’t melt in your pocket. Pine sap, even when saturated with resin, can be a sticky mess for years before it fully hardens.
The resin found in fatwood is much like plastic in a lot of ways. If shaved with the back of a knife (or any other hard implement) it can catch a spark to start a fire. It can also be applied to cuts, bruises, blisters, and sores as a disinfectant and a anti-inflammatory. On that note, I’m not a doctor and I’m not giving medical advice, everything here is for educational purposes only. Keep that in mind. It’s also said to be a grand medicine used to cure all sorts of things when taken internally, much like other tree resins and natural tars. In the Americas, it was used by some native tribes like a chewing gum, but for the medical effects, not to blow bubbles.
This special resin can be used to make a tar for glue or waterproofing, turpentine, or a number of other resin-friendly projects, including knife-making.
As for the chunk I found today!!!
I ended up yanking the stump out by the root was and carrying the whole thing back to the house. It probably weighed close to fifty pounds and most of that is usable fatwood. Not all of it, of course. This one was fairly young compared to most fatwood stumps. Note the winged nature of the stump’s shape. For some reason, the resin works itself into the stump in an odd star pattern, so when the rest of the stump rots away, it leaves wide wings of solid preserved wood that outlive the rest of the rotting sapwood. Very odd the way pine stumps rot.
And under that rather drab exterior is the “meat.” The wonderful fatwood that gets my wood stove running after a hiatus.
The dull exterior will fool many a novice scavenger, but chip away at it to reveal wonderful fire-starting potential inside.
As I said, the whole stump wasn’t really fatwood. Nearer to the top, there was much more of this dried salmon-colored wood. It contains some resin as well, but it burns quite differently. I’m sorting that stuff into my normal kindling bucket, and even after four straight days of rain, it burns quite nicely, like some of my best pine kindling sticks.
I’m actually sorting and grading the rest of the fatwood as I cut it based on resin content. Resin squeezes between growth rings like the cream on a layered cookie. In some places it is thicker than others. The resinous wood becomes translucent, with almost a magical element to it.
While it might seem excessive to sort the stuff, I insist on having only the best stuff in my regular fatwood pile. Tiny splinters and lower quality pieces will get split up for the tinder box. While I have no hope of such a thing existing, I’m actually hopeful about splitting these big chunks up and finding a solid chunk of resin that’s half an inch thick. Hey, a boy can dream.
I any case, my fire tonight was started with a sliver cut from one of the root wads. Performed exactly as expected, so there’s the proof in the pudding. Performance is what matters at the end of the day, and it’ll either work or it won’t.
And my grading really isn’t that complex. The stuff that doesn’t present visible resin veins goes into the kindling bucket, and any especially beautiful specimens will be carefully extracted and set off to the side by themselves. The stuff between will be high or low grade, depending on how it compares to my store-bought sticks, and only the high-grade will be used to make salable fatwood stuff for the farmer’s market (and possibly an OGG store down the road). The low-grade stuff is still plenty great to get the wood stove running.
By the way, there will be some new desktop wallpapers in the gallery soon, so check that out 😉