Birch Tar

Birch Tar: The Better Pitch

(As featured in the July 2009 issue of Practically Seeking)

As a final installment in our series on pitch, I want to introduce you to the "Miracle Juice" of the Birch tree. You may be a little tired of hearing about sticky ooze and black goo, but let me assure you that this is worth it!

The oil extracted from birch bark can be produced easily and in quantity, and in my opinion it makes a superior product to traditional pine pitch.

Good survival is all about metabolic efficiency (expending your calories wisely), and considering the ease with which it can be collected and processed, Birch Tar is ideal!

Here is the procedure for extracting this wondrous sticky substance that can, in addition to the traditional bonding agent, be used for fuel, medicine, waterproofing, leather treatment and wood preservation. 

Step-by-step Instructions for Making Birch Tar:

  1. Obtain two empty metal cans, one that has a tight-fitting lid. Paint cans work great for this, but pay attention, since a lot of paint now comes in plastic cans. It's best if the two cans are close to the same diameter, since the concept is to create an oxygen-free environment in which to heat the bark. Of the two, the one without the lid may be of a smaller diameter.
  2. Two metal cans

  3. Punch a hole in the center of the bottom of the can that has a lid. (The easiest way to make your hole is with a hammer and nail.) A hole about 3/8" in diameter is good. This will be your "condensing" can.
  4. Bottom hole in condensing can

  5. Cut your birch bark so that when it is standing on edge it is a little shorter than the height of your condensing can. Roll up the strips all together and stand them on edge in the can — be sure you don't cover up the hole you punched in the bottom! (In the photos we used six strips of bark that were 6 inches high and 18 inches long.) Once all the bark is inside, place the lid on the can and close it up firmly.
  6. Brich bark strips Roll bark to fit in can

  7. In the center of your fire pit dig a hole deep enough that your second can (the "collecting" can) will sit with it's rim at or below ground level. (We used an economy-sized tuna can in the photos.)
  8. Dig hole for bottom can

  9. Place your collecting can in the hole, making sure that it sits stable and level. Be careful not to get any dirt inside! Now place the condensing can so that it sits directly on top of the collecting can. There should be NO air gaps -- remember, we're working for an oxygen-free environment.
  10. Both cans in firepit Larger, lided can on top of collecting can

  11. Use soil to carefully create a light seal around where the two cans come together. Not so tight as to seal in the gasses, but enough to keep the two cans in place so that you don't knock the condensing can off of it's perch, or get any dirt into the collecting can. The collecting can should be completely covered at this point. (Don't pack down the dirt. Too tight a seal may cause the expanding gasses to blow the lid off your condensing can!)
  12. Create an earth seal around the join between the two cans Bottom can is completely covered

  13. Start a fire over and around the condensing can and keep it burning. It does not have to be a huge fire, but should surround the can well on all sides. The condensing can will glow red (just like when you're firing pottery) and you will probably hear the tar start to run once the can reaches a high enough temperature. If not, just keep the fire burning for an hour or two. 
  14. Build a fire around the cans Keep well burning on all sides

  15. Allow the fire to burn down, then once it has cooled, carefully scrape away the ashes and soil from around the two cans, being mindful not to allow dirt or ash to fall into your new tar.
  16. Allow fire to burn down Clear away ashes Remove condensing can

  17. Then, using tongs or welding gloves, remove the condensing can, and look at all of that beautiful birch tar that has collected in the bottom can! After the condensing can has had a chance to cool, carefully remove the lid to see how little is left of your original birch bark strips.
  18. Fresh birch tar Checking out the fresh tar What remains of the original bark

  19. In it's "straight-from-the-fire" state the oil can be used for waterproofing, wood treatment, and medicine. With a bit of further refinement you can easily create fuel, other medicines, and bonding agents.
  20. Making a birch tar stick

  21. To thicken the oil into something more pitch-like you simply need to simmer off the volatile (flammable) substances. Slowly simmer the oil over a low heat for about an hour or so until it becomes quite gooey, and is about half the original volume. When the tar will firm to your desired consistency remove it from the heat and allow it to cool. This material can now be stored and used just like pitch. (Stirring the oil occasionally during the refining process will cause foam to rise and will hasten the process, but be careful not to allow it to boil over or flame up.)
  22. Simmer down Further refine to a thicker substance

Next time you see a downed birch be sure to snag some bark and give this one a try.
Easy to make and lots of bang for your buck, it smells better than pitch too!
So Distill Away, and Have fun!

FYI: I was first introduced to the making of this wonder material in a DVD
by the excellent British survivalist and bushcraft expert, Ray Mears.
He has many DVDs available on all sorts of topics and I highly recommend you
check them out. Excellent info, with real experience to back it up.