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Creation 7(1):20, August 1984

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The pitch for Noah’s Ark

by Tas B. Walker, B.E., Ph.D.

Ceinturion, wikimedia commons HuibersArk
The replica ark that Dutchman Johan Huibers built.
Republished 20 July 2016

Many geologists claim that Noah could not possibly have built the ark in the manner described in Genesis. They argue that pitch could not have been used to cover the ark and make it waterproof. Pitch, they claim, is derived from oil or coal, and if coal did not form until during the time of Noah’s Flood, he could not possibly have covered the ark with pitch.

For those who are not geologists, pitch is a black glue-like substance left behind when coal tar is heated or distilled. It belongs to the same family of substances as asphalt or bitumen. Today, it is largely produced by heating coal. Most modern geologists know of no other source for it. But coal tar and petroleum are not the only source for pitch. Anyone who takes the time to consult a reasonable dictionary of geology will find that pitch can be extracted by distilling or heating wood. In fact, prior to the rise of the petroleum and coal industries, this was exactly how pitch was made.

For at least one thousand years, the pitch-making industry in Europe flourished. It was the pitch from this industry which assisted in the construction of those great wooden sailing ships which figured so prominently in European history. Pitch making was a skilled trade, and many European surnames bear testimony to that fact today. In Polish, the word for pitch or tar is ‘smola’. Any Polish telephone directory displays names such as Smola, Smolander, Smolen, Smolenski and Smolarz. These surnames simply mean ‘the man who makes pitch’.

Any Polish telephone directory displays names such as Smola, Smolander, Smolen, Smolenski and Smolarz. These surnames simply mean ‘the man who makes pitch’.

Likewise in Germany, the word for pitch is ‘Teer’, and it appears in names such as Teer and Teerman. Even the English have families whose name is Pitcher, Tarrier or Tarmen, to mention but a few. These all indicate that the trade of manufacturing pitch was extremely common throughout Europe.

So how did they make pitch before the growth of the petroleum and coal industries? Their first step was to obtain resin from the pine trees which at that time grew in dense forests throughout Europe. A herringbone pattern of cuts was gouged into the tree trunk and as the resin ran down the grooves it was collected in a pot at the base of the tree. Pine resin is still collected in this way in Poland, the Ukraine, Russia, Finland and other European countries where pine forests are still to be found.

When the resin had finished flowing, the trees were chopped down, covered in soil or ash, and burned slowly to produce a lightweight black pure form of carbon called charcoal. The last step in the process of making pitch was to add the powdered charcoal to the boiling pine resins. Different proportions of charcoal would produce pitch of different properties. It was this pitch which was used to waterproof the large ocean-going wooden ships. In my opinion it is no coincidence that pitch today can be extracted from coal, much of which in Australia shows evidence of having been formed from pine tree debris.

Now, while I cannot say for sure that Noah obtained pitch for the ark exactly in this fashion, it does illustrate that you don’t have to be able to extract either oil or coal from the ground in order to make pitch. Anyone who had cut down as many trees as Noah and his helpers for the manufacture of an ocean-going ark would certainly have found out about tree resins. If Europeans had a well known and widely used method of making pitch before the discovery of petroleum, obviously Noah could also have had the same satisfactory way of waterproofing the ark with its covering of pitch.

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Readers’ comments

John C.
Fascinating article, Dr. Walker. Once again, the slow processes and deep time of evolution are proven to be unnecessary to the telling of the story of the earth. Blessings to all!
Martin S.
People in the Americas used to make pitch to coat seams in canoes, baskets, and so on, and have done so for thousands of years. It's thought that the ancestors brought it here from Asia. I understood the pitch was from conifers from a very early age, as we made our own for healing wounds (burns, but works), soap (keeps biting insects off of us while working in the fields), and other things. In school (I have one year, Catholic school), we were taught that Noah used tar from tar pits, which was also used here when available, such as the La Brea Tar Pits. Pine tar is better, at least the ancestors thought so. Sharks apparently dislike the taste, while the ancestors liked the taste of shark :)
Excellent article. Much thanks for sharing it.
Tas Walker
You mentioned that in school you were taught that Noah used tar from tar pits, such as the La Brea Tar Pits, but as the article explains, those tar pits were formed by Noah's Flood. Thus, Noah could not have used that as a source of pitch. The Bible mentions tar in the post-Flood world, used a mortar on the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:3), and in tar pits (Gen. 14:10).
D. B.
I have also always assumed that the source of pitch was tree resin - not having been informed that some people's definition of "pitch" puts its into the asphalt-bitumen family (which I know a bit about now, working in the construction business!) until recently when reading some skeptics' opinions-stated-as-fact online. But this brings up another point: the oil that we pump from the earth is not "fossil fuel", or from any organic source (that would've formed during the Flood, like coal), but rather a substance that seems to be continually produced from underneath earth's crust. This is evidenced by the fact that oil wells that once "ran dry" and were left unpumped for decades suddenly became full again! If I'm not mistaken, there is some science/data (that they don't want you to know about) that's been published to support this claim. I'd like to see CMI dig into that issue more in-depth, if they haven't already. It would demolish yet another strawman claim that the evolutionists try to stick to us. Thanks for all of your wonderful articles. D.B.
Tas Walker
There are suggestions that oil is not always a fossil fuel. This has been touched on in this article. That oil wells 'refill' is evidence that oil forms quickly and is not millions of years old. This article touches on that, especially under the heading "Oil Forming Under Ocean Now".
Patrick H.
Fascinating, but I'm more concerned whether techniques and materials listed in Genesis were used in making this reproduction. It may or may not have been feasible for various reasons, but do they have any materials on this topic ? The only info I've seen so far says it was done with completely modern resources.
Tas Walker
I understand that the replica ark that Dutchman Johan Huibers built, pictured at the top, used modern materials readily available. But of course, wood has been wood for thousands of years, although the exact identification of the wood used in the Ark is not clear.
Robert B.
I believe the instruction to pitch the Ark on the inside is a clue to the Ark's design. If the ark was a watertight barge, as most traditions maintain, it seems that the wooden hull wouldn't have needed to be coated with pitch "inside and out" the way Noah was instructed. To my reckoning, the purpose of the pitch was to seal the Ark's timbers against becoming waterlogged so they would remain buoyant even after prolonged exposure to the sea.

The skeptic's criticism of the Ark's likely tendency to flex and spring leaks seems a valid point to me. The way out might be to have the Ark designed to leak like a sieve because it was inherently unsinkable!

Just as the ark that carried the baby Moses to Pharaoh's daughter floated by virtue of the buoyancy of it's construction material (bullrushes) the use of the same unique word for Noah's ark may imply that it floated in the same way, just like a raft does. Sealing a log is much less of a technical challenge than sealing a hull.

Construction of a three decked raft would have been much more feasible than the traditional designs. There would be advantages in stability and sanitation also.

Gopher wood may have been balsa or a similar lightweight wood. See Thor Heyerdahl's "Kon Tiki" for an example of the feasibility of an oceangoing balsa raft. He and a research team sailed across the Pacific on his raft but it would have performed much better if he had dried the logs and applied pitch like God instructed Noah.
Robert A.
Interesting.. My sister and I were touring Minnesota a few years back and we came upon the Grand portage National Monument, where they have all sorts of live exhibits, including building birch bark canoes.. I do not remember the exact mixture they used for pitch, but it was a tree resin, some "charcoal" they made from wood in a tin can, and bear fat I believe.. Nothing petroleum there.. The bear fat made it pliable I believe and the charcoal added some sort of strength to it..Geologists may need to get out more! Anyway, the exhibit is daily I believe, at least in the summer, because that is when I went. Grand Portage, Minnesota.. lots to learn from simple things.
Lee W.
If it is true that there are indeed many geologists that claim Noah could not have obtained pitch, then there are many otherwise intelligent men and women who wilfully make themselves ignorant of an incredibly easily accessed fact. All they had to do was ask any North Carolina historian or history teacher and they would have found out why it’s called the TARHEEL STATE. There is even a species of pine called the pitch pine (Pinus rigida). In fact, that's the only source of pitch I ever knew about, having just learned it could come from oil or coal from this article.

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