We haven’t set the mountain on fire… yet. But it is always a possibility, of which we are acutely aware, every time we practice our bit of hillbilly alchemy. Most of our neighbors are used to seeing the plume of smoke. But occasionally, one who is not aware of our endeavors comes up to make sure it’s not our cabin that is on fire. They usually give us that look when we explain what we are doing. It’s the look that says, “You all are so weird.” I smile when I hand them a bag of our wares and say, “Once you try this, you’ll never want to use that other stuff again.” They may look dubious, but I know they’ll be back when they run out. They always come back for black gold.
We started out making the black gold for our own use, but since people have found out what we are manufacturing, they have come to us. They have come for their grills, for their livestock, for their gardens, for their health, and for cosmetic ingredients. They have done this because we have found how to take trees and turn them into the black gold known as charcoal.
Like most people, my previous experience with charcoal was buying a small bag at the store in order to produce hamburgers, hot dogs, or chicken that tasted slightly reminiscent of lighter fluid. It was only after my family began making natural charcoal for our own use that I learned of its versatility and surprising historical significance.
We have always been outdoor cooking enthusiasts, burning hardwood for over an hour to get the hot coals necessary to prepare food in the colonial hearth-cooking tradition. Nothing can beat the flavor of food cooked with wood.
Then, a couple of years, ago I saw a demonstration of how to make wood charcoal at our local farmer’s market. The volunteers at the farmer’s market used their all-natural charcoal to grill some local beef. It took fifteen minutes for the natural wood charcoal to produce the same amount of hot coals it would have taken us over an hour to make with the store-bought version.
Seeing the process gave me a brilliant idea to save both time and money. I was certain my fire-loving, self-sufficient husband would enjoy both the process of making charcoal and the taste it gave food. Plus, lighting natural charcoal instead of waiting for a fire to burn down would save us at least forty-five minutes to an hour of food preparation time.
I contacted the local extension agent in charge of the charcoal demonstration. He let me borrow the fifty-five-gallon steel barrels they used in the demonstration. I presented the barrels to my husband with my plan. Much to my chagrin, he was cold to the idea. The barrels sat for over a week while I tried to get him to try to make the charcoal. He would not budge. To him, there was nothing that could compare to the open-hearth cooking methods he used.
After two weeks, I realized that in order to get my plan to work, I was going to have to resort to drastic measures. I stacked the two barrels, filled them with wood, and lit the load while my husband looked on, shaking his head. “Woman,” he said, “I don’t think you know what you’re doing.”
“I do so. I watched them at the farmer’s market.”
After a while, I knocked the top barrel off and capped the bottom barrel.
“Woman, you’re doing it wrong.”
“I am not, now hush.”
After it cooled down, I uncapped the bottom barrel to find that I had burned the entire load to ashes. That was when my husband, disgusted with my sorry methodology, took over and produced a respectable batch of charcoal that he then used to cook some of the best steaks we ever had. He was hooked on both making the charcoal and using it to cook.
It didn’t take long for my husband to begin researching the making of charcoal to hone his skills. The research revealed a plethora of information that included charcoal’s historical significance and uses, methods of making it, and its uses today.
The rise of charcoal production for a specific purpose is closely tied to the emergence of metallurgy. Wood charcoal burns hot enough to provide a heat source that can smelt metals as well as work them. Thus, charcoal ushered in the Bronze Age and later the Iron Age.
Charcoal was also used to produce glass. It became an ingredient in gun powder and Chinese fireworks. Charcoal by-products, such as tar, were used in caulking for ships; while pyroligneous acid was used by the Egyptians for embalming.
Charcoal was indispensable in colonial-American expansion and independence. From the time the first colonist set foot in America till the early 1800s every single metal tool, weapon, or implement made on American soil was forged using wood charcoal.
Even after wood charcoal use in smelting and forging was replaced by bituminous coal, wood charcoal still had significant uses. In World War I, wood charcoal, treated with chemicals to activate its absorption properties, was used in the first effective gas masks.
We had never realized how historically significant wood charcoal was. Those little nuggets of charred wood were the literal fuel that powered many critical advances in technology, industry, and expansionism. All that and they cooked the best steaks we ever had.
Once we had a better handle on the historical impact of charcoal, we became interested in the original methods used to produce it.
In the Iron Age, when the demand for iron became large scale, the production of charcoal became critical. Highly-skilled charcoal makers, known as colliers, were among the highest-paid ironworkers. Their expertise in producing large amounts of high-quality charcoal put them in great demand.
In the traditional method of making charcoal, wood is cut and split into four-foot lengths. The collier then decided on the most suitable place for a “charcoal burn”. A flat spot, that was dry and out of the wind, would be cleared down to the earth. A chimney approximately eight feet high was constructed out of wood. Then the four-foot pieces of wood were carefully stacked around the chimney. The wood was placed upright on its end and packed very closely together to prevent pockets of air. Additional layers were added to the height of the wood so that the resultant mound was about twenty-five feet in diameter and as high as the chimney would allow.
The mound was covered with layers of wood chips, sticks, and leaves followed by a finishing layer of soil. The purpose of this covering was to make the mound airtight. A few venting holes would be poked into the covering to allow an appropriate amount of air to prevent the burn from going out prematurely. Once the mound was deemed acceptable, the chimney was filled with kindling and some hot coals from another fire were placed in the chimney to initiate the burn.
The burn lasted several days. The collier had the mound supervised around the clock. It was vital to control the airflow to make sure that the wood turned into charcoal instead of a pile of ashes. The object was to get the wood to smolder or “cook” instead of flame. A flaming burn would result in ashes and a great waste of time and money. Ensuring that the mound was cooked properly might’ve included sending a lightweight man or young boy onto a mound to tamp it down, reducing any gas or air pockets. Once it was determined that the wood inside had reached the correct stage, the chimney was capped making it airtight. The wood continued to smolder for a time. Then, after several days, it cooled. When the outer covering was removed, the charcoal was raked into piles so that it might continue to cool. Once completely cooled the charcoal would be hauled away to its next destination.
So great was the demand for charcoal that collier’s need for wood gave rise to coppicing in Europe. In this forest management technique, first practiced by the Romans, trees are cut at ground level. The root system then sends up several new, vigorously growing shoots. New trees could be harvested in seven to twenty years to provide more wood for charcoal and other uses. Some furnaces used the equivalent of an acre of wood (in the form of charcoal) in one day.
Today making charcoal for personal consumption is a lot easier. The basic method of making charcoal has always been to light a fire, let it burn enough to produce a great amount of heat, then cut off the airflow and let the wood cook or smolder. This procedure is still used today.
In my first attempt, I used two fifty-five-gallon steel barrels. My downfall, and the subsequent pile of ashes, occurred because I failed to cut off the airflow sufficiently.
Done correctly, this basic method will produce a decent rendering of charcoal. To do this you must acquire two fifty-five-gallon steel drums or barrels. At least one of the barrels must have a cinching lid.
The barrel to be placed on the bottom has small air holes cut into it the bottom outside edge. Wood is stacked all the way to the top of this barrel. Once it is filled the fire may be started at the top of the barrel so that it burns down. After the fire is started another barrel that has both its top and bottom removed, making it a hollow tube, is stacked on top of the bottom barrel.
This is the point at which charcoal-making becomes an art and you come to understand the skills of the collier. Now is when you must watch the smoke. White smoke indicates that water and impurities are burning off. After the water is burned off the smoke will turn blue. This indicates that the wood is burning off alcohol and other impurities.
The critical shift happens when the blue smoke is almost gone. Once this stage occurs, the barrel must have all its airflow stopped. This requires the barrel to be capped on top by a cinching lid. The holes at the bottom of the barrel may be plugged with dirt, sand, or ashes mounded against the bottom of the barrel.
After the barrel is cool enough to be touched by bare hands, the top may be opened and the charcoal inspected. Now, it is time to sort and sift it.
Unburned pieces should be removed. Then the charcoal can be sifted through chicken wire. Sifting first through small chicken wire will help to remove the dust and pieces too small to use for your grill. Set this aside, but do not throw it out. Doing a second sift with larger chicken wire will help you separate medium pieces from big pieces.
How to use the different sizes is a matter of preference. To our family, it doesn’t matter. We have discovered you can rig your grill to accommodate any size of charcoal. The other use for small charcoal is to use it in a hearth cooking style. Lit charcoal can be placed on cleared ground. Cast iron Dutch ovens and spider pans (pans with legs) can be set directly on the smaller coals. Dutch ovens with flat lids can have the charcoal piled on the lids creating a true oven. Bigger pieces of charcoal can be used the same way, but many people only like to grill with larger-sized coals.
This was the basic method of production that my family started with. My husband, who has become a true collier, has now adapted his method to suit the charcoal-making tools available to him, and a collection of steel drums, trash cans, and plastic storage tubs now adorn our yard.
Another method my husband has tried is the retort method. In this method, you are simply putting the wood that you want to turn into charcoal into a metal container and then sealing it. That container is then put into a fire, or a fire is built around it. The wood cooks inside of the container. This method has the advantage of being cleaner. However, it uses a lot more fuel.
My husband’s experience is that you need to understand the process, and then you must practice it. He has burned more than one load of wood to ashes in his attempts to find the most efficient way to produce a load of charcoal. You also need to understand how the wood burns. Different woods burn differently and produce different qualities and different sizes of charcoal.
When attempting to make your own charcoal, be very mindful of safety. Wear protective clothing, shoes, and welder’s gloves. There will be a lot of noxious smoke. Make your burn away from any dwellings, and try to stay clear of the smoke. When sifting the charcoal wear a mask and safety goggles. Although trial and error will be a necessary part of your production effort, it should be avoided when it comes to safety.
We originally started making charcoal for our own grilling needs. Then we discovered other ways to use it. Taking a page from charcoal’s history, my husband cut up a steel saw blade and then heated it with our charcoal so that he could bend it. This made a great garden tool.
A friend found out we were making it and became very excited. She was looking for some for her make-up kit. She had discovered, through research on the Internet how to use our crushed charcoal to turn it into eyeliner. One recipe is to crush a small amount of charcoal into powder. Mix about 1/4 of a teaspoon with 1 teaspoon of melted coconut oil. Stir it with a toothpick and apply it with an angled eyeliner brush.
This same friend also shared with me that you can use charcoal for cleaning teeth. Once again, using powdered charcoal, wet a toothbrush and dip it into the powder. Then brush your teeth. Rinse thoroughly. It feels gross and doesn’t taste particularly minty. However, holistic dentists sometimes recommend it. Because of its absorptive qualities, charcoal can pull toxins from the teeth as it helps to remove stains. Fair warning: it may whiten your teeth, but it will stain your sink. Use baking soda to remove the stains from your sink.
Another neighbor came to us and requested a truck full of our culled charcoal to feed to his pigs. The culled charcoal was powdery dust and pieces too small to use for grilling. He was trying to produce quality, organic pork, and he and his daughter were searching for ways to deal with some digestive issues. Their research indicated that they could use charcoal to help absorb some of the toxins in the animal’s digestive tract when they were assailed with parasites. Using charcoal in livestock feed has been credited by some farmers with many positive effects including increased milk production in cattle, lower pig mortality, less odor and fly occurrence for pigs, and increased laying rates for chickens.
Yet another friend from the farmer’s market came by for a supply of our culls. He wanted them for his garden. In this case, he was seeking biochar. Biochar is now being added to gardens to help improve soil quality. Although it does not add nutrients to the garden by itself, it does help hold nutrients in the soil so that less fertilizer needs to be added. Before adding to the garden, it must be inoculated with compost, or it can absorb the nutrients already present in the soil. Once inoculated, the biochar slowly releases the nutrients into the soil. Proponents credit biochar with enhanced plant growth, raising soil pH, increasing soil microbial biomass and respiration, and reducing aluminum toxicity, among other benefits.
Some people have suggested using this charcoal internally for medical reasons. Usually, medicinal uses of charcoal require that the charcoal be activated with an acid. This helps to eat away part of the surface area of the charcoal causing it to be even more absorptive. This procedure can be very dangerous, and I would avoid attempting it at home. Purchasing medical quality charcoal is the best idea when you try it for human consumption.
Our experience with making charcoal has been life-changing for us. We have thoroughly enjoyed the many and varied benefits that this black gold has brought to us and our neighbors. Now that we know how to make charcoal, I don’t think we’ll ever want to be without it.