By Dan Gill

Charcoal is 8$ a bag. WHY pay that when you can make your own out of hardwood prunings, at home - even if you live in the suburbs! If you use the indirect method, which burns the gasses, and use a clean burning fuel (such as natural or LP gas) the emissions are mostly water vapors with very little smoke. It is not difficult to do and, even when burning waste wood to provide the carbonizing heat , the process requires less time and attention than barbecuing a rack of ribs in a wood burning smoker.

Why would anyone want to make their own charcoal? Besides 8$ a week 32$ a month, 400$ coal costs a year, good hardwood lump charcoal burns hotter and cleaner than briquettes and is much easier to light. You also know where it came from, what it contains and what was done to it en route. There are endeavors other than barbecue that require high quality natural charcoal: It is still the preferred fuel for forges and blacksmithing. Folks who make their own fireworks and black powder need specialty charcoals with specific burning properties such as that made from willow or grapevine. When grilling or even barbecuing in open pits with charcoal and wood, the quality of the charcoal is really not that critical. There is enough airflow to dilute impurities. Now that I have a Weber Smoky Mountain, though, charcoal quality, impurities and additives become very important. It is a great little cooker and will do everything folks say it will, BUT there is precious little airflow and the meat is bathed in smoke for hours. What you burn, you eat! I have read how the major manufacturers make briquettes. That leaves me either burning to coals, which is impractical for the small amount of coals needed by the WSM, or making my own lump, which is just a way to burn to coals and store them for use as needed. Being somewhat of a skinflint, I would rather utilize the resources at hand and make my own lump as opposed to buying it. My objective in this endeavor was to use existing technology to design a simple, cheap, reliable and efficient method for the small-scale production of charcoal for home use utilizing readily available materials and minimizing the release of pollutants.

How to make Charcoal:

Timing is important. Plan to start your burn on the hottest, muggiest day of the year with a comfort index of at least 105 and air quality just above the minimum to sustain life. These conditions won't affect the charcoal process at all but will ensure that the experience is memorable.

There are two basic methods of making charcoal: direct and indirect:

    * The direct method uses heat from the incomplete combustion of the organic matter, which is to become charcoal. The rate of combustion is controlled by regulating the amount of oxygen allowed into the burn and is stopped by excluding oxygen before the charcoal itself begins to burn. This is the ages old method used by colliers to make charcoal in a pit, pile (clamp) or, more recently, in metal or masonry chambers (kilns). See the links below for more information.
    * The indirect method uses an external heat source to "cook" organic matter contained in a closed but vented airless chamber (retort). This is usually carried out in a metal or masonry chamber (furnace). The indirect method results in a higher yield of high quality charcoal with less smoke and pollutants and requires less skill and attention than the direct method.

For my first tests, I decided to try the indirect method. There had been some posts on a pyrotechnics newsgroup describing a procedure for making small quantities of willow or grapevine charcoal in a cookie tin or five gallon bucket. For the furnace, I used a 55 gal oil drum with the top cut out and a 12" wide X 10" high hole cut in the lower side for maintaining the fire. I used two iron rods stuck through the sides about 8" from the bottom to support the retort. I also kept the top which had been cut out. After the fire was well established , the top was placed on the drum and supported by rods to help hold the heat in yet allow a good draft. The retort was a 16 gal. steel drum with lid and I cut about six 3/8" holes in the bottom with an acetylene torch. I burned it out well in the furnace to eliminate petroleum residues. These drums are used for lubricants such as transmission fluid and gear grease and are readily available.

After the retort was loaded with air dried hickory the top was sealed and the drum was placed in the furnace or burn barrel. Wood scraps and bark were placed under the retort and around the sides and lit with newspaper assisted by a little burnt motor oil to get things off to a fast start. There was right much smoke for the first hour, but as things heated up and the moisture was driven off, it burned so clean that all you could see were heat waves. With the vent holes located in the bottom of the retort, the vapors and gasses were discharged into the hottest part of the fire and burned.

I stopped the first test too soon and only had about 1/3 charcoal. The rest was charred chunks of wood. The second test burned for about 3 hours, until the gasses had just stopped burning around the holes in the bottom. Results: 56# of wood yielded 17 1/2# charcoal or 32% by wet weight. Assuming an EMC (equilibrium moisture content) of 12%, The yield exceeds 35% on a dry matter basis. This is very good as most direct burns result in 20 to 25% at the best. I got over 2 1/2 five gallon buckets of good lump and only one large (4"X6") chunk showed signs of incomplete conversion with some brown in the center.

I was going to run a series of trials to compare the indirect method with direct (bottom lit) and direct (top lit). After several burns using the retort, I decided that there were such obvious advantages to the indirect method that I abandoned studies of direct burns. The retort method is easy, reliable, and does not require the skill and attention of direct burns. The equipment and materials which I used are readily available worldwide. As the gasses and volatiles are discharged into a hot bed of coals, I believe that most of the pollutants are burned, adding to the furnace heat. I also suspect that yield and quality are better. From what I have read, 35% by dry weight is excellent; the resulting charcoal burns hot and clean; you can almost light it with a match.
The indirect method also appears to be more compatible with heat recovery and waste wood utilization systems. I live on a farm in Virginia and my wife operates a small sawmill. Disposing of slabs and wood waste is a serious problem. I can burn a lot of the hardwood slabs in my indoor masonry heater/cooker. We have not found an economical use for pine slabs (we can't give them away) and have started burning them in a field. This is obviously a wasteful and polluting practice. My ultimate goal is to build a small masonry furnace that would hold several 55 gallon drum retorts and recover heat for domestic space heating during the winter. Charcoal could be a marketable by-product. I would burn pine slabs and waste wood in the furnace and make charcoal from hardwoods in 55 gallon drums. This approach appears to be very energy efficient as the gasses released by destructive distillation are utilized.
For more details and pictures, go to my Charcoal Log and Results Page.
From Danís Blurbs:    Barbecue 101 Part II : The Fuel     Published in Pleasant Living March-April í07
Something Different Country Store and Deli
Righteous Ribs and Bodacious Butts


Hello fellow smoker/bbq/grillers! Here is the recipe, as requested, to make your own Lump Wood Charcoal (thereby saving yourself tons of cash, and successfully robbing the "Kingsford Mafia".) To make 30-40 lb of charcoal, you will need:

    * A clean 55 gallon metal drum with the lid cut off roughly (you will be able to reuse this drum many, many times)
    * Enough seasoned wood to fill said drum, chopped into big fist-size pieces (OK, say 5"x5", and the wood just needs to be a couple months seasoned, although the dryer the wood, the faster the process..)
    * A bag of sand
    * 3 or 4 bricks
    * A case of beer(optional)
    * Time and patience
    * Start by punching/cutting 5 holes in the bottom of the drum which are each 2" square. Try to keep them towards the center. Put the drum down on the bricks, placed so it is off the ground and fill it with the wood. Start a fire in the drum. When it is going well, put the top back on to reflect back the heat. Since it was cut off roughly, there will be slight gaps to allow the a draft.
    * Now, turn the whole thing over, placing it back onto the bricks. (This is where you might need the case of beer to convince several men to help you lift the sucker. It will be heavy. And mind the lid doesn't fall off!) Wait, consuming the beer as necessary. The smoke will start out white. This is the water vapor burning off. Next the smoke will go blue/grey which is the alcohols and phenols burning off. Then the smoke appears yellow, which is the tar burning off. Finally the smoke will clear and you will just see waves of heat. When this happens, Carefully remove the bricks out from underneith. Take the sand and make a pile around the bottom lid, plugging up the bottom draft. Also, cover the top with either a piece of turf or a large piece of metal. Use the sand to seal around the turf/metal so no air can get into the drum. We are trying for a closed system here. If air/oxygen/fire-fuel DOES get into the drum, the charcoal will just burn up. Not what we want. Also, try not to let the sand fall down into the drum through the holes. Allow the drum to cool (2-3 hours). Then turn back over, pry off the top and remove your charcoal. If there is a spark, the charcoal may "catch", but just douse it with some water. The charcoal will still be hot enough to dry out. Repeat above process as necessary.

Thanks to my Bodger brother-in-law, Don Whiting, who taught me how to do this.
(P.S. A "bodger" is a pole-lathe wood turner. He makes nifty beesoms as well...)
Best of luck to you all with the above process.

Note: I found two discussions about making charcoal by indirect methods. Both were on pyro newsgroups and are informative:

After reading a note, I can see that this was the weekend to make charcoal. A couple of weeks ago I went to a local winery and picked up a load of fresh grape vine prunings which I converted to charcoal on Sat. I used a very simple, yet effective, method to make the charcoal which consisted of a 32 gal steel drum with removable lid (furnace), a 5 gal steel bucket/lid (retort can) and a welded steel grate.

I cut a 5x8 hole in the bottom-side of the large drum which allows me to feed scrap wood into the fire burning in the bottom of this drum. The grate sits in the bottom of the large drum and allows the 5 gal can a solid resting spot with enough room for a fire underneath (about 8"). The 5 gal can was first burned in the furnace to remove any paint, asphalt roofing cement, plating or other undesirable contaminants. Of course, the gasket in the lid also is burned up in the process. A couple of 1/4" holes were drilled in the bottom of the can and it was then loaded with grape vine. The lid was held in place by using about 6 of the securing tabs.

The 5 gal can was placed on the grate and the 32 gal lid was used as a damper and to help hold the heat in. More wood was loaded into the fire. After about 45 min the grape starts breaking down, in the absense of oxygen, and the steam and flammable gases began to escape from the vent holes in the bottom of the can. This gas jet is directed at the hot coals/flames and really adds to the intensity of the fire with a very noticeable blow-torch sound which lasts about 10 min. Flames are also present around the lid. After the escaping gases/flames stop, I continued the cooking for another 5 min, just to be sure all the wood was converted to charcoal.

The 5 gal can was removed, cooled down and then opened. Perfect, black, hard grapevine sticks. These crush much easier than mesquite. I weighed 3632 g of grapevine which yielded 709 g of charcoal in one 5 gal bucket. The volume in the bucket decreased by about 30%. After 5 loads I ended up with a 5 gal can of moderately crushed grapevine charcoal. There were no traces of ash or uncarbonized wood in any of the 5 batches.

I should mention that this is a joint venture that X and I are working on. X supplied the drums, I did the cutting/welding. We have a fellow pyro who is going to supply us with some willow that we will convert that into charcoal soon. For most of my pyro needs I am quite happy with the coconut shell charcoal supplied through KSI, but it will be fun to experiment with grapevine, willow, pine and any others that seem interesting. We already have mesquite airfloat.

I suppose that some of you will think that its a little whacky to be making your own charcoal, but I think that charcoal is a larger variable in most pyro compositions than most people think and that there is an uncertainty about what is the "real" makeup in a bag of commercial charcoal. Its only after experimenting with different charcoals that one notices that there really is a difference in charcoals. This new "tool" will allow us a way to easily make inexpensive charcoal from various types of wood. A smaller version could be easily made by using 1 and 5 gal cans.

Dan Gill  7/8/98

CAVEAT FROM ANITA SANDS HERNANDEZ of the COUNTRY LIVING INDEX. My neighbors were experts at coalmaking, having been raised in Puerto Rico land of the pit barbecue. They buried a lot of hard wood which was on fire, in a hole and buried it with three feet of soil. It was deep under the ground. The smoke STILL blew next door to our house for three days and nights straight. Every room in my house had that burning wood odor and probably a lot of carbon monoxide but then we got wise & sealed that side of the house. You really have to have your neighbor's permission or they'll call the cops.