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Joshua States

First Time into this fray

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So, I was cordially invited to participate in an iron smelt sometime this spring. In the discussion about how it was going to happen, I mentioned that I was preparing to make a bunch of softwood charcoal (https://www.bladesmithsforum.com/index.php?showtopic=32964&page=13, post #253) and would gladly contribute all of it, should I be able to participate. So, today I tried it out.

First I had to build the retort. I'm using the barrel off of a small cement mixer that the motor burned out. I cut the bottom off a barrel I got with about 45 gallons of heat treating oil for the burner area and made an opening for the burner.

1 Retort.JPG

 

I split the wood into roughly 2x2x17 inch long pieces and loaded the retort.

3 Filled.JPG

 

The cover is 3/16" plate with a bunch of drilled holes and a handle.

2 retort cover.JPG

 

I have an old plumber's stove (for melting lead) and I was going to use this as the heat source. After dicking around with it for about 15 minutes, I decided to just use some old pallet wood and build a small fire.

4 first fire.JPG

 

After about 10 minutes, it started to off-gas through the holes in the retort cover.

Round 1.JPG

 

It was still smoking after the fire went out about 45 minutes later. I fed the fire a little anyway and it was cooking really well for a couple of hours.

Smokin'.JPG

 

The funny thing is, it wasn't really hot. I could touch the top & sides of the retort with a bare hand.

Not hot.JPG

 

It's been cooking for about 3-1/2 hours now. and I'm letting it do its thing. More tomorrow morning.

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So this morning came and I took a look inside. Sorry, I forgot to photo that. This was an incomplete burn  Some of the pieces were totally done. Nice solid chunks of charcoal that broke easily in your hand, but remained solid and did not turn to powder. It seems the center cooked well, but the perimeter did not. I rmoved some of the more completed product and rearranged so there was a little more space between the pieces.

 

Then I lit a small fire and let it die out. I took some of the coals and spread them across the top of the wood pile and down in the spaces. It's cooking again.

 

 

Day 2 (4).JPG

Day 2 (3).JPG

Day 2.JPG

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So to really make this a retort, you need to funnel the off-gases into the burn chamber to fuel it. I find a retort that is uninsulated needs to have flame wrapping all the way around it- so an outer shell will help you here, to contain that flame.
I also find long pieces take a lot longer, so chopping them short will help.
Handiest thing in charcoal making is a little cheap infrared pyrometer- I don't find a good complete charring unless I've seen 600 to 700 degrees F on the exposed surfaces of my retort.

 

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Thanks Lee. I'm hoping to have enough daylight left when I get home to check the results. I was wondering about drilling some holes in the bottom of the mixer barrel. Currently there is just a single hole where the mounting screw connected it to the motor.

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So I made it home in time to snap a few pics of the results from the second attempt.

A quick look inside shows a pretty complete (if not slightly over-done) burn out.

Day 2 results 2-opt.jpg

And I pulled a piece out of the center area to have a closer look.

Day 2 results 3-opt.jpg

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So I think this is working well, but if anyone has an opinion, please offer it up.

This last burn took a long time to stop smoking and even after the smoke cleared, the retort was too hot to touch for a few hours. I finally got around to looking inside tonight. The underside of the lid and the inside of the retort is covered in this black gunk. The lid has so much of it that the 5/16" holes have become completely blocked.

Black gunk-opt.jpg

I reached in and pulled out one of the 2x2's and it came out in one piece, but it has no density like regular wood.

2x2-opt.jpg

I snapped off the end and it has these shiny layers running through it. That's a good thing I'm told.

break 1-opt.jpg

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That looks pretty good! Is that pine? I have only done the kiln method, which is working out really well for me. That same black gunk builds up in the chimney of my kiln. I think that it is the sap or some other part of the wood that collects and dries there. Was this batch fully carbonized? I have found that it needs to go low and slow until the very end where it gets really hot, then I seal it up completely. 

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This is all Douglas fir or pine (SPF) 2 by something that I split into 2x2x17" sticks.

Wood pile (2).JPG

This batch looks like it fully carbonized. Every stick is charred and lightweight from end to end and you can snap it clean with bare hands. It doesn't crumble.

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So I changed things up a bit and have been running this every weekend. I now have about 120 pounds of charcoal. Some I have chopped into small pieces, some I have left as they came out of the kettle (I stopped calling it a retort, because it isn't one). 

30 gallon barrels-opt.jpg

30 gallon barrels (2)-opt.jpg

I recently got 50 pounds of black sand (sifted and magnetically screened). 

Black sand-opt.jpg

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And a quick video of how the stuff handles and breaks.

 

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On 24-2-2017 at 5:07 AM, Wesley Alberson said:

That looks pretty good! Is that pine? I have only done the kiln method, which is working out really well for me. That same black gunk builds up in the chimney of my kiln. I think that it is the sap or some other part of the wood that collects and dries there. Was this batch fully carbonized? I have found that it needs to go low and slow until the very end where it gets really hot, then I seal it up completely. 

That's pine tar. Keep it, it's got many good uses (cutler's pitch) :)

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On 4/16/2017 at 2:12 PM, Jeroen Zuiderwijk said:

That's pine tar. Keep it, it's got many good uses (cutler's pitch) :)

You have me curious now. Mine is very brittle. I've been chucking it into a pile in the yard. How does one make this into a usable substance?

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On 21-4-2017 at 6:00 AM, Joshua States said:

You have me curious now. Mine is very brittle. I've been chucking it into a pile in the yard. How does one make this into a usable substance?

Add some fat or wax to it which removes the brittleness. Then you can add a filler, like charcoal or brick powder.

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I have been changing my method somewhat and getting better results. I have amassed quite a bit of this stuff now.

My video

 

Edited by Joshua States

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This project is now complete. All told I have 4 barrels (44 gallons each) of nice looking pine charcoal.

DSCN3579.JPG

For a total of 278 pounds (includes the barrels) plus what is still in the kettle.

DSCN3581.JPG

Here's a close-up of one of the barrels.

DSCN3580.JPG

So now it's time to think about when to take that black sand and give it a go.

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Hey Joshua, Looking good. Be nice to see how the smelt goes. 

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The smelt has not happened yet. I have the charcoal and 50 pounds of sifted and screened black sand, but there are a number of things getting in the way.

Summer in the Phoenix AZ area is not conducive to smelting  heats. We are trying to get this place ready to put on the market and building a big clay furnace in the back yard is not something I think the boss would be happy about. Between work, preparing for the art show in November, and the upcoming elk hunt this month, time is a very sparse commodity and I'm also a little leery of trying this by myself. Maybe after the new year I can hook up with Frank Christiansen (Mustache Forge) and Clayton Cowart (Sugarloaf Forge) and have some experienced guidance through the process. 

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