Archive for the ‘Charcoal making’ Category


Gorse flowering on Lynchmere Common

SO it’s not that easy to get rid of me after all?  Last time I looked it was the depths of Winter and now Spring has been rushing past in it’s usual way with a frantic list of things to do.


Tidying up  after the winter work, plenty of maintenance and then straight into the summer season of events, courses, bracken management and charcoal making to name but a few.

Writing up blog articles never seems to come close to the top. We had the pleasure of a brief visit from Sean Hellman and Lucy this week. Sean’s inspired me to make a start on the mound of pictures and ideas I have to catch upon.


With the sudden improvement in the weather charcoal is in demand again. So I have to stop this post and go deliver a few bags to our local hardware shop – Liphook Hardware.


Back soon!


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Perhaps you like the idea of becoming a charcoal burner, maybe you just want to turn some unwanted waste wood into a valuable product or perhaps you just want to experience the magic of spending the night in the woods and making charcoal the traditional way, either way there is an event you might like to take part in coming up in August.

From 11th to the 13th August Alan and Jo Waters of Wildwood charcoal are running their annual earthburn in the woods on the West Dean Estate near Chichester. Alan kicks the earthburn off on the 11th August which celebrates the feast day of St Alexander, the patron saint of Charcoal burners.  But this year as well as demonstrating the ancient craft of burning charcoal in an earth covered clamp they have assembled a team of charcoal burners to burn with a steel ring kiln and a new design of mobile retort at the same time. It’s always a great event, very atmospheric at the beautiful site in the West Dean woods and this year  it will be a unique opportunity to compare the past, the present and the future of charcoal burning.

As is the way these days the event has to have a name, so it’s the CharFest in the Woods. You can participate in the event for a small cost per day – to book your place contact Jo Waters at Wildwoodcoppice@btinternet.com – and dare I mention that it may be your last chance to see the old man hobbling – and be able to run away faster – before he gets his new bionic knees (only joking Alan!)

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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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If you like some old slag then last weekend was your thing, at the annual Fernhurst Furnace Open Weekend. With a forecast for bad weather as the remnants of hurricane Katia lashed the country I wasn’t expecting much, but in the event, apart from the odd shower, we escaped the worst of it and the show went on. Sheltered in the woods on the track down to the site of the old Wealden Furnace I hardly noticed the wind.

Unlike many of the shows and events that I do, this one is not commercial, being primarily a small community based event and has another purpose, to raise awareness of the remains of the North Park Iron Works which operated  on the site for over 200 years.  One of dozens of Iron Furnaces in the Wealds of Sussex, they were eventually put out of business by the successful use of coke for smelting in the Ironbridge gorge, releasing the ironmasters from their dependance upon charcoal as a fuel source and allowing iron working to be concentrated on massive sites.

It’s hard to get a sense of the size, noise and activities of the iron workings from the remains on the site you can see today. Almost all of the Wealden Furnaces have disappeared leaving little trace which makes this site something special. The most obvious feature is the size of the furnace pond and it’s retaining bank, availability of water being one of the biggest restrictions on the Wealden sites. Below the sluice it is possible to make out the remains of the wheel pits, the casting floor, furnace base and the charging ramp. You can even just make out the remains of the casting pit for the naval cannon that were made on the site.

This model gives a better feel for the scale of the buildings in the photo you can see the actual wheel pits and stream just to the right of the one in the model. You can learn more of the history of the site at the furnace website.

The iron industry in the Weald existed from Roman times (and probably well before that) but as the industry in the north of England scaled up in the 18th Century the Wealden Ironmasters were forced to rely upon their iron making and casting skills to compete. As well as making ‘pig’ or lump iron for the hammer forge at Pophole on the nearby Wey the furnace cast cannon for the Navy.  This cannon is a good example of the type that would have produced by the Wealden furnaces (though this one is not from this furnace).

The two sites, furnace and forge needed to be separate because of the restricted supply of water (power) and charcoal (fuel). This cannon ball was found in the grounds of a cottage close to the hammer forge at Pophole on the Wey and was most likely cast from pig iron smelted at the furnace 2 miles away.

Making iron from the ore requires a lot of heat, fuel and plenty of power on hand so we weren’t able to demonstrate it over the Weekend. But Fergus and Penny from nearby Butser Ancient Farm did take us right back to the start of the technology by demonstrating how to smelt copper from ore, very much the same principles which were refined (pun entirely intended) to smelt iron.

Fergus used Malachite which is a very rich copper ore, copper carbonate, the oxide of copper giving the mineral it’s characteristic green colour.

To turn the green malachite into copper the temperature in the clay furnace needs to reach almost 1400 degrees centigrade which is achieved using good quality lumpwood charcoal and plenty of air blown through the fire from the hand powered leather bellows.

The green tinge of the flame indicates that the furnace is reaching the right temperature and the copper in the malachite is being released. This happens as the charcoal creates a reducing action by burning and producing carbon monoxide that then steals oxygen from the copper oxide to make copper.

At the end of the process the crucible containing the molten copper and remains of the malachite mixed with some charcoal is removed from the furnace to pour into moulds.

Though in this case the copper pulled a disappearing stunt and flowed to the base of the crucible where it stuck fast until cooled and released by Fergus – though it does look more spectacular in this shape and contrasts with the original green of the malachite.

I was impressed that you can produce your own metal with some clay, charcoal, a pair of bellows and some ore. You really could try this at home. Though it might be better to try it with Butser ancient farm first and you can find out more about their courses including Fergus’ metal making on their Butser Ancient Farm website .

The title of this post is a shameful attempt to attract hits and maybe even readers via the search engines, though whether they will be impressed with my old slag is doubtful. Given the centuries of iron working at the site, and at nearby Pophole hammer forge, slag tends to turn up all over the place and would have been used to fill in the notoriously poor Sussex roads, but I found my old slag in the end and a fine example it is too. I shall have to leave the rest of the weekend to another post.

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The bluebells are coming on strongly in our restored Hazel Coppice (better than the Hazel unfortunately) and I stopped to take some photos on my way to make charcoal yesterday. It’s hard to capture the delicate colours and the sun was a little too weak to do justice but you get the idea, I hope.

The burn in my oil drums went well, no great surprise as the weather is perfect for it. With the long dry and warm spell having reduced the moisture in the wood significantly the burn is shorter and the yield is higher.

One drum burnt a lot slower than the others and getting bored with waiting I turned the heat up (opened up the vents around the bottom) and with the top shut down it produced an almost perfect ring of fire as the volatile woodgases were burnt off.

Very pretty to see – don’t try this at home. No really – to get the ring effect I shut the top of the drum down for a short time which suppresses the fire and the gases are collecting unburnt. Then on opening the top the gases mix with more oxygen and leap from the drum. Worthwhile wearing a helmet and gloves unless you like the singed eyebrow effect.  But it’s all wasted heat which would be better used in the burn – I need to move to a simple retort system in which the wood is baked in an oven and the gases are used to help improve the burn. But that’s another project!

Alright I admit it. This post is just an excuse to mix the photos of the bluebells with the flames – and I like the effect of the two very different textures and colours.

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The first charcoal burn of the year is always a bit of a struggle and somehow I manage to forget just how damp everything will be. One day of relative warmth is not enough to shake of the winter yet.


For this burn I had help from Fergus (from Butser Ancient Farm). Fergus is using charcoal to smelt and forge and contacted me to discuss some comparative smelting tests using charcoal from different wood species. I couldn’t help being interested and one advantage of using old oil drums as kilns is that I can burn different woods in each drum so we decided upon Birch, Sweet Chestnut and Oak.


Unfortunately the first burn of the year is never too highly organised ( must make a note not to make the first burn a demonstration in future!) and it took a while to fetch the timber and then cut and split it.


and I hadn’t counted on the bins being quite so hard to get lit but after quite a struggle we got three bins going.


It’s the first time I’ve compared different woods burning side by side. Once the Sweet Chestnut got going it burnt very hot and fast with a lot of gas coming off – at one stage the top of the bin looked more like a gigantic gas ring than a kiln – really don’t try this at home, it is very easy to lose your eyebrows!


The Birch was a little slower to get going and produced a lot more white smoke – probably reflecting the difference in relative moisture content between the woods. As expected the oak drum was the slowest to burn – oak being a very dense wood it typically burns more slowly than the lighter woods.


Having left the bins sealed to cool overnight I unloaded them the next morning.


As I’d expected from the way the burns went the Sweet Chestnut bin was the best, producing large lumps of charcoal and very few brown ends (the logs which are not completely converted to charcoal). But the birch bin was also very good with a similar amount of charcoal, albeit in smaller pieces, and as expected the oak bin produced the least in volume.

But once I got the sacks of charcoal back to the workshop and weighed them I was surprised to discover that though the volumes clearly differed the weights of charcoal from each bin were very close. Chestnut – 11.5 lbs, Birch – 11 lbs and Oak -10.5 lbs.  The oak being significantly denser charcoal than either the birch or the chestnut.

Fergus – if you are reading this – the charcoal is ready to be collected and I’m looking forward to finding out how it does ! Hope you’ve recovered from the smoke inhalation!


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If you haven’t had enough yet I’ve uploaded more of the photos from the Earthburn to a gallery page. Either select the Gallery tab above the blog title banner or follow the link here.

Earthburn Gallery

These only cover the building and burning of the charcoal kiln, the photos from the coppice courses will follow soon.

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