Primitive Bushcraft: Pitch Glue and Shell Spoon

Conifers are, without a doubt, among the most useful trees to the Bushcrafter as they were to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The needles of pine, spruce, hemlock, and fir can be brewed into a delightful tea packed in Vitamin C, the roots (particularly those of spruce and tamarack) provide excellent cordage, the browse of fir and hemlock can be made into fragrant mat-beds in times of need (Balsam Fir was once known as “Mountain Goose” because of its comfortable browse “feathers”), and the nutritious seeds collected from the cones can be consumed. Even dead spruce and pine can be of use, with knots and resin saturated wood (known as pitchwood, sometimes called “fatwood” or “Maya-sticks”) for fire-lighting. For this post, I will be discussing conifer resin and its application in the making of glue. It should be noted, before we start, that this glue isn’t meant to be a super-strong adhesive so much as it is meant to be a sealant. Don’t expect it to be as tenacious as commercial super glue, but for tasks that require waterproofing or plastering, it will excel.

Resin, or pitch, is sap that forms in sticky globs at the site of a wound…it is the tree’s way of healing itself while also keeping insects at bay that would otherwise cause disease and decay. On old wounds the pitch will be hard and brittle and usually a light brown colour, while newer injuries will have softer, bluish-grey-white sap that is a bit easier to remove. I find the best trees for sourcing pitch are pines and spruce, and these can be found virtually throughout the eastern US, mixed in deciduous forests or in pure stands. It may take some time to find injured spots on these trees, so look carefully. If you find a mass of pitch out of reach, you might be able to retrieve some with the aid of a sharpened stick. Whatever you do, don’t use your bare hands to harvest the stuff because it can be difficult to get off your skin, but if you find yourself in a bit of a sticky situation, rub on some regular cooking oil or baking grease followed by a rinse in soap and water, and it should wash off ;) . Large stone flakes are excellent for removing pitch within reach, especially the older and tougher globs. Whether you use old or new pitch doesn’t matter, but be mindful to not re-open a wound that has been sealed on live trees. Make sure that the cambium and sapwood are not exposed, else insects may get in and cause an infection.

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Here I have located a felled Blue Spruce with a good-sized clump of pitch. There were a few others fallen in the area as well, oozing masses of sap and giving that part of the woodland a distinctive fragrance. I collected roughly ½ cup of pitch (enough to fill a standard Altoids tin), storing it in a small plastic bag.

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Next we will need an open fire so we can heat the resin **make sure you have permission to light a fire if on public or private land**. I am using a mussel shell-half as a container, which I found on the shore of the woodland’s lake. Freshwater mussels here can grow to quite large size, with shells up to 10 inches (25cm) long for some species. Alternatively, you could use a flat rock (ideally one with a depression in the middle) or an empty tuna can. Heat the resin slowly over coals/embers, not flames. Once it has melted into a liquid, you will probably find a few needles or bits of bark – remove these with a stick. You want the pitch to be as “pure” as possible.

The other component we will need for the glue is charcoal, which will give durability to the mixture. Some people like to include plant fibres for extra-strength, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll keep this glue to just two ingredients, which will be strong enough as is. We can collect bits of charcoal from the fire and set them aside to cool for a few minutes. Once cooled, the pieces should be ground into a fine powder. I used a flat rock as a mortar and a smooth, round stone for a pestle. The key here is in the proportions – if too much charcoal is put in, the glue won’t stick to anything…but if there isn’t enough charcoal in the compound, the glue will be fragile and not last as long. I find the best ratio is 3 parts pitch to 1 part charcoal.

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Set your pitch container off the embers, and stir in the ground charcoal using a stick 6 to 9 inches (15-23cm) long. Mix well until the compound becomes black. Keep stirring, and as the mixture cools, it will begin to adhere to the stick. When it becomes semi-solid and doesn’t drip off, carefully tap it into shape with moistened fingers so you won’t get burned. Once the glue cools to a solid, you can scrape more from the container and continue the process – you want as much of it as you can get on the stick. You may need to re-heat the container a few times if the remaining glue cools down and solidifies.

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What you will end up with is an aboriginal glue stick…to use, all you need to do is heat a portion of it over a flame until it begins to melt, and spread on whatever you want to seal. There are a couple of pitch glue variations out there, such as using bear fat or tallow in place of charcoal, but the above recipe is probably the simplest and easiest for most folks to make. Historically, pitch glue was used extensively by Native Americans all over New England and eastern Canada… it is probably best known for waterproofing the seams of birch bark canoes paddled by the Abenaki, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Cree, Mi’kmaq, and many other tribes.

Many of us are probably familiar with carved spoons – there is a growing interest of woodcarving in the Bushcraft community, especially because it allows us to make “traditional” or rustic kit, such as kuksas, bowls, staves, etc. It is also a relaxing hobby and a nice way to pass time. But until 4000-5000 years ago in Europe, our ancestors wouldn’t have had the luxury of metal tools (except copper) to carve with. Those who lived by the sea or near lakes and rivers were fortunate in that they had access to bivalve shells, and these, combined with a few other materials, could be made into spoons.

And so I resolved I would make such a utensil without the aid of ANY metal cutting tools whatsoever, just for the fun of it :) . I started by selecting a wind-fallen Sweet Birch branch that wasn’t completely dried out…from this I would fashion the handle. I broke it into smaller bits about 6 inches (15cm) in length and chose a piece that had fractured in such a way as to “split-off”, leaving the end with a flat surface. Another section had fractured in the same manner, so I broke off the split end. These will hold the shell in place.

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Because of the possibility of there being bacteria in the bark, I used a large, rough stone to scrape them down to the wood. The bark came off easily.

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I must confess that this particular shell came from a restaurant meal of steamed clams, but I just couldn’t find any small mussel shells by the lake. **If you are using shells collected from a local water source, make sure you sterilise them first by immersing in boiling water for a minute or so**. I’m using the dried fibres of a Stinging Nettle (fresh nettle strands or jute twine will work just as well) to wrap tightly around the two pieces of wood, starting with a clove hitch, and ending with a few half-hitches.

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To finish, I heated up my glue stick over what was left of the fire, patted some of it on to cover the nettle wrap, and shaped it smooth using moistened fingers. This will protect the wrap from coming undone and keep the shell from slipping out of the friction hold.

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Well, here it is completed :) . I am not sure if the technique I used would’ve been known thousands of years ago, but it is a functional if unique design, and I am quite happy with it. While probably not as durable as their all-wooden counterparts, shell spoons take less time to make…and if the shell is large enough, it could be used as a spoon just the way it is.
Clean using warm water and gentle scrubbing. As with wooden spoons, don’t leave them in boiling liquids.

 

 

 

 

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