Pitch Sticks

Pitch Sticks: The Original Hot-Melt Glue

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

Pitch — that thick, gooey stuff that oozes out of coniferous (cone-bearing) trees, gets your hands all sticky and doesn't wash out of your clothes, is actually an amazing and highly useful substance. 

Pitch (also called Resin) has been used for everything from adhesives to medicines; as a weapon and a waterproofer. The list of uses to which pitch has been put through the millennia are almost endless.

To keep pitch ready-for-use in it's handiest form, it's a great idea to keep a few Pitch Sticks at the ready. Here is how to make them.

NOTE: ALWAYS USE CAUTION and good judgement when processing pitch! It is extremely flammable and the fumes are toxic. Always process and use in a well-ventilated area.

Tips & Tricks for making Pitch Sticks:

Step-by-step Instructions for making Pitch Sticks:

  1. Gather the "resin nodules" from coniferous (cone-bearing) trees, such as pine, spruce and fir. Look for hardened opaque yellowish bumps on the bark, as well as roundish lumps within the bark.
  2. Pitch Nodule Pitch under bark Breaking open nodule Gathering pitch

  3. Take some finely crushed and powdered charcoal (the black, charred pieces of burned wood from a fire) and pour a small pile onto a piece of cardboard or soapstone. If you do not have any charcoal available, finely crushed and powdered egg shells can also be used. It is a good idea to pour the powdered charcoal or egg shells through a fine sieve to remove any larger pieces.
    NOTE: Do not use commercial charcoal briquettes, as they most often have lighter fluid or other chemicals added into their mixture.
  4. Pour charcoal through sieve Powdered charcoal and egg shells

  5. Obtain 2 small tin cans (soup can size), a fine metal sieve or mesh screen (window screen or smaller), and a few small sticks.
  6. 2 soup cans and metal sieve or screen Small sticks

  7. Put the pitch nodules into one of the cans and heat it slowly over LOW heat until completely melted. A small propane or butane camp-stove works great for this, as it allows you to control the heat quickly and easily. The coals in a campfire are equally effective. (Coals only — NO flames!)
  8. Pitch nodules in can Melted Pitch Camp stove

    Remember: Pitch is very flammable! If it starts smoking it is very close to igniting.  SHOULD THE PITCH IGNITE in the can SMOTHER THE FLAMES with a pan lid, sand, or baking soda.
    DO NOT try to blow out the flames! The added oxygen will cause them to flare up in your face.

  9. Using tongs or pliers, remove the can from the stove and carefully pour the melted pitch through the sieve and into the second can. This will filter out any impurities, such as bits of bark.
  10. Use pliers to hold the hot can Pour melted pitch through metal sieve Removes impurities like bark

  11. Set the first can aside and place the second can, now containing the melted and strained pitch, over a LOW heat. Very hot pitch is quite runny and cool pitch becomes quite thick; neither will adhere to your stick very well. You want it to be about the consistency of honey, so return to (and remove from) heat as necessary.
  12. Place second can over low heat

  13. Dip the end of one of your small sticks into the melted pitch, then roll the pitch-covered end in the powdered charcoal or eggshell.
  14. Dip stick in pitch Pitch on stick Roll pitch end in charcoal

  15. Allow the pitch stick to cool until it begins to firm up, like soft taffy. While your first stick is cooling, begin to dip your additional sticks.
  16. Like soft taffy Allow to cool Dip additional sticks

  17. Repeat steps 7 & 8 until you have as large a "lollipop" of pitch as you desire.
  18. Additional dips add more layers Roll in charcoal or eggshell between each dip Additional pitch layers make a bigger lollipop Always roll in betwen dips

  19. If you like, you can dip your fingers into some water and use them to help the pitch form into a nice rounded shape, or roll the semi-cooled pitch on a hard surface. BE CAREFUL! The hot pitch will stick to dry skin (and everything else!)
    On a hot day, it can be helpful to dip the pitch stick directly in a cup of water to help it cool faster.
  20. Use your fingers to shape the pitch Roll on a hard surface to shape the ball Dip in water to cool faster

  21. Store your Pitch Sticks in a cool place, out of direct sunlight. Otherwise the pitch could soften or melt!
  22. Finished Pitch Sticks

    Next Month: Working with Pitch

    While the finished product is not as strong as modern glues, it will create excellent bonds and can act as a filler to seal gaps.
    So check your trees for some of Nature's own Hot Glue,
    and Have Fun!