Dirt Cheap Charcoal




Introduction: Dirt Cheap Charcoal

About: I dabble in many things, for a couple of years I made a living as a woodworker at an art incubator in Berea, currently I work in residential energy audit and retrofit work. I've got and AAS in Precision Mac...

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


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

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!

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

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

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.



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    156 Discussions

    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.

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

    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.

    1 reply

    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.

    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.

    1 reply

    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.

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

    1 reply

    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.

    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


    2 years ago

    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.

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

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

    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.

    2 replies

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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!

    2 replies

    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?

    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.