How to Make Charcoal

Written by Harry Gilliam

Topics: How to Make Fireworks

This essay on making charcoal is a slightly revised and updated version of one which appeared in the Pyrotechnics Guild International (PGI) Bulletin #152 in 2007. It was the first of four articles that explained how to make two, nice 8″ aerial willow shells in 2 1/2 days, say at a weekend pyro club event.

We are going to reprint that four part series here in the Skylighter Newsletter over the next few editions, adding one more part to it which will explain Ball Milling 101.

In the summer of 2006, the BATFE (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) was at the PGI convention gates asking if attendees were bringing shells onto the site and if so, where they had been made and how they had been stored.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission was pressuring the chemical suppliers to sell certain chemicals, in particular quantities, only to licensed manufacturers. Because of these pressures, many pyros are finding their shell manufacturing options limited.

Some folks have the ability to become licensed, quite a few local clubs are doing the same, or have licensed manufacturers in their ranks, and folks are being offered the opportunity to manufacture on-site at club get-togethers. For many of us, these guild events provide the only opportunities for shell manufacturing.

I’d like to present some ideas on ways to produce really excellent traditional paper ball shells, from scratch (stars, burst powder, shells, rising tail, and lift powder), in a minimal timeframe scaled to such an event. If one were to start this process on a Friday morning, these shells could be fired on Sunday evening, utilizing a 60 hour process, and with minimal chemical requirements.

A fireworker could provide a few basic tools of their own, such as a ball mill, and share other equipment, for example a hydraulic press and star/comet plates, with other people. They could travel to the event and enter the gates with no complete pyrotechnic compositions whatever.

The one custom chemical ingredient that I think really optimizes this project is homemade charcoal, which should be made prior to the event. If someone were to ask me what I think the most basic pyro skill is, I’d answer, “Making good charcoal.”

To me, there’s something most satisfying and almost magical about making this very basic pyrotechnic component from scratch. It’s like a painter making their own paint from pigments found in the earth. Watching raw wood transformed into nice homemade charcoal over a period of a couple of hours brings us back to the basics of this art.

On the various pyro discussion lists, one of the most often-heard conversations is about Charcoal. Many are searching for the Holy Grail of charcoals: That charcoal which will produce the fastest Black Powder, or the best sparks coming out of their stars and comets.

For fast BP, one will often hear folks tout the qualities of Willow wood charcoal, or Alder Buckthorne, or Aspen, or Balsa. For good sparks, I’ve heard various woods recommended: apple, peach, (I’m feelin’ hungry for some pie), pine root, pine, and others.

There is a really excellent article on making charcoal on the Passfire website, a resource I highly recommend for all of its informative articles. In that essay, the author discusses various woods that can be used in making charcoal, and settles on spruce/pine/fir (SPF) wood such as 2×4 scraps from house framing and the like. Sometimes this wood is referred to as whitewood. It is a softwood (conifer), as opposed to a hardwood (deciduous).

The advantage of these species is that the charcoal made from them can be used to make high quality Black Powder for lift and burst, and can also be used in charcoal stars where it produces nice, long-lasting spark trails. It’s also a cheap, readily available wood. (In the Midwest, US, where I live, all of our ‘white wood’ framing lumber is either spruce or pine, so I can’t claim to have any experience with using fir, which may be available out West. Yellow pine, which is used around here for 2×8,10, and12 framing lumber is not the same as the white wood spruce/pine. I don’t think its charcoal is useful for us.)

I refer to the type of charcoal available here at Skylighter as Commercial Charcoal. My understanding is that this charcoal is made from mixed hardwoods: oak, ash, maple, and the like. (For years there was a rumor goin’ round that it was made from coconut shells, but that was just an urban myth.)

I guess the charcoal is made at some factory which is geared to making large quantities of generic charcoal for various purposes. I’d love to see that operation some time, and the resulting mess that must accompany such production. Believe me, if you saw my face and clothing after I’ve been making and grinding charcoal, you’d know what I mean.

Commercial Charcoal can indeed be used to make perfectly serviceable Black Powder, stars, comets, and rockets. It may not make BP that is quite as powerful as that made with some of the homemade “designer” charcoals, but if a bit more of the BP is used it will work fine. It takes a bit of experimentation and testing to determine the final quantity to be used, and therein lies much of the pyro-fun for many of us.

After much of this R&D, when making homemade charcoal, I’ve determined that the SPF-whitewood suits my needs just fine for both black powder and sparks.

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