The second coming of tarWhen people began exploiting them commercially, Finland's forests - the country's "green gold" - provided the raw material for more than just paper and planks. In fact, wood tar was the first Finnish product to make it big as an export item. In the days when the big ships that sailed the world's oceans were all made of wood, Finland was the world's biggest tar exporter. Trade in this commodity remained important from the early half of the 17th century to the First World War.
People mastered the art of making tar from wood - "tar burning" as the Finns call it - at least as long ago as the beginning of the Christian era. Roman conquerors mediated the skill to the lands around the Baltic. As the merchant fleets of the world grew so did the demand for tar. The coniferous forests south of the Baltic shrank and tar production shifted to Finland. Output was at times over 200,000 barrels, around 25 million litres, per year.
In Finland tar was produced in large pits, unlike the practice in southern countries, where it was made in ovens. The pit variety was considered to be superior in quality. There was no limit to the uses to which tar could be put. Most export tar was used to protect ships and their rigging. It was the practice in Finland to treat all outdoor equipment with tar: sleighs, boats, carts, tools. Roofs were painted with it; some tarred shingle roofs have remained in perfect condition for centuries. In the old days people even used tar as a skin-care product and as a medicine for coughs and other complaints. Sick animals were likewise given tar.
Tar production declined gradually as the era of wooden ships began drawing to a close. In the Finnish forests a switch was made to sawmilling, which brought a better price for less work. The value of lumber exports exceeded that of tar exports for the first time in 1835.
World's biggest wood tar pit
Now demand for tar is picking up again. After all, it is a fine, natural substance for surface- treating wood. Production of it has been gradually revived in recent years, mainly at heritage events arranged in summer with the main goal of attracting tourists. This has spawned a whole range of products: tar-flavoured ice-cream, tar-scented shampoo and soap - and even tar chocolates. There is a lively market for all of the tar that the pits yield. Wherever large batches become available, parishes buy the lot to protect the wooden shingles on the roofs of their churches and belfries.
The world's biggest wood tar pit smouldered last summer in the Kainuu village of Lentiira, an old tar-production centre. It was a huge undertaking: the work of collecting the necessary material, resinous stumps and pitchy trees, had begun two years earlier. The pit smouldered for two weeks and in that time yielded 35,000 litres of tar and 8,000 litres of other distillates.