Make Lump Charcoal

Why buy charcoal if you can make charcoal that is of high quality with wood from your own forest or wood you can get free (pallets, tree trimmers, sawmills etc)?  You want to make lump charcoal don’t you?  It’s an easy process that can be done by almost anyone. Why do you want to make Lump charcoal?

Reason #1 – You Know What is in Your Charcoal

According to Everything You Need to Know About Charcoal, from Briquettes to Binchotan written by Sam Dean...”Technically, charcoal briquettes aren’t actual charcoal, but a combination of charcoal and other ingredients molded into easy-to-light lumps. Kingsford Charcoal, for example, by far the most popular brand in the US, is made up of bits of charcoal, coal, starch (as a binder), sawdust, and sodium nitrate (to make it burn better). For the same reason that SPAM is cheaper than a whole ham, briquettes are cheaper to make than all-wood charcoal.” I guess if you like using coal to cook your food go by yourself a bag of Kingsford…its safe, so they say.

Reason #2 – Ash is crimping your cooking style

Charcoal briquettes while handy create a lot of ash.  Burning hardwood lump charcoal does not create as much ash. Therefore hardwood lump charcoal is great for using in some grills like the kamado syle grills like the Big Green Egg.

Reason #3 – Making lump charcoal is easy…it really is!

However, If you live in the suburbs I wouldn’t recommend making charcoal using the method I am going to describe…or almost any other method because of the large amount of smoke made during the charcoal making process. Anyway it is super easy to make hardwood lump charcoal.

What you’ll need…

  1. A 55 gallon steel drum with a lid
  2. A tool (saw or drill) to cut holes in the bottom of the barrel for ventilation
  3. A supply of hardwood.  Preferably for the best lump charcoal it will be seasoned hardwood cut to no more than about 4″ thick.
  4. A place to make charcoal where the smoke won’t bother the neighbors
  5. A shovel, gloves, pieces of thin rebar about 3 ft long, a couple of flat bricks or rocks, some gloves, a dust mask and some containers for charcoal.

Steps in the process…

  1. Prepare your barrel by cutting holes in the bottom. I just used my saw to cut some 4 triangles about 3 inches long X 2 inches wide ( make two cuts and knock triangle Charcoal barrel filled.into barrel about an inch with a hammer…this protects the hole from getting clogged with coals).  This isn’t scientific so just make sure your holes are evenly spaced.
  2. Place your barrel in the place you want to make charcoal.
  3. Set the barrel on the ground open end up. Start digging a hole around the barrel using the barrel as a guide.
  4. Dig out the hole so the barrel will set in the hole about six inches below the surface
  5. Dig a trench about six inches deep and six inches wide starting at the edge of the round hole.  Dig the trench so Retortfilledthat it is about two foot long.
  6. Level out a earthen shelf all around the edge of the hole. This shelf will support the barrel. Make certain that air will be able to flow from the trench up through the holes in the bottom of the barrel.
  7. Place your barrel in the hole with the vented side down and make sure it is well supported and the barrel is fairly level.
  8. Begin placing your wood in the barrel.  I recommend a thin layer of kindling.  Then a Starting the Barrellayer of seasoned hardwood, then a thin layer of kindling and so on until your reach the top of the barrel.  Build a fire on top of the wood in the barrel.
  9. Let the fire burn down to the bottom.
  10. When the fire is good and hot take your shovel and tap the barrel all around to settle the wood down.  You could buy a fancy pyrometer to check the temperature but I just use a spray bottle of water.  When you spray the bottom of the barrel and the water instantly vaporizes the temperature is hot enough to move to the next step.
  11. Lay your piece of thin rebar across one side of the top of the barrel and then put the lid on close uplid on the barrel.
  12. Put a rock, brick or something else not combustible on the bung hole (if it is not plugged with a steel plug).
  13. Watch the smoke which will be white (water vapor).
  14. 2 or 3 hours the smoke will turn a translucent blue (nearly all of the water vapor is removed).
  15. Pull out the piece of rebar.
  16. Close the lid tightly.
  17. With your shovel fill in the trench next to the barrel to shut off the air.lid on distant
  18. Wait 24 hours (if the barrel is warm wait longer) and then carefully remove the lid. The lid will likely be stuck because of tar and creosote. To remove the lid I use a piece of thin rebar bent into an L shape and hook the lid though the bung hole to pop it off.
  19. Turn the barrel on its side.
  20. Use your shovel to empty the charcoal from the barrel and to put it in containers…make sure the charcoal is completely cool if the containers are flammable.  You may find wood that has not completely carbonized.  No worry.  Just toss it aside and place it back in the barrel for the next batch of charcoal.
  21. You are finished! Fire up the grill it’s time to cook! Lump charcoal light easily with lighter fluid or better yet a fire started with some kindling and tinder (for the purists).

Finished ProductConclusion

That’s it.  It is not hard at all to make lump charcoal.  Making lump charcoal is a great way to use those small hardwood trees that would just get burned or ground into mulch.  Plus, having a large supply of lump charcoal  is a great asset. Check out this article for 10 uses for lump charcoal. But, you may not want to use lump charcoal for anything but cooking after you use your product to roast a chicken, turkey or grill steaks.  Go ahead an make some lump charcoal.  When you use your own homemade organic lump charcoal you really can taste the difference, you get great satisfaction using a fuel you made to cook your food and you know exactly what went into making your charcoal.  Enjoy!

Do you want to learn more?

The technical term for the transformation of wood into charcoal is pyrolysis which simply means using heat to cause chemical decomposition.  Pyrolysis is a process used across a wide array of chemical applications from the oil industry to cooking a chicken in your oven.  If you would like to read technical information about the use of pyrolysis to transform wood into charcoal I recommend reading the article “Industrial Charcoal Making Technologies” produced by the Forestry Department of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

We sell limited quantities of organic lump charcoal

At La Casita we now offer our guests the opportunity to cook on our Weber grill using organic lump charcoal made from the trees in our forest.  If you are coming to visit just let us know that you would like to cook using our charcoal grill.  We also sell our organic locally produced lump charcoal for $1.25 a pound plus sales tax. (limited availability)


Tips to Protect Your Chickens!

About 10 years ago I bought a little house in a development that adjoins my 38 acre forested property called Redbay Farm.  One day my Dad asked if I wanted some

Our first chickens

chickens.  I said yes.  Thus began my often times painful journey in raising chickens. The crux of this article is to provide information that will help new chicken owners from repeating the many mistakes I made.  The number one point I’d like to make is that If you don’t protect your chickens your chicken coop will become a predator buffet.

Protecting your chickens is a full time 24/7 365 day a year job.  There are no exceptions. Sure you might get away with leaving the coop open for maybe a night, or two or even a week or more but soon enough a predator will be dining on your chickens.  I have lost chickens to raccoon, opossums, foxes, owls, hawks, snakes and probably coyotes (yes, we have coyotes in Swansboro).  These predators are common in almost every suburban, urban and country setting.  For example, coyotes have even been seen in Manhattan. The predators are always watching and waiting for a delicious chicken dinner.

The most effective means that I have found for protecting chickens is a chicken tractor made with a hardware cloth enclosed chicken run and a secure nesting/roosting area. The chicken tractor gives the chickens a semblance of free range living.  To remain effective and for hygiene, the chicken tractor must be moved regularly. Moving a chicken tractor around everyday is a chore that requires discipline and time. Chicken tractors are a great tool for raising chickens in a suburban yard or garden.  I still have the old “doghouse chicken tractor” I made several years ago.  I never lost a chicken that has stayed inside this nice secure chicken tractor. The doghouse is long gone and is replaced by a little chicken house made of plastic barrel pieces, trash can pieces and some scrap tin. You can purchase expensive versions of this type of chicken tractor or make one yourself. The key feature of the doghouse chicken tractor are hardware cloth which even keeps snakes out and a small roosting/nesting area suitable for about two regular sized hens.  Chicken tractos are only good for level ground otherwise there

Dog House Chicken Tractor

will be large gaps under the rails which will allow predator access.  If you do want to make a “doghouse chicken tractor” just visit my chicken tractor page which also has a materials list and plan I put together years ago.

The next level for raising chickens is the chicken coop with an attached run.  Most folks who have more than one or two hens probably gravitate toward a chicken coop with a run that is permanently sited in their yard or garden. Since chickens don’t enjoy being cooped up even with a nice run or even in a chicken tractor most chicken owners are inclined to let the chickens free range at least a little bit before sundown.  This is great for the chickens and the owner because the chickens become somewhat self sufficient and really help to keep insect control around the yard. But, letting chickens free range is dangerous for the chickens.

If you are not going to keep your chickens locked up in a chicken tractor or secured in their coop you need to be aware of the different ways chickens are susceptible to being eaten. I’ve put together four scenarios based on personal experience that will give you an idea of what can happen.

Scenario one: “Look at the chickens going after the bugs in the yard.” said my wife.  “That hen is so cute!”, she said as we shared a bottle of wine on the patio.  Later that night we heard chickens making all kinds of racket.  I ran out to the coop with a flashlight. I had left the door open on the coop.  There on the ground, laying headless, was the cute little hen. I got to sleep on the couch.

Lesson  #1 – Always shut and lock the door of the coop.

Scenario two: I put together a makeshift chicken pen for the chickens using a dog kennel with a tarp over the top held down with bungee cords.  Inside the dog kennel was a small chicken house.  It was a bit difficult to access the nest for egg collection but other than that the improvised chicken pen seemed to work ok protecting the chickens from hawks and other predators.  One night as we slept soundly a raccoon family climbed the chain linked fence and worked their way under the tarp into the pen. All of the chickens were dead.  I slept on the couch again.

Lesson #2 – Build a secure coop.

Scenario Three: We were eating Thanksgiving dinner.  We looked outside and found that a hawk was also celebrating Thanksgiving by eating one of our pullets! It seems cockrells are just not as tasty. Ah, Thanksgiving day memories.

Lesson #3 – Protect chickens from hawks and owls (yes, I have also lost chickens to Great Horned owls)

Rat snake eating a baby squirrel.

Rat snake (AKA chicken snake) eating a baby squirrel.

Scenario Four: I went to the coop to take a look at our young chickens.  Of course all of the cockrells are accounted for…but the one pullet was now a lump in a snakes belly. Chickens attract some varieties of snakes.  My career raising chickens was beginning to look more dubious by the day.

Lesson #4 – Young chickens require protection from snakes

Integrating the my lessons learned into your chicken defenses

Aerial photo of Redbay Farm and La Casita

Upper Left hand corner shows Redbay Farm and La Casita

If you are new to raising chickens I recommend that you carefully plan how you are going to secure and protect your flock.  If you already own chickens you might find some of my recommendations helpful to mitigate any predator problems you might have. As you plan your chicken defenses evaluate what predators and pest will be trying to eat your chickens. The list varies by geography.  Here in NC our main predators are raccoon, opossums, hawks (various types and at various times of years), Great Horned owls, foxes (red and gray), domestic dogs, bobcats and rat snakes (commonly called chicken snakes).  You can do a search for the internet for how to identify the predators in your area…better yet go talk to some folks who raise chickens in your local area. Predator activity can vary greatly from location to location.  My chicken coop is surrounded by over 100 acres of forest and swamp habitat…perfect habitat for a thriving predator population. In the aerial photo above, you’ll find La Casita and Redbay Farm in the upper left hand corner. As you can see our place is nearly surrounded by forest.  Our chickens are kept behind La Casita.  If you live in the city or suburbia then your predator population may not be as active or as large as it is here at Redbay Farm and La Casita. What ever your situation try to follow my painfully learned chicken protection tips. I think you will dramatically minimize the possibility that predators will kill your hens. My chicken protection tips follow:

Tip # 1 – Build or buy a Strong Coop with fully enclosed run AND install an Automatic Door (This is the minimum your chickens deserve)

This could be a chicken tractor or permanently sited coop.  It is very likely are not going to keep your chickens cooped up at all times so you’ll need to build or buy a strong predator proof Chickenhousecollagecoop. My predator resistant coop has a covered run (protection from hawks/owls) and is surrounded by electric fence. I installed an automatic door for the chickens.  No matter how diligent you are you or someone in your family will forget to close the chicken coop door for the night. I strongly recommend an automatic light actuated door for your stationary coop or chicken tractor. I purchased a VSB  Electronic Door Keeper on Amazon. The device costs about $240.  Sounds like a lot money but the cost to replace a laying hen is about $20 dollars and a predator can wipe Covered chicken runout your whole flock in one night. The door is powered by 4 AA batteries. The collage shows my coop.  The vents at the top of the coop are secured with hardware cloth. Also, I also have electric fencing on the outside of my coop as an added incentive for predators to not mess with my chickens. The electric fencing on the coop is secondary to the electric fence on the perimeter of the field where I let my chickens “free range”.  My combination chicken coop and goat shed won’t win any beauty contest but it is very effective doing the job of protecting my chickens.

Tip # 2 – Fence the Perimeter of the Area Where Your Chickens will Range

Good fences help keep predators out.  Chickens that free range in an unfenced area are just fast food for predators. Permanent non electrified fencing is merely a Billyjungle gym for most predators.  A raccoon or opossum will climb almost any fence with ease.  Snakes will go through most yard fences.  Foxes (gray foxes will climb), coyotes and other predators will go under the fence.  Perimeter fences are inconsequential to hawks and owls.  In a suburban or city setting a yard fence will help to keep your chickens safe from domestic dogs.

The best fencing option I can recommend for the perimeter of  a yard or garden is an electric fence about 4 inches off of the ground with another strand at about 12 inches and another at about 24 to 36 inches.  I use an intermittent pulsing electric fence since I have lost chickens to a continuously pulsing electric fence in the past.  Pulsing electric fences shock the predator and create a psychological barrier.  An electric fence, if you can install one, will be a great step forward in saving chickens. Please check with your HOA, town or city to ensure that you can have an electric fence.  If you can that is great and you’ll have a ring of defense around your chicken coop.  Make sure your neighbors know you have an electric fence.  You don’t want them to be shocked when they find out about your new electric fence.

Grazing behind La Casita

The goats and chickens at the back yard fence of La Casita

Pulsing electric fences are of little danger to people.  In fact I have had guests staying at La Casita accidentally touch my well marked electric fence.  I have been shocked on more times than I can count. If you have an electric fence you will get shocked. You’ll find the shock of the electric fence is much more invigorating than a cup of coffee! It is unpleasant but if intermittent the danger to you or your animals is low.  If you install an electric fence install it right.  Visit my Electric Fence Installation page for installation tips. Correct installation is very important. Additionally, an electric fence requires line maintenance.  I walk my roughly quarter mile of electric fence every couple of weeks checking for breaks, limbs lying on the line and to trim grass/weeds.  Many fence controllers or fencers have an indicator to show if the fence is shorted out.  My fence controller is a Fi-shock 1000SX AC current powered 20 mile fence controller. I have a backup 12 volt battery powered DC fencer just in case of an extended power outage.

Tip #3 – Use Visual deterrents, alarms and provide good cover:


Close up of the scare tape. Note the duct tape used for reinforcement

The last recommendation is to utilize visual deterrents and audible alarms.  Visual deterrents are overhead streamers, pulsing lights and perhaps a predator decoy (owl decoys seem to work for some people).  I use a streamer made by predator guard that is suspended on a cord about 8 ft high between my shed and coop and the coop and a tree. I place about a 3 to 5 ft long streamer about every 2 or 3 paces along the overhead cord. The purpose of the string of streamers is to physically block flying predators and confuse them with reflections and noise.  I use Predatorguard “Scare Tape” which is a foil product that makes a lot of noise, reflects a lot of light and moves easily in the wind.

Predatorguard Deterrent Light

Predatorguard Deterrent Light at work

Predator Guard Scare Tape streamers

Streamers made with Predator Guard Scare Tape strung between buildings and trees.

For nighttime defense I use solar powered Predatorguard Deterrent Lights which flash a pair of red “eyes” intermittently throughout the night.  I place these on the coop. One up high to deter owls and one down low to deter four legged predators.  Lastly, I keep a rooster.  My rooster, One Eyed Willy is the survivor of a coop attack by a raccoon.  Despite being blind in one eye he is alert and devoted to keeping his 11 girls safe.  If anything looks out of place he sounds the alarm and the hens run for cover. The hens stay close to treed areas, under equipment, under their coop, or under the shed when resting or taking a dust bath.  My coop was intentionally built elevated to provide a hiding place for my hens in addition to being a great place for a dust bath or resting out of the hot sun.

hens at dragonfly pond

My flock of chickens at Dragonfly pond behind La Casita

Another physical deterrent and alarm you may want to consider are crows.  Crows will drive off hawks and Great Horned owls.  If you have crows in your area and you raise chickens thing carefully before trying to drive them off.  While the crows may eat some pecans, corn or even raid bird nests for eggs and chicks (even in the hen house) I believe that generally their faults are outweighed by there predator deterrent benefits.  Put a little corn out for the crows every once in a while.  They are great watchers, alarms and will drive off a hawk or owl.

Enjoy your flock!

I hope my tips have been useful to both current and future chicken keepers.  So, far after several months of operation I have lost 1 bantam hen to a hawk.  After which I put up the scare tape streamers.  Since then each morning after the door of the coop opens One Eyed Willy leads his girls out to forage.  I enjoy watching them in the morning as I drink my coffee.  As I watch I know that just outside the wire of the electric fence the predators are watching and waiting!  The job of protecting chickens is never done.  Good luck protecting your flock!

All the Best,

Jim Hamrick

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