A Guide to Charcoal Making

Charcoal making is a fairly easy process, and requires a little equipment and some time.

Charcoal has lots of uses, from purifying water to providing fuel for cooking. If you enjoy a BBQ or cooking outdoors, then making your own charcoal can save you money. Plus, it is a good way to use up any scraps or off-cuts of wood you might have about the place. You could even make charcoal to sell at farmers’ or foodies’ markets, or rural events.

Charcoal making
By Dave&Lynne Slater from Cumbria, United Kingdom (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0]

To make charcoal for cooking, you must have the right sort of wood. Untreated hardwood timbers scraps or off-cuts are fine, as is wood from hardwood trees. Hardwood simply means wood from a tree that is deciduous, that loses its leaves in winter and buds again in spring. Oak, Hazel, Chestnut, Maple, Apple are all examples of hardwood trees that make good charcoal for cooking.

Wood for charcoal making should be well seasoned, not freshly cut green wood. Seasoned wood is wood that has been stacked somewhere dry and airy for approximately six to eight months, allowing the moisture content to slowly evaporate. If you burn green wood, all you get is a load of damp smoke.

To make charcoal, wood needs to burn slowly with no air around it, otherwise it will just turn to ash. Some sort of container is required to create the right environment. If you want to make charcoal on a larger scale, for example to make a profit from woodland, there are charcoal kilns specially designed for the job. However, for smaller scale charcoal making, a steel oil drum works well, provided it is clean. One end of the drum is cut off to be used as a loose fitting metal lid, with a few holes in the top.

Two Ways of Making Charcoal

The Direct Method

This is perhaps the easiest way to make charcoal. The direct method is to make a small fire in a container, then add wood to it. Once it is burning, you put the lid on to restrict the air and watch as white smoke and steam from the wood comes out of the holes in the lid.

When it turns to a blue coloured smoke, any moisture from the wood has dried. You then completely stop any oxygen from entering the drum by closing off the holes. Sand or soil work well. Without air, there is no flame, so the wood inside smoulders and cools. Leave it for 24 hours before removing the lid, to ensure everything has cooled down. The container should have charcoal ready for use.

The Indirect Method

This method is to fill a steel container with wood, then build a fire around it. Because of the amount of wood you need to burn to get charcoal using this method, it is more suited to making small amounts, perhaps for purposes other than cooking fuel. The benefit of the indirect method of charcoal making is that it allows you to produce small amounts fairly quickly.

Build a fire in a safe area, or use a fire pit. Find a suitable metal container with a removable loose lid. Make a hole in the lid. It is important that the lid is loose, so that pressure doesn’t build up in the container as it heats, causing it to explode and possibly injure someone.

Wrap some metal wire around it so you change the position of the container once it is on the fire, and can hook it out again when it’s hot. Fill the container with wood and put on the lid. Use long handled tongs or a stick to put the container into the fire.

White smoke will come out of the hole in the top of the lid, which will become flammable. Keep an eye on the container. When the smoke and gasses from the lid are no longer flammable, carefully remove the container from the fire. Leave the lid on an allow it to cool completely before opening.

The Results

When you remove the lid from the drum, you should see blackened chunks of coals. There should not be any wood or ash visible. Charcoal making is an art, as well as a science, so getting it right might take a little practise.

Using homemade charcoal is a sustainable way of producing fuel for the home. Using coppiced timbers from hardwood trees is healthy for woodland management, and any smoke created during the process is nothing compared to the carbon footprint of imported charcoal.

Charcoal ash that is left over from cooking, or from being used in a wood-burning stove, is a good fertiliser for growing plants. Making charcoal has lots of benefits, so give it a try!

Do you make your own charcoal? What do you use it for? Please share your charcoal making tips!

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Author: Georgina Starmer

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