Fatwood goes by many names including lighter wood, pine knot, lighter'd wood, and fat lighter. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, fatwood is the ultimate fire-starting tinder source. It goes up like gasoline with a single match, will light soaking wet, and can be found where ever coniferous trees grow naturally.
Just about any resinous tree can create fatwood, but most common is pine. This epic resource is usually created after a tree is either damaged or blown over. The tree will send resin rich sap to the damaged or new growth areas. If the tree dies shortly after this point, what remains will eventually be fatwood anywhere sap was deposited.
The time of year the tree dies can also play a vital role in the creation of fatwood. If the tree died during months of heavy sap flow larger amounts of fatwood will be in the body and trunk of the tree. If the tree died during months of dormancy the sap will remain in the roots, resulting in a much richer and higher quality fatwood being created in the root system.
In order to find fatwood you should probably know how to identify it first. The first way is by sight. Fatwood sometimes has marbling with strips of deep orange or yellow. It can look almost like a piece of bacon. If you hold a thin piece of it up to the light it will be translucent instead of opaque. The more of those clear orange/yellow parts the more resin in the wood. The more resin, the higher the quality of fatwood. The highest concentrations of resin will be in the lowest points of the tree. This almost always means the base and root system.
Another key identifier is scent. When you cut into good fatwood you will immediately start to smell it. It's a very strong pleasant odor that will differ depending on the type of tree. Most trees will have a “pine” type scent while other types may have a licorice scent or even a slight citrusy scent. Mainly what you want to smell is something other than wood. If all you get is a strong “woody” scent then it's not going to be good fatwood.
Finding fatwood is actually pretty exciting. It’s a bit like a scavenger hunt in that you are looking for trees and tree remnants that have one or more characteristics that point towards fatwood. Obviously the main thing being a decent amount of resinous trees in your area.
For my area, about 5-10% of the trees in the forests of my area are Virginia pine. The rest are hardwoods that lack the resins needed to produce the desired fatwood. Although this may seem like a small percentage, that is more than enough pines to get an endless supply of quality fatwood.
Next on our list is the tree needs to be sufficiently dead. Most people know what living coniferous trees look like (pine, cedar, juniper, fir, etc). Finding them after they are dead a few years can be a bit more challenging.
Most conifers share a similar growth pattern. Look for dead trees that used to have branches that grow outward, perpendicular to the trunk. If the branches are no longer there then look for the stubs or some knots that indicate where branches were. In some coniferous trees the branches will grow out along most of the length of the trunk, where most hardwoods will only have branches growing out at the at the top of the trunk.
If you find what you think may be a dead fallen pine or other resinous tree you’ll need to check it for fatwood. A quick way to do this is chop open the base of the tree that still remains in the ground. This will give you a quick reference to how much (if any) fatwood will be in the rest of the fallen tree. It should be noted that almost all dead coniferous trees will have a tiny bit of fatwood at the knot or joint where branches grow out. This kind of fatwood is not worth collecting but is good to know for survival situations.
Another thing to look for is what I like to call the “Halloween tree” look. By this I mean a tree having a twisted gnarled trunk. This type of growth pattern is more common in conifers than hardwoods. Something else that adds to the “Halloween tree” look is the wood (not the bark, bark should be long gone by this stage) will have a very withered look and usually have what I call “wings” at the base of the tree still connected to the ground. These “wings” are actually just veins of resin that was being transported through the tree at the time of its death. They are usually almost all fatwood.
My favorite method of locating fatwood is finding old weathered stumps and giving them a good kick. If it breaks, is super brittle, or crumbles it’s probably not fatwood. If it feels like you’re kicking a piece of iron, chances are it's gonna be some good fatwood. Now before you go around the woods breaking your toes on tree stumps, focus your kicking on stumps that have a certain look to them. They will usually have a very odd shape to them. Often times varying in height. If it looks like part of the stump disintegrated while there are still parts are still in tact and standing, it's probably fatwood.
The last way to find a lot of fatwood quickly is to go to a clear cut logging area that is a few years old. Check all the stumps made by the logging for signs of fatwood. When you find a stump that shows good signs of fatwood, dig it up. The entire root stock is going to be a mostly high quality fatwood.
Harvesting fatwood is quite simple and doesn’t require many tools at all. It will ultimately depend on how much you are aiming to harvest. If you only need a little bit of fatwood to start one or two fires while you’re out in the woods then all you need is a sharp knife to carve out a few chunks.
On the other hand, if you are thinking of stocking up on fatwood then there are a few other tools that will come in handy. The first of which being a folding pack saw such as the Bahco Laplander. This is the saw I carry every time I go in the woods. Its reliable, compact, sharp, and reasonably priced. You can find them fairly cheap on amazon HERE.
Another great tool to bring along is a small axe or hatchet. I actually prefer to bring a tomahawk instead. They weigh about half as much as a hatchet, making them perfect for packing in the woods. The current tomahawk I use for this is the CRKT Nobu. Out of the box it’s a little dull, but so far it has proven durable and more than capable of getting the job done. Just put a fresh edge on the blade and it’s ready to get dirty. You can buy the Nobu tomahawk on amazon HERE.
The last and final tool is mostly optional (depending on the circumstances, but we’ll get to that in a bit) and that is a shovel. Most people prefer to take a small folding shovel into the woods but they have some major drawbacks. The big one being that they aren’t very durable. When you’re trying to wrench up some massive tree roots, you’re not gonna be able to put much weight on this kind of shovel. What I prefer to use is small fixed handle pack shovel, Red Rock Outdoor Gear offers some nice choices like this one HERE.
When actually harvesting fatwood, I find the best time to do so is right after a large downpour. All the water loosens up the soil making it a great deal easier to lift the fatwood rich root stock out of the ground. Once the root stock is out of the ground and exposed simply take your saw and cut off pieces of the roots into manageable sizes. I often times bring a 10-15’ piece of rope or cordage and make a nice little bundle to carry or drag out.
Once I get my bundle of fatwood home all I do is trim off the dirt and bits of wood that aren’t fatwood, cut it down to five or six inch long segments, and then split down to about cigar sizes. These cigar-sized hunks of fatwood are more than enough for several fires. When it comes time to start your fire, simply cut what you need.
When exposed to flame fatwood lights almost instantly. Black smoke will start billowing off of it. This smoke is the resin burning. The resin in fatwood burns long and hot making it the ideal fire starter. It even works soaking wet.
In a survival situation fatwood can be used to dry out wet tinder enough to get your fire started. This is vital to almost every survival situation. It works so well that I use fatwood at home to start all of my fires in my wood stoves and fireplace. It's fun to find, 100% natural, and best of all free!
On the off chance you decide to go out and get boat loads of fatwood there are other valuable uses for it as well. One being the resin in the actual wood. If you expose the wood to a temperature high enough to liquify the resin, but not high enough to ignite it you can actually extract the resin. This resin is great for making pine pitch glue, pine tar, disinfectants, and depending on the tree, could even have medicinal values.
In the woods, or even at home for some of us, fire is tool that we need to constantly. This need increases tenfold in a survival situation. Fatwood is a free, readily available, and completely renewable resource. It also happens to be the king firestarter of the woods. Why not use that to your advantage the next time you light up your woodstove, head into the woods, or when you just want to impress your friends.
Keep a little chunk handy in your bag or kit and I guarantee you’ll be thankful to have it when you need to get a fire going quick.