Archive for April, 2012

It’s the time of year when I start making charcoal again on a small scale. As it’s only a sideline for me I use old 40gallon oil drums which means my investment is minimal and I don’t need a lot of wood to feed a kiln, instead I take advantage of the wood that comes my way. It’s an ideal way to make small amounts of charcoal or to start learning about charcoal making.

The big advantage for me of using oil drums (other than not costing me anything) is that it only takes a couple of hours from lighting the drum full of wood to being able to shut it down and let it cool so I can fit in a burn of 2 or 3 drums in the afternoon or evening and come back the next morning to collect the charcoal.

When the drum is first lit it produces a lot of white and brown smoke, mainly steam boiling off from the wood and mixed with the tars, resins and other volatile chemicals. The intent of the burn is to have enough air flowing through the bin to maintain a high temperature but not so much that too much of the wood is burnt too quickly which reduces the yield – though if you only want a bag of charcoal for your own bbq it doesn’t matter so much.

As the burn continues you will see the white smoke lessen and eventually cease as all of the water is driven off.  Be careful if you lift the lid and peer inside at this point – you can lose your eyebrows. The reduced level of oxygen in the bin means that volatile chemicals released will not mix with enough oxygen to burn until they leave the bin – though if you are used to it you can arrange quite an impressive display with a ring of fire around the rim of the bin.

Once the volatile chemicals have finished being released the bin is ready to be shut down and the remaining wood will finish cooking in the heat of the bin. Shutting down involves sealing the bin with soil so that no air can enter or exit the bin – otherwise you will return to find no more than a pile or wood ash when you open the bin. It takes a few hours for the charcoal to cool sufficiently so that when you open the bin you don’t start an instant barbecue.

I should now show the finished charcoal, but somehow I seem to have taken a gratuitous photo of a Landrover the next morning. Strange that!

Making charcoal in an oil drum is not really economically viable in comparison with the big kilns, it’s a lot of work for a bag or two of charcoal but if you are generating a small amount of waste wood from a small amount of woodland then it might be a way to  start making enough for your own needs and spend an enjoyable evening, whether it for the bbq or to use on your vegetable patch or to start making your own carbon sink.

Much of this wood would have been burned on site, chipped or left to rot away (not that leaving some wood to rot away is a bad thing and it is as always a balance) so making charcoal with it doesn’t affect the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. If more trees are regrown in their place then it’s effectively zero carbon. As always with carbon issues it’s not quite that simple of course and the conversion of the wood does release other chemicals aside from carbon dioxide. The next stage is to convert my drums into ‘ovens’ or retorts as they are often known and burn the volatile chemicals to cook the wood, improving the yield and reducing the amount of woodfuel I have to prepare.


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Do you have those conversations sometimes? Where you think ‘Why did they say that?’  We had one of those on the walk back from our allotment on Sunday afternoon. Having been working on the raised beds and pathways I thought I’d mention what I planned to spend the rest of the afternoon doing.  To which Alison said ‘Peenicide! You’re going to do what?’  No, Peen a Scythe is What I said! We laughed all the way back to the house.

So ‘Peenicide’ is when you sit with a sharp scythe blade balanced between your legs and procede to hit it hard with a hammer. For the uninitiated the ancient art of peening is cold flowing or shaping of metal by beating it with a hammer.

Often still known as cross pein or ball pein hammers the original use of them is rarely required now and mine are normally known as Landrover Special Tool No1, if in doubt hit it with a hammer and see if it works again. Well maybe.

English (and US) scythe blades produced in the last 200 or 300 years cannot generally be peened as the edge steel is too hard and will crack so they must be ground. But scythe blades made in the rest of the world tend to be more malleable, though still hard and thin enough that the very edge of the blade can be cold flowed to form a very thin, razor like, bevelled edge.

The blade I am peening here is a short Austrian blade suitable for cutting around the edge of a small lawn the size of a postage stamp like ours.

Taking a hammer to a fine sharp edge is not entirely obvious and feels strange the first times you do it – and like many sharpening experiences the first efforts can often make things worse rather than better.

Usually the blade can be sharped effectively by using coarser and coarser stones. But as the edge is worn back the bevel becomes steeper develops a ‘bull nose’ shape rather than a razor and though still sharp has the wrong form to cut fine grass such as a lawn effectively. Peening returns the shape of the edge to a razor and when sharpened with a fine stone will cut even a bowling green (So I am told!).

Despite the sad state of this blade and my literally ‘rusty’ attempts to peen it I managed to achieve enough of an improvement to tame the grass of our tiny lawn. Sharpening and peening have always been a weak point for me but I have plenty more blades to peen yet so practice should make perfect by the time of the scythe festival in June.

There is a lot more to using and sharpening scythes than I can cover here – don’t worry I shall be returning to this topic. Thanks to Steve Tomlin for suggesting Sunday 1st April as ‘International Peening Day’ and you can find out a lot more about these activities on his Scytherspace Blog here 1st International Peening Day

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