(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!
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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.