Saturday, 30 January 2016

Making Birch Tar

I try to get out to practice skills in the woods as much as possible, and winter is often the best time. Its quiet, and there's less pressure on time needed for teaching or preparing for the courses I run. Its also a greater test as the weather can make things difficult both physically and mentally. Looking out that window just before setting off knowing there's going to be a storm coming in or a big sudden difference in temperature can sway your mind.

But know its play time, and all will be well. Its also a very good excuse to light a fire so this time I thought I'd bring a bowdrill set along, gather all the firewood and make up a batch of Birch Tar. I managed to score this large Panettone tin to load up the birch bark. I have quite a lot of Birch bark at the moment that I've been saving for my barkcraft sessions. There is always left overs and unusable bits, so they all got tightly stuffed into the big tin. If you've not seen this done before, you punch a hole in the base of the tin and push on the lid when full of bark. 
Then bury a smaller tin most of the way into the ground as pictured and place the bigger tin on to it, carefully locating the punched hole over its centre. The two tins should make good contact. To help with this and to reduce air to the gap between them, add a little earth around the join of the two and overlap the base of the big tin.

Then light a fire around the big tin. I started small with just an ember from the bowdrill (warms you up on a cold day) into my tinder bundle of dry bracken, grass and thistle heads. Then add on your kindling - match thick, pencil thick upto finger/thumb thick. At this stage I keep adding finger thick material to create a lot of heat which you need to extract the oil held within the bark and encourage it to run into the lower container. 


Once I get a good fire going all around the tin I keep it going for around an hour. Now is time grab a cup of tea and relax and just add on fuel as needed.



Let the fire die down and the tins cool, this can take a couple of hours and its worth waiting for to get all the last drops of oil out. Then use as required. It can be used as a natural medicine for skin complaints, a water proofing for cordage and leather, a glue when reduced down by simmering, and a decorative finish and preservative for wood. Useful stuff, and it smells nice too.

Originally inspired by The Belarus/Partisans episode of Extreme Survival by Ray Mears.