We try to smoke some meat about every week or so, using a variety of smokers, meats, recipes and methods.
After a while, you start running out of different things to try. At that point, you tend to get creative… and often, that leads to taking things to the next level.
One day, we were talking to one of our neighbors about our business of reviewing and selling smokers and offering general advice on smoking.
Then, he told us the following:
“Back when I was a boy, growing up in northern Montana we used to do a lot of smoking in a homemade smoker that my dad had made out of a large propane tank. This smoker was so large that we could easily smoke several whole hogs at the same time. Since it was such a long trip to get into town, we only did it about once every two months or so… and even then we couldn’t always find the stuff we needed. So, one of things we resorted to doing was making our own lump charcoal for smoking and grilling meats. We had lots of wood, so cost wasn’t too much of a concern. We found, however, that in making our own charcoal out of oak or some other hardwood that the meat tasted a lot better than anything we could get at the small store in town… when they stocked it.”
This story got us to thinking about making our own lump charcoal for smoking and grilling.
So, we talked to our neighbor quite a bit on how to make lump charcoal. We also searched online to see if we could find other people who make their own charcoal from natural hardwood.
We found numerous methods on making charcoal from hardwood, but there was certainly a common theme among those who did it: it was hard work, but the results were worth it.
There are a few different methods of making lump charcoal, but here is the one that we’ve used the most…
How To Make Lump Charcoal In Your Own Backyard:
Step 1: Find two metal drums that will fit inside each other. Make sure they both have lids, or another piece of metal that you can place on top. The larger lid doesn’t have to be air or water tight, but the smaller lid does need to fit on the drum well. Typically, people use a 55 gallon drum and a 30 gallon drum, but any size drums that you can “nest” inside each other is fine.
Step 2: Cut some wood for your charcoal and some wood for the fuel to make the charcoal. The charcoal that will eventually become your lumps should be about the size of your fist or a little larger. The wood that will become your fuel should be thinner, longer pieces that burn hot and fairly fast.
Step 3: In the smaller drum, drill a few holes in the bottom so that a little more heat can get in and heat can escape (we have actually found this to be an optional step in the process and it will work without drilling those holes).
Step 4: Cut a hole in the side of the larger metal drum, at the bottom of the drum near the ground. This hole will be for feeding the fire with those longer pieces of wood you prepared in Step 2.
Step 5: Place some fire bricks at the bottom of the larger drum. You will be aligning the bricks so that you can still feed the fire through the hole that you cut in the side of the drum in Step 4. Note be sure to use real fire bricks, as normal bricks are not meant to be heated to higher temperatures and may explode when heated.
Step 6: Place the smaller drum into the larger drum and set on top of the fire bricks.
Step 7: Take the smaller, fist-sized pieces of wood that you prepared in Step 2 and load it into the smaller drum. You should fill up the smaller drum with as much wood as you can to make this worth your while. It takes just as much work to prepare half-filled drum as it does to make a whole drum full. Just make sure that you can get the lid on.
Step 8: Into the hole you cut in Step 4, load the longer pieces of split wood into the bottom of the larger drum and start a fire. You can use lighter fluid or a little bit of gasoline if you have to, but don’t get it on the lump charcoal.
Step 9: Cover the smaller drum with the small lid, but don’t cover it tightly. You want smoke to escape from the small drum. Leave this for about 3 or 4 hours, or until there is no more smoke of any color.
Step 10: Cover the smaller drum with your lid so that air cannot get into the drum, but the moisture can escape from the wood and the drum. Then, cover the larger drum… again, not tightly… you want to preserve a path for moisture to escape the drums.
Step 11: Burn for about 8 to 9 hours. This the hardest part, because burning anything for 8 or 9 hours means that you have to keep feeding the fire about every 30 minutes to an hour. It’s difficult to stay on top of sometimes.
Step 12: Cool it off… Just let the fire go out on its own and let the whole thing cool off overnight (and then some). It usually takes about 14 or 15 hours to completely let everything cool off enough to take the lump charcoal out of the small drum and transfer it into a storage container.
Step 13: Remove from the small drum, sort and store. We have found the charcoal to be VERY brittle, so be careful. Don’t just dump out the lump charcoal onto the ground. Store your lump charcoal in an airtight, watertight container until you are ready to use it.
FAQ: What are the different colored smokes that come out of the small drum?
Answer: The white smoke that you see at first will be water vapor. Depending on how long the wood has been dead and drying out will determine how long you see this water vapor. Afterwards, you may see some other colors, depending on the wood. If you see a blue or grayish smoke, that is typically the wood alcohols and phenols burning out of the wood. After that, the smoke may turn a bit yellowish or even orange, which is the tar burning out of the wood. This yellowish smoke is usually the last smoke you see before the smoke clears. That is the indication that it’s time to seal up the barrel as tight as possible to allow the burning to continue in the absence of air.
FAQ: What sort of woods can I use to make lump charcoal?
Answer: In order to make lump charcoal that burns hot enough to grill or smoke with, you should use hardwood. Typically, we use oak, alder, hickory, almond, maple, cherry, or ash… but, just about any hardwood can be use to make your own lump charcoal.
Now that you know how to make lump charcoal, there is nothing stopping you in spending a weekend making as much as you need for your charcoal smoker.
If you are wondering what smoker we use our lump charcoal in, we tend to prefer the Weber 721001 Smokey Mountain Cooker for our charcoal smoking endeavors, but the Landmann 590135 “Black Dog” Charcoal Smoker is also an amazing smoker if you need a little more room for larger events.