Making Charcoal-Part Three

Rethinking what I know

There has been a lot of water under the bridge since I last wrote about charcoal in April. In my initial test I thought I was getting good charcoal from my little retort at 720c. I even made the comment that that it burned with a nice small blue flame.

Well, a small blue flame is not what we need. We need a honkin’ big flame! Over the summer as I read about Japanese forging and Tatara I came across an article that talked about charcoal for forging and smelting.

There it was in black and white. Forging charcoal must keep a good portion of the volatiles to add power to the burn. Smelting charcoal needs even more.

Those few words sounded the death knell for making charcoal in a self fueling retort.

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Letting Go

That was a hard one to accept. After all it is just so cool,  cooking the wood with its own gases. And then there was the ego thing. I didn’t come up with the idea of using the wood gases to self cook but I did devise a simple system to utilize it.
Over the last 10 years or so I have heard from people around the world who have used it. In my search for more charcoal info, time an time again I would run across sites that referred to my system. Sometimes giving me attribution sometimes not.

Don’t get me wrong-if you are looking to make biochar then it works great. You are only looking for carbon to add to soil. If it is soft and crumbly and easy to pulverize, so much the better.

Metallurgical Grade

We need charcoal with some backbone, with fire in its heart. Charcoal that has just stopped being wood, with a glass like sheen and the power to change the shape of steel. So began the search for the perfect charcoal and a way to make it.

The picture above is just such charcoal and I made it this week. It is not the perfect charcoal but we are getting close.

Stay Tuned.

27 Responses to “Making Charcoal-Part Three”

  1. Russell says:

    I read your thoughts on charcoal, and had a few ideas….
    Green wood has differing properties than dried. Kiln dried have differing properties then air dried. Could the source material have been processed after drying?

    Another idea was quenching the charcoal at a certain point and allowing it to dry again? It seems to me from my experience with campfires that the charcoal that went "tink" was from a dowsed fire.

    The amazing thing that I read about charcoal, from an ASU alumni brochure. That in Thailand where the water is so contaminated, and yet there is charcoal available on the streets. Nice oil-sheen colored charcoal, that a fist sized chunk will remove pesticides, and benzine from a 5-gal pail. Bacteria is another matter though.

  2. SteveR says:

    Dan, wonderful website, I’ve been at work on a charcoal cupola and have made charcoal by several methods in the past — not your barrel retort (yet) but was aware of it from seeing the early one many years ago on the net.

    One thing I wanted to bring up in relation to smelting with charcoal — in the US in the 19th century in furnaces of about 6 tons output/day was that they seem to have used a two stage process with two types of charcoal. There was the initial cooking of the ore using brands (or partially coaled wood) in a separate furnace, and then second using that partially refined ore broken up into small pieces with the fully coaled charcoal in the main furnace.

    So in effect, you are possibly doing the same thing in a single stage by trying to make charcoal that is nearly but not fully carbonized. I do wonder whether a two stage process might be workable for you, or whether combining brands with fully coaled charcoal would give you similar results to the ideal coal you seek?

    The two grades of charcoal were culled from the same rick style burn in traditional US practice. The pile never burned completely uniformly for charcoal burners.

    I do wonder about our need to produce perfect repeatable uniformity, rather than adapt to the nature of a charcoal burn. Working with the personality of what is made available. What do you think?

    • Dan O'Connor says:

      Hi Steve,
      Thanks for a great comment.Pre-cooking or “roasting” of the ore is a standard practice. It gets rid of a lot of impurities such as sulfur and makes it much easier to break up. Having said that the Japanese harvested iron bearing sand from the mountains and concentrated it by running though a big sluice to float out the lighter material leaving the heavier iron sand.They did not roast this iron source which was primarily magnetite. My source is rocks of ore so will roast at least some of it to see the results.

  3. SteveR says:

    Fascinating to me about the black sand. That is what is examined, and then discarded in searching for gold. Ironic.
    Or of iron.
    Ore of iron.
    Alchemy. The transformation is in the comprehension. Not the substance.
    They had it.

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