This slideshow requires Adobe Flash Player 9.0 (or higher). JavaScript must be enabled.


Pine Tar Tradition in Finland

Photographer: Markku Ojala

In the small Finnish community of Punkalaidun, Tar Pit Master Valdemar Nummelin instructs his young apprentice in the ancient Scandinavian tradition of pine tar making.

Together they stack damaged pine wood in a pit, cover it with moss and peat, then light the huge pile that will go on to burn slowly over the next three days. As the wood gradually decomposes, the tar pit master will apply pressure to the natural fibres so it compresses and slowly disintegrates into 500 liters of sticky tar.

This product will be used to protect historical buildings such as traditional churches with wooden shingle roofs. The tar is so effective that it is the only material approved for such use in protected Finnish buildings. Wooden heritage boat builders also find the substance valuable to finish and protect traditional boats. For many Finnish people however, pine tar also has wide ranging household applications; from salving minor skin irritations to more serious ailments such as psoriasis, to flavoring sweets, icecreams and liquor etc. Some even add the sticky tar to shampoo to prevent dandruff.

But the old way of working with tar is under threat. Traditionally, tar pit masters sourced wood from loggers who worked on foot and naturally came across suitable wood during the course of their working day. This wood, known as ’tervas’ is best spotted up close where the logger can see the natural state of the dying and damaged pine wood surface. However, modern loggers sit in cabins on high motorized harvesters and have so little contact with the forest, that they no longer see suitable wood. Subsequently, there hasn’t been enough wood to produce tar in the area for seven years straight.

Another key challenge is the registration legislature for pine tar exports within the European Union. Fortunately, heritage activists founded the Long live Tar! – a society that both supports the pine tar heritage and funds important registration requirements.

The Yli-Kirra Outdoor Agricultural Museum in Punkalaidun preserves the old ways of working and farming. As part of the museums’ activity, they burn a pine tar pit every four years to keep up the traditional skills. Yli-Kirra has many volunteers, local families and committed professionals who help find suitable material, campaign and gather to build the pits. The burning of the pine wood in a pit produces charcoal and tar.

In Punkalaidun, Tar Pit Master Valdemar Nummelin oversees the tar pit burning which will be his last. He is 80 years old and has been a master for half his life. Luckily, he has committed apprentice Valtteri Ylosjarvi who will continue his work.