Making Charcoal-Part Two

Why Make It?

Back in Building The Forge-Part two I talked about my reasons for using charcoal. But why go to the time and trouble to make it?

First-I like doing it. It is a bit like alchemy. Start with one material -apply fire- get a different material.

Second-I like the idea of creating the whole process. Later we will talk about smelting our own steel.

Third-It is cheaper than buying it. Plus, I am recycling a waste product-construction scraps.

Fourth-and most importantly-I cannot easily buy the type of charcoal I need. Pine in general-Specifically metallurgical grade pine charcoal.

Hardwood charcoal

Almost all charcoal in this country is made from hardwoods. Most of that is destined to be made into briquettes. It is powdered, mixed with binders and other “stuff” and pressed into briquettes. These can be used for forging but they are far from ideal. Raw lump charcoal can be purchased but it is expensive and it is still hardwood.

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Hardwood charcoal burns relatively cool and it creates a lot of ash and small bits. This last part is the biggest drawback. It restricts the air flow and makes the fire “dirty”.
Pine on the other hand burns hot (and fast) with no ash. It will burn into small pieces but not to the extend that hardwood does. Pine basically just burns up and disappears,giving off a lot of heat and leaving little residue.

First hand experience

I know all this because when I first set up my Japanese style forge I bought 1000 lbs of hardwood charcoal from a charcoal making business in southern Missouri.
I spent eight frustrating months burning up this charcoal with little success. I could not get it to forge weld and I was constantly fighting the fire. At one point I was ready to admit that I had no skill for this.

Finally someone reminded me that the Japanese used pine charcoal. I couldn’t see how that would make any difference. After all charcoal was charcoal-right?

Okay-Okay- I hear you. I tracked down some raw pine charcoal and tried it.

Hallelujah-I made a forge weld right out of the gate. The steel got hotter faster and I had to fuss with the fire a lot less.

Research and Development

It was a fluke that I  had found some pine charcoal. The company had done a trial burn and determined not to use pine. They would make it for my though-5 ton minimum order.

I did a bunch of research and experimentation and came up with the system shown in Making Charcoal-Part One utilizing pine construction scraps.
I have already talked about how this system is pretty good but it does not give me really good quality charcoal. Back to the drawing board once again.

The Testing Setup

In order to control the process better I started with a small scale retort (paint can), identically sized pieces of wood and a high temperature wood stove thermometer.

I then put this into a larger bucket and built a fire around it. Trying to maintain a constant temperature was a bit of a challenge but doable.
With this setup we we can quickly make a batch of charcoal in an hour or so and record the results.

Next-What we found out

85 Responses to “Making Charcoal-Part Two”

  1. Trez Cole says:

    thanks for all the information I have been wanting to do a bloomery to make some steel. I have always been interested with samurai swords and you site is very helpfull

  2. Thomas (from France) says:

    Hi Dan,

    I was doing some research on Japanese pine charcoal and found your blog. Thanks a lot for sharing your trials and thoughts.

    • Dan O'Connor says:

      Hi Thomas,

      Thanks for stopping by. I promise to continue once the weather gets cooler and not so dry here in Texas

  3. Thomas (from France) says:

    Hi Dan,

    I plan to do some trials as well once my house is built and I have a place to work on (hopefully in October). I will keep as much as possible scrap wood for it.

    If you want I can try to send you some rain… this summer we had more water than sun.

  4. idowu michael says:

    my name is Michael. please,i am currently working on a research on charcoal and different production processes involved in its production. can you send me a video of your production process especially with the pine wood.
    thanks so much.

  5. SteveR says:

    Dan, the use of softwood charcoal surprises me as by all accounts charcoal smelting furnaces in the US in the 1800′s used hardwood charcoal. There was plenty of softwood available. But hardwood was the wood of choice. So why would they have chosen to use hardwood?

    I’m not doubting your experience however, but there are a few questions about just what hardwood was used for coal in your earlier struggles, and just what pine ws used in Japanese practice, and in your construction lumber offcuts.

    There is a great difference between southern yellow pine and eastern white pine for instance — including say a 50% density difference. Likewise a great difference in energy content and density in hardwoods — contrast cottonwood with say black locust or red oak. They are completely different.

    So I hope you could clarify a few points for me about what specifics were tried so I have a better idea of what can work, and what probably won’t. White pine is the pine in my forest. Thanks!

    • Dan O'Connor says:

      The jury is still out on how pine will perform in furnace. But here is a section from the Hitachi tatara site

      “According to the Tetsuzan hisho, pine, chestnut, maki pine, and beech were good for making osumi. Shide birch, kobushi magnolia, and cherry were bad, while shii oak and crape myrtle were the worst. Sawtooth oak, nara oak, and scrub were favorable. For kozumi, pine, chestnut, horse chestnut, and Japanese cedar were all superior, while shide birch, shii oak, maki pine, kashi evergreen oak, and mochinoki oak were considered inferior.”

      Osumi is charcoal for tatara Kozumi is charcoal for forging. There is no doubt in my mind as to the superior qualities of pine for forging. The main advantage is that it burns to almost to nothing. No small pieces and ash to block the airflow. Also because of its lower density it burns hotter-but faster. To get the heat required to forge weld large chunks of steel is in my opinion, not possible with hardwood charcoal unless you have an unreasonable air blast. I agree that theoretically hardwood has more heat energy than softwood but the effort to extract it makes it impractical for the type of forging I do (traditional fuigo etc). Other than having to pile on more charcoal on a regular basis, the pine makes the welding almost effortless in the amount of energy needed to power the pump.

      You are correct in the that there is wide variance even in the softwoods. I now use green or slightly air dried southern yellow pine. ( have a sawmill fairly close). But I used kiln dried white pine construction scraps for years with good success. Use what you gots:) And yes, I have to remember that the goal here is to make good swords not the perfect charcoal. ;)

  6. SteveR says:

    I see, that makes sense. The smaller the fire the faster it needs to burn in order to reach a high enough temperature. An iron foundry is larger and better enclosed than a forge and powered draft was available so maybe the higher total heat content of but lower temperature of hardwood was an advantage. The hardwood ash would form slag, protecting the melt, and anyway, iron is not steel, so it is all very different in specifics.

    You need the fastest burning fuel you can get and ash is a detriment for you. Fuel consumption is not as big a consideration as it is easy to add near the metal during working, unlike an enclosed furnace where it comes in sequentially with metal charges, but that’s all an individual charge gets. Additional charcoal heats the following charge. A one shot fuel deal for the metal. Energy density is important here. Temperature density is for you. They are different.

    Thank you!

  7. SteveR says:

    Thank you also for the wood specifics! I wonder what the Tetsuzan hisho means by pine as compared to maki pine?

    I have a sawmill I built as well. I have here white pine, white ash, cherry, red oak, cottonwood, hemlock, black locust, black birch, yellow birch, big leaf linden (basswood), some briefly surviving elm, red maple, sugar maple, beech. The most abundant waste wood I have is white pine flitches, and I have twice made charcoal with it, but discounted its use in melting iron. Perhaps I should give it another chance. And perhaps I should also begin to forge.

    Thank you again.

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  11. DM8088 says:

    I remember reading some English and French blacksmiths used charcoal made from Grapevine cuttings.
    I've been experimenting with charcoal gasification for metal casting. The gasification process works regardless of the spices, it seems mostly dependent on a high quality char. Low quality charing will produce gas with a red tarry flame, and good charcoal will make a pure blue flame like would be seen with a propane flame.
    I use a hybrid method for making my charcoal, the normal external heat method to drive off the water, do most of the charing and after the charcoal stops gassing I use a blower (old shop vac) and force air in to the barrel until red hot, cap off the inlet and let it cool.

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