How To Make Your Own Charcoal {The Easy Way}

Lump charcoal is an excellent fuel for grilling. However, store-bought charcoal routinely comes with extra additives I don’t want on food or in the air I breathe. Thus, homemade charcoal creates a greener fuel than store-bought and may even save me some money, depending on where and how I source my supplies.

The charcoal industry is also very shady and exploitative (isn’t everything these days?) and frequently uses wood from protected and ecologically sensitive areas and is harvested and made by workers who receive a substandard wage.

Read on to find the best method for making it yourself at home, I include a video at the end too for more visual learners.

a simple BBQ full of hot coals (charcoal)

To make charcoal, you need untreated hardwood, a barrel, and burn material, which can be made up of newspaper, twigs, and even softwood. Making the charcoal can be done in a few ways; the easiest is by putting the hardwood in a small barrel upside down inside a larger one and setting a fire. 

Charcoal is made by indirectly heating your hardwood in a low oxygen environment or burning it, then cutting off its oxygen. As the hardwood heats up, gasses will escape, including oxygen, hydrogen, methane, and any existing tar. Since homemade charcoal is pure wood with no chemical additives, it has multiple uses, including as material for a water filtration system. But first, it needs to be made.

Making Charcoal Using A Double Barrel 

One of the easiest methods for making charcoal is a double barrel system. The other advantage is it only takes a few hours. However, the drawback to the double barrel is that it doesn’t produce large quantities. 

Step 1: Obtain Two Metal Barrels For Charcoal

Get a full-size metal barrel and cut the top off. Then, on the bottom, cut at least two to three “mouse door” like holes to act as vents. 

Then get a smaller barrel, around 2/3rds shorter and not as side. It will look like a fat piece of chimney pipe. It needs one end open and one end closed, with no vents. 

Both barrels must be clean, and free of any oils and chemical residues. Failing to do this will risk getting nasty stuff in your charcoal. 

Step 2: Fill Your Small Barrel With Hardwood For Charcoal

Take the small barrel and pack it will hardwood. It can be any untreated hardwood you like, but preferable pieces a good five to six inches long. If any pieces are longer than the barrel, trim them to a half-inch below the barrel’s rim. Ensure the wood is packed with as little free space as possible. 

Step 3: Place The Small Barrel Inside The Large For Charcoal

Put the large barrel on its side so you can slide the small barrel into it. The small barrel needs to be open side down, so the bottom of the large barrel creates a “lid.” This will prevent too much oxygen from getting into your small barrel as it cooks. 

Step 4: Light A Fire In The Large Barrel For Charcoal

Start a fire in the space between the large barrel and the smaller one. It doesn’t have to be high, perhaps only a third of the way up the shorter barrel. 

Step 5: Burn for 4 Hours, Then Cool For Charcoal

Let the fire burn or coals stay hot for three to four hours. Then you can allow the heat to go out and the metal to cool. Once it is safe to touch, you can remove the smaller barrel and retrieve your charcoal. 

a raw steak on top of charcoal

Making Charcoal Using A Single Large Barrel 

The single barrel method makes more charcoal in one batch. It takes longer and can require a few attempts before you get the timing of each step right. But once you’ve got the knack, you’ll be able to produce larger quantiles, especially if you get a few barrels going at once.  

Step 1: Obtain One Large Metal Barrel For Charcoal

Use a clean oil barrel with no vents and the top cut off. However, ensure you still have the top or another metal lid to hand. It is an essential piece later on in the process. 

Step 2: Obtain Lots Of Hard Wood For Charcoal

Gather your hardwood and ensure it is cut to size. You will be putting these pieces horizontally into the barrel. You won’t use a full barrel’s worth, but it will be close, around 2/3rds. 

Step 3: Start Your Fire For Charcoal

Start a fire at the bottom of the barrel. Once it gets going, add a layer of wood. Wait until that layer catches alight before adding twigs and burn material for the next layer. Then add a second layer of wood. Keep doing this until the barrel is nearly full. 

Remember, you need the entire barrel to burn, so don’t keep adding until the layer below is truly on fire. 

Step 4: Close Up Your Barrel For Charcoal

Put the lid on your barrel once you are sure your wood is on fire and beginning to char up to the top layer. 

Step 5: Leave Your Barrel For 24 Hours For charcoal

Leave your barrel for a good 24 hours before opening it back up. Once you do, there should be a barrel of charcoal. Do not remove your charcoal out of the burn barrel until you are a hundred percent certain it has thoroughly cooled. 

closeup of burning hot charcoal

Does Homemade Charcoal Burn Like Commercial? 

Homemade charcoal does not have the same burn time as commercial charcoal. However, homemade charcoal does burn hotter. The stuff bought in a store has chemical additives such as lighter fluid and binding agents. In addition, standard store-bought briquettes are not made from hardwood but sawdust from scrap wood, which can come from softwoods and composite. 

Is Homemade Charcoal A Good Fertilizer? 

Homemade charcoal is an excellent slow-release fertilizer. It is high in nitrogen and phosphorous. It is best to work homemade charcoal into the soil before planting. It should be broken up into a mixture of chunks and pulverized pieces. Spread the charcoal over the area you want to be fertilized, then work it into the soil. 

Video

Making charcoal is a pretty straightforward process.

The biggest hassle is ensuring you have a good supply of untreated hardwood. The homemade charcoal is cleaner and burns hotter than its commercial cousins.

It is also excellent to use in water filters and as fertilizer for the garden. Just make sure your barrels are entirely free of any oils and residues before using them. 

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