Fifth Empire Company


Stockholm tar, dripping from a served stay.

13th March, 2021

If ever anything could be said to epitomise the essence of a traditional wooden boat, it would be the intoxicating tang of good Stockholm tar. Sweet, smoky, musky, masculine. It penetrates the atmosphere and the very soul. An ancient smell; equally befitting a Viking longship, a Cornish lugger, a Napoleonic man o'war... It is the blood of the boat. Ship's ichor.

If you've never had the pleasure, you'll understand what you've been missing as soon as you step down below. Down there, tar permeates, or perhaps comprises, the atmosphere, mingled with its soul-mates: linseed oil, turpentine, beeswax. An evocative syrup that takes you back in time.

It comes in several forms, the most indispensible being a viscous black sludge, akin to Marmite. The darkness comes from smoke and creosote, though different production methods yield a more clarified end result.

Its uses are manifold. It preserves timbers and fibres, repels insects and fungi, wards off the wear of the sun, slickens stays and hydrates dessicated servings. Unlike bitumous tar - for which it is sometimes mistaken by laymen - it is an organic compound, rendered from the same substances that keep pine trees alive and protect them from the elements, thus its preservate action upon wood is that of nature herself. On Raconteur it nourishes rig, deck and skipper, for sometimes, when nobody's about, I will crack open a tin and breath in that adventurous aroma. Ambrosia for them that dream of the sea.

Production of Tar

'Proper' Stockholm tar is made from the roots and stumps of pine trees. It has been known to mankind since Ancient Greece and has been produced in Scandinavia - pine tar capital of the world - since the Iron Age. At the height of her naval powers, Great Britain was importing 100,000 barrels a year.

The distillation process yields three products: tar, turpentine, and rosin. It begins with the 'fatwood' of the pine; this is the rot resistent resinous heartwood, most easily procured from the stump and root of the tree. The resin impregnated fatwood is highly flammable and was historically used as a fire lighter, for it happily takes a flame, even when wet, and can be used repeatedly as a featherstick for tinder.

Due to the accessibility of fatwood in the stumps and roots, the pitch makers would set up their kiln in an area of felled forest, or else where there might be found many dead or toppled trees. The fatwood is dug or gathered and stripped of bark and sapwood, cut into two or three foot lengths and piled. Nearby, an earthen mound is heaped, divoted in the centre and surrounded by a shallow ditch. To obtain a hundred barrels of tar, it must be at least eighteen feet wide. From the depression in the middle, a conduit is created that leads to the encircling ditch. This will receive the resin as it flows from the mound.

Diagram of a tar kiln
Diagram of a tar kiln.

The fatwood is stacked upon the mound, arranged like the rays of the sun around the central depression. It has been beaten, to splay the fibres, and coated with clay. Now pine needles are heaped upon it all and it is covered again with earth, which is retained around the steep sides, if neccessary, with a wooden pallisade. A fire is lit on top. The outer layer of earth controls the speed of the fire, ensuring a slow and gradual burn that penetrates the entire pile, similar to the production of charcoal.

Diagram of a tar kiln
Diagram of a tar kiln.

American tar, traditionally distilled from the long-leaf pine, was made from deadwood found in the wilds and was considered inferior to that produced in Europe, which was made from pitch pines recently felled. The finest tar came out of Sweden, closely followed by Russian tar, from Archangel.

Formulae for Different Tar Products

Pitch is essentially tar which has been boiled in a kettle until, once cooled, it solidifies into a solid, brittle mass. This is then used for pitching seams.

Old Down East, also known as 'Boat Soup' is used for protecting wooden decks and other wooden items exposed to air on the boat. The basic formula is as follows:
1/3 Stockholm Tar
1/3 Boiled Linseed Oil
1/3 Turpentine

The quantity of tar will determine the darkness of the finish. For a lighter colour, use a little less and test it until you obtain the colour you prefer. The final result will lighten over time without further treatment. If the treatment is applied regularly, it will progressively darken the wood.

Rig Mix is used to hydrate marline servings or to protect bare wire stays.
50% Stockholm Tar
50% Boiled Linseed Oil

Ettan has countless uses. Can be used in clinker boats while taking up, by squashing it into the seams. It is soft enough to squeeze out as the planks swell without causing damage. Can be used plug small leaks in decks and hulls. Can be used for waterproofing or for directing the course of water.
50% Pure Beeswax
50% Stockholm Tar
Gently melt the beeswax in a pot. Once liquid, stir in the tar. Allow to cool. It should form a dark sticky substance that can easily be rolled and formed into balls or sausages.

Reading & Resources

Pine Tar; History and Uses, Theodore P. Kaye, via National Historic Ships

Naval Stores: A History of an Early Industry Created from the South's Forests, James P. Barnett, United States Department of Agriculture

Naval Stores; History, Production, Distribution and Consumption, Thomas Gamble, Weekly Naval Stores Review e

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