by Todd Walker
Glue it! Whether camping under canvas, hiking the AT, or caught in a real survival scene, you’ll inevitably need to hold stuff together. Back in civilization you’d simply heat up a hot glue gun or grab a tube of super glue and call it good. Would you be able to re-produce glue once modern sticky stuff runs out?
I’m fond of the natural sticky stuff. Besides being the most commonly found organic material on primitive tools of ancient times, modern practitioners should add pitch sticks to their modern-primitive tool box for several reasons…
- Raw material is readily available where conifers grow
- Minimal equipment needed
- Easy to make and apply
- Quick drying time – almost immediate
- waterproof stuff
- Fire extender and make-shift candle
- Medicinal benefits
- Fun project to so with the kids
Primitive Hot Glue How-to
A.) Gather Raw Material
Don’t get stuck on a name. Pitch, resin, sap… whatever you choose to call the sticky stuff, it’s easy to find and harvest. Technically, resin is used to create pitch glue. For the purpose of consistency, we’ll use the term resin in this tutorial. Check out this recent article on how to collect pine resin, your main ingredient.
The next ingredient is charcoal. I’ve not tried store-bought hardwood charcoal for bbq grills but don’t see why it wouldn’t work.
B.) Build a Fire
Not any fire. You’ll want to create charcoal from a hardwood fire.
Once the wood burns down a bit, pull a few chunks of blackened charcoal from the ashes. I’d advise against using wet charcoal from an old fire pit. The moisture in the coals when mixed with hot resin can pop and splatter. Hot resin is not something you want on the human body! – unless you’re laying siege to a castle with flaming arrows.
Once you have a few chunks of charcoal cooled, crush it into a fine powder. Use a flat stone and grinding stone or a round stick as a rolling pin. The finer the charcoal powder the better.
C.) Melt and Mix
In a container you don’t mind ruining, old tin cans come to mind, begin melting the resin slowly. Select containers that will heat and cool quickly. Sea shells and turtle shells work well for this too.
Camp stoves work well for melting indoors as they allow you to regulate the heat. Cooking too fast may cause a flame up. Scorched resin creates brittle pitch glue sticks.
On a research note, Scott Jones, author of A View to the Past, has experimented far more with different resin recipes than the author of this article. I had the privilege of meeting and learning from Scott last year and plan to attend another class on making and firing primitive pottery in a few weeks. Scott found that adding Sweetgum resin to pine resin in pitch recipes cures the brittle pitch stick dilemma.
On a camp fire, place the container on top of a few hot coals away from the open fire. Heat the resin low and slow. The melting pitch will begin to bubble around the edges. Stir it with a small stick help it melt completely. Do not boil/overcook the batch of resin.
Once liquified, some people strain the melted sap to remove debris. I just remove the largest chunks of bark once the entire batch is melted.
Mix in the charcoal powder, about 25% by volume, for temper, pinch by pinch as you stir. A bushcrafty thing to do is add other binder agents like dried dung from ungulates (deer, rabbits, etc.) or cattail fluff. I’ve not found these binders to help much in my batches. Tempering with charcoal works for me. I can create my own charcoal.
D.) Make Pitch Glue Sticks
Prepare a few sturdy pencil size sticks, green or dry. I like to sharpen the end to a point for accurate application of the pitch.
With the container of pitch in a honey consistency, insert the end of a stick in the melted pitch. Tip: Heating the end of the stick before insertion helps the pitch adhere to the wood. Roll the stick in the pitch to gather a layer of pitch on the warm wood.
Remove and mold the warm pitch between your hands. Caution: Hot pitch will burn your skin. To prevent burns, moisten your hands with spit or water. Wet hands cool the pitch and may not mold as well. I’ve also coated my palms and fingertips with extra powered charcoal before forming pitch sticks. DRG says I have asbestos hands though. You’ll have to test your heat tolerance to see what works best for you.
Continue dipping and molding as if you were making a candle. You’re looking for a thumb-sized amount of pitch tapered to a point at the end of the stick. Give the finished pitch stick a glossy finish by rotating it over an open flame. This is purely for aesthetic reason. Dull pitch sticks function just fine!
Tap the finished product on a hard surface. If it’s too brittle, you’ll know it as you collect the broken pieces and return them to the tin can and fire. The beauty of pitch is that you can re-adjust your recipe with the shards for a better batch. Add more charcoal or try some dry binder.
E.) Storage and Usage
As an adhesive, pitch is temperature sensitive and not very flexible. However, it’s easy to repair, make, and use. Store it in a cool dry place if possible. Laying your pitch stick on the dashboard of your truck in July in Georgia is not a good idea. I store pitch sticks in my repair/fire kit in my haversack.
To use your pitch stick, heat the tip and apply to whatever needs gluing. Again, to help pitch adhere, the surface to be glued should be heated for best results. Melted pitch drips. And burns skin. It’s similar to molten paracord for those who have had this unpleasantness stuck to their finger tip!
Here’s our video shot at my shelter making primitive hot glue sticks…
- A View to the Past: Experience and Experiment in Primitive Technology by Scott Jones
- Practicing Primitive: A Handbook of Aboriginal Skills by Steven M. Watts
- Participating in Nature by Thomas J. Elpel
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