To make sticks of charcoal on a campfire, you only need a few commonly-available items and a bit of time!
This simple activity is great for demonstrating the basic method used by charcoal burners for thousands of years, to turn wood into charcoal – one of the most useful materials ever discovered.
And while there are many, many uses for the charcoal you make, we like to use the sticks for drawing, or grind it down to make ink.
Not got much time or just want the bullet points on how to make these? Click here for the Quick Read Instructions.
What is charcoal?
Charcoal is what you get when you heat wood (or other organic materials, like bones, peat, nut shells, or leaves) to a high temperature, with minimal amounts of oxygen. Without oxygen, there is no flame to burn up the wood and turn it to ash. Instead, the heat causes any water and other volatile substances in the wood to evaporate as smoke.
The substance left behind is charcoal, which can burn at a much higher temperature and with far less smoke than the wood it was made from, as well as having many other amazing uses.
What’s so great about charcoal?
Ancient humans probably learned to make charcoal almost as soon as they mastered fire, and it is one of the most important discoveries humans ever made.
Cave drawings from over 35,000 years ago show how prehistoric people were using it to make art. Ancient Egyptians knew of its medicinal and filtration properties, Phoenician sailors used it to keep their water fresh, and it is an essential ingredient in the process of smelting metals – without charcoal, there would have been no Bronze or Iron ages. Even in modern technology, charcoal is invaluable. It has many uses in modern medicine and chemistry, while Nasa use it to polish reflective metal surfaces.
How to make charcoal on a campfire
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Equipment and materials
- Tin with a tight, sealable lid (for example, syrup, treacle, clean paint or biscuit tins all work well)
- (Optional) peeler or knife
- An awl (or sharp nail) and hammer
- Fire pit
- Fire tongs
Instructions for making charcoal sticks on a campfire
1. Gather suitable twigs, making sure that they are short enough to fit in your tin (with the lid on), and about the thickness of a finger (at least as thick as an average pencil).
2. Hammer a few holes into the lid of your tin. These are to allow the smoke and vapour produced to escape, but you don’t need many as you want as little oxygen in the tin as possible. For our syrup tins, we did just three holes.
3. Pop your sticks into the tin, make sure the lid is firmly closed, and put the tin into (or right next to) the fire.
Now all you have to do is wait…but don’t rush it – the process will take at least an hour.
A little safety note. Watch the tin closely at first, and look out for the steam that will start to come out when the wood inside heats up. If the lid is not on tightly enough, it could be pushed off by the force of the steam. So make sure it is a good, tight, fit, or weigh the lid down.
What’s happening inside the tin?
Once the tin is on the fire, the temperature inside will rise rapidly, and the wood sticks will heat up. But with little or no oxygen, the wood will not be able to burn with a flame. Instead, the ‘volatile’ parts of the wood (the bits that can evaporate) will turn to vapour.
So all the water in the wood will turn to steam and vaporise along with other elements such as methane and hydrogen. White smoke will come streaming out of the holes, releasing these materials but also preventing oxygen from entering the tin.
After a while, the smoke coming out will turn yellow. This happens when the resins or tar from the wood also start to vaporise, and is a good sign that your charcoal is coming along nicely!
After a while (in my experience, at least an hour), ‘candle flames’ will come out of the holes as the last of the volatiles burn away.
Now the other elements are evaporated away, what is left of the wood in the tin is almost pure carbon.
Final stages of making charcoal on a campfire
Once you see the flames emerge from your tin, your charcoal is almost ready. Wait for the flames to die away, and at this point there should be little or no smoke coming out of the tin either. You can now take the tin off the fire and set to one side to cool down.
Place the tin upside down or (carefully!) plug the holes while it cools by tapping in the nails you used to make the holes at the begining.
Doing this prevents oxygen from entering through the holes, as that could allow your still-hot sticks to alight and burn away to ash. Which you obviously don’t want to happen!
Once the tin, and the charcoal inside, has had plenty of time to cool, you can remove the lid and retrieve your homemade charcoal sticks.
The best wood for making charcoal sticks
You can make charcoal on a campfire from most kinds of untreated wood, though the slower it will burn, the better. You can experiment by peeling some of the twigs to see if this affects the end result, but we’ve never noticed much difference.
In prehistoric times, cave people used pine wood for their charcoal. Today, it is willow that is most often used for artists’ charcoal sticks. Elder wood is traditionally used to make charcoal for gunpowder, as it has very fine grains, and oak or maple are the main sources of lump charcoal (for barbecues and fires).
While soft woods like pine can be used, generally hardwoods like oak, maple, beech or hazel are thought to work best, as they burn more slowly so will char gradually, rather than catch fire and turn to ash.
Lump charcoal is usually made from seasoned wood (wood that has been dried out) as with large chunks of green wood (wood that is freshly cut), the water content will make it harder to burn. But as we’re only using fairly thin sticks, it doesn’t make much of a difference whether they are seasoned or green.
Find out more about making charcoal
If you’d like to find out more about making charcoal, and some of the many uses there are for it, check out some of these other pages.
Find out how coppicing and sustainable charcoal-making are used to help maintain Kew Gardens’ Wakehurst Woods site.
Read the poem The Charcoal Burner, by Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne (from When We Were Six)
Explore how charcoal is used as an art material with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
More from Rhubarb and Wren
Looking for more fun things to make and do with the kids? Check out these great activities from Rhubarb and Wren!
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Quick-Read Instructions for making charcoal on a campfire
For when you just want to get right to the point…
A tin with a tight, sealable lid (syrup, treacle, biscuit, or clean paint tins all work well)
Peeler or knife (optional)
An awl or sharp nails
Campfire or Fire pit
Safety equipment such as a water bucket, fire blankets, Fire gloves, and burns kit (plus a fire steel to light the fire)
1. Gather twigs that are between the thickness of a pencil and an (adult) finger, and are short enough to fit into the tin.
2. Hammer two or three holes into the lid of the tin.
3. Place the twigs into the tin and close the lid tightly.
4. Put the tin into the fire – either on the flames or next to them.
5. Watch for smoke coming out of the holes. The smoke will be white to begin with, then will turn yellow. Finally, ‘candle’ flames will appear at the holes.
6. Once the candle flames have died away, remove the tin from the fire.
7. Turn the tin upside down or plug the holes with the nails you used to make them, to prevent oxygen from entering the tin and igniting the charcoal while it is still hot.
8. Once the tin has cooled, you can remove the charcoal safely.