A partnership between the Woodland Trust and the National Trust

An experimental softwood charcoal burn

In a quiet spot, ride side, below a historical charcoal hearth now emblazoned with hazard tape and marked trees, the air filled steadily with a plume of wood smoke. The faint hiss and crackle of firewood drew the attention of passers-by to a four foot diameter charcoal kiln spewing the surrounding area with predominantly water vapour.

Let me rewind a few days; a soggy Tuesday evening to be exact. A number of the Friends of Fingle had gathered to help us process and gather some Douglas Fir that had been removed from around a small stand of Oak. With good old muscle power and a little help from a mechanical friend we were able to fill the kiln with softwood in good time before a barbecue which was followed by making a mad dash home as the heavens opened.

That’s right, softwood. Aficionados, purists and regular charcoal burners may scoff, laugh or just raise an eyebrow at having a charcoal burn with softwood, but that’s exactly what we did and the results…? You’ll just have to read on.

Once the burn got going and the volunteers had had coffee and biscuits we ventured into the woods to carry on brashing up conifer and removing the few remaining trees casting a shadow on the oaks. I regularly returned to the kiln to check on the evenness of the burn and topping it up just to ensure we got some product at the end. Lunchtime came and went and I was surprised at how even the burn was going, so with softwood in mind, I made the decision to shut the kiln down a lot earlier than I would have done if I had been using hardwoods. To be precise I shut the kiln down 4 hours after starting the burn. This is the process whereby all the vents are blocked off with soil and the lid of the kiln sealed. The easiest way to describe the sealing of the lid is ‘pointing’ much like you would do on the walls of a house. You then watch to see how the seals react ensuring that no air can get in at any point – that would be disastrous!

Satisfied I walked away.

The next couple of days I was busy with other things but in the back of my mind I was curious to see what the result was.  My team and I returned to the kiln and lifted the lid… At the top sat some brown ends, nothing too unusual there. Underneath however, there was charcoal and finally lots of fines at the bottom. For what was an experiment, I was really pleased and surprised with the results. We won’t be selling any of this and have no plans to at all, however the charcoal we do produce will hopefully provide us with the charcoal we need for next year’s barbecue.

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However if you are looking for charcoal for your barbecue, try John Williamson (https://www.dartmoorwoodcraft.co.uk/) as he does a proper hardwood charcoal burn…

By Fred Hutt, Fingle Woods Ranger

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