Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/February 1896/Gathering Naval Stores

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THAT portion of the Southern States known as the long-leaf pine belt produces the bulk of all the naval stores used in the world. There is an immense stretch of pine forest beginning in North Carolina near the Virginia border, and it follows along the Atlantic coast-to Florida, and along the Gulf coast as far as Texas. This belt of long-leaf pine varies in width from five to one hundred miles, crosses six states—namely, the two Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana—and covers an area of about one hundred and thirty thousand square miles.

All over this great forest territory the trees are tapped, or "bled," for their sap, which furnishes what are known as naval stores. The work on a "turpentine farm," as a division of the forest is called, begins in winter with the cutting of the "boxes." A broad gash about seven inches deep and fourteen inches long is cut just above the base of the tree, making a kind of box. The cut is V-shaped, slanting from the outside, and thus forms a reservoir, which will hold about three pints of sap.

Meanwhile, the ground around the trees is raked clean, and the pine straw needles are gathered in heaps and usually burned. This is done to protect the boxes from fires, and also to give the "chipper" a firm stand when engaged in his work; but, owing to negligence, small fires are allowed to spread, and often they become disastrous conflagrations, which run over thousands of acres of valuable timber before they are finally checked.

The turpentine season does not really open till early spring, when the sap starts to flow in the trees, and "chipping" begins. The chipper first removes strips about two inches wide, beginning at the corners of the box and extending to a height of about ten inches. Then the surface between the two strips is laid bare to a depth of about one inch beneath the bark.

After a short time the "chip" ceases to "bleed," and then from time to time fresh cuts are made. This is called "hacking," and is done with a peculiar tool called the "hacker." There are two kinds of hackers—the open and the closed hacker. Both are quite similar in shape and size, except that one has an open, strong knife with curved edge, and the other a closed knife blade, fastened to a long iron handle. A heavy weight is attached at the end in order to give momentum to the blows, and it is said to make the work of the chipper easier.

Once a week from March till October the trees are either chipped or hacked. The size of the chip grows at the rate of about two inches a month; so that, by the end of the first season a surface perhaps fourteen by twenty-four inches is laid bare, and in the fourth and last year the chip has reached a height of six or eight feet.

When the crude turpentine, or resin, begins to harden, it is scraped from the chip and the boxes with a special tool, called the "scraper." The product thus obtained is "scrape," or "hard turpentine"

Tools used in the Turpentine Industry.

It is of inferior quality, containing only about one half of the volatile oil obtained from "dip," or soft turpentine. In the first year the tree yields four times as much dip as scrape, but in the fourth year the amounts are about equal.

The flow of turpentine is influenced by the state of the weather, especially the temperature. A long spell of heat or a long spell of cold decreases the yield. The flow is greatest during the hot summer months, July and August; after that it becomes less and less till October or November, when it ceases. Last year (1895) the turpentine crop was a poor one, on account of the cold spring.

The resin which accumulates in the boxes is removed by a trowel-shaped dipper. The operation is known as "dipping." In the first year from six to eight dippings are made. The dip is put in barrels and taken to the "still," where it is transformed into spirits of turpentine, resin or rosin, and pitch. Tar is made by burning the dead wood or limbs in kilns.

The crude turpentine in its natural state as it flows from the tree during the first year is distinguished by its fine white color. During the latter part of the season it shows a faint straw tint. The product dipped in the first part of the season is "virgin dip," and the other is "second virgin dip." It is from these virgin dippings that the best and highest-priced grades of resin are obtained.

In the following years the turpentine is known as "yellow dip," and it becomes darker colored, less transparent, and less liquid every year. In the fourth and last year the turpentine is very dark in color, and yields resin or rosin of the lowest grades, ranging from a deep brown to almost black and opaque.

If you look at the market reports, under the heading of Naval Stores, you will find certain technical terms and mysterious letters. The letters designate the different grades of rosin, as follows: W G, window glass; W W, water white, the lightest grade; N, extra pale; M, pale; K, low pale; I, good No. 1; H, No. 1; F, good No. 3; E, No. 3; D, good strain; C, strain; B, common strain; A, black.

Besides you will find a number of terms peculiar to the turpentine industry. Down South you hear the natives speak of the

Beginning the Work in a Virgin Forest: Boxing.

great pine forests as "turpentine farms," although some people refer to them as "turpentine orchards." The word "crop" has a special meaning. When a turpentine farmer speaks of his crop he means ten thousand boxes. This will be about five thousand trees, as from two to four boxes are cut in full-grown trees. There will be about that number of trees on an area of two hundred acres.

Most of the turpentine farms are worked by operators on a large scale. Small landowners can not afford to work their trees, and so they rent or lease their forests for four years at the rate of fifty dollars per crop of ten thousand boxes. The total expense of working one crop is about six hundred dollars per year, or twenty-four hundred dollars for four years. Few operators work less than ten crops, which would make their expenditures twenty-four thousand dollars during the four years. To this should be added the cost of a plant (about four thousand dollars) for working ten or twenty crops, establishing a still, building houses and sheds, and buying tools, mules, and horses.

The amount of product gathered from a crop of two hundred acres in the first year is about two hundred and eighty barrels of dip and seventy barrels of scrape. This yields at the still about two thousand gallons of spirits of turpentine and two hundred and sixty barrels of rosin. In the fourth and last year the yield of the crop falls to about one thousand gallons of spirits and one hundred and ten barrels of rosin.

In speaking of the profits of the turpentine industry a veteran operator said: "There is no money in the business nowadays. Prices are too low. With the spirits at twenty-seven cents per gallon and resin at a dollar and twenty cents, it takes a right smart man to make much more than one dollar per acre."

The prices of all kinds of naval stores reached their highest point during the late war, when spirits of turpentine sold for a dollar and fifty cents and a dollar and seventy-five cents per gallon, and inferior grades of rosin sold for four dollars a barrel. This gave a "boom" to the turpentine industry of France, as production in the South was practically checked for several years.

Next to the work in the pine forest, the operations at the still are interesting. Here, by the process of distillation, are obtained the different resinous products of trade, which go under the name of "naval stores." The term seems to be a misnomer just now when ships are built of iron and steel. About nine tenths of all the naval stores are used in industries other than shipbuilding.[1]

If you go into a turpentine still when it is in operation you will see how much care is taken to obtain the naval stores. You will inhale the health-giving properties of the pine-tree sap. Your nostrils are tickled by the pungent odor of the boiling turpentine; there is something strong and stimulating about the smell. Your lungs seem to swell to twice their normal size, and, as one person said to me after a visit to a still, "I feel braced up." There is no better sanitarium than the pineries of the South, and the turpentine workers are as strong and healthy a set of fellows as you can find anywhere.

The manner in which naval stores are obtained may be briefly described as follows: The dip, or crude turpentine, is emptied into a big copper still and boiled. The steam is passed through a "worm"—a coil of pipe similar to that used in a liquor distillery

Scraping and Dipping in a Turpentine Orchard.
Tree to the right shows scarified surface.

and on reaching a certain point the condensation drops into a tank, and is the spirits of turpentine of commerce.

The residuum left after the spirit of turpentine has distilled over is the rosin of trade. This is drawn off by a tap at the bottom of the still, and strained first through a wire cloth and then through a coarse cotton cloth, and run into a trough, from which it is ladled into barrels.

In the several turpentine States, so called, there are laws regulating the inspection of turpentine, defining its grades, the size and kind of barrel, and the manner of branding. The chief points of these regulations, which are more or less the same in the several Southern States, are: turpentine must be branded "S," or "H," for soft or hard; the soft turpentine barrels to weigh two hundred and eighty pounds, the hard turpentine two hundred and forty pounds, and pitch, thirty-two gallons to the barrel. All spirits of turpentine are gauged by the inspectors of naval stores. Tar and turpentine barrels are marked and certified, and usually show the initials of the maker's name.

Very few people have any correct notion of the number of uses to which the products of turpentine have been put. Let us mention some of the different ways spirits of turpentine enters into the arts and manufactures. Many who read this article by gaslight will remember when they read their newspapers by the smoky light furnished by "camphene." This was before the introduction and use of petroleum. Camphene is prepared by mixing the rectified oil of turpentine with alcohol. Although kerosene is now so cheap, the rectified spirits of turpentine is still used for illuminating purposes in some backwood sections of the South.

Perhaps the most common uses of the spirits of turpentine are those in the arts, where it enters into the preparation of paints and varnishes, and especially in the manufacture of India-rubber goods. The paint and varnish industries take about five million gallons annually, while the rubber industry requires about three and a half million gallons a year.

But spirits of turpentine has other uses not so well known to most readers. How many would enjoy their salad oils and other vegetable oils, if they knew that they were adulterated with turpentine oil? How many invalids know that their medicines contain spirits of turpentine, or that the liniment or ointment which relieves their aches and pains is largely composed of turpentine?

Quite as varied and valuable are the products of rosin in the arts and manufactures. Do you know that the finest grades of rosin are used in the manufacture of paper? How many persons who look at the printer's ink on this paper would say that it contains rosin? How many, washing their face and hands, ever suspect that there is rosin in the scented soap? There is rosin in all these products, as there is in sealing wax, putty and sizing, and in varnishes.

Two kinds of rosin oil are obtained from rosin by the process of dry distillation. The light rosin oil is used principally in the fine varnishes. The heavy oil enters into the manufacture of axle grease, and machine and lubricating oils. It is one of the best and cheapest lubricants for metal bearings in machinery, the petroleum oils not excepted. The heavy rosin oils are largely used in the preparation of cheap paints, such as are used to cover metal, roofs, and so forth.

The product called "pitch" is the residue from the dry distillation of rosin. It is used for the calking of ships, shoemaker's pitch, and black dyes or pigments. There is a special kind of pitch used by brewers for pitching beer kegs and barrels. The process of distillation requires experience and care in order to obtain the right quantity of oil of turpentine; if too little oil, the pitch is brittle and does not adhere to the barrel; if too much, it gives a sharp, disagreeable taste to the beer.

North Carolina for years produced nearly all the tar used at home and abroad, and from this fact its people were called "tar-heels." Wilmington, N. C, is the headquarters for tar and crude turpentine, but Savannah, Ga., is the largest market in the world for naval stores. The process of making tar is simple, and may be briefly described as follows: The dead limbs and wood are put in a heap in a hole in the ground and covered with dirt and sod. A fire is started at the bottom and allowed to smolder for eight or ten days, when the tar begins to flow. It is then dipped into barrels, which contain three hundred and twenty pounds net. About forty gallons of tar are obtained from one cord of wood.

The best grades of charcoal are now made from the pine-tree wood and bark. The sawdust carries a heavy percentage of wood alcohol and creosote. The product known as oil of tar is obtained by dry distillation of the tar, and is used by farmers and fruit-growers as an insecticide, and by doctors and veterinary surgeons for external applications.

Such, then, are some of the important ways in which turpentine enters into the industries, supplying man's needs and wants. The Chinese used to say that the cocoanut palm had as many good uses as there are days in the month. The same and even more can be said of the long-leaf pine. This wonderful tree is almost like cotton in the variety and value of its products.

It is perhaps not generally known that matting and excelsior are made from the pine trees. There is a factory about fifteen miles from Wilmington that uses the pine straw as material for bagging to cover the cotton bales. When the duties on jute and jute bagging were increased, this material was in large demand.

In addition to its other uses, the long-leaf pine belt furnishes annually an immense quantity of timber to the markets. Georgia "yellow pine," as it is called, is known the world over. It is one of the most durable and ornamental of woods. It is light and easily worked, and yet it is tougher than many woods twice its specific gravity. It holds paint and varnish better than most woods, owing to its resinous qualities, and, having a finely marked grain, it shows off well when highly polished. It is thus taking the place of hard woods for use in the building of railway cars, in furnishings for offices, and for interior work in houses. It stands

Turpentine Still at Manly N. C.

the weather, rain and sun and storm, and wears as well outdoors as inside.

Here is the place to state that, until recently, architects, builders, and engineers had a prejudice against using pine timber that had been bled of its sap for turpentine. They claimed that the bleeding process weakened the tensile strength of the timber. This was disputed, of course, in the South. In order to settle this important question, as the yellow pine lumber industry had grown to enormous proportions, the National Bureau of Forestry undertook a series of careful tests three or four years ago. It was shown by experiments that the sap comes from the sapwood, leaving the heartwood unaffected, and hence the prejudice against bled timber is not founded in fact or reason; in other words, after the pine wood has been tapped, its tensile strength, according to these tests, remains equal to that of virgin growth.

The value of the naval stores produced in the United States is about ten million dollars per annum. Nine tenths of all the naval stores used in the world come from the pineries of the Southern States. The other one tenth is furnished principally by the forests of France and Austria.

The most careful figures of the total production of naval stores in the United States are those gathered by the special agent of the Division of Forestry for the year 1890. They show the total production of these stores to be three hundred and forty thousand casks, or seventeen million gallons of spirits of turpentine, and one million four hundred and ninety thousand barrels of resin of different grades.

In order to produce this amount of naval stores it is estimated that about two million three hundred thousand acres are being worked, and that about eight hundred thousand acres of virgin forest are invaded every year to supply the turpentine stills. At this rate it will not be many years before the effects of reckless cutting, sapping of timber, and fires will be felt in the long-leaf pine belt. As a matter of fact, there has been a steady decline in the production of naval stores during the past ten years in every Southern State except Georgia, and there the increase has been due to the opening of new tracts of timber made accessible to shipping points and markets by railroads.

There is no doubt that the American process of bleeding the pine trees is crude and wasteful, and that the turpentine workers, like the lumbermen, conduct their operations on what has been bluntly termed "the robbing system." What else is it but robbing, when the turpentine operators strip the land of its forest resources, and leave only desolate wastes? It is now time that our turpentine workers introduced better methods and necessary changes in their business.

Thus, it is interesting to note the care and economy with, which turpentine farming is carried on in France. There, trees are known to have been boxed and bled for a full century, whereas in the Southern States trees are seldom worked for more than five or six years. The differences between French and American practices may be briefly stated, as follows:

The French turpentine workman does not cut a big, deep, broad box into the tree. Instead, he makes a small chip about three inches wide, an inch and a half high, and only two fifths of an inch deep, near the foot of the tree. This chip is enlarged from time to time, and at the end of the first season it reaches a height of about six feet. During the next four seasons the chipping increases at the rate of about two feet and a half each season, so that at the end of the fifth year the chip reaches a height of twelve or thirteen feet. Only one chip is made on a tree at a time. A tree that has been worked for five seasons is given a rest of several years, and then a new chip is started some six or eight inches from the old one. And so, by alternating periods of bleeding and of rest, trees fifty years old and more will be completely encircled by long scars or chips, and when the trees cease to yield a profitable supply of turpentine they are bled "to death" and cut into lumber.[2]

The French method of collecting the sap is better and more economical than ours. Instead of having the resin or crude turpentine run into a deep box at the base of the tree, as in this country, the French gather the crude turpentine in a pot or pail, which is nailed just above the old chip. As the sap flows only a short distance, there is not much loss from evaporation, and, besides, the product is cleaner. The chip is covered with a board, a,nd this simple device assures a good yield and a clean product. It is claimed that by the French or Hugues system the yield of turpentine is one fourth larger than by the American method, and the trouble of securing comparatively pure sap is more than repaid by the increased price.

In brief, the French methods of collecting turpentine should be an "object lesson" to our Southern orchardists, who carry on their business in a most wasteful and extravagant manner. The result is, if the same care and economy which are observed in the pineries of France were taken of the pine forests of the Southern States, they would yield an annual revenue second only to that of the cotton crop. If to the naval stores be added the amount

The French method of Bleeding the Trees

of lumber that can be taken from the pine belt, we have a revenue even larger than that of the cotton crop. All this could be done without reducing the forests of the South to any serious extent. It simply requires good husbandry and common sense in forest management.[3]

Perhaps the greatest loss and damage are caused by fires, which sweep through the forests and destroy millions of feet of valuable timber every year. It is estimated that the total loss from this source alone is not less than a million dollars annually.

The greater part of this loss of valuable timber is wholly unnecessary. Our people take extra precautions against allowing fires to burn their houses and buildings, but they view with comparative indifference the destruction of millions of feet of timber. The districts invaded by the turpentine workers are left desolate wastes, and few people who have not been in the long-leaf pine belt can realize the great injury that has been done to the prosperity of the South by an industry which is rapidly changing the face of Nature and even the climate of the country.

  1. Oddly enough, the term "naval stores" is not defined in Webster, Worcester, or the Century dictionaries.
  2. The method of boxing trees during their productive period is known as gemmage à vie—i. e., "bleeding alive"; the "bleeding to death," gemmage à morte, is commenced when the turpentine orchard needs regenerating. By this method of forest management the trees are kept uniform, strong, and in good shape or condition.
  3. Three years ago the Geological Survey of North Carolina investigated the methods of the turpentine industry and suggested a number of radical changes or improvements. The recommendations have been adopted by many turpentine workers, who have modified their old, destructive methods. Prof. J. A. Holmes, of the Survey, informs me that as a result of these improvements the production of naval stores in North Carolina has been increased by one hundred and fifty thousand dollars within the past two years.