Natural Fatwood – A Fire Starter Designed by Nature

natural fatwood

Natural Fatwood – A Fire Starter Designed by Nature

Natural Fatwood is a product that results from damage to a tree, the resin or pitch hardens and seals off the damaged area preventing further damage and moisture ingress.

Collecting wood ready for the winter sees us out and about in the Spanish hills, many a storm has blown through over the years and there are quite a few damaged pines in our local area. Recently we’ve been coming across quite a bit of fatwood so have been harvesting what we can and bringing it home for processing into manageable fatwood sticks.

What is Natural Fatwood?

Fatwood is nature at work, when a tree becomes damaged it sends resin or ‘pitch’ to the affected area, the most obvious example would be limb loss or damage after a storm where the resin can be seen collecting in and around the affected area. Insects can also cause damage to the tree, the resin hardens around the area allowing the tree to protect itself. preventing further damage and moisture ingress.

Why fatwood is the best natural fire starter

Natural fatwood is exactly that – natural and you can’t argue with Mother Nature. Fatwood is widely regarded as the best fire starter particularly in the bushcraft community and with survival experts.

Fatwood produces black smoke when it is burning, this is a result of the rich resin in the wood and is perfectly natural.

Compared to fireflighters that you buy from the shop fatwood is a cleaner, more natural solution as it contains no chemicals and your hands don’t smell like petrol after handling them.

Another unique feature is that fatwood can also be used when wet, scraping shavings from a wet fatwood stick and lighting is easy, the resin in the wood is very flammable and takes a spark well, the resin repells water making fatwood a great fire starter in adverse conditions outdoors.

Where to find natural fatwood

Our experience in Andalucia: When you hear the term ‘heartwood’ this generally means the center of the stree stump, fatwood can be found in old rotton stumps years after the tree has died. In Spain we have not found fatwood in the stump [yet] instead it is more common where branches have been snapped or split and twisted.

severe tree branch damage
severe limb damage after a storm

Cutting an old dead branch for firewood or clearing and you immediately know if you have hit fatwood by the smell of the shavings [we always use hand saws], you get the aroma of terpentine which, when strong can mean you’ve hit gold. [see video above]

How to harvest fatwood from damaged branches [inc tools required]

Assuming that we’re not using a chainsaw and enjoying the slow way of living then fatwood can be harvested with basic tools. A good bow saw will be your main weapon of choice cutting larger branches like the one pictured above, a folding saw will be handy to clear smaller branches allowing you more space to work and gloves are a good idea too.

natural fatwood
fatwood at the base of a large dead branch

From the dead branch begin cutting the furthest end first – cutting towards the tree allows for easier use with the saw instead of cutting off the entire limb then sawing on the ground. The nearer you get to the tree [if there is fatwood] the stronger the smell of terps will become and the darker the wood will be from the resin.

Processing fatwood 5 ways

Fatwood rounds or logs can be split just like any other, cut the branch section into whatever length you would like your natural fatwood sticks to be and start chopping. There are several ways to process fatwood depending on how you intend to use it to start your fires – here are five ways we process our fatwood.

  • Chop into 6″ long sticks, this is a common method and makes your fatwood more manageable, the sticks can be carried in fire kits and survival kits.
  • Using many of the offcuts and using a sharp knife fire tapers can be made which, for a high cylindrical stov like ours is ideal when you have to light the fire through a small hatch at the base of the stove.
  • Processing large pieces of fatwood – if you have large pieces of fatwood then they can be left ready to cut another day, they can also hang keeping them out of the way until you need them.
  • Shavings – if you have time or if you have a small tin to fill with shavings then this is a good idea for the survival kit or the backpack. Shavings are what ignite from the spark so having these ready made cuts out trimming your fatwood stick, a matter of convenience if nothing else but handy to have as an alternative.
  • Feather sticks as the name suggests are sticks that have been ‘feathered’ up, using a fatwood stick and a knife you cut strips or shave the fatwood stick but not all the way so that the strips are shaved completely off, they are left attached and when lit create a strong, hot flame. Feathered fatwood sticks are good for when you need high, instant heat [damp wood for example] or when lighting a larger fire.
large piece of fatwood from pine tree branch
large piece of fatwood
fatwood sticks chopped
fatwood mini sticks
natural fatwood
fatwood fire lighting tapers

Black smoke – is this normal?

Fatwood produces black smoke when it is burning, this is a result of the rich resin in the wood and is perfectly natural.

How to store

Fatwood can be stored indefinitely, it does not dry out or rot. The best conditions to store your fatwood are in a dry place and it will be fine for years to come. Scientists are still examining resin from before the Jurrasic period so the resin in your fatwood will last a while too… Some people store it in freezer bags, we throw ours into a tin and hang the larger pieces on the workshop wall, it really takes no harm at all.

heartwood harvest in a box
heartwood fire sticks

Have you been fortunate enough to find a big haul of fatwood where you are? If so how do you process yours and how often do you use it?

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K90 Overland

K90overland is Mac and Gayle, they have lived in Granada [Andalucia] since 2004 and began their budget overland build in 2019 documenting both the vehicle and their overlanding trips through the Andalucian region of Spain.

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