What is fatwood and how can you use it?

FATWOOD is a word often used in bushcraft circles, and one that will seldom bring a reaction that isn’t a nod of admiration from experts in the field.

So highly prized is its value, that even sage-like and aging woodsmen will respond to it like a Jedi channelling the spirit of Yoda.

But what is fatwood and what is it used for?

In simple terms, fatwood is a part of a dead pine tree where the resin has concentrated and settled. Most fatwood will be found in the stump of the dead tree, or in the joints of the lower limbs.

The resin can be found in an almost fluid state in recently deceased specimens, or it can be completely solid and act as a preservative for ancient timber. Its state is governed by many factors, including the type of pine tree and level of terpene – a volatile hydrocarbon – within the make-up of the resin.

In just about every case, though, fatwood of any age or density will burn – even in damp conditions if used correctly.

In ancient times, when fire-lighting tools were primitive, fatwood would have been a highly sought-after commodity or even used as tradeable goods.

Where to find fatwood

Pine forest – the home of fatwood

The obvious starting point for finding fatwood will be in pine forests. Here, you need to be looking for tree stumps – older the better (the more solid the resin is with age, the more readily it will burn).

Hone in on the stumps which are clearly decaying and losing their typical pine colour. They will usually start to turn grey. This is a good indicator that fatwood will be present, and it also means it should be easier to extract.

The best indicator, however, is the smell. The moment you break into fatwood, the resin – no matter if it is rock hard or running down the sides – will deliver the heady and unmistakable aroma of pine.

The resin has a strong aroma

As you break away the rotting bark from the stump, the core of the base should start to feel solid, almost petrified in fact. This will be where the resin has solidified to create fatwood. In most cases, it will be possible to simply heave the hard core out of the stump, leaving you with a weighty compound of wood and hardened resin… this is fatwood.

You could also use an axe or a large bushcraft knife to baton the core into manageable pieces.

How to use fatwood

Fatwood really comes into its own as a tinder rather than a kindling, meaning it is often more practical to make use of it to help start a fire than build one.

This is why, in centuries gone by, people would tend to keep a chunk of fatwood in their pack ready to shave pieces off to get their fire going.

Archaeologists have even found many examples of ornate ‘fatwood holders’ – ornate clay handles where a piece of the material could be held while shavings were taken. It again demonstrates the value people placed upon fatwood as an essential outdoor tool.

The most effective method of creating fatwood tinder is to use your knife to make a small pile of shavings or, if you are confident in your skills, make a small feather stick. This pile should easily take a spark and make a flame adequate enough to build a fire upon.

Fatwood will burn from any flame, but make the shavings as small as possible if you want them to ignite from a spark if you are using a fire steel.

One of the great benefits of fatwood over many other forms of tinder is the intensity of the flame – it burns very hot and holds a flame for several minutes, giving you time to establish a good fire base.

Fatwood is also useful in wet and windy conditions. In these cases, prepare your fire in a sheltered spot and use both shavings and larger pieces of fatwood to help intensify the heat and flame in order to overcome the adverse conditions and allow you to feed the fire with other material.

Main image courtesy of Tim Houton

Further reading: Bannock recipe

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