Hot Topic: How to Make Charcoal

Forget the debate of grilling with propane or charcoal. Serious grillmasters often scoff at propane grilling and the debate becomes what kind of charcoal one should use. Here in the barbeque-loving land of North Carolina, the question becomes “lump or briquette?”

Briquettes are what one typically finds when picking up a bag at the hardware store or supermarket. Briquettes are inexpensive to buy, long-burning and consistent in size and temperature. I won’t pretend briquettes aren’t a fine thing, but they are also packed with additives and leave a lot of ash to clean up after the cookout.

Lump charcoal is made using only hardwoods cooked in little to no oxygen. What’s left behind is a dry fuel that burns cleanly (compared to briquettes), burns hotter than briquettes and allows the temperature to be more easily controlled when grilling. Lump charcoal is a popular choice with those who spend more time outdoors at the grill than inside the kitchen in the summertime.

Lump charcoal can be expensive to purchase, but is surprisingly easy to make. Methods for making natural lump charcoal include direct burning of wood in an enclosed barrel, nestling a smaller can inside a larger barrel for enclosed cooking or cooking hardwoods in an enclosed container over an open flame. We like a good bonfire, and it takes little effort to produce a batch of lump charcoal while enjoying a good old-fashioned marshmallow roast.

Follow these simple steps for making lump charcoal and you’ll be grilling like the pros in no time. We produced a small five-gallon batch here, but this method may be used for batches as large as 55 gallons.

Please note that we built our bonfire in a clearing on our property far from trees or shrubs that could catch sparks. In many areas, you need a permit to build a bonfire on your property, so be sure check first with your local fire department. And with any open-flame activity, please remember to keep a fire extinguisher nearby.


Step 1

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Source hardwood to be converted into charcoal. Cherry, oak and hickory are good choices. Lumber scraps work well, provided wood is untreated. Cured wood is recommended. Here we are using oak cut into 4” segments from a large branch that fell behind the house last fall. Pieces may vary in size, but larger pieces may not fully convert.

Step 2

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Find a metal can or barrel in which to make charcoal and pack it fully with your hardwood. Any size from a 5 gallon can to a 55 gallon drum will work, depending on how much charcoal you’d like to make. Used here is a “small batch” 5 gallon can that originally contained cooking oil.

Step 3

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Stack wood for a bonfire, leaving a hole in the middle big enough for your can or barrel to rest.

Step 4

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Place the can in the center of the bonfire (making sure it sits securely), and place a lid or non-flammable cover on the can, making sure it rests evenly but is not airtight. Light the bonfire and allow it to burn hot.

Step 5

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Leave the can in place until the embers or bonfire have subsided. Fire should last 3 to 5 hours, but coals will remain hot much longer.

Step 6

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All of the water has cooked out of the wood, leaving energy-packed lump charcoal ready for the grill. Charcoal is brittle and larger pieces may be broken apart, if desired.


  • Hardwood from lumber scraps
  • Metal can or barrel
  • Wood for bonfire



About Mick Telkamp 


A former Midwesterner living in North Carolina, I write about my adventures in backyard chicken-keeping and suburban homesteading over at HGTVGardens, and my exploits in the culture of Southern cooking ...

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5 Responses

  1. Julie says:

    So does this mean we can use the coal from our wood burner ! Dual purpose ?

  2. micktelkamp says:

    Hi Dan,
    You're absolutely right about the double can method being more efficient, but we enjoy bonfires often enough that this method is an easy way to make a fun evening also productive!

  3. Doug says:

    in making black powder there is a description that works better than this one. pack the bucket full and place lid on tight. make sure to punch a hole in each end of bucket–preferably about size of 6 penny nail and lay the bucket on it's side. smoke will start coming out when getting hot and will catch fire. when flames from those holes go out charcoal is done. remove from flames and allow to cool. best is to split the cuts as best as can so that cooking of the charcoal will be even. best to get most pieces 4-6" length and 2-4" width/diameter.

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