How to Make Charcoal On Your Own

Jeremy Bivens
Jeremy Bivens
Research Writer
Jeremy Bivens is a passionate writer and grilling enthusiast. He's been working as a freelance journalist for over 15 years now and has a particular interest in food writing read more
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Bruce Williams
Bruce Williams
Expert Consultant
Claims that grilling is the art that he has been learning all his life long and is not planning to stop. Has been grilling for as long as he can remember. Author of numerous read more
Last updated: August 11, 2023
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Buying lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes is rather simple since a variety of stores carry these items during the warmer months. You can also buy them online whenever needed if you can’t find them locally. The downside to buying your grilling and smoking fuel is that it can be costly, especially if you’re doing most of your cooking this way. So, what’s the solution?

Well, many people are choosing to learn how to make charcoal at home. The process is easier than you think, allowing you to create a large supply of charcoal in a relatively short amount of time. This also saves you money since you can buy untreated wood from a variety of sources or you can cut your own to reduce costs even more. If you’re considering making charcoal but aren’t sure where to start, check out our detailed guide below.

1.   Choose wood wisely

The first thing you need to do to make lump charcoal is find the right wood. Hardwood is best since it burns well for a long time, so it makes a great fuel for grilling and smoking. This includes oak, ash, walnut, or any of the fruitwoods. Soft woods like cedar and pine should be avoided since these types of wood burn much quicker, so don’t make a great fuel source for any type of outdoor cooking.

You can find hardwoods from a variety of sources, including shipping crates, a local wood store, or even in your backyard if you have trees that need thinning or some that are already dying and need to be removed. Be sure the wood is seasoned for at least a year so it is dry, as wet wood will smolder and smoke rather than burning properly.

2.   Cut it into chunks

How to Make Charcoal On Your OwnOnce you have a decent supply of hardwood for your lump charcoal project, it’s time to cut them into usable pieces. You shouldn\t use pieces that are too thick or long since they won’t burn properly to create decent charcoal.

Cut all of the wood that you plan to use into pieces that are about 12 inches long. This will allow them to fit nicely into the bottom of your grill or an offset smoker firebox when it comes time to cook with them.

3.   Get a metal container

How to Make Charcoal On Your OwnOnce your wood is ready to go, it’s time to get your metal container. A large steel drum, like the Bay Tec 55-gallon Steel Drum, is a good option. Make sure it comes with a lid since you will need this to seal the wood in once you have it burning properly.

The metal container should be clean, with no residue from oils or other chemicals inside since this could be transferred to the wood you’re using to create your charcoal. It is has been used for any dangerous liquids or materials, it is best to burn all of those contaminants off of the interior before you start making your charcoal. Using a clean unused barrel allows you to avoid this step.

4.   Add some wood to the container

Now that your wood is cut and your barrel is ready to go, it’s time to prepare everything. The first thing you need to do is add some hardwood to the bottom of the barrel. This shouldn’t be a layer of the hardwood you’re using for your charcoal but you do need some type of hardwood to create a hot fire that will burn for a while.

Place the wood at the bottom of the barrel. You can also add some type of grill over the wood to keep it separate from the hardwood you’ll be adding to make your charcoal but this isn’t necessary. It just keeps things a bit more organized in the barrel.

5.   Start a fire

How to Make Charcoal On Your OwnOnce the wood is arranged at the bottom of the barrel, it is time to light your fire. Don’t use any type of lighter fluid or chemicals for this. Doing so could add a flavor to the hardwood you’re using for the charcoal, which then could be transferred to your food, so it is best to leave the wood as natural as possible.

Once the fire is going, leave it for about 10 to 15 minutes to make sure it is burning well. This will create a stronger flame and a decent layer of coals at the bottom of the barrel.

6.   Layer in your wood chunks

How to Make Charcoal On Your OwnWhen the perfect fire is going in the barrel, it is time to start adding your hardwood. You need to take your time with this and layer it in properly to ensure the fire works its way up and over all the pieces evenly.

First, add a layer of hardwood, leaving a bit of space between each piece for the fire to get between them. Wait for the flames to catch on every piece of hardwood in the first layer and then add a second layer. Once this second layer has caught fire, add a third one, watching to be sure the fire reaches all of the wood on this top layer of hardwood.

7.   Watch the fire

After the third layer has been added, keep an eye on the fire and the wood that is burning. You should be watching for a slight char all around the hardwood that you’re using to make your charcoal. This may take 10 to 15 minutes to reach the desired char coverage on all the wood. Be sure that every piece is burning at this point.

8.   Add the lid

How to Make Charcoal On Your OwnOnce the hardwood has reached the desired char stage, it is time to put the lid onto the metal barrel. Put the lid on tightly to ensure that no air is getting into the barrel. This will reduce the flames without putting the fire out completely.

Instead, the hardwood will smolder and go out on its own. This may take a while, so it is best to start the whole burning process in the afternoon and leave the wood to smolder overnight to ensure that the wood has finished smoldering and the fire is completely out. Wait until the next afternoon to remove the lid and see how the finished charcoal looks.

9.   Remove the lump coal

How to Make Charcoal On Your OwnOnce the fire is out and the wood has stopped smoldering, wait for it to cool completely. The barrel should also be cooled to prevent burns when you try to remove the charcoal from it. If the lid is still hot, leave it for a few more hours.

When you’re sure the charcoal has cooled, remove it from your metal barrel. You should have some sort of container ready for it, like a plastic tote or a large pail. You may need a few containers, depending on how much charcoal you plan to create. You can also leave the charcoal in the barrel, though this prevents you from using it again until the charcoal has been used up.

Place the charcoal into your container and cover it until you need it for your grill or barbecue. You can use it right away or store it for your next meal. Depending on how often you plan to use your grill or smoker, you can repeat this process right away or wait until your new charcoal supply runs low.

Other methods

Though the above method is a great way to make charcoal, there are a few other ways to do this. One is to fill the barrel completely with your chosen hardwood without building a fire inside of it. Instead, make a ring of wood around the barrel, building the wood pile up until it reaches the top of the barrel. Place the lid loosely on the barrel and light the wood around it.

Leave the wood to burn for 3 to 5 hours, depending on the size of the barrel. Once the fire around the barrel is out, let the barrel cool down completely. Then remove the finished charcoal and place it in a storage container. You can also leave the charcoal in the barrel if you don’t need it for anything else.

Another method requires two barrels of varying sizes so the smaller one can fit easily into the larger barrel. Cut a section out of the bottom side of the larger barrel to create a fuel hold. This cut section should be about 12 x 20 inches. Use bricks to create a stand in the larger barrel for the smaller barrel to stand on when you have it ready.

For the smaller barrel, drill holes into the bottom to allow the heat to enter it. Place it on the stand in the large barrel and then fill it with your chosen cured hardwood. These chunks should be cut into 4-inch pieces for the best results. Pack the barrel tightly with wood and then add the lid, leaving it open a crack to release moisture.

Build a fire beneath the brick stand in the large barrel and let it burn for about 7 to 8 hours, adding more wood as needed to keep it burning as hot as possible. After this time, let it burn out and leave the barrels to cool before removing the charcoal.

Final thoughts

Though charcoal for smoking or grilling is available both in stores and online, like this hardwood charcoal from Jealous Devil, learning how to make charcoal is easier than you may think. This process doesn’t take a lot of time or energy, plus it can save you money on charcoal since you only need to buy the wood and a barrel or two to char it in.

You also don’t need to worry about any additives or chemicals added since you get to choose the wood you use and where it comes from. You can also make as much or as little as you like to give you the right amount of natural charcoal for all your grilling and smoking needs.

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