The Smokey Art of Charcoal Making

Land of Oak & Iron - Charcoal burnCharcoal making involves burning wood and controlling the amount of oxygen that is allowed into a kiln.  The wood inside burns slowly at a very high temperature.  At the beginning of the process there is quite a bit of smoke, but towards the end of the process there is very little – the colour of this smoke is all important!

Charcoal once provided the heat to smelt metals like iron and copper and was used to make gunpowder.  These days charcoal is mainly used for barbeques, but there are other uses, such as in Blacksmithing, traditional artists’ charcoal made from willow and Bio Char which is used as a soil additive.

Now charcoal is mostly produced in metal kilns, but originally it was made in an earth clamp where wood was piled up and covered with turf to control the amount of oxygen.

Coppicing is the usual way to provide wood for producing charcoal.

John and Muriel Allan who own a woodland in Burnopfield have been working and supporting the Land of Oak & Iron Woodland Restoration Project for over three years.  With help from the Woodland Trust and the Land of Oak & Iron they were able to get a Forestry Commission Management Plan approved for their wood.

As luck would have it, the plan suggested coppicing areas within the woodland and the planting of oaks to restore natural woodland cover.  John and Muriel gave the Land of Oak & Iron Woodland Volunteer Team permission to carry out the work.  After three years, coppiced hazel stools are now sending up new shoots and several oaks have been planted in the areas where the woodland canopy has been opened up.

The hazel and sycamore that has been coppiced has provided ample material to have two successful charcoal burns in the woodland.  Bill Oakes and Jennifer Molyneux, who also own a wood in the Land of Oak & Iron area, trained up volunteers on the secrets of charcoal making during the burns.

As a result, over 80 bags of charcoal have been produced and the profits from the sales of charcoal are being reinvested by John and Muriel into their woodland. Bags of charcoal went on sale in the Land of Oak & Iron Heritage Centre last summer.

Hopefully another charcoal burn will take place later on this year, but in the meantime the wildflowers, hazel and oaks will continue to bloom and grow in John and Muriel’s woodland to await the return of the charcoal makers.

Land of Oak & Iron - Charcoal burn

The following poem was inspired by the charcoal making project:


Waiting for the smoke to turn

Rain drops hissed and turned to steam

We huddled in the shelter

And spoke of how the dark could make the near seem far away

I thought of walking up on the moors by moonlight

Passing by Chesters, Spy Law and Reivley

And of a poem written in ghostly pencil scribe above a fireplace

On a lime washed deserted living room wall

In the morning the smoke we hoped would have turned slate grey

And we could empty the contents

Bag up

And go safely on our way

Peter Downes