Lighter wood. Fatwood. Fat lighter’d. Heart pine. The woodsman’s friend, a natural fire starter. Burns hot, even when wet.
What is it?
There are a number of pine species under the umbrella of “southern yellow pine.” They tend to be more resinous than other pines, and much more than most hardwoods. This quality was of great value in the 18th-19th centuries and was used to produce oils, pitches, and resins for caulking planks and waterproofing ropes and canvas. So valuable were these products that they were termed “naval stores” and considered a strategic resource critical for maintaining ships of war in the Age of Sail. While wooden navies are a thing of the past, these pine-based compounds are still used in a variety of products from cleaning oils to varnish.
As pines grow, they add sapwood beneath the bark, expanding the girth of the tree. The cells in the interior die, forming the heartwood of the tree. In yellow pines, the heartwood is impregnated with the resin, making it very hard, rot-resistant, and highly flammable. When a mature pine dies, the sapwood will decay over time, leaving the gray bones of the heartwood. Often, the base of early limbs will remain as pine knots or “lighter knots.” Slice open the scabrous surface, and you’ll see golds and reds of tree rings soaked in resin. Smell the cut – that’s the scent of turpentine, and very distinctive.
Here in Georgia, longleaf and slash pines were the best producers of lighter wood; they were largely found in the Coastal Plain. In the Piedmont, shortleaf, while not as prolific of a sap producer, also creates fatwood. And loblolly can now be found all over the state, although rarely is it left to grow long enough to develop lighter except in its stump.
Fatwood burns hot — hot enough to set larger logs on fire. That’s what makes it a prime kindling wood, even when damp. However, use it with caution and sparingly. Shavings from a piece of lighter wood will be set alight by tinder and in turn burn other kindling. Larger pieces will light larger branches directly. Fatwood is commercially available in small sticks, maybe ½” on a side. You do not want to toss a large chunk on the fire. You certainly don’t want to put large pieces in a wood stove – seriously, the intense heat could damage the stove. Also, the pine resins exude thick, oily smoke when burned, so you don’t want to cook over a fire until all the lighter has burned away – unless you like using turpentine and soot for seasoning.
Lighter wood has been part of the fire kit since I was old enough to be trusted with matches. But not everyone is familiar with it (otherwise, why would I write this?). I’ll close out with a story from the time my Dad took some students on a field trip. He asked one of them to find some lighter wood to start the fire. The young man returned with an armload of punky old branches. “Couldn’t you find any lighter wood?” he asked the student; newbie hefted the dry, rotten sticks and replied, “Well, I couldn’t find wood any lighter than this!”