#2 Charcoal pencils

Last year I helped make a horde of charcoal for furnaces and BBQs. This took pretty much an entire day of chopping, splitting, stacking, burning and then bagging. From this I have experimented with what charcoal can be used for and how to make it on a smaller scale.

To begin with a few notes on charcoal.

Charcoal is, pretty much, pure carbon. It is created by ‘baking’ wood in a kiln. In reality this can be achieved in many ways, I used a biscuit tin (ensure it is steel not aluminium) but old paint tins work quite well. You can also use mud, as demonstrated on Primitive Crafts on youtube, and by piling up your wood and then covering it in turf. What you are trying to achieve here is to create an environment to burn the wood with limited, preferably no, oxygen. This will extract all of the moisture, toxins and impurities from the wood leaving pure carbon at the end.

So, the method.

Firstly select your wood. Some woods are better than others for charcoal. Some are better for making burning charcoal some are better for artist charcoal.

Charcoal is used in forges and for cooking as it can get to higher heats than fire wood whilst producing very little smoke. The best woods for this are generally hardwoods so oak, beech, hornbeam or even sycamore. For artist charcoal I used freshly pruned willow.

When taking the willow wands ensure they are cut as close to the main branch as possible, this will cause the least trauma as possible to the tree. Wood will loose approximately 30-50% of its size once it has changed to charcoal so consider this when selecting what size wand to prune.

Take this wand to your campsite and make a small fire, once the fire is established add oak, beech or any other hardwood to create a bed of nice hot embers, enough to provide heat for at least two hours.

While the fire is growing use this time to de-bark the willow and cut into lengths roughly 30% bigger than what you hope the finished product to be.

Open up your tin that you are using and put the willow inside, some advice is to pack the wood as tightly as possible. This is good advice to follow when making large amounts of charcoal for forges or your BBQ but I found when making small amounts of artist charcoal you can just throw it in.

In the lid of the tin make a small hole just a little smaller than a 5p piece. Carve a small stick so it fits tightly into this hole. Now, remove it from the hole and keep to one side.

Once the flames have died down and you have a bed of very hot embers secure the lid tightly. Place the tin on top of the embers and drag them around the edges of the tin.

Now wait.

After 5-10 mins you will begin to see smoke leave the hole. This is good and, depending on how much wood you put in the tin, should increase in thickness over the next 5-10 mins. Providing the fire you made has enough heat the smoke should now plume out of the hole until all of the moisture, toxins and other impurities have burnt off, this took me 45-60 mins.

Take this time to watch this smoke, you can touch it and feel the moisture in the smoke in the beginning stages. Charcoal is quite forgiving so if your fire does die down then you can build it up again around your tin until the smoke continues to leave the hole thickly.

Here is the thicker smoke coming through.

Compared to the thin whisps here just before I blocked off the hole.

After around an hour the smoke will become very thin, once this occurs use the plug you carved earlier to seal the hole in the top of the tin. Now carefully remove the tin from the fire and place down to cool completely. If you were to open the tin straight away, oxygen from the atmosphere would flow in and the charcoal would ignite and be ruined.

To digress slightly, this happened to me when making char cloth for the first time and, although fascinating to watch, was devastating to witness.

You can use the cooling time to take a walk and find an elder tree. Trim a wand of elder thick enough to house your charcoal snugly. Once you have removed a wand have a look at the amount of pith you have in the centre to check there is enough to house your charcoal.

Return to your tin. It should be completely cool. Open up the lid to view your charcoal for the first time. It should be completely black with no brown bits and snap crisp and easily to expose a solid black interior. If your wands are bent or twisted do not worry, the elder will do a good job of accommodating them.

Take a length of charcoal and measure it up against the elder and cut the elder to length. Now take a thin stick (kebab skewers work well here) and hollow out the pith. This can take some time but persevere and it will eventually come clean.

Now the tricky part, take a length of charcoal and holding it as closely to the end as possible feed it into the elder. Once your fingers are touching the elder move them back around an inch and push that in. Keep this motion going until it has been fed all the way in. Carefully sharpen to a thick point with a sharp knife.

Voila! Artist charcoal and elder pencil.

For a final flourish I heated some pine resin pitch and sealed the top end of the pencil. This offers some protection but, to be honest, just finishes it off nicely.

As a side note, an old wives tale is “charcoal will cure an upset stomach”. Activated charcoal is what is used in water filters and tablets for upset tummies. This is charcoal which has gone under a further process to increase how porous it is. So, eating just charcoal isn’t that brilliant for medicinal purposes, so I would advise against eating it.

If you have found this useful, made elder charcoal pencils or have a different method then please leave a comment below.

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