Waterproofing with Spruce Pitch

Waterproofing with Spruce Pitch

Pinaceae Family

 Picea sitchensis (Bong.) Carrière

  • Sitka spruce
  • Tlingit: Shéiyi (KayaanÍ Commission, 28)

Picea glauca (Moench) Voss

  • white spruce

Picea mariana Mill.

  • black spruce

Additional Names

  • Yup’ik name for spruce tree *unclear if it is for all spruce trees or only white spruce trees
    • kevraartut (mid Kuskokwim) (Jernigan, K. A., 8)
    • nekevraartut (lower Kuskokwim) (Jernigan, K. A., 8)
  •  Gwichya Gwich’in Name: ts’eevii/ts’iivii (GTC Department of Cultural Heritage)
    Teetł’it Gwich’in name for spruce tree: ts’iivii (GTC Department of Cultural Heritage)

Spruce tree morphology

The Spruce tree is an evergreen with both male and female reproductive parts on the same plant (monoecious).  The female cones are large and take several years to mature and the male cones are small and fall off after pollen release. The needles are flat and arranged in spirals. (Struwe 2009:42)

Also, roughened leaf scars remain after the leaves fall from their bases (Kane 2017:275).


  • Picea sitchensis (Bong.) Carrière: coastal Alaska (Schofield, 71)
  • Picea glauca (Moench) Voss (white spruce): throughout Alaska except far northern and western areas and typically not found living in coastal areas. (Jernigan, K. A., 9)
  • Picea mariana (black spruce): uplands or muskegs of the middle Y-K region. (Jernigan, K. A., 9)

 Harvesting Pitch

  • Spring to winter (Schofield, 71)
  • Harvest from healthy stands and trees with bark damage from boring insects or other mechanical damage. (Kane 277)
  • Alaska Native Elder Jack Reakoff collects fresh pitch that still has turpines by harvesting it from small blisters on the tree. Discolored pitch doesn’t heal. In the winter, one can bring in part of the tree to harvest. (Reakoff, Jack and Roma and unknown 1995: 7:57-13:38)
  • Historical harvesting: In south-central Alaska, the Dena’ina mark trees  close to camps, trails, and villages. The trees have pitch-gathering scars, which are lateral cuts in the tree. They are chest height and sometimes deep, suggesting “pitch wells” to catch dripping pitch. These are studied as culturally modified trees and show historical use and ties to the land and cultural values of keeping the trees alive. (Deur et al. 2020:328-330)
  • Siefert (Seifert 2010, page 302) suggests that resing pockets in Norway spruce are due to drought. *Further research if different areas are better for harvesting pitch.


 Stories and Traditional Uses in Southwest Alaska

  • Athabascan Elder Howard Luke states to use yellow pitch to heal infected skin and brown pitch as glue and to fill holes. (Howard, Luke and Schneider, Bill and other 1996: 2:15-4:40)
  • Howard keeps his medicinal pitch in a can and warms it up before use. His mother also put it in a can and kept it covered with a rag. He has used this pitch on deep cuts and the cut has healed without scarring. (Howard, Luke and Schneider, Bill and other 1996: 2:15-4:40)
  • Traditionally, Dena’ina people use spruce pitch for internally and topically, for closing wounds (covering with the inner bark as a bandage), stopping bleeding, a drawing salve, and as a gum to clean teeth. It is also used to seal canoes and traditional crafts. (Deur, et al., 2020:328-329)
  • Used to mend holes and cracks in berry baskets and wood planks and bowls. (Jones, 169)
  • Caulking boats (Jernigan, K. A., 10) and shelters (Schofield, 72)
  • An Athabascan story explains using pitch on canoes. (Maillelle 1987)


  • The oleoresin and oils are flammable. (Kane 280)


Waterproofing a spruce root basket, made by Molly Mitchell


Step 1: Collect the pitch

  • I did this step many times. At first, I only found small drips of amber pitch so it took awhile. I then found a small area that had trees with large wounds and chunks of pitch. Most resources I found about collecting pitch was that it was just pitch – it didn’t matter about the color, age, etc. However, I should have keyed on to Howard Luke’s advice of using brown pitch. Also, Deane, in a blog posts, discusses colors of pitch and ages of pitch for making gum, so it appears there are big differences in the type of pitch used for different purposes.
White, brown, and amber pitch in the seams. Photo by author, 2020
White pitch. Photo by author, 2020
Brown pitch that melts first when heated. Photo by author, 2020


Step 2: Clean the pitch

  • This was a mess! I tried a few different ways. The first way, was what I had done previously. I melted pitch in a jar using a double boiler and poured it into a cheesecloth over a bowl. This wasn’t working out very well. Next, using advice from a YouTuber, I tied pitch in cheesecloth and boiled the bundle, scooping out the pitch as it melted. It took a long time and eventually the cheesecloth broke open. Lastly, I used a silicon bowl and a double boiler and a metal strainer. I dumped the pitch in the strainer and just let it melt. This was the easiest way even though I ruined the strainer.
Pitch in cheesecloth. Photo by author, 2020
Melted pitch. Photo by author, 2020
Pitch in strainer. Photo by author, 2020


Melting pitch. Photo by author, 2020
Two types of melted pitch. Photo by author, 2020

Step 3: Add a fat, or oil, or beeswax ….

  • According to birch bark canoe builder Randy Brown and the Nomadic Woodsman, fat is added to the pitch to make it more pliable and not sticky. I tried to get moose fat and while looking, used grapeseed oil. This made the pitch too slick. I went to the McNeil Canyon Ranch in town and got a chunk of fat. This fat, however, contains chunks that wouldn’t melt and I ended up using a toothpick to take out little pieces. With this batch, I added grease from a recently baked chicken. The chicken was baked with some lemon infused olive oil, so I tried to separate the fats and just use chicken fat. I kept adding a bit at a time to test for pliability, but eventually added to much and the pitch wouldn’t harden. Lastly, I used beeswax, which was just right.
  • During this step, I learned a hard lesson. Melted, the pitch was the color and texture of peanut butter and I couldn’t get it to spread thinly or be pliable. When I first melted the pitch, I noticed that some colors melted faster than others, but didn’t really pay attention. The second time, I did, and after the brown pitch melted, I removed the rest of the pitch. Some of the other colors mixed in, but not as much as before.
    Pitch and grapeseed oil. Photo by author, 2020
    Beef fat from McNeil Canyon Ranch. Photo by author, 2020

    Pitch and beeswax. Photo by author, 2020

Step 4: Apply the pitch – inside, outside, or both?

  • Through trial I learned that using silicone tools work better than knives, toothpicks, and plastic utensils. It is also easy to clean the pitch off the silicone, so it is less wasteful than throwing away supplies.
  • I couldn’t find much online about the application, but did read that some baskets were dipped in pitch and covered inside and outside (Nielsen-Grimm). This time, I layered pitch on the bowl like I was frosting a cake.
  • Most historical photos show the outside of baskets, so I wasn’t sure if the inside also was waterproofed. For this basket, I wanted to preserve the aesthetics of the exterior, so added pitch inside. It was waterproof! However, some pitch seeped through to the outside, so I covered the entire basket.
Basket filled with water, photo by author, 2020
Basket with pitch covered inside, filled with water. Photo by author, 2020
Pitch covered basket. Photo by author, 2020

Lesson Learned and Future Ideas

  • It would have been better to do this project with someone who has has waterproofed with pitch already, or at least a second set of hands.
  • How to make this project not wasteful with ruining equipment? Bigger batches at one time, dedicated tools, and silicone.
  • More research is needed in the types of pitch and the biochemical processes of each type.
  • How often was waterproofing typically redone? Was the pitch melted off and the basket re-dipped?
  • It was stressful using someone else’s work for an experimental project. I am not sure that I can do this again!
  • Best ways to not get sticky pitch everywhere.



Brown, Randy. Guest Speaker in EBOT 250 Applied Ethnobotany class (October 10, 2020).

Deane. “A Pitch for Spruce Gum.” Eat the Weeds and Other Things, Too. http://www.eattheweeds.com/a-pitch-for-spruce-gum/. Accessed 13 November 2020.

Deur, D., Evanoff, K., and Herbert, J., Jul 1, 2020 “Their Markers as they Go”: Modified Trees as Waypoints in the Dena’ina Cultural Landscape, Alaska.

Nielsen-Grimm, Glenna. “Largest Navajo Pitch Basket.” Natural History Museum of Utah. https://nhmu.utah.edu/blog/2016/11/15/giant-pitch-basket#:~:text=The%20Navajo%20pitch%20basket%2C%20also%20known%20as%20the,with%20whom%20it%20is%20a%20commonly%20used%20vessel. Accessed 8 November 2020.

GTC Department of Cultural Heritage. “Spruce” https://www.gwichin.ca/plants/spruce. Accessed 3 September 2020.

Howard, Luke (Interviewee); Schneider, Bill and other (Interviewers). (September 12, 1996). University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Archive. 96_35.

Jernigan, K. A. (Ed.). (2014). A Guide to the Ethnobotany of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Region. University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Kane, Charles W., 2017. “Medicinal Plants of the Western Mountain States,” Lincoln Town Press, United States of America.

KayaanÍ Commission, 2006. “Ethnobotany Field Guide to Selected Plants found in Sitka, Alaska,” Sitka Tribe of Alaska, Sitka Alaska.

Maillelle, Hannah. Dzax Dina Xudhoy = Spruce-Pitch Man Story : A Traditional Story Told in Holikachuk Athabaskan. Iditarod Area School District, 1987. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat07106a&AN=uaf.1931758&site=eds-live.

Nomadic Woodsman. 11 October 2019 “Building a Spruce Bark Canoe.” [Video]. https://youtu.be/hAxbSgzwJPU

Reakoff, Jack and Roma (Interviewee); Unknown (Interviewer). (1995). University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Archive. 95-50-05, Side A.

Schofield, J., 2007. “Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, the Northwest,” Alaska Northwest Books, Portland, Oregon.

Seifert, Thomas, et al. “Resin Pocket Occurrence in Norway Spruce Depending on Tree and Climate Variables.” Forest Ecology and Management, vol. 260, no. 3, Jan. 2010, pp. 302–312. doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2010.03.024.

Struwe, Lena, 2009. Field Identification of the 50 Most Common Plant Families in Temperate Regions. Rutgers University. (Accessed August 1, 2020. https://www.sci.sdsu.edu/plants/plantsystematics/Identifying_50_major_plant_families.pdf

Leave a Reply