Finding Fatwood in Slovenia: a forest foray

Last autumn I started collecting pine resin – or amber – from the forest that surrounds Breg to provide me with a natural firelighter. Having been using it all winter, I can confirm it’s good stuff for getting a fire going with minimal effort. I place a small piece – about the size of a plum – in a piece of card or paper and then light the paper. The resin ignites quickly and burns hot and long enough to easily get kindling going.

However, this winter, whilst visiting a friend in the USA , I discovered another (albeit closely related) natural firelighter: fatwood. I had never heard of fatwood before but the condo we were staying at in the mountains had a wood burner, and along with the well-stocked wood stack, there were a few pieces of said fatwood.

Now, as I didn’t know what fatwood was, at first I was annoyed that so little kindling had been provided. How were we going to ignite the really quite large logs, with such a meagre supply of little sticks? I was to learn however, that fatwood is no ordinary kindling.

What is fatwood?

Fatwood is wood that contains a very high concentration of pine resin. Pine resin is very flammable so fatwood makes for an excellent fire starter – just like pure amber does.

I was amazed to find that we could ignite huge logs, with just two short, thin pieces of fatwood and no other kindling. It really was amazing stuff and I made up my mind to find out more about fatwood and see if I could harvest my own supply in the forests around Breg.

Where to find fatwood?

There are numerous videos on YouTube which show you where to look for fatwood. After watching many of them, I learned that there are three main sources of fatwood.

  1. Rotten stumps of pine trees
  2. Where branches join the trunk of pine trees
  3. In the roots and heartwood of pine trees which have fallen over

Armed with this knowledge (and my favourite axe, my Silky saw, and a knife) I set out into the forest in search of my own source of fatwood.

I always enjoy my forays into the forest. I find it a deeply calming place. There are no footpaths in Breg’s forest, and no people. Just old, heavily overgrown logging tracks, and narrow trails made by the deer or chamois that live here. I love the earthy scent, the smell of the pines, and the forest-floor flowers, which pop up at this time of year.

Heeding the instructions of the fatwood-finding experts, I sought old pine stumps, fallen trees that still had branches attached, and roots that had been exposed when the tree had been blown over. I roamed through the trunks, passing moss-covered boulders, droppings left by deer or chamois, and spotting a brightly coloured salamander that often appear after rain.

My plan was to find all three types of fatwood in an attempt to compare the ease of collection and processing, and the quality of the fatwood in each.

The first source was heavily decayed trunks or branches, from which I could either tear out a limb, or hack out with my favourite axe. From the videos I’ve watched on YouTube – these seemed to be the richest source of fatwood, although more work is required to get to the good stuff, as you must remove a lot of the rotten wood.

The second source – where a branch joins the trunk – was the easiest. After cleaning away any bark or rotten wood with my axe, I cut the branch off as close as possible to the trunk using my silky saw, and straight away I could see deep orange, shiny surface – a sure sign that fatwood was contained within.

The third source – roots that had been exposed when a tree had toppled, did not yield any fatwood. After exploring with my axe and saw – I could not locate anything worth harvesting.

The Fire Test

I took my mixed haul back to Breg for processing. Cleaning it up and then splitting it into smaller pieces, I could see that some wood was fattier than others.

At times it was hard to see whether the wood was fat or just wet. Indeed – I had to reject some of the pieces that had looked like fatwood when I had harvested them due to their deep red colour,  but upon closer inspection, they appeared to be just wet, rather than resinous. True fatwood gives off a strong pine resin smell when you cut into it – so I’ll be sure to use my nose next time.

The final part was to test the fire lighting capabilities of the fatwood I had collected. It’s worth noting that most of the videos on YouTube talk about fatwood as an emergency fire lighting material (rather than kindling).  When used for this – you make fine shavings of the fatwood which will light from a spark very easily.

Used in this way, a little fatwood goes a long way, and one good piece could last for years. For my purposes, I was looking for a source of fatwood kindling that would enable me to get my new Jotul f602 going with no fuss, rather than tinder.

However, most of the fatwood that I collected on this occasion was clearly not quite fatty enough. Whilst I eventually got the fire going, it was nothing like the fatwood experience I had had whilst in the US. Perhaps the Slovenian trees are of a slightly less resinous nature than those in North America (where many of the fatwood YouTubers seem to be based).

What factors affect fatwood quality?

I imagine the quality (ie the concentration of resin) varies depending on the species and size of the tree, how long it has been down, and in what position it has been lying. I assume resin tends to go with gravity, so in theory, this would make the best candidates for fatwood finds to be the lower branches of large trees that died but remained standing for a long time before falling. Of course, it’s not always possible to tell.

Although I did find some fatwood, the quantity wasn’t sufficient to make it a good source of fatwood kindling for me. It’s good to know where to find fatwood if I’m ever stuck in the forest with no good tinder, but I’ll stick to the magic amber tree for now, which provides me with 100% of my natural firelighter needs.

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