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How to make charcoal, a few tons at a time

Sidebar by Lynda La Rocca

Charcoal – December 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

How to Make Charcoal, A Few Tons at a Time

The hearth method of charcoal-making required a hearth about 40 feet in diameter, slightly raised in the middle for drainage, and surrounded by a ring of clean soil free from stones and organic debris.

The collier and his assistants constructed the “pile” using a four-inch diameter center pole called a “fagan.” The fagan was surrounded by split wood arranged in a triangular shape to form a “chimney.”

Wooden “billets” four feet long and four to seven inches wide were placed in concentric rings around the chimney, flaring outward to provide the proper pitch. Several tiers of billets were required for large burns. “Lapwood” four feet long and one to four inches wide filled in the spaces around the billets.

After half-filling the chimney with kindling, workers covered the pile with leaves and one to three inches of soil or sod to control the burn, so that only the volatile vapors, rather than the carbon, would burn. Then they filled the chimney again to within a foot or less of the top opening.

At that point, the pile was ready to be lit or “charged.” Burning charcoal was dropped into the chimney, and the opening covered with a “bridgen” of three billets. If all went according to plan, the burn followed a cone-shaped, downward and outward pattern.

The collier kept careful watch over the pile of smoldering charcoal for up to 10 days. During the crucial first 24 hours, the collier might need to “jump the pile,” climbing to its top to compact it for an even burn–and praying that the smoking mass would not collapse under his weight.

Controlling the pile’s oxygen intake was critical; too much would cause it to catch fire, while too little would result in a poor burn. Dirt was used to seal off areas where a fire might erupt and holes dug or cut in various spots to maintain proper air flow.

When the finished product was raked from the top and perimeter of the burn with long-tined rakes, the “tinkling” sound it made tumbling from the pile assured the collier of its quality.

Depending upon the success of the burn and the type of wood used, a cord could yield an average of 35 to 45 bushels of charcoal. In Leadville, freighters then hauled this charcoal to the smelters and shops.

Given the high cost of wagon haulage, it made economic sense to produee the charcoal in the forest, thereby minimizing the weight and volume that had to be transported.