How to Make Some Charcoal




I have been involved in a local school (Portland Waldorf School) which has a blacksmithing program. There have been complaints about the smell of the coal burning and so I found out that charcoal can be used as the fuel instead of coal/coke. So I am building this charcoal maker so that the children can see how to blacksmith without coal.
There are health benefits too! Coal produces sulfer when burned which can combine with water in your lungs creating sulfuric acid (acid rain) as well as the water in your sweat. If this helps someone have a better experience blacksmithing, I will be happy.

Here I describe how I made a charcoal retort. This is also known as the "indirect" method of making charcoal. Basically you take a metal container and cook it until all of the volatile gasses leave the wood.

Step 1: Make the Container

I decided to go ahead full bore for my first charcoal attempt. Many online sources indicate that they started out with small metal containers, but I figured a 55 gallon drum would be the best bet. So I found a recycled drum merchant on craigslist, paid $25 for a drum and proceeded to cut into it.
I took some 3 inch round steel tubing and made the retort tube.
This is a tube which takes gasses from the wood as it is heated, and redirects them to where they can be burned to add to the heat for charcoaling the wood.
You can see from the image that I made the bends using miter cuts. If you don't have the tool to make these cuts, you can use Black Pipe and fittings. That would increase the cash outlay, and since I had this stuff waiting for a use, I used it.

Step 2: Provide Holes for Gasses to Escape and Burn

Next, you need to provide holes in the pipe under the drum. The point is to create a large burner-like thing.
I drilled 1/4 inch holes every 3 inches in both sides of the tube. Later I thought that might not be enough so I used my die grinder to cut 3 slits in the top of the pipe so that the gasses would be directed more directly at the drum.

Step 3: Collect Wood and Take Your Stuff to the Burn Site

At first, I figured on using all pallet wood. So I loaded everything in my van to take it to the burn site.
Below you can see that I have everything loaded up and ready to go

Step 4: Load It Up and Cover It to Keep the Heat In

On my way to the burn, I realized that I did not have any way to keep the heat in the drum.
So I stopped off at Lowes and bought 3 pieces of cement board at $9 each.
You can see that I put a tray below the assembly in an attempt to have a low impact on the site.
I did not want to burn the grass where I was doing this, and we had a copper fire place on hand.
I think this detracted from the overall effeciency, however, so I would not do this again.

Step 5: More on Trying to Keep the Heat In

Here you see the cement board leaned against the assembly.
I have some left over KaoWool (kiln refractory blanket) from a forge project so I draped that on top to keep the heat in the drum as much as possible. I draped chains over it to keep it on the drum

Step 6: Load the Drum With Wood

Here we put some wood in the drum.
this is Fir heartwood which my friend uses to heat his home. They are mill ends from a plywood mill.
We filled the drum that much.

Step 7: Start a Fire

Pile wood up under the drum and set it ablaze.
An old indian showed me how to start a fire without flint, steel, paper or tinder.
He called it a weed burner and it's fuel is propane.
It works real well.

Step 8: Burn for a Good Long Time

we lit the fire at 10:30AM and did not see gasses come out of the tube below until about 3PM....
We wound up burning about 5 pallets, plus 2 moving boxes full of scraps from the school's woodshop.
Probably about 150 lbs or so.
There is about 120Lbs of wood inside the drum.
not as efficient as I had hoped...

Step 9: Examine This Video

it's a good step to watch video

Step 10: Watch Out for Too Much Smoke

this really does not smoke much. See the picture.

Step 11: Enjoy Charcoal!!

I really can't believe this worked!
Enjoy some awesome home made charcoal!!
for more information enjoy these google results:
Making Charcoal

Step 12: Updated Design of the Kooker

I decided that even though we were successful, that the process could use a major improvement.
The first burn lasted about 6 hours and consumed what seemed like a lot of wood.
I figured if I insulated the space around the Barrel that the heat would concentrate more on the container and the result would be faster conversion time and less wood burned.
I was right.
Here are pictures of my updated burner. The walls are one inch thick refractory cement. I used about 6.5 bags of refractory which weigh 55 lbs each. (So now the kiln / retort weighs at least 350 pounds!!)
You can see in the photos the steel structure and the refractory walls. I welded 1/4 inch round bar between the members as rebar and also tied chickenwire to those bars for supporting the refractory cement.
The front is bolted on so that it can be removed when the barrel wears out and needs to be replaced.
The floor is just the ground, and I laid down a piece of hardy-backer cement board to protect the concrete there. I added a hinged plate of steel there as a "fire box" door. It is about 1/4 inch thick and when closed there is about 4 inches open below it.
When burning it gets red hot as do the steel members of the structure!!
I also added a hole in the top as a place where the smoke can emit. I plan to add an insulated chimney to it there in the hopes that the fumes coming out can have a secondary burn to perhaps make less smoke. The chimney will need to be very well insulated for this to occur, so I plan to make it a double-wall arrangement probably 10-12 inches diameter outside with a 6-8 inch diameter inside pipe, and fill the gap between with kaowool or perlite.
The next step will be a short video of this one burning.

Step 13: Video of New Kooker Burning

So This is a definite improvement - once I lit the fire below, after 10 minutes, gas was burning from the tube. After 2.5 hours gas had stopped coming out and I let the fire below die completely.
In the morning I discovered that 100% of the contents had converted to charcoal!!

The pile of wood in the picture below is what I took from to burn in the firebox. It is mostly still there!
So I don't know for sure, but I think I burned less wood in the firebox than was in the barrel, which is a huge improvement! The next burn will have more science. We will weigh the wood placed in the barrel, and note the type of wood. We will also weigh the wood burned in the firebox and then weigh the charcoal produced and time the process again. This process should give us a much better idea of the efficiency of the improved process.
Thanks for watching!



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    84 Discussions


    10 years ago on Step 13

    If you were to forego the chimney and the gas retort/burner and instead routed the gas into a basic distillation apparatus you should get primarily methanol, which, I think, could probably yield a more efficient return of energy to the system (in regards to a supplemental heat source).

    19 replies

    I do not think that is correct, butcherboy. With all due respect, I believe the primary outputs are carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas, both of which are highly flamable. They can be collected and used as fuel, or can be redirected as fuel for the carbonization as done here. I guess it depends on the goal of the process.

    Good point, though IMHO, if not redirecting the gases for system efficiency, distilling the methanol might be easier to accomplished than gas storage for the purpose of getting a second fuel product, at least as far as a backyard charcoal set-up is concerned that is. A simple reflux still vs. pressurized tanks is the scenario I'm envisioning.

    Sorry, but I think I was unclear. One of my points is that I do not think that methanol is produced in pyrolysis. I think some methane is produced, but I could be wrong. The reason I want to be sure about that is methanol can be used to make biodiesel, and I would not want any of our biodiesel making members to think methanol can be produced by pyrolysis. Again, I could be wrong, but I have not found any references to methanol production in the literature. I do like your points about either using a reflux or a pressurized tank. I wonder if armature pyrolyzers can produce more gas than is needed. That would be great!

    Actually methane is the main volatile released during pyrolysis. Most of the CO released occurs during gasification, which actually occurs after combustion (which occurs after pyrolysis given an oxidizing agent). Methanol is also known as wood alcohol because it used to primarily be produced in a still similar to the charcoal set up. The key was sequestering the wood from as much O2 as possible and thus minimizing combustion and allowing the volatiles to be distilled. Another useful product of the process is of course charcoal, which is essentially the remaining carbon matrix of the wood (less O2, less CO, more C...carbon that is!)

    LMWAO, I understand, but while we're making charcoal, wouldn't it be more feasible to bottle the spirits of the ummmmm, vehicle, or not? Just wondering, I am not able to make charcoal as of yet. Something in the lease at the apartments that say no making of charcoal on the grounds or something, lol. I was just wondering, thanks and have a great day.

    Moonshine production is still highly prohibited in most areas! That said throw some pears in there and use a mason jar like a real shiner... Awesome ible by the way.

    prushikDarrell Knight

    Reply 7 years ago on Step 13

    I believe that is not correct in this case. Maybe the word "moonshine" should never have been used. Methanol is not the stuff that gets you drunk, methanol is the stuff that makes you go blind and kills you. So, if you tried to make moonshine this way. you would end up with something far more toxic with very little to no drinking alcohol in it. So it wouldn't technically be moonshine.
    On top of that, we are not talking about drinking it at all, we are talking about using it for a fuel, which further reduces its similarities to moonshine.
    Now, making moonshine is unconditionally illegal in all 50 states as far as I know. However, I believe it is 100% legal to distill alcohol IF and ONLY IF it is being used exclusively for fuel purposes.


    Reply 7 years ago on Step 13

    Oh my goodness, I'm so so sorry!
    Allow me to make a correction: Making moonshine is unconditionally illegal in all 50 states of the United States as far as I know, I have no knowledge of other countries' laws however.

    I did not mean to assume that everyone here is American, my mistake.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Making Moonshine is not "unconditionally" illegal. I have a legally purchased fifth of Midnight MOON with Junior Johnson's signature. It is produced and bottled by piedmont distillers in Madison, NC. Like any other distiller, they applied for and received a license, and pay the taxes. I can personelly atest to the fact that this is 'not' wood alcohol.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction
    A moonshine-like beverage is not illegal if it is produced legally, with registered and licensed stills at a properly licensed distiller, however, since moonshine is by definition illegal (the definition of moonshine is an illegally produced and distilled alcoholic beverage), any moonshine-like beverage is not moonshine, although it may be chemically identical to moonshine, whether or not it IS moonshine is dependent on whether or not it was produced illegally.
    So yeah making moonshine is unconditionally illegal, the same way that crime is unconditionally illegal.
    This type of definition is not unprecedented in the world of alcoholic beverages, many types of spirits and wines are named after their content AS WELL as how and where they were produced, Champagne and Tequila and Bourbon being three good examples.


    Reply 2 years ago

    I think the Federal Law states that every adult citizen, if they get a permit, can make up to Two Hundred (200) gallons of wine, beer, or "distilledSpirits" for their own PERSONAL consumption per year! That comes to a little less than Four (4) gallons per week. Selling your yearly stash isn't going to generate enough money to do anything but make you go broke! :-)

    Darrell Knightprushik

    Reply 7 years ago on Step 13

    Yes moonshiner is totally 100% illegal in all states,because the government can't regulate it well enough to be able to tax it. It is money and keeping us slaves to their every whim. But I, OF COURSE AM A LAW ABIDING SHEEPLE AND WOULD ONLY WANT IT FOR FUEL.

    prushikDarrell Knight

    Reply 7 years ago on Step 13

    According to this site that I found:
    It is legal to own a still if it is under 1 gallon, and you only use it for distilling water and extracting oils from plants.
    Producing distilled alcoholic beverages requires some serious paperwork and fees (I looked into it, they are substantial). Distilling alcohol for fuel still requires permits and paperwork and fees, however, as long as you don't produce over a certain amount per year, and it never leaves your property, then you do not need to pay taxes on it, nor does it need to be denatured.

    So, basically, its much easier to just do it illegally, they make doing the right thing unfeasible.

    Darrell Knightprushik

    Reply 7 years ago on Step 13

    Yes they do, as they do everything, anytime the feral gub'mint gets its hands in it, it is harder for the citizen to do anything.

    Wood alcohol (i.e., methanol, not ethanol) is deadly poisonous. If it doesn't kill you, it will permanently blind you. So, if you want to be blind drunk (without the drunk part) for the rest of your life, have at it.

    most definately yes!

    All you really need to do is route the exhaust gases from the fire, to the under side of your kettle.

    The rest of your moonshine setup is as normal.
    Just using one fire to do 2 different kinds of work.

    If you are thinking about trying to make ethanol(aka NOT moonshine) from the wood byproduct... then the simple answer is no.