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Charcoal: Cheaper to make, or buy?

Discussion in 'Bushcraft' started by Asia-Off-Grid, Aug 28, 2018.

  1. Asia-Off-Grid

    Asia-Off-Grid RIP 11-8-2018

    A week or two back, I added a resource on Making Charcoal. Now, I have never made my own charcoal, due to having resided in Southeast Asia for so long. Here, I just always found it cheaper to buy, than to concern myself with making it. Of course, the price changes yearly - sometimes a bit higher; other times a bit lower. I have seen it as low as $5.00 USD per sack and as high as $7.00 USD per sack. Currently, these sacks are sold here at the rate of $6.25 USD:

    2018-08-28 08.40.54_r.
    We typically keep between 6 and 8 sacks on hand, at any given time. (If I ever get around to constructing another storage building, we will stock 50 to 60 sacks of charcoal.)

    The charcoal filled sacks are are sold by volume, not weight. They are sold in old rice sacks, which formerly contained between 90 kgs and 100 kgs (~198 lbs to ~220 lbs) of raw harvested rice from the fields. So, as you can see in the photo above, they are not small volumes, by any means.

    Even with cheap labor here, I can't help but think of how much easier it is to buy the sacks, which includes them delivering the sacks wherever we wish, over making it ourselves. To make it on site, we would have to secure the timber, have a vehicle to bring the timber here, run the tools to make the charcoal (chainsaw, ax, keep a fire going, etc.), and have two employees working full time, in order to do this. Besides, if she were to go to the guy and tell him she wanted 50 to 60 sacks, I am pretty certain he would come off his full price.

    Heck, at the rate 5 or 6 sacks typically lasts us, 50 to 60 sacks would last several years.

    The charcoal / wood burning stove below is an Upesi Stove. I have a resource titled "How To Make A Upesi Stove" on this site, which may benefit those interested in building one.

    Now, why did I really bother posting this? I'm always thinking of things that may NOT work after a SHTF scenario. There may not be LPG. There may not be electricity. But, I'm pretty sure we would still be able to cook over a charcoal or wood fire, even after such an event.

    Two is one, and one is none.
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2018
  2. arleigh

    arleigh Goophy monkey

    Please excuse my ignorance, but by cooking with wood that's already been burnt, aren't a significant amount of wood gasses consumed ,so that by volume you need more fuel with charcoal than wood ? Would it not be more efficient to simply burn wood ?
    What is the reasoning of charcoal over wood fire ?
    Gator 45/70 and Asia-Off-Grid like this.
  3. Asia-Off-Grid

    Asia-Off-Grid RIP 11-8-2018

    I would think so,yes.

    Wood here is very costly. In construction, for example, steel is much cheaper than wood, as a building material.

    Of course, after the SHTF, that may no longer matter.
    Gator 45/70 and sec_monkey like this.
  4. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    Charcoal burns hotter and with less smoke. Also a bit easier to moderate the temp.
  5. azrancher

    azrancher Monkey +++

    Wood burns up... Charcoal burns steady, I remember in the 60's some organization taught the North African people how to make charcoal because they were denuding all the vegetation just for cooking fires.

    Is it cheaper to buy charcoal... heck yes, I've made some, it was Cottonwood charcoal (for a purpose that should be obvious to a prepper). I made it in an air tight "tin" (it once contained a 1.5 liter bottle of Jack), but you have to burn a fire to make charcoal, hence an couple of hours "baking" in the propane grill. So you basically have to burn wood/propane to make charcoal, which is great for cooking.

  6. Brokor

    Brokor Live Free or Cry Moderator Site Supporter+++ Founding Member

    Any paper material, newspapers, cardboard, and sawdust can be soaked in water and compressed into pucks and set out to dry so later you can burn them for a fuel source. Charcoal is great, up in these parts coal was plentiful and is still available, too. If you've got plenty of firewood and time on your hands you can make your own charcoal, but it is also more beneficial to buy it if you're not set up for the task. Even in an urban setting, you can procure a simple charcoal grill and be set. A wood stove indoors is also a nice addition, and as long as fire safety is practiced, it's a good SHTF solution.
  7. Asia-Off-Grid

    Asia-Off-Grid RIP 11-8-2018

    I can't help wondering why they don't use coconut husks to make charcoal here, like they do in say, the Philippines? No one has ever been able to answer that question for me.
    Gator 45/70 likes this.
  8. Byte

    Byte Monkey+++

    Real hardwood charcoal is excellent for cooking. Regular old dried wood, less so. Too much soot and residue from the out gassing. A lot of he Good hardwood charcoal is also great for smithing, because as azrancher mentioned, it smokes very little and burns steady with no real flame. You don't get all the residue from the tars and saps in the raw wood that are out gassed during the charcoal making process. Sometimes it's worth the additional fuel cost to make it for the end product but it seems like in your situation in SEA, the cost of the fuel required to make it both in raw, dried hardwood and the cost of the fuel to turn that into charcoal just wouldn't be worth it for everyday use. You'd have to acquire the hardwood. You'll have to provide the input fuel. Propane/NG/raw wood? Seems the price you're currently paying for a bag is about as cheap as you're going to get.

    Coconut husks? Interesting. Never would have considered them as a charcoal source. You'll still need some external source to create the charcoal. Guess it depends on the amount of material you can process vs the fuel required for the volume of usable charcoal you receive.
  9. Asia-Off-Grid

    Asia-Off-Grid RIP 11-8-2018

    I figure that, as well.

    While wood, both raw and lumber, are still fairly common in both countries (for now, anyway - too much illegal logging in Cambodia and the Philippines), coconut husks are plentiful in both, for sure.
    Gator 45/70 likes this.
  10. Thunder5Ranch

    Thunder5Ranch Monkey+++

    I actually make a lot of charcoal and use a lot. Whether it is cheaper to buy it or to make it depends on the hardwood resources you have available. Members of the White Oak family make the overall best charcoal, Hickory and Pecan second best IMO. Concept is simple enough you want to burn the gasses out of the wood. I use 55 gallon steel drums with the lids and the steel ring seals to close them tight and 4 vent holes in each lid that can be blocked or closed. Start a fire in the bottom of the barrel and then pack the barrel with blocks of wood and let it start burning and burn open for about 20-30 minutes until everything is nice and charred. Then put the lids on and clamp the rings down. I let it smoulder/burn with the top vents open another 2 hours and then close or plug the vent holes and leave it alone for 72 hours or longer. When the barrel is cool and I am certain there is not a hot coal left in it, I dump the barrel, spread it all out on a concrete pad and carefully look for any hot pieces....... One hot coal can ruin yer whole day :) When I am certain it is all cold I push it all together and shovel it into burlap potato sacks. Typically I make 5 steel barrels worth at a time. Each barrel usually fills 3 burlap sacks and equals about 2 big bags of kingsford per sack, a big bag of Kingsford runs around $7 per bag around here, so each run per barrel is only worth around $21 or $105 per 5 barrel run.

    Totally not worth the effort if you are only making or using small amounts. Totally worth the effort if you are using large amounts. We used on average 250-275 bags worth of Kingsford per year and did get a small by the pallet discount and still felt like we were bleeding money profusely on charcoal. Started making my own and have around 3 hours per week into making 15 burlap sacks worth.

    Draw backs to the homemade charcoal is it is a lump type charcoal and does not burn as long as the commercial breeds of briquette charcoals, about 1/3 less burn time. It is a bit messy to make. More than a few folks have taken it out and let a hot coal get through and burned a building down. It does not look like what most people think of as charcoal, looks more like partially burned blocks of black wood. You need access to a lot of wood at free to almost no cost to make it worthwhile.

    The biggest advantage it saves me around $1800-$2000 per year on buying charcoal. It burns hotter, longer and more evenly than plain wood (Very important for cooking). You actually get a good return of charcoal for the wood and time investment, with very little waste in the form of ash. Smaller pieces of wood not suitable for stove firewood work great...... Like all those forks and crown limbs, slab wood from the sawmill works great, as long as there is enough solid to burn the gasses and moisture out of pretty much any part of a hardwood works great.

    I have dinked around with softwoods like silver maple, elm and ash and it will make charcoal but it is not very dense and leaves a lot to be desired in the burn time area and there is a lot more ash waste.

    The most important thing in making charcoal is to be sure to burn off all the gasses and moisture before you close the vents on your barrel or whatever you use for the burn. Friend used a barrel lid with no vent holes and his barrel actually exploded a few hours after he sealed it............ Threw hot coals all over in a 100' radius :) BURN ALL THE GASSES AND MOISTURE OFF BEFORE SEALING IT :) AND MAKE SURE IT IS ALL COLD BEFORE BAGGING AND STORING IT!!!
  11. Asia-Off-Grid

    Asia-Off-Grid RIP 11-8-2018

    I imagine that is why charcoal is sold here by volume, rather than by weight. The bags, sometimes, vary quite a bit in weight. So, I am pretty certain they use a wide range of wood types to make the charcoal, both hard- and softwood.
    Gator 45/70 likes this.
  12. Byte

    Byte Monkey+++

    That's a great write up T5R. I've never made it in batches big enough to do the burn from the inside method you describe. On that scale it would alleviate the need for an outside fuel source. I like it! All mine has been made just like I make char cloth, in small batches with an exterior burn. Very uneconomical to say the least.
  13. Ura-Ki

    Ura-Ki Grudge Monkey

    Charcoal is a much slower burning heat source as well as what was stated above! It's also a little more healthier to us. Wood gives off toxins and soot/tar as it burns the resins/pitch, those gasses and soot can be pretty harmful depending on wood species. another thing, wood is generally wet, even seasoned wood will have some moisture content, charcoal usually doesn't. While Hardwoods are great for smoking meat and other things, its not good for you. Wood also tends to burn faster and at a higher temp making cooking less efficient! Making Charcoal will usually remove the resins and pitch from woods, and will also have less of the gasses and soot. It burns slower and at a lower temp making it far more efficient and can still provide that wonderful smoke flavor and preservation we all love! Plus, certain species of wood make most excellent Char for the making of the Holy Black.

    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 29, 2018
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  14. Gator 45/70

    Gator 45/70 Monkey+++


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  15. DKR

    DKR Raconteur of the first stripe

    About charcoal and certain myths...

    Self ignition is defined as thermal runaway due to internal exothermic reactions. Thomas' classic analysis of self heating to ignition led to laboratory-scale test methods identifying conditions under which spontaneous combustion is possible. These experimental techniques, as described e.g. in Beever’s chapter in the second edition of the SFPE Handbook of Fire Protection Engineering, have considerable utility in fire-hazard assessment. The NFPA Fire Protection Handbook Table A-10 “Materials Subject to Spontaneous Heating” is incorrect and should be abandoned. As a practical example, the SFPE technique is applied here to the question: How large a pile of charcoal briquettes is required for self heating to ignition? Correction factors for the Frank-Kamenetskii approximations are examined in detail. The data show that the largest commercially-available bag of charcoal briquettes, 9 kg (20 lb.), cannot self ignite at an ambient temperature below 394 K (121�°C or 250�°F). All tested variations: size, different formulations, addition of water or dry wood, aging, and different bag configurations, raised this critical temperature even higher. At 25�°C (77�°F ) these data show a bag of charcoal briquettes would have to exceed the size of a typical house (>103 m3) to self ignite. Self ignition at ambient temperatures of bagged charcoal briquettes in commercially available sizes is impossible.

    (Size Constraints On Self Ignition Of Charcoal Briquets) From the Fire Safety Science Digital Archive
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  16. The concept of burning coconut husk is interesting. There is an old movie (sorry cant remember the name, Yeah, Marv cant remember the name of a movie, it's amazing) with Katherine Ross, Ricardo Montolban, and Doug McClure where they built a convertor to combust coconut and used the products of that combustion to run an old buss so the army nurse, the left behind pilot, a priest, and several orphans could escape the (do I have to be P.C. here?) jap invaders .
    Ura-Ki and Gator 45/70 like this.
  17. DKR

    DKR Raconteur of the first stripe

    The Longest Hundred Miles
    During the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, an assorted group of refugees, including an American soldier, an Army nurse, a priest and a group of local children, try to make their getaway aboard a rattletrap, creaky bus.

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  18. Thank you DKR, I was kinda embarrassed not to remember the title.
    Gator 45/70 likes this.
  19. DKR

    DKR Raconteur of the first stripe

    After your description, how could I not look for the flick?. Happy I found it...
    Ura-Ki likes this.
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