Sunday, April 24, 2011

Pitch and torches

If I recall correctly, one of the pieces of advice that Gary Gygax gave about Dungeon Mastering was to read omnivorously, including non-fiction. Since I woke up this morning thinking about torches and flammable things, here are a couple of minor thought-offerings that, even if they don't directly affect your game, might give you some ideas. They concern the mundane and lowly torch.

Pitch is one of the substances used in making torches (I looked this up). This stuff can be derived from petroleum (in which case it is called "bitumen") or from resin. Heating wood without burning it causes tar pitch to drip away from the wood, and this is also, by the way, what causes wood to turn into charcoal. I never knew that -- I'm glad I stumbled across it.

In general, torches have been made not with a single stick of wood, but with a bundle of sticks (or reeds, or bamboo, etc), usually green rather than cured, tied together. Pitch or animal fat is used at the end (impregnated into cloth or moss) to slow down the rate of burning and keep it from blowing out too easily.


  1. I just found a picture of a medieval 'torch shop' on wikipedia and stuck a copy of it here since I thought you might find it entertaining. I wonder if the dude with the dagger and the lady in the wimple are getting ready to head off on a dungeon expedition?
    I've also read that torches were often made from bundled reeds rather than the 'wooden stick with a flaming ball of stuff' on the end and wondered if torches changed from area to area (i.e.: in some places where wood was scarce, would the reeds be employed to save wood for other purposes?). I wonder if the 'stick' part could be recycled if the light is provided by the burning of pitch, fat, etc., on the business end. From my own experience with campfires, you can't just light up one end of a stick of wood and carry it around and expect it to burn very well or shed a lot of light.
    Finally, when I was in high school I once made some torches by wrapping burlap really tightly around the end of a stick and soaking it in tiki-torch fluid for a friend's monster movie. They burned well and shed decent light but also made a lot of smoke and soot.

  2. That bundle of wood is called a Fagot. Just more food for thought.

    Go get me a fagot and some pitch, so we may make a flaming torch. Then we can romp around the queer dungeon and have a gay old time of it.

    These terms if used properly are a merry bunch. I do enjoy proper English.