Q — I have a wood burning stove. If I stack if full at night and close back the damper all the way, the fire usually lasts until morning. But sometimes if it’s warm and foggy, the fire goes out and I’m left with big chunks of charcoal in the morning. I was wondering if this charcoal is safe to use in my stove? J.T., Palmerton.
A — Wood stoves are designed to burn wood efficiently, but if drafted properly, some models are also designed to burn coal. Coal is a marvelous fuel in that it takes less room to store for the same amount of BTUs, its emissions take smaller chimneys and its ability to produce more heat than wood is well known.
What your wood stove has produced by starving the wood fire of oxygen is coal, actually charcoal. Yes, the charcoal will work in your wood stove as long as it is drafted properly, but remember that it will burn twice as hot as the wood and with too much draft it could overheat some internal metal surfaces. It might be a better idea to save the charcoal chunks and use them this summer in your backyard charcoal grill.
Here in the Lehigh Valley, to many of our forefathers, mined coal was entirely unknown. To others, it was only a name. The majority of them knew “coal” as a homemade affair made by burning and charring wood in a homemade coal pit. According to an old blacksmith friend of mine living near Topton, it was common knowledge that homemade coal made a hotter fire than that which was dug from the ground. Therefore, homesteads burned wood on the hearth or in stoves, and the charcoal was used in the shop forges where greater heat was needed for blacksmithing.
Mined coal from the North came in time, but while it was considered a convenience by some blacksmiths, many preferred their own hotter charcoal, which also “didn’t bother the lungs so much!” Thus, when our grandfathers spoke of “coal,” they meant the kind which grew in their coal-pits where their felled trees had been stacked after deadening by girdling, and buried in sod where it was left to smudge and char for a few days.
As people from the city move out to the country, they often find curious-looking bomb-craters hidden back in their woodlots. These saucer-shaped depressions range from 10 to 50 feet across, with the average around 20 feet. Here at the homestead, my kids are used to walking the “charcoal trail,” which is nothing more than a deer path past a bunch of these old charcoal pits here on South Mountain. If one scratches around, it is possible to find chards of the once-precious “coal.”
Actually, home hardwood charcoal-making was done at this time of the year when the normal field and barn chores were at a slow time and when the leaves and sap were out of the trees. A homesteader still can make a half-decade’s supply of charcoal rather easily if the wood and time is available. The process is simple.
The main ingredients for charcoal are logs and dirt. Regardless of the size of the pile of wood, the underlying principle in the process is limiting the supply of air so the more volatile ingredients of the wood burn away, leaving only the carbon behind. The following is an excerpt from a diary titled “Candle Days,” published in 1850, from George Mayo: “When I was a boy going to No. 8 school, it used to stand up in Eb’s pasture, I always loved to slip away after school and go up on Messer Hill and watch Harvey Taylor the blacksmith at his coal pit, when that time came around. He went up once a year and took his food along and cover to sleep under and didn’t come down until the fire was out. You see, charcoal made a hotter fire than wood, and the fire on his forge had to be hot. First of all, Harvey would dig away a lot of sod, then he’d set the wood up on end like an Indian’s teepee, with a hole in the center for the draft; short pieces there were at first, only two or three feet, but getting longer for the outside of the stack as it grew bigger. When the stack was done, it was high as Harvey himself and about 12 feet across the base. Then he built his fire right under the little stack in the middle and it would smolder for three or four days. With the sod he had dug up first, he would cover the whole stack; and this and the earth he used kept the fire from breaking out into a blaze. Port old fellow, he got almighty tired of watching that fire before those days were done with, for he had to watch night and day that the air didn’t get through the covering and send his whole stack up in flames. The slow heat charred the whole stack, you see. I forgot to say that right in front, he left a little opening to see through so he could watch the fire. It was that hole that I liked to peek into. No, the wood did not have to be very big, even those pieces on the outside were not a foot through. Some made their pits long and narrow and boarded up the sides, but Harvey didn’t, and I liked his good old way the best.”
Since charcoal didn’t burn with a flame or smoke, it was once useful for heating rooms like the bathroom that had no chimney, but today we realize that if improperly vented, it can cause suffocation. Other uses for charcoal were in brass samovars for heating tea water or in clothing-polishing irons. Add to the old list modern uses like aquarium filters, smoke filters and backyard barbecues, and one can quickly see that this old-time use for wood is still with us . . . and maybe even a good excuse to cut back the damper on the wood stove!