Losing my briquettes
Colliers–those who make charcoal–are a fascinating demographic. Traditionally covered with soot, laboring in less-traveled hollows, and living in turf huts in deep woods, they have a reputation that is cloaked in mystery as well as greasy smoke. But for centuries, their produce has been essential to both hearth and industry.
Wood coal was used to fire the furnaces for the production of iron in England. It was also necessary to make gunpowder. It’s closely associated with managed woods such as coppices and pollards, which provide the material for coaling.
Coal-making is practiced the world over, from Kenya…
…to the Americas:
The process is deceptively simple, with many subtle tweaks which can make the difference between a good “harvest” of coal, and a bonfire. What follows is a pithy description of the process, as distilled by our very own blacksmith, Mark Atchison, who has been making coal at our museum for more than 15 years:
The collier picked a flat place close to his wood source and cleared that area of all combustibles. A tall center pole was placed as a guide. Around this a triangular chimney was built by stacking sticks. Wood was stood up against this chimney perpendicularly in a circle as large as was desired. A second level was added in the same way and then the top was laid horizontally, ratiating from the chimney hole. The whole mound was then covered with leaves or other litter to keep the final earthen cover from sifting into the mound. Then a fire was set at the bottom of the chimney, and wood and tinder was added until the vertical tunnel was full. Once ignited, the tunnel was sealed and air vents were placed around the base of the mound. Screens were placed on the windward side and the vents manipulated in order to keep the mound burning evenly. The pit would smolder and settle to about half its original size. After 4-6 days passed and the mound had mostly stopped smoking, the pile was smothered and allowed to cool. Then the cover was drawn back and the coles were removed.
Ye Plimoth Connection
William Palmer Sr. arrived in Plimoth colony in 1621. He was a known smith who would need fuel for his forge. It’s likely that he was familiar with burning “sea” or “stone” coal (mineral coal) in his forge in England, but in New England it’s very plausible that he made use of the abundant lop and top of local trees to produce charcoal. Sending to Newcastle for mined coal simply didn’t make economic sense in an area so rich in wood.
September means coal-ing time
Last year’s coal is put away. The wood is stacked and seasoned. The pit is clear. We’ll be making coal next week at Plimoth Plantation. We’ll build the stack on Monday and make some windscreens on Tuesday. Wednesday morning, rain or shine, that stack is getting LIT. This, of course, means great interaction with our museum’s guests between 9 and 5, followed by taking turns keeping watch overnight to make sure all’s well with our working coal pit. Coaling wood doesn’t sleep. You may, however, come upon one or two of us napping under canvas should you visit. Nothing personal, mind you.
Our quarters for a few days and nights won’t be as “elaborate” as that pictured above. A canvas, some poles, and a little hay will suffice; though we aren’t above using anachronistic sleeping bags as well.
We’ll keep you posted on our sooty progress this coming week.
**Re-coaling the partly-burned wood which remains after the charcoal has been harvested