Have you ever been in the shops looking to purchase some quality charcoal in preparation for a lovely barbecue and thought, could I make this myself, how hard can it be? The answer is yes you can, and this article will tell you exactly how you can do this from the comfort of your own home!
Jump To A Section
How do you Make Charcoal?
In its simplest form, charcoal is produced through the process of burning wood, or some other organic matter, in low oxygen conditions. What this does is remove the water and any other elements that might produce smoke. Therefore, the finished charcoal has a very low moisture content can be burnt at high temperatures without too much smoke being produced, which exactly what we want.
Commercial producers of lump charcoal will do this using industrial-grade equipment that produces very high-quality charcoal, this lump charcoal would be expected to have a carbon content of equal to or over 82%.
A more traditional method is using pit kilns to burn the organic matter, however, this does produce a lower quality of lump charcoal. Another fairly primitive method is using a combination of wood and shrubs/branches covered by wet soil to make a mound. You set fire to the wood and shrubs inside the mound then cover it up, the wet soil reduces the airflow and works to create a low oxygen environment.
Whichever method is used the end result will be charcoal, the things that will differ are the quality of the charcoal produced (its carbon content) and the amount of time the process takes.
What Other Organic Matter is used?
You may have noticed I have mentioned a couple of times that it is not only all species of wood that can be used to create common charcoal.
Some other materials that can be used to create different types of charcoal:
- Dry leaves
- Nutshells that have been ground down
- Coconut shells
- Sugar – creates a much more pure charcoal
It is worth noting that if you want to produce lump charcoal, this should be done using real wood, hardwood preferably. Lump charcoal is the most natural form of charcoal.
The reason hardwoods (hickory, beech, and oak) are preferable is because they burn much hotter than softer woods, so if you are purchasing charcoal try to buy products made from these species of wood.
You may have heard of charcoal briquettes and are wondering in what ways these differ from lump charcoal? Charcoal briquettes will often be made from more than one type of wood, normally offcuts like tree bark from both hard and softwoods. This makes it cheaper than lump charcoal, however also lowers the quality.
Comparison of Lump Charcoal and Briquettes
In the last section, I briefly went over the difference between the two but here is a more in-depth look into the differences.
- Contains additives – this helps it to bind together, allows for a steady burn, and improves ignition
- Regular shape and size – this makes them much easier to stack and therefore you can better control airflow
- Contains wood offcuts – this means it is made up of things like bark, sawdust, charcoal powder, and wood chips
- Irregular shape and size – unlike the briquettes it makes stacking and airflow control a bit more difficult, but not a massive issue
- Burn faster – due to the smaller lumps of charcoal it makes it less of a slow burn
- Will not contain additives – lump charcoal will not have additives unless explicitly stated on the packaging
- Potential smoke/spark – this is because of their uneven shape leading to some lumps not being fully carbonized
- Almost always made from pure hardwood – this will almost always be the case but you may occasionally find offcuts containing timber treatments, therefore check the reputability of the company
Charcoal Production in the Past
I previously mentioned how charcoal used to be made by stacking wood and shrubs and then covering them with wet soil to create a long, slow burn in low oxygen conditions. This method dates back to ancient times, around 4,000 BC.
Throughout time charcoal became more and more important as it was needed for smelting metal, creating glass, writing, and the production of gunpowder.
Due to its increased importance having a charcoal burner was vital for all settlements. The charcoal-burner would live in a ‘charcoal hut’ next to all of their earth mound kilns. The mound kilns were an improvement on the pit kilns, in which the charcoal was burned below ground level.
Over time the process was improved upon with the addition of chimneys to the mounds improved the airflow and meant the charcoal burners didn’t have to give the charcoal as much attention.
Then the production switched to brick and further on steel kilns as opposed to the earth mounds, this was an improvement as it allowed lower quality wood to be carbonized.
In terms of the present, the production of charcoal has been commercialized and industrialized with vertical metal, cylindrical furnaces used in place of kilns. These furnaces require a heat source of just under 800 degrees Celcius. These do not contaminate any of the environment around them as the gases produced are all destroyed by a flare.
What are the Additives in Briquettes
As you already know by now the majority of charcoal briquettes and even some lump charcoal will contain additives. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as these are added to improve features like binding and burning performance.
So what are the additives?
- Binding agents – they give the briquettes their regular shape and size. In terms of specifics, common binding agents are sodium silicate, starch, and molasses
- Sodium borate – this sometimes added to briquettes as it makes them less likely to break when removed from their mold
- Sodium Nitrate – this improves the burn rate of the charcoal, the science behind this is that when nitrate is burnt it releases oxygen which in turn increases the burn rate
- Heat fuel materials – this is normally wood but can be made up of the organic matter I listed earlier (coconut shells, nutshells, or peat)
- Limestone – this is often included in briquettes to add that ashy color
Making your Own Charcoal
Now that you know everything there is to know about charcoal I’m sure you’re dying to know how to make some yourself! It is not too difficult at all but be prepared to get your hands dirty.
What you’ll Need
First things first you will need to make sure you have all the correct equipment.
- A metal drum and a lid to cover it
- A good supply of pieces of wood, you will need hardwood as it burns for longer making the process easier
- Safety equipment and protection – a metal poker, gloves, and a bucket of water or hose (just in case the worst comes to the worst)
- You will also need a form of kindling, this can be smaller twigs or some paper
Instructions for Making Charcoal
- Get a strong fire going in the bottom of your metal drum using your kindling and smaller pieces of wood
- Only once you have a strong fire start adding the hardwood, do this one layer at a time as it means the fire spreads quicker
- Fill the hardwood to the top of the drum and wait for the flames to engulf all the wood and the wood to start blackening
- Now is the time to put the lid onto the drum to reduce airflow
- Leave the wood for 24 hours to smolder
- Lift the lid, if the wood hasn’t finished smoldering then leave it for however long it needs
- Once the wood is completely out you can remove it from the drum or leave it in the drum until you need it
And that’s all it is, seems easy, right!
What is the Best Charcoal to Purchase?
Not quite ready to make your own charcoal yet? That’s perfectly fine you might be new to grilling and just want to start off easy or just not have the time!
We’ve found the best charcoals and charcoal briquettes for you and listed them below.
Frequently Asked Questions
What if my charcoal gets wet?
You need to thoroughly dry out the charcoal before use, if the charcoal was not of high quality then it could crumble but good quality charcoal should be usable after drying. It may however not burn as well so you may want to mix it with a new bag.
Are there environmental issues that come with charcoal?
Whatever way you choose to cook is probably bad for the environment in one way or the other. Charcoal is bad for carbon emissions as it releases three times as much as LPG grilling.
However, the good thing about charcoal is that it comes from renewable sources like trees, rather than from unrenewable sources like natural gases. This is only beneficial if you make sure you buy charcoal that supports something like a replanting program that ensures new trees replace the trees that were used.
How long will my charcoal last?
This mostly depends on how you manage your fire and how much airflow you allow but as a general rule of thumb charcoal briquettes will last 8-10 hours and lump charcoal lasts 4-6 hours.
In addition to this charcoal does not have an expiry date however some chemicals might wear off over time making it harder to light.
So now that you know all about charcoal, its history, and exactly how to make it hopefully you can now make a well-informed decision on what charcoal you will use for all your barbecue needs. Whether that is making some yourself or leaving it to the professionals.
Remember if you do choose to make your own charcoal follow our instructions and all should go well and if you feel you are not ready for that yet any of the four products we have recommended are great charcoal options.
Last update on 2021-09-27 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API