Making Your Own Charcoal (a.k.a. Lump Charcoal)





Introduction: Making Your Own Charcoal (a.k.a. Lump Charcoal)

(Writers note:  This is my first instructable so I'm open to constructive criticism.  If you see something that needs to be added, please let me know and I'll keep things updated.  Thanks for reading!)

This instructable will show you how to make your own charcoal for grilling out or using in a smoker.  In essence, what you are trying to do is take standard hardwood and taking the wood gas out of it which will cause the wood to burn more slowly and at more of a smolder.  The wood gas is the part of the wood that makes it flammable so once this is removed, you have your charcoal.

 This homemade charcoal will not burn as long as standard store bought charcoal.  This is due to all of the additives they put in them at the factory.  The homemade charcoal will burn cleaner and is more "green" than store bought charcoal.  One batch will make quite a bit of charcoal.  The wood will burn up some and reduce the amount you have, but it won't reduce a whole lot.

You use this just like you would regular store bought charcoal.  Lighter fluid or charcoal chimney will get it started.  I make my pieces larger because I typically use it for smoking rather than just on the grill.  You can make the pieces as large or as small as you want.

Are you ready?  Lets get started!

Step 1: Getting Started

The biggest thing you need to get started is finding a source of hardwood.  I have a friend who has an almost endless supply of rough cut walnut and oak that is used in shipping doors.  Using soft wood is NOT advised.  This wood will burn fast and probably won't burn long enough to cook a hot dog.  Sources could be saw mills, construction sites (be sure to get permission and DO NOT use treated lumber), or cutting your own.

Basically all you need is the wood, a saw to cut the wood, a metal barrel with a lid, and a place to store the finished charcoal to keep it dry.

You will also need some smaller burning material to start the fire with in the barrel.  You need to get a good fire burning to start with so have more than just a few twigs on hand.  If your barrel had contained oil or other dangerous fluids, be sure to do a quick burn in the barrel to burn off all the contaminants or clean it out good.

Step 2: Starting the Burn

Once you have your wood cut, start a decent fire in your barrel and get it going good.  You will need a fairly strong fire going in the bottom of the barrel before you add your hardwood.  Let your fire burn for a while so you get some good coals and strong flame in the bottom of the barrel.

When your fire is burning good, start adding your hardwood.  I have found this works better by adding just like a layer at a time and let it start catching fire before adding your next layer.  When burning in a 55 gallon drum, I will usually do like 3 layers of wood.  It takes longer when adding the wood this way, but the burning process goes faster because you don't have to wait as long to get the fire all the way up to the top of the wood.

After all of the wood is added, let the fire burn until all of the wood in the barrel is on fire.  This is an important step because you are removing all of the wood gas this way.  Your wood should be burning and you will begin to see the char on the outside of the wood.

Step 3: Settling It All Down

I wish I could tell you an exact amount of time to allow the wood to burn, but this is next to impossible.  You will just have to use your eyes to see how your wood is doing.  Your wood needs to be burning and a slight char to the wood.  Just keep in mind, you are burning the wood enough to burn out the wood gas or the flammable part of the wood, but leaving enough wood behind so that it will burn when grilling.

Once your wood is burning good and is ready, put the lid on the barrel.  This will allow the wood to smolder and put itself out.  This step is important to let the wood char almost completely through.  Of course if you put the fire out with water you will be ruining your charcoal and making a large mess in the bottom of your barrel.

The best way to do this is to start your project about mid afternoon.  When your wood is ready, put the lid on and allow the wood to finish smoldering overnight.  Wait until the next afternoon to remove the lid to make sure all of the fire is out and the wood is done burning.

Step 4: Finishing Up

After your fire is completely out and your barrel is cooled off, remove the lid.  The picture below is a great picture of how your wood should look after the smoldering is done and the charcoal is ready to package.

If you remove the lid before the wood is done smoldering, this will just add air to the embers and start the burning again.  When the charcoal is cooled off, remove it from the barrel and place it in a container.  I have used large plastic totes to hold the charcoal and others I know have used paper sacks (i.e. lawn refuse bags or used charcoal sacks).  If you do not need the barrel for any other use, you can just leave the lid on the barrel and take the charcoal out as you need it.

IMPORTANT----------You MUST be ABSOLUTELY sure that your wood is completely out before storing it!  This seems like a no brainer, but without fail someone has and will make this mistake.  If the wood is not completely out, you will ruin your whole batch after removing it from your barrel and it will all burn up.  Not to mention, if you take it in your house you risk catching your whole house on fire.

Step 5: Using Your Charcoal

Now that you have the satisfaction of making your own charcoal, you can now invite your friends and family over for a big cookout to show off your charcoal making and cooking skills!

As stated before, you can use this stuff just like regular charcoal, but it will not last as long as the briquettes.  Keep this in mind in case you have to add more or to adjust your cooking times.



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25 Discussions

dear sir
i need a hand book that's help of making all kind of chacoal. I am interested build a factory thank you

I would stay away from Walnut, especially if you are cooking food with it. It is not very well known, but Walnut is poisonous. That's why you frequently see large Walnut trees standing by themselves, with not much in the way of weeds or grass growing underneath them. They kill the competition. Often, woodworkers who do not use dust masks and proper dust control in their shops will become sensitive, even allergic, to Walnut. I have even known some people who can no longer work with it in their shop. It surpasses Cedar in causing allergic reactions. I have even developed a sensitivity to it from nor wearing a dust mask while working with it. If I breath any Walnut dust my sinuses block up almost immediately and I feel like I'm getting the flu. Besides, your best woods for adding flavor to your grilled foods are Apple, Hickory, and Mesquite. Oak might be able to be used, but it contains a lot of tannic acid (don't know how it would taste). Other interesting choices might be Birch, Rock (Sugar) Maple, and Sassafras. Maybe even Beech.

3 replies

Check out this list of woods used for smoking/cooking. I had been told not to use certain woods for smoking, but then found the same wood commercially sold in chip form for that purpose. While doing research I found this handy list.

Good reply on the types of wood to use another is the Pecan tree it is a type of Hickory tree and is found all over "Down South" in the United States. I've found that pecan wood is good for some of the smoking that I do and I have several in my yard.

You are correct when dealing with regular wood if used with cooking. However, by burning the wood, you are removing all of the contaminants and most of the oils. After the process of making the charcoal, the amount of "fragrance" left in the wood is unnoticeable. That is all taken away during the initial burn process. When I'm smoking with this charcoal, I have my charcoal and then I have a supply of Hickory or Apple on hand to add to the charcoal for my flavor.

Hi, I live on a small farm in South Africa. I am going to produce my own charcoal.

Not for grilling, but to make a charcoal fridge.

This room will become my Wine Fridge. About 6 cubic metres. So the type of

wood that I use will not be to important. What I would like to know. Did you punch any holes into the base of your draw in order to draw air to start the small fire?

Sincerely, Allan Dawson

2 replies

I did not punch holes in the base of the drum to start the fire. This would kind of defeat your purpose when you snuff the fire with the lid as it could still draw some oxygen and the wood will burn longer than intended.

Once you get the wood burning decent and you put the lid on the drum to snuff the fire, you'll want the fire to die quickly and just let the fire smolder out.

This method works well enough, but wouldn't it be easier(and safer) to avoid setting the charcoal on fire to burn out the wood gas? If you place the wood-to-be inside a metal container and then burn the container within the barrel it should burn off the wood gas, similar to a wood gasifier. Put a pipe leading away from the open flame if the container seals so the fire doesn't ignite the gases. I haven't done either of these methods to see which is better(burn length, quality, etc.) but I have read other charcoal making guides that use this method.

uhm im guessing that you can use this charcoal for smoking a hookah, hubbly or oka (whatever you wana call it, i live in south africa so it goes by the name of oka and hubbly), but i dont really live near much tabaco shop to by the actual smoking coal. so the point is id like to know how long an average piece would burn for. i was also wondering, seeing that i live near so many gum trees, would is be possible to use gum instead? im a real science geek by dont really specialise in the biological sector so forgive me. Thanks in advance

3 replies

I think it's all a matter of your geographical location...where I live, coal can only be bought at the store, and often only during "BBQ Season" where everyone's using their outdoor grills a lot, but wood on the other hand...dirt cheap, literally...if you have even a knife you can get your own wood, though having an axe/saw/chainsaw would make it easier and quicker to get large quantities...but in most places 'round here, you're no more than 100m/328' from the nearest wood source...

Yes, it is as you say. The cheap firewood is cheaper than charcoal. But that wood lasts a few minutes in fire, then it is ashes. The good firewood lasts almost like the charcoal, but it is more expensive. In my case, I hate to be pending from the ember, and the charcoal gives you enough time to do other things during the roast.

I was implying, that it is much easier to harvest your own firewood, at little or no cost, if you have any trees available to do so with...

When I'm making a fire for heating, and it's unusually cold in the building I'm trying to heat, I'll have my tinder, then kindling, then my small "large bits" then some larger ones on top, especially if it's out camping in a hunting camp of sorts (we go there for drinking, since none of us usually hunts) and the wood I'm using is kinda frosty...that way it's "preheating" the larger bits, and I don't need to be there watching it the whole time it's trying to catch, just need to be sure the kindling caught, then I don't need to worry about it going back out again for a while. (our trips are usually short-planned, and somehow on the coldest nights is when we have the worst wood, even if my buddy brought some from his woodpile at home, it still doesn't work the greatest, I end up getting green brush and dried twigs from outside, hence why they liked me coming along 'cause I didn't mind going outside to get that stuff, 'cause I'd always be dressed for colder than it was when we went out to the camp :D)

If you can find a book named "Forgotten Arts and Crafts" by John Seymour, in it he describes the traditional way to make charcoal which (I think) takes less attendance than even your method does. Your method is very clever, but I have an enjoyment of learning traditional methods. From what I gathered from that book the traditional method for making coal is as follows. First make a dome of wood with a central gap. Pile dirt thickly (12" or more) around the base and top, leaving that central area clear. The center hole should be roughly 6-8" in diameter. Pile kindling and wood into the hole and set it on fire, and let it burn until the whole of the pile is smoking out through the dirt, then fill in the central hole. Don't quote me on this method (or blame me for its errors), but do see if you can get his book at the library and read it for yourself. I'm sure what is in the actual book will work better than what I recall from it. Just thought that I'd share.

Thank you for posting this. We just returned from Mexico where we saw street vendors cooking their food with the same stuff. Then we found a place to buy it but didn't learn how to make it.

Charcoal has a way of coming alive long after you are certain that it is extinguished. Store freshly made charcoal in a place where a fire that accidentally erupts does not threaten life or anything of economic value. Use great caution. Also keep in mind that if you are in a confined area and the charcoal should come back to burning it generates carbon monoxide which can easily kill everyone in a home even if flame and heat damage are contained.

1 reply

Your warnings of carbon monoxide are very pertinent. That is a concern, however, as long as the wood is allowed to cool with no air in the container the charcoal will be out. As stated in step 4, if you don't need the barrel for anything else it would be super handy to be able to just leave the barrel outside with the lid on it. This way you can use the charcoal as you need it and don't have to worry about the threat of carbon monoxide.

Is the lid just put on top of the barrel loosely of is it an air tight seal? In other words are we letting the fire go out slowly by smoldering away or are you smothering it out right away with no air? Also, I'm assuming that if you use thick hardwood for your charcoal you will need to let it burn for a longer time as you want it to burn/char all the way through otherwise you will have uncharred wood at the middle of each block. Is this correct?

1 reply

The lid should just sit on top of the barrel and allow the fire to burn itself out. The fire will just burn the oxygen out of the barrel and the fire will put itself out slowly. You don't want gaps between the lid and the barrel. This will allow air into the barrel and the wood will burn more. The wood will char and cook the wood gas out of the wood as the heat increases. You don't have to actually burn the wood to remove the wood gas, but it will work faster that way. You are right, it will take a little bit longer to get all the wood gas out of larger pieces. However, the char doesn't have to go straight to the core to get all the wood gas out. As long as there is no more gas in the wood, the more uncharred wood there is in the middle the longer the charcoal will burn.