Charcoal burning, as the name suggests, is a dirty business. Dressed in suitably scrubby attire, I arrived at Pete and Anna Grugeon’s woodland near Rackenford in Devon to learn this ancient craft. The couple produce charcoal for a living with wood from their mainly deciduous woodland, using oak, cherry, birch, willow, hazel and ash.
“We manage our woodland as continuous cover forestry, which means trees are selectively felled,” Pete explained. “This ensures there is a balance of differently aged trees and sufficient light for regeneration.”
The production of wood charcoal – soft, brittle carbon created by heating wood without oxygen and removing water – dates to at least 6000 BC. Bronze Age Britons used charcoal to smelt tin and copper to make bronze for swords, axes and jewellery. Charcoal is a better fuel than simply burning wood, as it has a higher energy yield and burns longer.
The process of making charcoal takes 36 hours, which includes 24 hours of cooling time, so to see the whole process, the course works backwards through the stages.
After a walk around the wood, we launched straight into grading the charcoal from an earlier burn. With Pete inside the metal ring kiln, shovelling the charcoal on to a chute, Anna and I checked each piece of charcoal for quality – discarding any ‘brown ends’ (part-charred pieces of wood) – and breaking large pieces to a suitable size before placing them into branded brown sacks, which are then folded and stapled.
It’s obvious Anna has done this oodles of times; her bags look perfect, mine a little less so. It’s reassuring to see that the charcoal still looks like pieces of wood rather than the neat charcoal briquettes many of us pile on our barbecues.
No sooner had we unloaded the kiln, it was time to reload it; a meticulous task that required both muscle-power and an eye for symmetry. Squatting in the middle of the kiln, I positioned ‘feet’ (large pieces of dried wood pointing inwards) alongside each inlet and chimney outlet and then placed ‘bridges’ (large pieces of dried wood) on top of the feet in a radial formation.
Next I used a paper sack to create a tunnel from the leeward inlet into the centre of the kiln, where I built a ‘hovel’ using brown ends, kindling and a splash of vegetable oil – this is where the kiln is ignited. Once this stage was complete, we filled the kiln by building up the dried wood in a radial direction, placing large pieces towards the centre and small pieces at the edge. Two hours later, with my arms aching and sweat dripping from my temples, the kiln was full.
Lighting the kiln
After replenishing my energy with an alfresco lunch, it was time to light the kiln. With the ridiculously heavy lid in place (Pete’s job), I was handed a long stick topped with a feeble flame to ignite the kiln. Visions of all my failed attempts at lighting campfires flashed through my mind as I pushed the flame through the tunnel to reach the hovel. We waited. Peering down one of the inlets, I was delighted to see a glowing red flame – beginner’s luck, I’m sure.
After just 30 minutes, the kiln was burning fiercely and thick smoke pumped out of every crevice, engulfing the area – and us – with eye-stinging clouds. Four long, thin chimneys were placed over the outlets and the base of the kiln, and the lid was sealed with sand until the only smoke escaping was through
As rays from the low afternoon sun caught the swirling smoke as it spewed from the kiln, I left Pete and Anna to finish the burn the next morning. With charcoal smeared across my face and a bag of it tucked under my arm, I headed home for a much-needed shower and a renewed eagerness to light my first barbecue of the year.
How to get there
Exit the M5 at J27, follow the A361 towards Tiverton and take the second turning on your left to Rakenford. At the T-junction, turn left and after ¼ mile enter the woodland though green gates
on your left.
Find out more
Hensons Wood, Rakenford EX16 8DW
Pete and Anna run 24-hour charcoal making courses for £70.
The Cherry Wood Project
Whistley House, Milton-on-Stour, Dorset
Alex Arthur’s Dorset charcoal burning course.
The Stag Inn
Rackenford EX16 8DT
The oldest recorded pub in Devon, dating back to the end of the 12th century.
The Old Forge
Rackenford EX16 8DS
A friendly B&B.