How to Make Charcoal From Wood

With a few materials and an afternoon of time, you can make lumps of homemade charcoal to help keep your homestead running.

| November 2017

  • Making charcoal from coppiced firewood can be done in an afternoon with easily salvaged materials. The quality of the charcoal produced is superior to store-bought briquettes that are made of compressed sawdust and burn quickly.
    Illustration by Steve Sanford
  • Brett McLeod, a forester and homesteader who lives on 25 acres of his own, tackles the big questions homesteaders have about living off their land, from splitting wood to growing fruits and berries, in โ€œThe Woodland Homestead.โ€
    Cover courtesy Storey Publishing

The Woodland Homestead (Storey Publishing, 2015) by Brett McLeod is for the woodland homeowner, whether that’s for a large or small property. McLead provides insight to help you get the most out of your land through sustainable practices. Having charcoal on your homestead is for more than just barbequing. Learn how to make your own so that you can have energy at your disposal for your property.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Woodland Homestead.

Although virtually any wood species can be used to make charcoal, the most common species in coppice arrangements are alder, oak, and maple. (Hickory makes famously great charcoal but doesn’t coppice very well.) For most people, charcoal is a by-product of other forest activities, and the wood that is used to fire your charcoal oven should be your “worst” firewood or, better yet, scraps left from other projects.

Charcoal can be used for a number of other applications besides barbeque. Both commercial and more primitive water filtration systems rely on the same basic charcoal-based technology to remove sediments, volatile organic compounds, and odors from water. One common method for remote off-grid homesteads employs a gravity-fed charcoal filtration system in which water percolates through a filter filled with ground charcoal, much like a drip coffeemaker.

Using the same process as the lump charcoal procedure described above, you can create charcoal pencils from the twigs, seedlings, and saplings removed as part of your regular tending operations. Load the pencils vertically in a 1-gallon paint can, fitting about 200 pencils per can.

The charcoal-cooking process results in usable by-products as well, beginning with the char-ash left at the bottom of the crucible. This ash can be used as a soil amendment to make acid soils more alkaline. If you choose to make charcoal out of softwood, the result will be a less energy-dense coal; however, you’ll find the bottom of your crucible lined with a thick tar, roughly the consistency of caulking. This cement has historically been used for a variety of adhesive needs but is useful on the modern homestead as a patching material that sticks to virtually anything, including wood, metal, and cloth.

12/13/2017 12:39:41 PM

While I realize that charcoal has been made via wood combustion for a long, long time, it seems to me that someone should be able to come up with a solar-powered charcoal design/process that is more efficient. I need to convert a lot of my waste cedar to charcoal in order to improve my soil, but this method seems so wasteful...


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