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Old 07-18-2012, 11:38 PM
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Making your own charcoal for orchids

Apologies in advance for the length, but I hope some may find this useful.

After recently seeing the very impressive thread "how to plant the huge Phalaenopsis" by culanluasg, I noted that his plants are grown with coarse lump charcoal as virtually the only potting medium. I don't know where his charcoal comes from, but it looks very much like old-fashioned lump charcoal, made the way it has been made for centuries.

Some time ago, I was having a hard time finding charcoal to add into my potting mix, at least at local stores. Looking for charcoal online the price was quite high ($13.00 US or more for 2 quarts, plus shipping!) Having better uses for my orchid budget (like buying more orchids), I decided that I would try making my own. I found that the process is easy, and many of us already have the most important piece of equipment - the backyard charcoal grill.

Here is my process for making what I refer to as "twig charcoal", using the direct method (incomplete combustion of organic material). In the direct process, ignition is started, but is then stopped by excluding oxygen before the charcoal is completely burned. (It is also possible to make premium charcoal for cooking with the same process, if you use hickory, mesquite, pecan, etc. for the charcoal fuel).

1. A charcoal grill with a tight-fitting lid that allows oxygen to be shut off is the only piece of equipment.

2. You will need two types of wood. (2A) fuel wood to supply heat: dry softwood twigs (pine, poplar,etc.) are ideal, a few quarts are all that are needed. These should be broken into roughly 6 inch (15 cm) pieces.



I often use a fire that is already burning (from a cookout) as a base on which the charcoal-making fire is created.

(2B) Wood that will become charcoal, about twice as much as the fuel wood. I recommend any dry non-toxic hardwood (oak, ash, maple, etc.), if you would burn it in a campfire or fireplace, it is OK. I use anything from finger-diameter twigs to branches 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter. Thin pieces may be broken by hand, larger branches can be cut up with a machete, axe or chain saw, largest branches can be cut into rounds (about 2 inches in diameter, 1 or 2 inches long).



3. The ideal time to make charcoal is after the grill is hot (after a cookout, for example). If that is not possible, start a fire in the grill using a tinder of your choice (paper, etc.) and about half of your fuel wood (2A, above).

4. When the fire is hot, add the charcoal wood (2B, above) in alternating layers with the rest of the fuel wood (2A).

5. Allow the fire to build sufficiently until all of the wood begins to char on the outside.



6. Put the lid tightly on the grill and shut off all air flow through the top and bottom of the grill. The residual heat in the grill will char the hardwood. Keep the grill closed until it is cold.



7. Remove the lid. The residue in the grill will contain a mix of white ash and incompletely charred wood (charcoal).



8. The charcoal should be placed in a colander and rinsed thoroughly with tap water to remove all traces of ash, and then air dried. The resulting charcoal will vary in size from small twigs (remnants of fuel wood, 2A above) to large chunks. The smallest, crumbly pieces can be mixed with potting soil for your non-orchids. Progressively larger pieces can be mixed with bark or other media of different sizes, and the largest chunks can be used in the bottom of pots where the best drainage is needed.

Here are a couple plants that include this twig charcoal in the mix (yellow arrows):




A couple of safety notes that I will add:

1. I am using a table-top grill on a wood surface; note in the photos that I have soaked the deck (with a watering can), and kept it wet while the fire was hot.

2. Like any other fire, attend the fire until it is out. If it is necessary to leave, douse the fire (better to ruin the charcoal than to burn down the house).

Last edited by Catt Mandu; 07-19-2012 at 08:32 AM. Reason: added safety notes
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Old 07-19-2012, 02:10 AM
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Wonderful thread!! Its ironic because I was trying to figre out where to get the large pieces of charcoal (over an inch in size). Love the explainations and step by step I think this thread is sticky worthy I will have Fred take a look and see if he agrees
Good job!! and thank you for this
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Old 07-19-2012, 05:14 AM
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yep I agree thread made "Sticky"
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Old 07-19-2012, 05:22 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by orchids4me View Post
Wonderful thread!! Its ironic because I was trying to figre out where to get the large pieces of charcoal (over an inch in size). Love the explainations and step by step I think this thread is sticky worthy I will have Fred take a look and see if he agrees
Good job!! and thank you for this
You are most welcome. I have been thinking about posting something like this for a while. Seeing the beautiful plants grown by culanluasg in only charcoal was the inspiration to get me moving!

The only charcoal I now use in my plants is the charcoal I make, and my orchids seem to love it. An added benefit is that you have complete control over the process, from the type of wood to the size of the wood you use.
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Old 07-19-2012, 05:30 AM
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Originally Posted by fred View Post
yep I agree thread made "Sticky"
Thank you Fred! I hope others will find the information useful.
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Old 07-19-2012, 05:34 AM
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Thanks Fred
I thought you might find this one very informative and useful now it will be easy to find.
Thanks again
And Catt, good job!!
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Old 07-19-2012, 07:17 AM
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Excellent thread! Thanks for taking the time to put it together.
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Old 07-19-2012, 07:32 AM
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A couple of safety notes that I will add to the original:

1. I am using a table-top grill on a wood surface; note in the photos that I have soaked the deck (with a watering can), and kept it wet while the fire was hot.

2. Like any other fire, attend the fire until it is out. If it is necessary to leave, douse the fire (better to ruin the charcoal than to burn down the house).
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Old 08-12-2012, 09:02 PM
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Wow....i was making my own orchids medium.....but instead of making my own charcoal i went to Home Depot bought a bag of a natural charcoat, grabbed some pine skim from some pine trees, I added a bag of moss. The day before i was going to use it I put all of that in hot water with alcohol in a big bucket, cover till next day. Well, that was 2weeks ago. Today i was watering the orchids,,,,,oh la-la:-) for my surprise 2 keikis are coming.
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Old 08-13-2012, 12:22 AM
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Old 08-14-2012, 06:53 AM
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My next charcoal making adventure will be making bamboo charcoal. Saw the bamboo into short pieces 4 cm long before charring.

I have seen bamboo charcoal for non-horticultural purposes elsewhere on the internet. Think of the advantages - charcoal with a big hole in the middle - even more air space. Possibly a good choice for increasing air at the bottom of pots? Who knows!
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Old 08-15-2012, 12:29 AM
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I have used a paint can method. You can buy an empty metal paint can from a hardware store to this. You take and puncture 3-6 holes in the lid, stuff the paint can as full of hardwood as you possibly can, get a good fire going. Once the fire is reduced to embers take and place the paint can into the coals. You should see smoke come out of the holes as the wood starts to burn, gradually the smoke will start to decrease. Eventually steam will start to come out of the holes, once this is almost non-existent you will need to be ready to remove all air. You can either take the paint can and cover it in dirt or flip it upside down and tightly cover it. This prevents anything more from burning. You can find a video on how to do this on youtube.com I found that it worked very well!
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Old 08-15-2012, 01:59 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Johnny B View Post
I have used a paint can method. You can buy an empty metal paint can from a hardware store to this. You take and puncture 3-6 holes in the lid, stuff the paint can as full of hardwood as you possibly can, get a good fire going. Once the fire is reduced to embers take and place the paint can into the coals. You should see smoke come out of the holes as the wood starts to burn, gradually the smoke will start to decrease. Eventually steam will start to come out of the holes, once this is almost non-existent you will need to be ready to remove all air. You can either take the paint can and cover it in dirt or flip it upside down and tightly cover it. This prevents anything more from burning. You can find a video on how to do this on youtube.com I found that it worked very well!
Yes, that is the other charcoal-making method, called the indirect method. The paint can serves as a retort in the indirect method. It should work just as well, it is just another way of making it.
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Old 08-15-2012, 04:29 AM
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I suppose you could do this with a metal biscuit tin (or cookie tin) too?

I see a plan forming ...........( plus it may be the only use my new BBQ gets this year!!!)
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Old 08-15-2012, 07:29 AM
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I suppose you could do this with a metal biscuit tin (or cookie tin) too?

I see a plan forming ...........( plus it may be the only use my new BBQ gets this year!!!)
For any tin that is plated (tin coating on steel) or painted, I would fire it the first time without any charcoal in it to burn off or oxidize that coating first. Do that in a well-ventilated area where no one is breathing the smoke. Otherwise you could end up contaminating your charcoal (or you) with heavy metals, etc.

After the coating is gone you should be OK. Disclaimer here: I have not used the indirect method myself before, but I don't know of any reason why this would not work! I do find the direct method pretty easy, though.
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Old 11-18-2012, 02:19 PM
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More on charcoal - making bamboo charcoal

To produce a charcoal with even better drainage capabilities, I have experimented making charcoal using bamboo. Same method as above, essentially.

Here are the raw materials, cut up:


And here is how it turned out:


I will try potting with this material next spring, especially for Cattleyas, at the base of the pot.
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Old 05-14-2013, 03:08 PM
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Update - I recently potted a Vanda in a basket using a combination of the bamboo charcoal and wine corks. No photos at the moment, but maybe I will post some later.

I like the bamboo charcoal because it tends to be less flaky/crumbly than the hardwood charcoal, though both seem to work just fine for the plants. The big pieces of bamboo charcoal that remain as "tubes" provide excellent drainage at the bottom of pots. Since I started making charcoal, most of my plants that are re-potted have some charcoal in the mix, and all of it is charcoal that I have made. I am very happy with the results so far, and it seems the plants are also happy.
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Old 05-14-2013, 03:34 PM
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sweet im going to try it this weekend.....ty ty ty!!!!
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Old 05-21-2013, 08:17 PM
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men with big brains! ty,,,,very helpful
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