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Last Updated on October 12, 2021
Charcoal is one of the best fuels to fire up your grill. Charcoal doesn’t give off a lot of smoke, has a regular burn, and is easy to use. There are several types of charcoal on the market, and if you’re a seasoned pitmaster, you’ve probably experienced and tried out many of these and may already have a favorite.
But have you ever considered making your own charcoal at home?
If you haven’t, it’s a great way to enjoy some of the most natural BBQ fuel available and have some fun at the same time.
How is Charcoal Made?
High-quality natural charcoal is made from burning wood for a few days in a low-oxygen environment. The creation of charcoal takes days to ensure volatile compounds such as hydrogen, tar, methane, water, and natural saps are removed from the wood.
Charcoal created for commercial purposes is burned in large steel or concrete silos for mass production. When charcoal ignites, the carbon inside combines with oxygen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and other gases.
Pieces of charcoal created in this way contain more potential energy per ounce than pieces of raw wood, and the final product is about a quarter of its original weight.
Interestingly, archaeological evidence suggests that charcoal has been used for about 55,000 years. Cavemen first used charcoal as a pigment to draw on the walls of caves.
If you want to harness the power of this natural resource, here’s how to make charcoal at home.
How to Make Charcoal at Home?
1. Gather your materials
The first step to creating your own charcoal is to gather your supply of wood. Locate hardwoods such as oak, walnut, ash, and fruitwoods such as apple tree and cherry, as these types of hardwood make for great charcoal.
Avoid softwoods such as cedar or pine because softwoods don’t burn long enough to create quality charcoal.
You can use other types of organic matter alongside your chosen hardwood, such as dry leaves or ground nutshells, to complement the wood.
You’ll also need a metal barrel with a lid (this is where you’ll burn your wood) and a source of kindling, such as twigs or scrunched-up pieces of newspaper.
Ensure you’ve got heat and fire protection equipment nearby. This includes a high-quality pair of heat-resistant gloves, a fire poker, and a bucket of water, just in case any accidents occur.
2. Find a Flat Open Space and Dig a Pit
The next step is to find a flat open space that you can use as a fire pit. Once you’ve located a space, dig a hole approximately 3 feet deep and wide enough so that your barrel fits into the hole. Once you’ve dug the pit, place the barrel inside.
3. Prepare your Wood and Light the fire
Add your kindling to the bottom of your barrel alongside some small pieces of your chosen hardwood and any other types of organic matter you want to use. Light your fire and use your poker to stoke the flames until your fire is well lit.
Once the fire has a strong, intense flame, you can start adding other pieces of hardwood. Layer the hardwood, so the fire spreads to each layer of wood. Finish the process by adding the rest of the hardwood at the top of the barrel.
Ensure the flames of the fire are reaching every layer of hardwood, and after a while, you should start to see the wood starting to smolder and blacken.
4. Limit the Oxygen Supply to your Fire
Once the hardwood is burning, cut off the oxygen supply to the fire. You can do this by placing the lid of the barrel onto the barrel.
Leave the wood to smolder in the barrel for around 24-48 hours. After this time frame, remove the lid and check that the wood has turned to charcoal. The barrel should have cooled significantly, and the fire and any embers should have burnt out.
If the fire is still burning or hot embers are still present, leave the wood in the barrel for another 24 hours and recheck your barrel the next day.
5. Remove your Charcoal from the Barrel
When the charcoal is out, you can remove the pieces of charcoal from the barrel. If you want to store your charcoal, place the charcoal pieces into a coal store or charcoal bin for further use.
6. Repeat the Process and Clean the Barrel
To build your supply of charcoal, you can repeat these steps as much as you like. You can use different types of hardwood to try out varying kinds of charcoal. This is a good option if you’re looking to give your grilled meat new and subtle flavors.
If you don’t plan to make more charcoal, remove the barrel from the pit and fill the pit with earth to prevent accidents. If the ground is still hot to the touch, take your bucket of water and flood the pit to make sure any remaining embers are put out.
Finally, clean out the barrel after you’ve finished using it. If you’ve got a wire brush, you can clean out any excess ash; after this, take a bucket of water and rinse your barrel out. Allow the inside of the barrel to dry completely to avoid rusting. Doing this ensures the barrel is nice and clean, and well-maintained for the next time you need to use it.
After you’ve done this, you’ve successfully learned how to make charcoal at home. If you find this process to be too time-consuming, save the homemade charcoal for a few times a year. You may find it best to create your own charcoal in the fall when the weather is cooler, and wood is easier to gather.
Is Homemade Charcoal Right for You?
Homemade charcoal is an excellent option if you’re looking for a cost-effective, quality solution for your BBQing needs. The great thing about homemade charcoal is the process is repeatable. This means you can continuously refill your charcoal supply as needed.