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One can produce a tar-like substance from corn stalks by heating them in a microwave oven. This process is known as pyrolysis. Corn Stover Tar from Pyrolysis by Microwave Heating.jpg
One can produce a tar-like substance from corn stalks by heating them in a microwave oven. This process is known as pyrolysis.

Tar is a dark brown or black viscous liquid of hydrocarbons and free carbon, obtained from a wide variety of organic materials through destructive distillation. Tar can be produced from coal, wood, petroleum, or peat. [1]


Mineral products resembling tar can be produced from fossil hydrocarbons, such as petroleum. Coal tar is produced from coal as a byproduct of coke production.


"Tar" and "pitch" can be used interchangeably. Asphalt (naturally occurring pitch) may also be called either "mineral tar" or "mineral pitch". There is a tendency to use "tar" for more liquid substances and "pitch" for more solid (viscoelastic) substances. [2] Both "tar" and "pitch" are applied to viscous forms of asphalt, such as the asphalt found in naturally occurring tar pits (e.g., the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles). "Rangoon tar", also known as "Burmese oil" or "Burmese naphtha", is also a form of petroleum.[ citation needed ] Oil sands, found extensively in Alberta, Canada, and composed of asphalt, are colloquially referred to as "tar sands". [3] [4]

Wood tar

Tar kiln at Trollskogen in Oland, Sweden Tjardal 092.jpg
Tar kiln at Trollskogen in Öland, Sweden

For at least 600 years, wood tar has been used as a water repellent coating for boats, ships, and roofs. In Scandinavia, it was produced as a cash crop. "Peasant Tar" might be named for the district of its production. [5]

Wood tar is still used as an additive in the flavoring of candy, alcohol, and other foods. Wood tar is microbicidal. Producing tar from wood was known in ancient Greece and has probably been used in Scandinavia since the Iron Age. Production and trade in pine-derived tar was a major contributor in the economies of Northern Europe [6] and Colonial America. Its main use was in preserving wooden sailing vessels against rot. For centuries, dating back at least to the 14th century, tar was among Sweden's most important exports. Sweden exported 13,000 barrels of tar in 1615 and 227,000 barrels in the peak year of 1863. The largest user was the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom. Demand for tar declined with the advent of iron and steel ships. Production nearly stopped in the early 20th century. Traditional wooden boats are still sometimes tarred.

The heating (dry distilling) of pine wood causes tar and pitch to drip away from the wood[ citation needed ] and leave behind charcoal. Birch bark is used to make particularly fine tar, known as "Russian oil", suitable for leather protection. The by-products of wood tar are turpentine and charcoal. When deciduous tree woods are subjected to destructive distillation, the products are methanol (wood alcohol) and charcoal.

Tar kilns (Swedish : tjärmila, Danish : tjæremile, Norwegian : tjæremile, Finnish : tervahauta) are dry distillation ovens, historically used in Scandinavia for producing tar from wood. They were built close to the forest, from limestone or from more primitive holes in the ground. The bottom is sloped into an outlet hole to allow the tar to pour out. The wood is split into dimensions of a finger, stacked densely, and finally covered tight with earth and moss. If oxygen can enter, the wood might catch fire, and the production would be ruined. On top of this, a fire is stacked and lit. After a few hours, the tar starts to pour out and continues to do so for a few days.


Birch tar Birkenpech.JPG
Birch tar

Tar was used as seal for roofing shingles and tar paper and to seal the hulls of ships and boats. For millennia, wood tar was used to waterproof sails and boats, but today, sails made from inherently waterproof synthetic substances have reduced the demand for tar. Wood tar is still used to seal traditional wooden boats and the roofs of historic, shingle-roofed churches, as well as painting exterior walls of log buildings. Tar is also a general disinfectant. Pine tar oil, or wood tar oil, is used for the surface treatment of wooden shingle roofs, boats, buckets, and tubs and in the medicine, soap, and rubber industries. Pine tar has good penetration on the rough wood. An old wood tar oil recipe for the treatment of wood is one-third each genuine wood tar, balsam turpentine, and boiled or raw linseed oil or Chinese tung oil.

A boat transporting pine tar barrels on Oulu River in 1910 Tervavene 1910.jpg
A boat transporting pine tar barrels on Oulu River in 1910

In Finland, wood tar was once considered a panacea reputed to heal "even those cut in twain through their midriff". A Finnish proverb states that "if sauna, vodka and tar won't help, the disease is fatal." [7] Wood tar is used in traditional Finnish medicine because of its microbicidal properties.

Wood tar is also available diluted as tar water, which has numerous uses:

Mixing tar with linseed oil varnish produces tar paint. Tar paint has a translucent brownish hue and can be used to saturate and tone wood and protect it from weather. Tar paint can also be toned with various pigments, producing translucent colors and preserving the wood texture.

Tar was once used for public humiliation, known as tarring and feathering. By pouring hot wood tar onto somebody's bare skin and waiting for it to cool, they would remain stuck in one position. From there, people would attach feathers to the tar, which would remain stuck on the tarred person for the duration of the punishment. That person would then become a public example for the rest of the day. [8]

A New Method of Macarony Making As Practiced at Boston. Date made: 1830 Maker: Pendleton's Lithography; Johnston, David Claypoole Place: Boston, Massachusetts Description: Black and white print; outdoor scene of three men standing in front of a gallows with a broken rope hanging from the gallows. One man is tarred and feathered from the neck down and has the other half of the broken rope around his neck. Macarony Boston NMAH2003-25005.jpg
A New Method of Macarony Making As Practiced at Boston. Date made: 1830 Maker: Pendleton's Lithography; Johnston, David Claypoole Place: Boston, Massachusetts Description: Black and white print; outdoor scene of three men standing in front of a gallows with a broken rope hanging from the gallows. One man is tarred and feathered from the neck down and has the other half of the broken rope around his neck.

Pitch was familiar in 9th-century Iraq, derived from petroleum that became accessible from natural fields in the region. It was sometimes used in the construction of baths or in shipbuilding. [9]

Coal tar

Coal tar was formerly one of the products of gasworks. Tar made from coal or petroleum is considered toxic and carcinogenic because of its high benzene content,[ citation needed ] though coal tar in low concentrations is used as a topical medicine for conditions such as psoriasis. [10] [11] Coal and petroleum tar has a pungent odor.

Coal tar is listed at number 1999 in the United Nations list of dangerous goods.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bitumen</span> Form of petroleum primarily used in road construction

Bitumen is an immensely viscous constituent of petroleum. Depending on its exact composition it can be a sticky, black liquid or an apparently solid mass that behaves as a liquid over very large time scales. In the U.S., the material is commonly referred to as asphalt. Whether found in natural deposits or refined from petroleum, the substance is classed as a pitch. Prior to the 20th century the term asphaltum was in general use. The word derives from the ancient Greek ἄσφαλτος ásphaltos, which referred to natural bitumen or pitch. The largest natural deposit of bitumen in the world is the Pitch Lake of southwest Trinidad, which is estimated to contain 10 million tons.

Coal tar is a thick dark liquid which is a by-product of the production of coke and coal gas from coal. It is a type of creosote. It has both medical and industrial uses. Medicinally it is a topical medication applied to skin to treat psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff). It may be used in combination with ultraviolet light therapy. Industrially it is a railroad tie preservative and used in the surfacing of roads. Coal tar was listed as a known human carcinogen in the first Report on Carcinogens from the U.S. Federal Government, issued in 1980.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Creosote</span> Tar distillation byproduct used as wood preservative

Creosote is a category of carbonaceous chemicals formed by the distillation of various tars and pyrolysis of plant-derived material, such as wood, or fossil fuel. They are typically used as preservatives or antiseptics.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Turpentine</span> Liquid distilled from pine resin

Turpentine is a fluid obtained by the distillation of resin harvested from living trees, mainly pines. Principally used as a specialized solvent, it is also a source of material for organic syntheses.

Naphtha is a flammable liquid hydrocarbon mixture. Generally, it is a fraction of crude oil, but it can also be produced from natural-gas condensates, petroleum distillates, and the fractional distillation of coal tar and peat. In some industries and regions, the name naphtha refers to crude oil or refined petroleum products such as kerosene or diesel fuel.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pitch (resin)</span> Resin

Pitch is a viscoelastic polymer which can be natural or manufactured, derived from petroleum, coal tar, or plants. Pitch produced from petroleum may be called bitumen or asphalt, while plant-derived pitch, a resin, is known as rosin in its solid form. Tar is sometimes used interchangeably with pitch, but generally refers to a more liquid substance derived from coal production, including coal tar, or from plants, as in pine tar.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dry distillation</span> Heating of solids to produce gases

Dry distillation is the heating of solid materials to produce gaseous products. The method may involve pyrolysis or thermolysis, or it may not.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pine tar</span> Chemical compound

Pine tar is a form of wood tar produced by the high temperature carbonization of pine wood in anoxic conditions. The wood is rapidly decomposed by applying heat and pressure in a closed container; the primary resulting products are charcoal and pine tar.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Coal oil</span> Oil derived from coal

Coal oil is a shale oil obtained from the destructive distillation of cannel coal, mineral wax, or bituminous shale, once used widely for illumination.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Destructive distillation</span> Chemical process

Destructive distillation is a chemical process in which decomposition of unprocessed material is achieved by heating it to a high temperature; the term generally applies to processing of organic material in the absence of air or in the presence of limited amounts of oxygen or other reagents, catalysts, or solvents, such as steam or phenols. It is an application of pyrolysis. The process breaks up or 'cracks' large molecules. Coke, coal gas, gaseous carbon, coal tar, ammonia liquor, and coal oil are examples of commercial products historically produced by the destructive distillation of coal.

An upgrader is a facility that upgrades bitumen into synthetic crude oil. Upgrader plants are typically located close to oil sands production, for example, the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta, Canada or the Orinoco tar sands in Venezuela.

Heavy crude oil is highly viscous oil that cannot easily flow from production wells under normal reservoir conditions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Petroleum seep</span> Place where natural hydrocarbons escape

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Naval stores</span> Term for resins used in shipbuilding

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fuel</span> Material used to create heat and energy

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Petroleum naphtha is an intermediate hydrocarbon liquid stream derived from the refining of crude oil with CAS-no 64742-48-9. It is most usually desulfurized and then catalytically reformed, which rearranges or restructures the hydrocarbon molecules in the naphtha as well as breaking some of the molecules into smaller molecules to produce a high-octane component of gasoline.

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  1. Daintith, John (2008). "tar". A Dictionary of Chemistry (6th ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acref/9780199204632.001.0001. ISBN   9780199204632. "Tar: Definition". Miriam Webster. Retrieved 14 March 2013. "a dark brown or black bituminous usually odorous viscous liquid obtained by destructive distillation of organic material (such as wood, coal, or peat)". "tar and pitch" (6th ed.). The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia . Retrieved 14 March 2013. "tar and pitch, viscous, dark-brown to black substances obtained by the destructive distillation of coal, wood, petroleum, peat and certain other organic materials. "
  2. "tar and pitch" (6th ed.). The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14 March 2013. "The terms tar and pitch are loosely applied to the many varieties of the two substances, sometimes interchangeably. For example, asphalt, which is naturally occurring pitch, is called mineral tar and mineral pitch. Tar is more or less fluid, depending upon its origin and the temperature to which it is exposed. Pitch tends to be more solid."
  3. "Don't call them 'tar sands' - Macleans.ca". www.macleans.ca.
  4. Cryderman, Kelly (9 May 2013). "Alberta's oil sands crude: the science behind the debate". The Globe and Mail.
  5. "Pine Tar; History and Uses".
  6. Burger, Pauline. "Ancient maritime pitch and tar a multi-disciplinary study of sources, technology and preservation". British Museum . Retrieved 14 March 2013.
  7. Sauna, viina ja terva – Potilaan Lääkärilehti Archived 2022-03-06 at the Wayback Machine (in Finnish)
  8. Burns, Janet (6 August 2015). "A Brief, Sticky History of Tarring and Feathering". Mental Floss. Minute Media. Retrieved 12 July 2019.
  9. Salim Al-Hassani (2008). "1000 Years of Missing Industrial History". In Emilia Calvo Labarta; Mercè Comes Maymo; Roser Puig Aguilar; Mònica Rius Pinies (eds.). A shared legacy: Islamic science East and West. Edicions Universitat Barcelona. pp. 57–82 [63]. ISBN   978-84-475-3285-8.
  10. National Psoriasis Foundation (2001-12-03). "The battle to save coal tar in California". www.psoriasis.org. Archived from the original on 2002-10-29. Retrieved 2023-06-29.
  11. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2015-04-01). "Drug Products for the Control of Dandruff, Seborrheic Dermatitis, and Psoriasis". www.accessdata.fda.gov. Archived from the original on 2015-09-18. Retrieved 2023-06-29.