Charcoal, according to Wikipedia, “is a lightweight black carbon residue produced by strongly heating wood (or other animal and plant materials) in minimal oxygen to remove all water and volatile constituents.” Most folk know it as the stuff you use on a barbecue. Now, everybody likes a barbecue, but have you ever thought about what you put into it? Most of us spend quite a bit of time thinking about what we’re going to put onto our barbecues, but I suspect most don’t really thing about what goes inside them.
Head down to the local shop / garden centre / garage, buy a bag of charcoal, whang it on and light it. Not many people stop to think about their charcoal – what is it? Where does it come from? Why it takes so long to light? Why it smells the way it does? Many people don’t care, but should they? The answer to that, in my opinion is yes! We often spend a lot of time sourcing good ingredients for our meals, local produce, lean cuts, why then skimp on the fuel; after all many of us consider the flavour of a barbecue to be the very point.
Approximately 75% of our charcoal in the UK is imported from Southern Africa – not South Africa – Southern Africa. A great deal of it is produced from tropical hardwoods, very often FSC certified timber – but no nice fluffy certification schemes governing the actual production of the charcoal once the timber has been delivered.
Tropical hardwood does not make the best charcoal due to the way it grows and its cell structure. Southern African charcoal workers often work in conditions we would consider to be less than ideal – low wages, high risks, lack of PPE, exposure to harmful substances – FSC timber it may be, but a nice product it is not. To top it all off, charcoal is combustible (many of you will probably have noticed this!), so before it is shipped it is often doused in fire retardant. Obviously, it is difficult to light fire retardant, so the charcoal also gets a healthy dose of accelerant to help it catch once you put a match to it. This is the stuff we cook our prime cuts of locally reared high quality meat on!
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So, what makes me such an expert? Well, if the truth be told, I’m not an expert, not by a long shot. This time last year I knew we imported a lot of charcoal in the UK, I thought most of it was South African, but beyond that I didn’t really know much about it. Then we bought a charcoal retort to make our own charcoal, and with that I learned a lot – or my wife did, and she told me. Of the two of us she knows a lot more about charcoal, but I’m a better typist.
Why make charcoal? There are probably many answers to that: why not? But in my case the answer was forestry. I’ve worked in the wood for all my adult life and done a lot of different jobs for a lot of different people. We’ve worked on small scale woods in the Central Belt of Scotland for almost 20 years now and a continuing theme is lack of management of small woods, particularly hardwood plantations. Hardwood plantations have more or less taken over small woods over the last 30 years or so (more?) due to government policy and grants leading owners down this route. It may be an admirable sentiment, and good for all sorts of butterflies and beasties, but hardwood plantations rarely keep people like me employed. Historically there has been no real market for small diameter hardwood, although biomass and firewood do take an amount it can be difficult to get enough together to make it worthwhile.
So, charcoal. Small amounts of timber; for our own use so doesn’t need to be collated into a wagon load; a better profit margin than firewood (I hope) and the right stuff available. Unlike tropical hardwoods, temperate broadleaf forests grow trees whose cell structure is ideally suited for making charcoal: alder, ash, hazel to name but a few. We are fortunate enough to do some work on our local estate who have around 40 compartments of woodland of all types and ages, around a third being youngish hardwood in small blocks. We are also fortunate that the estate has a long heritage and a long memory so they know that hardwood will, in the long term, almost always make money, but, and this is a very big but, only if it is quality hardwood.
Many of us working in forestry today are used to the modern spruce model where we plant it, weed it, beat it up, spray it a couple of times, shut the gate and then roll up in a harvester 40 odd years later. Growing quality hardwood doesn’t work like that. The first bit is the same, plant it, weed it, beat it up, but after that it gets more labour intensive. Stumping back, formative pruning, early pruning, singling, high pruning and thinning are all things which at the very least want thought about. They all cost money, and they are all very easy to ignore resulting in a poor crop of little value – I’m sure everybody’s seen plenty of examples of this. We are lucky enough to work for people who are prepared to put the investment in, but it has always stuck in my craw to thin a woodland to waste at a cost to the landowner. Hence the charcoal idea, thin a woodland to create a product and reduce the costs to the landowner, I doubt it will ever make a return for the owner, but if there is little or no cost to them the operation becomes a lot more attractive.
I’ve talked about charcoal and this idea in a vague sort of a way for a number of years, but at the APF in 2014 I stumbled across charcoal retorts. These were new to me as I thought you made charcoal in a kiln – a process not far removed from witchcraft as far as I could make out, involving being up all night watching a burn, looking at smoke, blocking things off and opening them back up again. Central Scotland isn’t exactly dripping with charcoal producers, so there isn’t really anywhere I can go to learn the art of charcoal kilns. Retorts, on the other hand, are very easy to use – at least according to the people selling them at the APF!
Armed with this information I came home and began to talk a little more seriously about charcoal, to the point that my wife came with me to the 2016 APF and we had a much more in depth look at charcoal retorts. Most retorts work by keeping the wood which is to by pyrolised (made into charcoal) separate from the heat source.
The wood is loaded into a chamber and heated by a fire lit in a separate chamber. The wood is heated to a point where all the water has boiled off and the volatile gasses are released from it. These gasses are then fed into the fire and the process becomes self-sustaining until the gasses have all been used up. Once this happens the fire goes out and the chamber, which now hopefully contains charcoal instead of wood, is blocked off to save too much oxygen getting to it and causing it to turn to ash. The process is very clean as almost all the particulates are burnt off in the fire, rather than released into the atmosphere, and it can all be completed in an ordinary 8 hour day. It all sounds very straight forward, and all we needed was a retort, however, as usual money is a stumbling block with some of the larger retorts costing significant amounts and by the time you add on the VAT it’s very possible to spend in excess of £20,000.
It is fair to say that it is also possible to spend a lot less than that, but we’re still talking significant sums of money. So following the 2016 APF nothing much happened until 2 years later when we had many of the same conversations at yet another APF show, we still liked the idea but still didn’t like the price tag. Luckily for me, my wife is a very determined lady and decided that the charcoal idea still had some merit. She did a bit of legwork, a bit of phoning around and a bit of research on YouTube and discovered it was possible to buy a small retort, with a small(er) price tag. The Hookway Retort.
James Hookway started making retorts to produce charcoal and biochar (which I’m not going into here) for his own use. He realised that his retort filled a gap in the market for a small, portable, affordable retort and so began selling both the finished article and plans to make one yourself. I can splatter with a welder, but I’m no good at actual welding so we opted to buy a ready-made retort from James which came with a demonstration of how to use it included in the price, at the time, of £1350. James’ website is www.hookwayretort.co.uk.
We’ve been using the retort for almost six months now, have produced and sold an amount of charcoal, and have managed to achieve the main aim of utilising timber which otherwise would have gone to waste. We’ve also bought another two retorts!
The problem with the Hookway Retort being it is a small scale operation, and it doesn’t produce enough in a burn to make it commercially viable to spend 8 hours with it in a day. Three retorts however do make just enough charcoal between them and if all lit at once still only take 8 hours (or slightly less) to make a batch.
Making charcoal has been a learning curve, in many ways and we’ve still got a lot to learn about it, not least effective marketing of the product. We have sold all that we’ve produced, but sales are not an area that we normally work in.
So far we are calling the project a success, it has utilised an otherwise waste product and allowed us to add value to it. The economics of it are marginal, I don’t presently see it as taking over from our main business activities, it is very much an add on, a side-line and a way to market our services. It is enjoyable, watching the fire develop and the retort start chuffing as the gasses start to burn is fascinating, it is a good way for my wife and I to spend quality time together. Opening the retort after a burn is always a nerve wracking experience before you find out if it has been a successful burn or if you have a drum full of ash. The sound of the charcoal being emptied is like listening to thousands of tiny pieces of glass breaking all at once and it is very satisfying to produce something from local
timber for (mostly) local use. The difference cooking on home grown charcoal is remarkable, it lights very quickly, burns hot and has none of the chemically smell that often comes from imported charcoal.
The proof will be in the pudding: will we still be making charcoal in 5, 10, 15 years time? I hope so, but who knows? Emissions regulations and veganism may have killed the charcoal market by then. Then again, there’s always artists charcoal, blacksmiths, biochar……….
Wallace Weir: 01786 870591 / 07876 562370
The charcoal is easy to light and ready to cook on in no time and you need less of it to achieve the high heat needed. It burns cleaner and leaves only ash plus there is no need for fire lighters or lighter fuel.
Once you try proper charcoal it is very hard to go back to cheap imports.
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