After quite the hiatus with our blog posts, apprentice wood-collier Jo shares her thoughts on why she's fallen in love with the whole process of charcoal making and it's different from her other occupation of strategy consultant.
Lots of my work has been about change – about understanding where you are, thinking about where you want to be, and then figuring out what needs to change in order to get there. But lately, I’ve been getting involved in a totally different kind of transformation project and I think I might have found my vocation. It’s not at all what you might expect. It’s grubby, physical work. It’s smoky and sometimes quite noisy. And I often come home looking like a Victorian chimneysweep (according to my teenager). So, channel your inner Dick Van Dyke and let me take you on a journey into charcoal making!
Charcoal is one of the oldest materials known to humankind, and has been used throughout history for heating, cooking, and drawing. Made by burning wood in a controlled way, charcoal was found to be incredibly useful because it burns hotter than the wood it comes from. It sparked the start of the Bronze Age, fuelled the coming of the Iron Age, and was widely used until coal and coke took over in the Industrial Revolution. Now, we know it for BBQs and those little sticks of artist’s charcoal. Maybe you use it as biochar in your compost, or you’ve encountered it in hospitals. But have you ever thought about the production of that charcoal, where it comes from and how it’s made?
Before getting involved with Green Aspirations, I’d never even considered it. Charcoal was something you bought at the garage, involved loads of smelly smoke and maybe some fire lighters to get it going. And even when I found out more, it was never something I would get my hands dirty with. But then, two things changed. First, we got Betty – a wonderful, custom-made charcoal retort that speeds up the making process. And then, I realised just how wonderful it was to make something so beautiful and useful with my own hands. I’ve been trying to put my finger on why I love it so much. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
When I’m not busy with Green Aspirations, my work is largely desk-based. I do research, I write, I run workshops, and I come up with new ideas. I spend a lot of time by myself, in front of a screen, and in my own head. The process of making charcoal is as far from that picture as you can imagine. First, we have to fill the chamber with wood. This involves processing the wood (first with a chainsaw, then split by hand) into manageable sizes, stacking, then leaving to dry for at least 9 months. Then, we have to build a big fire in the box below the chamber and keep that going for a few hours. The firebox is pretty large and takes a lot of looking after. The kiln gets very hot and smoky, and there’s the added danger of dripping tar. So far, I’ve also managed to singe off some of my eyebrows, so it’s not without danger. At the end of the burn, when the kiln has cooled, we have to empty and process the charcoal, sieving it into different sizes and putting it into bags. This is dirty, dusty work.
What I love is the scientific process which I know is happening inside the kiln – as first water, then tar, then volatile gasses are released from the wood – combined with the very visceral nature of that process and the connection that there is to other charcoal makers, both those working today and those that have gone before. It makes me feel much more grounded than I ever feel in front of the screen.
Until recently, I’d never really made anything before. Not anything that I could safely call a product. My business has been based on ideas, not things. So, it’s a total delight to be involved in something so tangible. We put regular wood into the kiln, but what comes out is far from ordinary! The charcoal is light in weight and as tinkly as glass. Some of the wood is still totally intact – if you look closely, you can see the growth rings. The surfaces are shiny, sometimes pure black but more often multicoloured, sometimes even with a hint of gold. I never even considered charcoal could be beautiful, but now I can spend hours marvelling at each piece. When we got Betty, we also spent a long time thinking about rebranding the product, and I’m really happy with what we came up with. I love the whole process of filling the bags, stapling them up and then selling something I feel so proud of.
However, what really took me by surprise was the sheer joy I find in making this stuff, and it’s not just about getting covered in charcoal dust! There’s a real community out there of people who are fellow enthusiasts, from those who love to cook with it, to those who make it, to those who use it to create art, to those who are as nerdy as me. It’s led to loads of great conversations, meeting interesting new people, and even new opportunities. It’s a whole new world to me, and I’m definitely embracing it.
If you want to find out more about charcoal making, get in touch with us at email@example.com. Our charcoal is made from locally-sourced timber that would otherwise go to waste. We also use waste wood to fire the retort, making our product really sustainable. We sell BBQ charcoal to shops, restaurants and individuals, charcoal fines to artists and blacksmiths, and we’re currently developing a new line of artist charcoal. And if you’d like to work with a grubby strategist, get in touch with Jo on firstname.lastname@example.org.