Fuel will become a valuable resource post-SHTF and knowing how to store it properly, but also how to make your own will give you an advantage when fuel shortages will spread. Today we will learn how to make charcoal at home and why you should do it.
Charcoal is wood that has been baked, not burned. The impurities such as tars, oils, alcohols, and water have vaporized, leaving only the carbon skeleton (or inner structure if you will). Charcoaling concentrates wood’s heating value, making a purer fuel, lighter in weight and easier to transport, that burns without smoke.
Charcoal in its natural form, as produced in the pit oven or steer kiln, bears little resemblance to the commercial counterpart bagged for sale at the local market. Briquettes are made of pulverized charcoal, bound with various chemical glues into the conventional pillow shape. The smoking, the problems with ignition, and the characteristic odors are results of the additives and the density of the briquettes.
Natural charcoal is shiny, black. It retains the shape of its original wood source, whether coconut husks or pine branches. Charcoal made from different species of wood varies in density, but chemically, it’s identical (more than 80 percent carbon, with some water, ash and a miniscule amount of other impurities).
A fuel source with a long history
Until the ready availability of petroleum products, charcoal was an important fuel in the U.S. (for blacksmith’s forges as well as home and industrial heating). Equally important was the naval store industry, using the byproducts of the process: the pitch, turpentine, and resins made by cooling and condensing the impurities baked out of the wood.
But charcoal should not be neglected now. It is easy to make charcoal at home, and because of its high heat content, efficient to use and transport. Charcoal fires are very easy to start. Just add a match to crumpled paper or other light kindling under the charcoal, and spend a few seconds blowing the embers. When the paper burns away, the fire is smokeless (due to the purity of the fuel), and it will never betray a camping site.
Charcoal was originally made in pits. The method is simple and inexpensive, but the baking is often incomplete, and the wood only partly charred. As with all charcoal-making methods, air intake must be carefully regulated. Too much oxygen will allow all the wood to burn. The goal is to burn some wood to bake the rest slowly and uniformly.
How to make charcoal at home
To begin, dig a rectangular pit in firm soil (the size varies with the amount of charcoal desired from the firing). The hole can be lined with concrete blocks or sheets of steel roofing if the soil is soft. At the bottom, place several pieces of wood of similar diameter (and each as long as the pit) parallel and 18 inches apart. Those stringers provide air circulation. Then add the wood, packed tightly, across the stringers.
Fill the pit to about 18 inches above ground level. Cover with a roof of flattened metal drums or other steel sheeting. This cover should match the dimensions of the hole so that it will gradually move down as the burning lessens the volume of the charge. Air leakage is minimized with a layer of sand on top.
Construct a simple chimney and an air intake at one end, and pile kindling material on the wood at the other end of the pit. Ignite with a rag soaked in diesel or kerosene. Plug the chimney and intake with mud when the smoke disappears (about three days). The pit cools for another 72 hours, because if it is opened while he, it will burst into flame.
Kilns used to make charcoal at home
Simple charcoal-making kilns can be made from 55-gallon drums. Using uniform-sized wood produces the best results from these basic kilns. Begin by cutting a 16-inch diameter hole in the center of a drum top. Next, cut a 20-inch diameter circle from the top of a different barrel. Cut a four-inch hole in the large circle and mount a metal vent pipe on it for use as the chimney. Then drill three sets of four holes, each a half-inch in diameter, in the sides of the drum with the 16-inch circle removed.
One set of four holes is placed near the bottom, one midway, and one near the top of the walls. The four holes are spaced uniformly around the barrel. Those 12 holes are air inlets.
To load the drum, first, place a log (about four inches in diameter) vertically in the barrel. Remove the log after you place the wood charge around it. Add kindling and a burning rag, as with the pit method. After the fire is well underway, put the 20-inch circle (with the chimney) on the drum top. As the burning converts the charge into red embers at one layer, (check this by looking in the holes) plug the holes on that layer with mud. Allow the charcoal to cool before opening. Based upon experiments done by various homesteaders, this modified drum produces high yields of good quality charcoal, superior to pit baking.
Suggested reading: Fuel Type Options For Emergency Preparedness
More elaborate kilns can be made of adobe, brick or cement in the traditional beehive design. Accomplished welders can create kilns with separate fireboxes that function like large wood-fired cookstoves. An airtight oven is built above a firebox, and the heat converts the wood in the oven (or more accurately, the retort chamber) completely to charcoal. More information about making the more efficient—and more complex—steel or brick kilns is available online.
Survival uses for charcoal
If you make charcoal at home, you should know that it can be used for other necessities as well. It’s not just a good fuel source.
As a poisoning cure
Charcoal has recognized medicinal uses. As early as 1550 B.C., Egyptians recorded the curative properties of charcoal. It absorbs poisons (from antifreeze to drugs) in the stomach. Recent clinical studies indicate that it can also absorb snake venom as well as reduce the activity levels of some viruses and bacteria in the digestive tract.
In using charcoal to absorb poisons, researchers suggest the ingestion of five to 10 times as much charcoal as the toxin in the stomach. More is better, so taking about a quarter pound of charcoal is recommended. The charcoal is finely powdered (to increase the surface area), by crushing with a tool similar to a rolling pin and then administered as soon as possible after the poison intake. You can mix the powder with water to create a rough slurry and sweeten with honey, sugar, and even chocolate.
Someday, the charcoal shake you made from your own natural charcoal could save your life.
If you make charcoal at home, make sure you put some in your hunting bag. The porous qualities allow it to soak body odors from your hunting clothes, making your presence less noticeable to the prey you are stalking. It can also be rubbed on snares and other traps to make them blend with the environment.
In certain survival situations, an infected wound will put your life in danger if untreated. With a bit of luck, the charcoal you have in your survival bag can help save your life. All you need to do is wrap the charcoal in a piece of cloth and secure it on the infected wound. It will help draw out the infection and absorb moisture from the wound. This self-care method should give you enough time until you can deal properly with the wound.
When you make charcoal at home, consider the advantage of water filtering. It is a great natural resource that can remove dirt, debris, and dangerous contaminants from water. Used in conjunction with sand and other materials, you can improvise a good water filter.
There are many homemade water filters using charcoal and activated charcoal that turns disgusting, muddy water into clear, drinking water.
There are many other survival uses that should encourage you to make charcoal at home. From making cement to using it as a snow blindness remedy and even using it in various fire starting methods.
The above knowledge should help you make charcoal at home without any problems. The various uses of such a natural resource should be enough to convince you to try it (at least once) and add it on your list of self-sufficiency skills. If you live in an area that has an abundance of wood, you should make charcoal at home, it makes sense to do so in a survival situation.