Introduction: Dirt Cheap Charcoal

Picture of Dirt Cheap Charcoal

Some people use coal for a forge, other gas, and some, some use charcoal.

The nice thing about charcoal is that, from what I've read, it burns cleaner than coal, it's cheaper than coal, and you can make it yourself!

I looked at a few instructables on charcoal making, and I think that this method is the cheapest and easiest. I got the idea initially from somewhere on the internet years ago, but they used 55 gallon drums and pipe. I don't have any drums lying around, nor any sealed steel canisters. What's a poor craftsman to do? Follow along, and I'll show you.

Step 1: Tools and Materials

Picture of Tools and Materials


wood to burn and wood to char

tools for cutting and splitting wood

a metal container, and a way to mostly seal it.

What I used:

A battery operated chain saw, I could have used a regular saw, and so could you!

A Ka-Bar combat knife for splitting the wood, steel wedge and sledge, or a froe would also work. (this is part of a forge building adventure so I can make a froe out of an old lawnmower blade)

A piece of wood to drive the knife (or froe if you have one)

Red oak for charring and burning

A coffee can for the container

Aluminum foil to seal the container

Step 2: Buck, Split, Fill

Picture of Buck, Split, Fill

No pictures of the action due to not being able to find my gorillapod, but I think you can get the idea.

First I cut the red oak to slightly less than the length of the coffee can, then I split it till it was roughly 3/4" thick.

The thickness was somewhat arbitrary. Since I plan to use this in a forge soon, I thought I didn't want it too small, and since I was just experimenting and wasn't sure if this would work, I wanted as much surface area as possible.

I then filled the can as much as I could, and covered it with aluminum foil. I put a small hole in the aluminum foil to allow moisture, and eventually wood gas, to escape.

When wood is heated in the absence of oxygen it gives off woodgas which is really quite useful if you collect it. You can actually run engines on woodgas! Because of the gasses, if you used a sealed container, you would basically be building a bomb, with aluminum foil, no problem, but with a fully sealed container. . . well, you can imagine.

Step 3: Build a Fire!

Picture of Build a Fire!

Safety first!

A bucket of water or hose at hand is a must, it's been raining for about two days now, but fire is nearly sentient and it wants to grow, so be prepared to stop it instantly. I had about 10 gallons on hand.

I also used a steel fire pit to put my fire in, actually a grill I made in welding class years ago.

I have a rather large beard, and I've burned half of it off before, so bearded fellows, braid or tie it up, or tuck it in your shirt, I find the fishtail braid to be self locking, where as a traditional three strand braid will come undone rather quickly.
People with Long hair, tie it back, put it in a bun, just don't burn it off, it takes a while to grow hair back, I keep my head hair about half an inch these days, so no worries for me.

Alright fire building, yes, I cheated, a little, I used a blow torch to light my fire. My firelay started with pine shavings from my workshop as tinder, and split and dry pine as kindling, I used that to dry out some split red oak so it would burn.

After lighting the fire and stacking on the oak, the fire was looking sluggish, traditional charcoal making requires patience, but I wanted this done tonight! so I put a fan on the fire, about half an hour later the sealed-ish charcoal making can went on and that leads to the next step.

Step 4: Wait, and Watch

Picture of Wait, and Watch

I arranged the wood around the coffee can and left the fan on it to keep the heat up.

About 20 minutes later the can started off gassing, but it was just water, did I mention we've been getting a lot of rain?

After about an hour the gasses coming out lit up. YAY! that means it's working, the wood is carbonizing! after another hour or so the fire on top died out, I held fire next to the opening to be sure, and no more wood gas. That means it's almost done!

I pulled it off the fire with a couple of sticks and packed dirt on top to completely seal the container, I didn't want air getting in there now that there was no longer positive pressure, air would allow the charcoal to burn.

I waited another hour or so to open it up, and that's when I saw the finished product.

Step 5: Unpacking and Thoughts

Picture of Unpacking and Thoughts

I unpacked the cooled canister, cleaned out the dirt, pulled out the charcoal and broke it up to about 1 1/2 inches long. I was mostly making sure the wood was completely carbonized, and it was! I ended up with about 3 quarts of pure charcoal!


I won't know till I build my forge if this charcoal is any good for forging, and I don't have enough to make anything yet. I'm going to do a couple more runs to build up my supply.

I was actually somewhat surprised at the amount of charcoal I got, I figured the can would only be about half full when all was said and done.

If you have a few extra dollars, or no coffee can, you can pick up a paint can, I'd recommend buying one of those shiny never been used ones from the hardware store, wally world might have them too.

Be sure to use a deciduous wood for charcoal making, it's generally more energy dense than conifers, also you likely won't get as much pitch and sap everywhere.

I hope you have enjoyed this Instructable, and maybe can get some use from it!

I got around to building a forge and using this charcoal in it I got pretty good results, it puts out some serious heat, but burns rather quickly.


the_yellow_ardvark (author)2016-12-05

I have done this method a few times.

A few tips.

* Burn your container first, I have found some tins will melt or buckle in a fire. I tend to use old paint tins. They have a good life of about 5 to 8 burns. Longer if you don't leave them outside.

* Fill the container as much as you can. The small bits will turn to dust. They can be collected and used in the blower of a metal melting furnace.

*Time is your friend, start slow let the heat build up, forcing a burn can leave you with un burnt material.

* Hard wood can be in free pallets. The soft wood can be used to make your fire.

Just a few tips from some one who has done this.

Cream of Deer (author)2016-06-28

this is the most cringe instructable I have ever seen

blue LED (author)2016-06-26

Cool (hot?) instructable. I knew that charcoal was from wood, just never knew pre-zactly how it was done. Thanks good job.

jstork1 (author)2016-06-15

Not specifically related to making charcoal but to making fires in general. If you stack your wood for the fire upside down (large wood in the bottom and progressively go smaller to the top ending in kindling) and then light it on the top; your fire will be virtually smoke free as the wood gasifies and the gasses get catalysed as they pass through the hot coals on top. The wood lasts longer as well. Of course this only works for your first batch. I use this method in my wood stove and you usually can't see any smoke from the chimney. Wet wood will still smoke.

sixsmith (author)jstork12016-06-17

Thank you for the tip, I'll definitely try that on my next campout, and wish I'd known it three years ago when I was cooking on a wood stove all summer.

jimvandamme (author)2016-06-17

I want to make enough charcoal (biochar, or terra preta) to use in a large garden; 100 gallons or so. But I need to stay legal in my burning process, so I'm looking for ideas.

sixsmith (author)jimvandamme2016-06-17

I remember there being a thread that started in the comments here that went into biochar and production methods. The folks that created that thread will be a much more valuable resource than I.

astrong0 (author)2016-06-14

I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one that refers to it as "Wally World".

sixsmith (author)astrong02016-06-14

that and "The gettin place" are the two most common names my family used while I was a kid, I figured "Wally World" would be the better understood of the two.

GregH104 (author)2016-06-13

In rural west africa they make charcoal by throwing brown grass on a pile of wood, lighting it, and throwing green grass on top of it to put out the flame.I suspect this is the way it is done in much of the third world

8141 (author)2016-06-13

I used to teach charcoal makers in Africa. We produced tons of it using non- commercial forest species and mill waste. Sixsmith has the process down, limit oxygen and apply heat either internally or from an external source. Nice job.

Moodle2 (author)2016-06-13

Is red oak necessary or would hickory work?

sixsmith (author)Moodle22016-06-13

really any wood will work. hickory is actually probably a bit better than red oak

8141 (author)sixsmith2016-06-13

actually any organic material will work. I have carbonized leaves, grass, wood (many species including teak and mahogany). shrubbery trimmings will work.

AlexH60 (author)2015-10-02

I have a quick question. Its more of an idea but I'm not sure if its "safe" When I think of Oxygenless space, I immediately think of a pressure cooker. So would that be an effective object to use or has anyone used it? Just put the wood in the cooker and place cooker in fire. In theory it seems sound, but I'm also afraid of exploding pressure cooker.

AlphaOmega1 (author)AlexH602016-06-13

Pressure cookers (the ones I have seen/used) have rubber seals in the lid and around the safety valve (not the regulator valve) which would probably melt if re-purposed for making charcoal, and so would not be suitable for the purpose.

sixsmith (author)AlexH602015-10-02

I wouldn't recommend a pressure cooker, pretty much all of them have pressure relief valves that let excess pressure out, but there will be particulates coming off the charcoal that I imagine could potentially clog the pressure release mechanism.

now if you just took off the pressure gauge I think that leaves about a 9mm (3/8") hole all the way through the lid, and that ought to do it.

spark master (author)2016-06-13

If you use a side cutter can opener you will be able to put the lid back on and punch a hole in the lod for this. If you know a Kitchen that uses the cans as big as your 3 pound can(pizzeria's come to mind), the can is free, if you can get them to let you, you can open a can with your puny side cutter and take the can after they empty it.

If the "lid" is not perfect just add a rock to the top.

If you show up in a BSA Class B you may find them even friendlier.

This is also a way to get cans for simple rocket stoves or other wood burner type stoves.

You are quite right about air getting in in any quantity, I had car
cloth (made the same way) auto ignite, cuz I did not follow
instructions. Just make a small peg (from twig) that fits the vent hole.
When the gas stops escaping, just plug it and wait.

Also Like many people I have made char cloth in a little sweets tin, (altoids if you have that), but really once the fire goes out whilste camping, you will find charcoal, and it will take spark, or hand lenses burning rays!

last but not least, if you are like me, a tight wad, you do it this way, if you got gelt to spare, an all metal paint can with lid 8 bucks ay paint store, or an old milk box from a garage sale,(put a rock on it). Heck, any pot with a lid you are willing to drill a hole in the lid. Domed lid and you need the rock time a pice of wire around a rock tie it on the lids handle do 2-4 for firm even pressure!

nice instructable.

garywpalmer (author)2016-06-12

Seeing this brings back memories of my youth. When I was 12 I used to do this on the kitchen stove burner. Of course, back then coffee cans had metal lids that would fit back on the can. I simply punched a hole in the center of the lid, filled the can half full of wooden clothes pins (w/o the metal spring) and placed it on the electric burner. As soon as the gasses started coming out I would lite the gas with a match. Once the flame went out I would turn of the burner and wait for the contents and can to cool. I used the charcoal that I produced to make my own gun powder (black powder). I used the gun powder to power homemade rockets. I'm lucky to have survived my youth with all my fingers. Ha!

sixsmith (author)garywpalmer2016-06-12

Haha, brilliant, all I made when I was a kid was napalm from gasoline and styrofoam, it was underwhelming. Black powder sounds like much more fun!
out curiosity, where did you source the saltpeter and sulfur?

ankara2000 (author)sixsmith2016-06-13

Back in the 70's you stuff over the counter in your local drug store. It Came in tins that were between 1oz to 1lb over the counter. You could restock your average chemistry set. Of course other than a small candy counter, that was all they sold. I recently asked at my local store of I could still order it, unfortunately they were all to young to remember what a drug store was before all the food and toys. But if all you want is Balckpowder, you can get it without a license at Walmart.

I think it is impossible to find nowadays since it can be used to make something heck more dangerous than black powder. For saltpeter you can find it in some very old stone houses basement, it's kind of a yellowish runoff, you scrap it from the wall toss it in distilled water filter the sand out and then dry it out again.

Farm animal refuse when leached and run into vats is useful too as a nitrate (yuk)! Once I came across a site that that's what they used to obtain their saltpeter in the wild west for their guns. Long process but yields a superior product (non GMO ha ha).

A friend and I used to be able to get both saltpetre and sulphur (called flowers of sulphur on the box) from a local chemist (pharmacy) back in the late 1970's. Yes, we too made black powder, though we didn't go quite as far as ball rolling it. This was of course in the UK as you may be able to tell from the different spellings :) We could certainly have done with this method of making charcoal though as we used to steal ours from art classes at school. Mind you, it being willow tree charcoal it was particularly fine stuff :) Great Instructable, well done.

JoeG17 (author)sixsmith2016-06-13

Saltpeter you can get from farm suppliers as nitrate fertilizer and sulphur as wettable powder used as a mist for growing zucchinis.

garywpalmer (author)sixsmith2016-06-12

Back then (1963) you could walk into any drug store and buy sulfur and potassium nitrate
. I just had to ask the pharmacist. He'd say, "So... you're making your own gun powder, right?" I was a geek at 12 in oh so many ways. :)

MandalorianMaker (author)2016-01-01

A quick suggestion, pine charcoal actually works better for work in the forge over hardwoods. The Japanese have used it for hundreds of years and gotten forge work down to a science.

tk42967 (author)MandalorianMaker2016-06-12

So because the Japanese do it, it must be the best way? The Japanese forge what is known as pig iron in the west. Alot of their process, is just to improve the quality to a point that it's actually workable.

Drake88 (author)tk429672016-06-13

The ancient Japanese art of sword making has been done the way they do it because it WORKS. There is FAR more to the process than just the forging of the metal. Which by the way produces BOTH types of metal they use to finally craft into a sword - from ONE forging process. I recently watched a show about it that featured one of the oldest living sword-crafters in Japan. If I remember correctly the same process has been used for over 800 HUNDRED years - and only with in the last 10 years or so have we been able to understand WHY the process they use works so well. That understanding required the use of lab equipment that took humans over 2000 years to build.

A little respect for the craft might just be a good idea.....

Xexos (author)tk429672016-06-12

Pig iron is actually a by-product of the Japanese smelting process. A large portion of the steel that is smelted comes out as pig iron, basically steel with a carbon content far too high to be used. This "pig iron" is removed and the impurities are smelted out at a later date, then it will be put back in the tatara (or smelter) to basically have another chance at becoming usable steel. The steel that is actually used is known as tamahagane. Although not quite as good as a modern tool steel, it is prized for its artistic beauty.

JimC80 (author)MandalorianMaker2016-06-12

I have heard that a Willow tree works best for making charcoal

sixsmith (author)JimC802016-06-12

I've heard that willow is ideal for artistic charcoal, I am not familiar with it's heat production ability though. if you've got a dead willow tree lying around it's worth a shot

In the spirit of this project, the best wood will be what is already on hand, or easily procurable.
As an aside, Japanese pine is possibly a lot different than our yellow pine, pine is a rather diverse specie.

Cayotica (author)2016-06-12

coal or charcoal; charcoal or coal, which burns hotter? Many people say charcoal but I read a story by a very intelligent man in which a character says to make steel I need coal, charcoal isn't hot enough for anything except spongy wrought iron. I will appreciate all of your comments. p.s. personally I would believe that coal burns hotter.

sixsmith (author)Cayotica2016-06-12

Charcoal can get up to nearly 5,000 degrees fahrenheit, some scratching of the surface of internet research yielded nothing concrete about coals temperature, however I can say that coal is actually pretty bad stuff till it is turned into coke. Coke is to coal what charcoal is to wood.
As a anecdotal point, traditional Katanas, and other japanese swords, are made with charcoal, not spongy wrought iron in my mind.
In mass manufacture of iron and steel today a lot of coke is used as both a fuel and carbon fixing agent.
Basically, hot enough is anything that will get over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, which pretty much anything that burns can do if given enough oxygen.

thomasmaslowski (author)2016-06-12

Hate, hate,hate. Why? Ol' Sixsmith took the time to share what he learned via experimentation. Isn't this the basis of education. What if the Renaissance was an underground movement meant to never be shared? My hypothesis "We would all know how to make coal on the cheap" if we were lucky enough to be alive. Stop throwing shade (maybe we should make a site for hate'n on and throwing shade) and just post a better way to do something. If you are really feeling educated mention (aka reference) Sixsmith's post for at minimum providing the inspiration or enthusiasm to stop pontificating and start manifesting those genius thoughts. Now you have the credibility to comment and post your instructable within the comment.

That's what I was thinking. I'm grateful for this instructable, but not for the naysayers.

nealbirch (author)2016-06-12

if the can you pick up is galvanized, beware of zinc fumes!

guy southard (author)2016-06-12

We use a biscuit tin with hole punched in the top to make ours - very satisfying making your own

madflower (author)2016-06-12

A simple rocket stove would be far more efficient for providing the heat. You could also put a bigger can around it or just mineral wool insulation to keep the heat in.

yrralguthrie (author)madflower2016-06-12

Far far far more efficient and much less pollution.

sixsmith (author)madflower2016-06-12

those are good points, to keep it cheap a dakota fire hole should make a simple rocket stove.
For this particular project mineral wool was not an option, I was between jobs at the time and was trying to make do with no money expenditure.

madflower (author)sixsmith2016-06-12

Same here when I did mine.. But I used a 55gal drum, and it isn't a closed retort like yours, and probably doesn't make as good of char, but it is close enough for the moment. But my object was to get rid of the brush pile and have something to show for the work. :)

proyectoagaves (author)madflower2016-06-12

like this one?

I-CAN is a GREAT AND SIMPLE carbon-negative technology to produce heat and biochar!

tina.gallagher.125 (author)2016-06-12

Thank you so much for this instructable! I'll certainly use it to make charcoal for my grill- that stuff is getting too dear for my wallet. This charcoal could come in handy for so many other uses as well, such as coal stoves for the winter- I'd use any hardwood scraps we get after cutting firewood for the winter. I can't wait to try this.

Those hardware scraps have more heat energy than the charcoal you can make from them.

you're welcome, I'd recommend trying to find a 30 gallon steel barrel so you can make larger batches, only slightly more work for roughly thirty times as much charcoal!
or go big and do the 55 gallon steel drum method, might be easier to find than the 30s anyway, but will take a lot more wood to fill.

yrralguthrie (author)2016-06-12

"The nice thing about charcoal is that, from what I've read, it burns
cleaner than coal, it's cheaper than coal, and you can make it yourself!"

Hard to be cheaper than coal if coal is used to make it, as it often is. Hard to be cleaner than coal for the same reason. Wood fire is just as polluting as coal.

LOL making charcoal and using it for heating or cooking is wrong headed. The original fire that one uses to make the charcoal had more energy. Charcoal is used in many parts of the world because it is shipped in to areas that don't have any other source of energy. No trees to burn. They have no choice.

And of course in the US to grill burgers, all-though either gas or wood is cheaper and has more energy. Charcoal has more energy per pound, but it does not have more energy that the product used to make it.

tabert444 (author)2016-06-12

But your spewing a lot of pollutants into the air. Thats why some people us drums etc to burn off those gases.

sixsmith (author)tabert4442016-06-12

Could you please elaborate? on such a small scale the amount of pollutants from a coffee tin of wood is negligible, and I don't see how using a drum is any better, especially since many drums have protective coatings on the inside that are burned off during the first use.

About This Instructable




Bio: I dabble a bit in just about everything, electronics, gardening, metalworking, backpacking, photography; but my real passion is in wood working. I have recently started ... More »
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