Fatwood

For those of you who like fatwood

Strange thing life.

I was having a conversation with a mate in January 2020. He mentioned that he’s been watching the TV programme Survivor since its inception way back when. While he likes the politics and intrigue, it cracks his walnuts that very few of the contestants have any actual survival skills. Surely, he reasoned, if you were chosen to appear on this programme you’d go out and get some. How hard can it be ?

Over the course of the following year, this continuing conversation lead to me buying a ferro-mag fire starting rod, which lead me to the discovery of the stuff called fatwood, which lead to my sons and myself spending time back in the hills raiding the dead limbs off lonely pine trees. My youngest son calls us the Fatwood Pirates. Over time I’ve developed an appreciation for just how good, how lucky,  some of my fatwood finds have been. So, in that light here’s me sharing some pictures of the better, higher grade material.

Who’d a thunk it eh !

So, what is fatwood; when pine trees have a stressed limb, root or trunk they load up the affected area with an overabundance of sap/resin to protect it from invasion by insects, fungus, etc. In most cases this is a partial fix and very localised to a particular spot. However, sometimes, rarely in fact, the tree will totally flood the problem which results in an area so impregnated it loses all the original texture. As you can imagine there are many shades of grey so it’s luck and a good eye that will find the high grade material.

So, why is it of interest; Fatwood is quite flamable. It keeps well enough over the medium term and even the longer term if wrapped in clingfilm to keep in the volatiles. Flakes of fatwood can be ignited by sparks scraped from a ferromag rod so bushcrafters, campers and survivalists like the fact that it makes an easy to carry, all weather fire starter.

So, why am I fussed by fatwood; I’m not a bushcrafter or survivalist but I am a camper on occasions. However my interest is mainly because chasing it in the hills is something I can do with my sons, a bit of time together in the bush.I do use fatwood to start our home fires during winter, so there’s at least one real-world application. Also, I have come to appreciate what makes good fatwood and that I have some worth showing off, hence this page. Finally, those of you who’ve read my bio in these pages will know that I spent a good part of my career as an exploration geologist. There’s a definite excitement comes from finding the ‘nuggets’ and to a major extent I get the same when I hit a good seam of fatwood, mountain gold !

This was one of my first finds. Out and about with my youngest son, we struck it rich first try. This stuff looks like candy. You’ll note there’s also yellowish, hard crystals of resin in parts.

In my experience, red fatwood is quite rare in South Australia, even for high grade material. Mostly it’s a amber / honey colour. That could be a function of the types of pine trees that dominate here, I don’t know, just guessing.

A quick video recorded in the grotty depths of my secret underground lair. It shows cutting some shavings of fatwood from a small block and lighting them via sparks thrown from a ferromag rod. The striker I use is just the knife blade previously employed in cutting the shavings. So this stuff does actually work!

This is one of the best bits of fatwood I’ve found. The exterior is covered in a sticky, waxy resin that scrapes under the fingernail. There’s only hints of the timber’s original texture left and the block smells like pine fragrance toilet air freshener.

I haven’t tried to burn any of this sample because it’s so good it  belongs in a museum.

I was recently asked (via a post on my IG account)  if you can eat this stuff. I can understand why someone would ask, it does look tasty. However, on occasion, I’ve accidentally gotten some in my mouth via a careless finger and I can tell you it’s not something you’d do deliberately.

After a long day polishing a cooks knife, I got to wondering what would happen if I got out my wood plane and shaved off a surface of fatwood. Would it show off the high grade material?

Yes, it had been a long day….

….then I got to wondering what would happen if I set a spark to the shavings. Looks like that worked !

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Using a plane to shave curls from a fatwood block. With their large surface area, these curls easily take a spark from the ferromag rod. They burn quickly and intensely, not hanging around long, so I use them as an accelerant to get larger chips of fatwood burning. The larger chips are the real firelighters.

So, the questions is, how much time do I waste mucking around with this stuff……

How many camp fires could you get going if you carried a small piece of high grade fatwood in a bushcraft kit ?