Posts filed under Forestry

Splitting Axe Handle Blanks From a Windfall Tan Oak Log

Recently I was driving out my road and had to stop in the rain and shovel ditches out. I got so wet that I went back home to change my clothes, but within the hour or less I was out, a large Tan Oak fell down in the road.


I had been eyeing this group of trees already as potential wood working fodder, but this one just succumbed to heart rot and fell over. While cutting it up, I spotted one straight section and saved it aside to split up later. In this video I’m splitting it into 12 parts to stash away for woodworking projects.

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You really don’t need much to split a log. A maul and disposable wedges can be made almost anywhere, usually from the trunk and limbs of the same tree. There are a couple of pointers here about making wedges, the use of boys axes as a one handed hatchet and methods to keep your splits going with the grain. Also basic wood splitting theory regarding run out, which is perhaps the most relevant problem in splitting rails like this.

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I have begun slowly processing these rough split staves down into billets one or two at a time, by removing the rotten heart and the bark. I’m also chopping off about 3/4” or more of sapwood, which is more brittle, weak and rot prone than the pinker heartwood. I’ll be washing the outsides of each billet with a borax solution to prevent insect attacks by powder post beetles, which are populous here, especially with the abundant food available to them with the big Tan Oak die off that is occurring now. They are very destructive to certain woods, Bay and Tan Oak being among the most affected. I’ll also dip the ends into paint, or seal them with fat or pine pitch to prevent the ends from cracking due to rapid drying. After that I’ll just try to dry them at a reasonably slow rate to minimize warpage and cracking.

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While watching this video footage, It occurred to me that I could have made a really neat drum out of that log, or two or three actually! Also that I should try making a barrel out of tan oak. I may save some of the short ends from this log and others this year to have a stash of well seasoned wood for a possible small keg project. Maybe a Calvados keg, hmmm….

Splitting Axe Cut Wood With a Sharp Felling Axe, Safety and Effectiveness

The first video is a short trailer or propaganda piece to promote the second video.  Below are a few non-technical points I wanted to elaborate on.

I just have a few points I want to emphasize or elaborate on.  I made this video in response to a lot of questions from people about how to deal with wood that is bucked with an axe, since it can't be set on end, or on a block.  Also, because of how I'm operating with one axe, I assumed that it would be a small short axe and that it was intended to retain the edge in chopping condition.  That wasn't so much a plan as it was just how it turned out since that's my world right now.  It is not the only way to approach it.  You could, and most probably do, have a dedicated splitting axe, or maybe a splitting edge on one side of a double bitted axe that can taste a little dirt here and there without much worry, especially if it's ground with a fat bevel that is less likely to suffer severe damage than a thinly ground edge.  A longer heavier axe with a fatter grind is great, as is not having to baby it.  However, using a small, short axe and keeping it sharp requires one to refine technique and strategy, and I think that is a good thing.  I'm also very interested in making whatever tool I have work, and in processing wood with one axe.  You'll hardly find anyone out there recommending an axe ground for felling, limbing and bucking as a splitting axe.  Probably the opposite in fact.

One of the important points in this video is that it requires some investment to figure out what is possible.  Many will discount the possibility of using axes, but not always out of experience, but rather assumption.  I've been guilty of this to an extent myself and it's a mistake.  I personally think that it's worth some investment to figure out what is possible and where an axe is more advantageous than a maul.  I really like splitting with a maul and with some of the stuff I have to split, like dry hardwoods with knots and forks, I'm not likely to ditch my maul altogether.  But, I will keep pushing my limits with axes of various kinds to find out what those limits really are. 

It is not enough to just just smack a few rounds with an axe to see if anything falls off.  It takes some investment in yourself to develop good technique and at least a basic understanding of strategy as presented in these videos.  The flick technique, as Buckin' Billy Ray Smith calls it, or the twist as the Vido's call it, is essential to develop for splitting anything difficult with an axe.  It is just a way to use the power generated in the swing to good mechanical advantage by prying the wood apart on impact instead of just wedging it apart with the shape of the axe.  It can make up for the lower mass of an axe head v.s. a maul in some cases.  I believe that Tom Clark, inventor of the buster axe, an axe optimized for this technique, actually hit the wood with the head tilted at a slight angle.  I think I twist it on impact, but it's hard to know for sure without a slow mo study.  Either way, you'll develop a feel for what works.  It is a skill that has to be learned by some time spent as it's rather clumsy at first to get the timing right. If you have a very sharp short handled axe that you are trying to stay out of the way of, which often requires somewhat awkward positioning, and on top of all that are trying to hit the center of a knotty piece of wood within a quarter inch, you can imagine that some time will have to be put in to gain a reasonable level of skill.  The catch 22 is that it's only by gaining a certain level of proficiency that we can find out what is really possible and not.

The flick technique can be used as an alternative to generating velocity in splitting at times, but should not be thought of as a permanent stand in for it.  The ability to generate a high velocity is a critical tool to have and will only complement that sideways torque when both are needed.  I didn't go much into it, but will in the future.  From my observation and experience so far, high velocity is primarily created by the axe head scribing an arc around a relatively fixed, or at least more fixed, point, like the wrists, elbows, shoulders, waist, or a complex combination of all of those.  it is a complex topic.  With the target at a certain height, it becomes less possible to generate velocity, and the higher you go from there, the harder it gets.  That is one reason I don't use splitting blocks much.  Working close to the ground has the advantage that it is easier to generate velocity, because you have more distance in the swing and can use body mechanics to better advantage.

For me, doing the axe cordwood challenge, in the way I approach it, has been perfect for developing these skills.  I stick pretty much with the axe I'm chopping with, which for now is always small and sharp, and I split in the field with no blocks or contrivances of any kind.  I can only remember abandoning two, maybe three, pieces of wood that were just really knotty or more likely forked.  Even those could likely be split with enough energy, but I know when not to beat my head against a wall for a peanut.  I'm glad that I've invested in this skill, because it will ultimately increase my splitting efficiency in all arenas.  I now have a pretty good idea of what I can get away with and am further refining and defining when an axe will be more advantageous than a maul in splitting sawn rounds as well.  For what it's worth, these videos at least show some possibility that can be put to use or invested in later.  It's not for everyone, and not for every situation, and possibly not for every species, but in the right circumstances it is remarkably efficient and satisfying.  I can say, that just splitting what I incidentally have to cut here, which is Madrone, Bay, Fir, Tan oak and Black oak, that none of those species are consistently difficult to split when young trees are cut and split green.  Older Madrone and Bay can develop some wicked cross grain, but a person is not likely to be cutting those for firewood with an axe, and if they were, large trunks would have to be split, probably with wedges, before bucking, not after. 

The axe and the technique of using it with good strategy are just another set of tools in the bag to be applied where they are best suited, or when necessary.  But, again, it is a tool that has to be developed and refined to be appreciated and applied to anything but the most easily split woods.  I'm glad I've put in some time and forced my progress by using axes that are not ideal for the job and I get to reap the rewards of that from here out.

Did I mention that it's fun?  It's really fun :D

What to Do With Those Axe Cut Woodchips? The Burning Question

One of the most common questions, if not the most common question on my axe related content is some combination of what do you do with the chips, aren't they wasteful compared to a saw and wouldn't it be better to just use a saw.  The video below is about that and what we can do with the chips which are quite useful for anyone with a garden or who burns wood.  Below that are some further thoughts not really covered in this video.

What I covered in that video was, in short, yes there are a lot of wood chips produced when processing wood with an axe.  This tree was probably 9 inches in diameter and I estimated about two good firewood logs worth of chips were produced.  It takes under 5 minutes to pick up 80% or more, in this case 3.5 minutes.  I talked about what you can use them for, like biochar, mushroom growing and fuel, and how whether it is viewed as wasteful or not is a matter of context.  What I didn't really talk about is why some of us use axes and not saws for hand processing firewood. 

I didn't talk about that, because I more or less just forgot to!  I think that in my head it would be self evident that not I, nor anyone else, is using an axe because it is the quickest and most efficient method of firewood production.  I like saws.  I like my chainsaw.  I'll be using my chainsaw a lot for processing wood this year, not because I need the wood, but because I need to deal with a lot of sick trees that will soon be a fire hazard and which represent a short term opportunity to gather some resources that will soon be unavailable.

But, when I set out to do the cordwood challenge myself the previous season, challenging myself to cut a cord of wood in 3 months, I was slightly wary.  Before committing I think I went and cut up a small tree or two just to be sure I should be announcing to the entire internet that I was going to go for it.  Aside from potential personal limitations though, I knew I could do it, because people used to do it.  Dudley cook said in The Axe Book, that a good axeman could put up 2 cords a day!  I knew the cord he was talking about had to be in at least 24 inch lengths, and not the 16 inch stove lengths I was cutting.  More probably it was cut into between 32 and 48 inch lengths for industrial use, transportation in bulk and most probably very wide fireplaces.  Charcoal makers would cut wood even longer to make large stacks of wood.  Still, do the math.  I'm cutting about 3 times as much to get my 16 inch logs as a guy cutting 32 inchers, but even the slowish guy could probably put that up in just 3 days of average work!

Well, that is interesting to think about, but it doesn't prove anything to me for real or gain me a lot of real insight.  To gain knowledge it is required of us to take information and do more than absorb it, more than mull over it and make assumptions and inferences.  For me that process looks more like taking in information, contemplating it, putting it into practice, maybe getting more information, more experience, more contemplation etc.  At some point, something resembling truths begin to gel out of that process.  In short, I knew that to gain real insight into the problem of axe work and what it's potentials and limitations really were, I had to put it into practice for reals.  Not only that, but I actually had to improve my own skills to a certain level before I could really understand what that potential was and where an axe may be more or less useful than a saw.  Give an unskilled person an axe and a hand saw and tell them to limb this same tree and they are likely to conclude that the saw is easier and faster.  But no matter how good they get with that saw, I'll have the same tree limbed up more quickly, with much less physical effort and many of by knots will be trimmed more closely than theirs.

I'll also have way more fun doing it!  Axe work is engaging, exciting, focusing, cultivates coordination and provides a diverse form of exercise.  Sawing by comparison is dull and tedious work and the best you can do is trade off one side for the other.  I like sawing up to a point.  It is good honest contemplative work.  It is also skilled work and a good hand with a saw will out saw a newb every time.  But it is only so skilled and lacks the special combination of things that makes axe work really engaging and fun.  Saws have their place as do axes.  But the place an axe has in any one particular persons hands is informed by that persons skill level and understanding of it's efficient use, and that requisite skill is only gained by extended use, and not by dabbling at the thing.

All of which is to point out that, while my use of an axe on that fir tree in these last couple of videos did result in two fewer logs worth of large firewood, rather than smaller chips, such is simply part of the cost of admission into that understanding of what is and is not possible with an axe and what place it does or doesn't have in our tree work.  It's a rather small price it is to pay when they are easy to pick up and decidedly very useful as fuel or for other purposes.

And repeat thousands of times :)

And repeat thousands of times :)

Axe Only Firewood Processing, Felling, Limbing, Lopping, Bucking for a Splitting Video

I released a video a couple days ago on processing my last tree for the cordwood challenge.  This was a tree I chose as not particular easy to split for a splitting video I'm still waiting to record.  The question of how you split wood with an axe if it's cut with an axe instead of a saw vies with "what do you do with the chips" as the most common question regarding processing wood with an axe.  The footage I shot for the front of that video seemed like a good stand alone video, so I edited it and posted it with some commentary.

Be aware that there is a lot going on when I'm processing this tree that is invisible to the uninitiated.  If I were watching someone else do it, I could spot some of that "invisible" technique and safety stuff, but not all of it as it is very subtle and personal.  The lopping operation is especially dangerous, but I'm using several things to stay as safe as possible.  The most important might be the direction of cut, which means in what direction the force is pointed, the obvious reference point being the cutting edge.  A close second is probably body positioning to decrease the likelihood of a stray edge contacting my body.  Moderation of the force used is also extremely important.  Axe work requires constant adaptation and a certain level of humility where you have to say to yourself "I can hit this really hard, but I'm not going to!"  Finally, you really have to be able to hit what you're aiming at.  Anyway, it's mostly a lot of chopping, but some people really seem to like that.  There are some really good pointers though too.  You can count on some very detailed tutorials in the future.

Axe Cordwood Challenge Almost Over and a 1 Week Extension

The axe cordwood challenge is nearly over.  I'm closing in on my own cord and 3 people have already cut a cord or more.  I'm adding a 1 week extension, just because this is the first year and we got started kind of late.  Actually it's mostly because I want people to have time and not rush too much since that is inherently more dangerous.  I still hope to finish mine by June 1st, because it just takes time to dry wood even in our hot summers and June 1st is a good last date to have green firewood cut.  I'm thinking about how to make it more accessible to people in the Southern Hemisphere in the future.  If you finish the challenge, send me info and pics or links to videos by June 7th through the contact on this website.  Also, leaving comments on the official Axe Cordwood Challenge page is a good idea as well.  I think a lot of people would like to know what axes participants used and what you learned whether you finished or not, and the comments section on that page is a good place to leave those.  I'll probably create a page for the 2017 challenge and post all the various links and experiences there.  I've heard from a lot of people who were maybe going to do it and more that have just been using their axes more and practicing and having fun with that.  No one said this completely sucks and I hate it and didn't learn anything, lol.  It's been pretty much good feedback all around and it's been fun having this thing in common with a group of people.

Considering Biochar Burning Methods Conversion v.s. Context

A common mistake in design and assessment is to focus on one or two narrow parameters at the expense of everything else.  For instance, elevating one factor so high in priority that outlandish expense is gone to in order to achieve it without considering cost/benefit ratio.  No doubt in some cases prioritizing something that highly is the correct thing to do, but a common trap is to fail to consider design or assessment of a system in context.  As I was finishing up writing this blog post, I received this comment on my video about burning brush in open piles to make biochar.

“Looks more like a video on how not to do it. Cone pits or trenches are much more efficient and produce far less ash. Even a proper 55 gallon oil drum burn does better in my experience, although thats more for scrap pallet wood. ”

This comment seems to highlight the mistake of putting a single parameter, in this case conversion efficiency, above all other considerations, and in their context presumably and not mine, which they clearly don't understand.  You can read my reply to that comment on youtube, or watch this follow up video about considering context in comparing charring methods, which that commenter obviously missed (I hope lol) but everything important I have to say about it is also in this rather lengthy article; the purpose of which is to elaborate on why I use open burn methods and possibly more importantly, to simply discuss the importance of context, resources and cost/benefit when defining priorities and making decisions.



Using simple methods of production, I have been able to accumulate hundreds of gallons of char and should have hundreds more by the end of the burn season.  The intimidation or time and materials required in the building of a retort or TLUD burner, or even a stand alone cone kiln, hold many people back from getting started with biochar.  Building those can be intimidating or otherwise hard to pull off.  There are also claims about charcoal quality from the various systems, which may have people holding out to produce "real" biochar and not just charcoal.  But, there doesn't seem to be any consensus on that, and there is plenty of evidence that just about any charcoal is effective to a degree, whether it is hard or soft, burned hot, or burned cool.  That is not to say that some types are not more effective, or that such has not already been proven.  I'm not really up on the latest, or up on that discussion at all really.  While some systems are undoubtedly more conversion efficient than others, there are other considerations and many of the possible draw backs of open burns are basically eclipsed by the great ease, minimal processing and speed of open burn systems.

A TLUD system, for instance, requires chips or other small, somewhat homogenous fuel sizes, which is only great if you have easy access to that kind of fuelstock.  If you have easy access to an industrial strength chipper, maybe that makes it a viable option as well, but to purchase and own such a thing is a great expense and would not make sense for most people.  I'm pretty sure it would have a higher conversion efficiency than the trench or pile approaches I use, that is higher charcoal produced for the amount of wood put in, but that has to be weighed against having to chip the stuff.  This is what I'm talking about with the focus on one aspect.  Conversion efficiency, i.e. WOOD/CHARCOAL ratio, has to be weighed against many other factors in order to make a rational decision.

One of those factors is labor and the input of other resources.  Even with the large amount of wood my land produces (and the neighbors' land if I were to expand operations), I couldn't justify buying, or even renting a chipper until I hit an economy-of-scale tipping point.  So, lets say I hit that point and rent a chipper for 700.00 for a week or whatever it costs.  Then I have to have metal TLUD kilns to burn it in.  On that scale I'd be burning through 55 gallon drums pretty fast and probably burning 4 to 6 of them at a time to produce 100 gallons of charcoal in a run.  Contrast that against open piles which require a shovel and a hose, no fuel, no cost and less handling and transportation in many cases, and the TLUD starts to lose points, even if there is a significant conversion loss to ash in the open burns.  Lets say that loss is as high as 20%, which i really have no idea.  But say it is.  I still have to think hard about adopting that expensive system, especially if I start thinking about building larger, more robust burners that will produce 100 gallons in a single run and not burn out quickly.  I could go on, but it's energy, financial expense and time v.s. conversion efficiency.  And the truth is that I still don't know how efficient or inefficient the open burns are.  My impression from the beginning is that they are actually surprisingly efficient, but there is an obvious loss to ash, and probably considerably more in the open piles than the open trenches.

Retort systems use some quantity of wood to heat an inner chamber of charcoal.  A simple retort would be a drum full of wood that is sealed off except for a pipe coming out the top, which terminates under the barrel.  If you build a fire under that barrel, it heats the wood inside, releasing gasses in the sealed drum that travel through the pipe and back into the fire underneath.  The gasses are flammable (wood-gas), so the wood in the drum helps burn itself as the gasses are flared off underneath.  That's one of the first ways I learned to make charcoal for smithing many years ago.  One obvious consideration for a retort is that the system requires fuel to be consumed to make the charcoal, which is an inherent inefficiency.  That inefficiency can be reduced to an extent by design and should probably always be more refined than a simple drum with a fire underneath it, but the consumption of fuel is inherent to the method and has to be considered in a fair assessment.

In comparing retorts to open burns, there are a couple of possible advantages to retorts.  One would be that it produces a harder charcoal, which some people claim is better.  I just don't know if that is true or not and I've seen the opposite claim as well.  Certainly, if you are producing charcoal for industrial use, heating or cooking, you want a hard, dense, long burning charcoal produced in a low oxygen environment.  Another possible advantage to retorts would be that since the wood that is being charred is mostly sealed up, with just small holes in the container for the gasses to escape as it's heated, it can't really over burn.  So, if you had the system dialed, hopefully you could load it, fire it off, walk away and come back to finished extinguished charcoal.
If the charcoal from a retort really is more effective as a soil amendment, then a careful comparison would have to take that into account as a possible counterbalance to the fuel consumed in it’s own production, especially when comparing to an open burn which also has some inherent loss to ash, no matter how well it is run.

A clear disadvantage to a retort is that dry fuel is going to be much better performing.  It rained yesterday, but I could still go out and mix my dead and green material together and fire it off, or burn a trench and not only get away with burning my now damp wood, but burning some green stuff with it as well.  I do not have storage or drying facilities for the large quantities of wood I’m dealing with to burn dry wood in a retort or TLUD.  To burn dry wood I would either have to build a large dedicated shed area also requiring that I handle the wood more, or a large vegetation free area, probably even a screened room, to be able to burn in the summer when it’s very dry.

There is a lot of information I don’t have and a lot of information out there that I have not availed myself of.  But in a big picture context, I’m not focused on any single factor and my personal context drives my choices.  What I know is that I can produce very large quantities of charcoal with NO MONEY INPUT AT ALL, or building or rebuilding anything, just a shovel and a hose, and in the case of open piles I don’t even need the shovel.  I can do that with minimal processing of the fuel and no careful storage.  It is fast and requires almost no size reduction of the stock, though I prefer to burn trimmed poles and limbs for ease of handling, storage and they function much better in the pit that twiggy stuff does.  I trim out the larger, easier limbs for the pit and burn the really brushy stuff in piles, though there is overlap in this spectrum for sure, I find the two methods VERY complementary to each other.  They are simple and low input, and with the quantities of wood I have to deal with, I would probably get less wood actually burned in a small retort or TLUD system, while scaling up to a large TLUD or retort would probably get expensive.
Again, there is information I don’t have here and I’m not suggesting my way is better, just that it seems better in my context, especially since I can get it done.  Even if someone was able to prove to me that retort produced char is twice as effective, I would still have to consider whether I could pull off charring the quantities of wood I have available, or consider just letting half of it rot and charring less, while also weighing in the added financial outlay and work of setting the system up, as well as the drying and storage of wood.  And lets examine that effectiveness of different char types thing next, because that gets interesting. 

My positive results using biochar have not been uniformly phenomenal, but they have been almost uniformly obvious.  The most phenomenal was my leek bed this year with what I estimated to be 400% to 600% higher productivity at 10% char, all of it open burned or scrounged up from firepits and woodstoves.  That is 4 to 6 times the production all other things being equal, so the char is effective.  The question at this point is just about quantities and level of effectiveness of different chars, rather than if they are effective at all.  If retort char were more effective, it would have to be quite a bit more effective to start tilting me in it’s direction when looking at the other considerations I’ve already brought up.  BUT, check this out. 

I used 33% in one test bed, and 25% in another., both two feet deep.  Both of those sections also have 50% char in the top 4 to 6 inches of the bed!  Is that crazy?  Well, I can tell you it takes a crazy amount of charcoal!  But damn are those beds nice.  Only long term observation will convince me if they work better or worse than beds with less, or even more char, but there is an obvious advantage in weeding, soil crusting and therefore maintenance. 

I’ve been gardening here and elsewhere for a long time, and one of the great problems of gardening is soil crusting.  Why it isn’t discussed more I have no worldly clue.  No soil I've ever worked with is completely immune to it and most are very susceptible.  If you disturb soil and water it, the problem of soil crusting manifests it’s flat and ugly visage.  It impedes water penetration, but causes more rapid evaporation.  Water a crusty bed and a lot of the water can run off instead of soaking in, and then you’ll lose the water that does make it into the soil more quickly unless you cultivate to create a “dust mulch” as soon as you can, or cover the whole soil surface with something.  In those two test beds with 50% char in the top 6 inches, soil crusting is no longer an issue, period.  The soil is very loose, which makes weeding easy.  Water penetrates, period.  No matter what the history of the bed, weather, vegetation cover etc and so on, water penetrates every time.  EVERY TIME I WATER! Chunks of charcoal migrate to the top of the bed and cover at least 50% of the surface as a mulch.   Don’t forget, that is a MULCH THAT DOESN’T EVER ROT!  I can add surface amendments for nutrition, like compost or coffee grounds, but gone is the need to either cultivate or cover the soil surface with mulch after watering.  GOOOONE!!!  Wow, I freaking love those beds.  Though they are just two small sections of two small beds, I have a sinking, unhappy, I’m-wasting-my-time feeling when I have to plant in any other beds.  Just today I was out planting tomatoes in my 10% and 5% char beds and it was fairly lumpy, crusted over and generally unpleasant to work with.   I’m going on a tangent, but I have a point in the context of this article, which is that at application levels of 25% to 50%, the quality of the char may become somewhat irrelevant if the goal is as much about high charcoal content for physical effects as it is about the reasons that biochar is probably more usually applied for, like nutrient holding.

To tie this up, my guess is that a majority of people reading this will be best off at least just starting with open burn methods, unless you have access to chips, in which case you might consider building a TLUD.  At the very least it gets you off the ground and running immediately.  There will be more wood to char later.  It is fast and you can do it all over your property or even on other people’s properties, rather than always transporting all of your wood to a single location or transporting burners.  I’ve already heard from a number of people that they busted a move with the trenches or open burn piles and are now producing char instead of ashes, or instead of accumulating wood waiting for the day when they get some device together that they thought they needed.   David the Good's recent comment was "Open burns really are the way to go. I thought about biochar for a long time and looked at all kinds of systems that I really didn't feel like building... then started making big fires and spraying them with the hose. Now I have lots of char." 

I’ve said it over and over again, the primary problem of biochar that needs solving for the masses is accessibility.  The idea that you have to make the proper kind of char, the proper way, or that there is a material difference between “biochar” and charcoal in every context is unsupportable.  The best biochar is the biochar you get made and buried in the ground, just like the best camera is the one you have with you.  We can always view things in ideals like super high production, beauty, convenience and so on, but that view approach minimizes the importance of context.  If anyone interprets this article as being negative against, or disregarding other methods of biochar production, you aren’t reading carefully enough.  I could definitely see adopting other methods than open burns in the future, but only when and where they make sense.  I am just as much not trying to sell you in particular on open burns v.s. other methods.  I’m just imploring everyone to think in context and consider, costs, benefits and resources in making these decisions.

We can apply this type of thinking to life, problem solving and decisions in general, and we should.  We may not always have all of the information, or the best information, or be able to foresee everything that we need to foresee to make the perfect decision, but that is not what problem solving is about.  Good problem solving, design and understanding are a journey not a destination.  For all I know someone will read this article, drop some new knowledge or information on me that affects my thinking and ultimately changes the way that I produce biochar.  That would be great.  Better is better and that’s where I’m always trying to head.  But that also doesn’t mean that I’m going to put large amounts of resources into research and experimentation to refine the process and my approach to it to within a gnats ass of perfect efficiency, because the time and energy and thought space to do so is also part of my context and my personal cost v.s. benefit equation.  So, at this point, I’m fairly content to just hang here with what I’m doing and refine it in small ways as I can until I have some reason to stretch out in other directions, or someone wanders along and drops some game changing knowledge on me.





Axe Handle Shock and Preventing Repetitive Stress Injury in Chopping

These are factors I know of that play a role in the amount of shock you absorb from your axe handle, such as chopping style, grip, handle rigidity, cutting ability and wood type.  These are the kinds of things that can allow a person cut more, longer and in harder wood without incurring numb sore hands, tendonitis, etc.   More text below.


Chopping with an axe is a high impact, high energy exercise.  As choppers, we necessarily absorb some of that energy since we are holding the tool.  There are a number of factors I know of which are important in the cause or prevention of repetitive stress injury or discomfort in chopping, most of them at least partially controllable. 

The axe should not be gripped very hard while chopping except as necessary in specific situations.  A hard grip unavoidably tires and stresses the hands, but it also creates a more efficient transfer of the energy from the vibrating axe handle back into the hands.  The Style of chopping is also important and interrelated to grip.  A heavy handed chopping style should be avoided.  Don't think of chopping as pushing or forcing the axe through the wood, but rather as whipping or throwing the axe head into the wood using the handle.  Pushing on the handle after the axe hits the wood adds little if any real power to the cut, but stresses the handle and the hands and probably sacrifices control to some extent.  You can cut plenty deep if you build velocity in the axe head before it hits the wood.  If the work is done before the axe hits the wood, then the grip is only to lightly control the axe after it strikes.

The handle of the axe, depending on it's thickness, density, inherent flexibility of the wood and probably other factors, will transmit more or less shock.  Thin handles transmit considerably less shock than thick ones do and tuning your handle or thinning it down is probably mentioned by authors writing about axes more often than not.  Older axes tend to have thinner handles than modern axes, and vintage axes, old photographs and older illustrations demonstrate this fact.  There is a reason that axe handles have become thicker, which is that they aren't actually used very much.  Most axes are now the equivalent of handbags for men, and are put to real use only infrequently for short periods of time.

If you cut into wood at an angle, usually around 45 degrees, it cuts more easily than if the cut is made at a right angle.  When cutting at 90 degrees the axe stops suddenly and more of the energy embodied in the head is transferred to your hands rather than cutting into the wood.  It's fine to cut at 90 degrees as needed, but generally a poor habit to get into on a regular basis.  Most axe work is done with cuts around 45 degrees for a reason.

Another way to transfer a lot of the energy embodied in an axe head back up the handle and into your hands is to use an axe that is not cutting well for any number of reasons.  The axe must cut well and easily or it will stop suddenly causing more vibration.  Most axes as they come from the factory, nearly all in fact, require at least some reshaping to get them cutting well.  In most cases, a significant amount of metal needs to be removed from the sides of the axe near the bit in order for it to be able to slide easily into the wood.  It is often recommended to file the cheek of an axe in a fan shape, but that depends on the shape of the axe head to start with.

Finally, the wood plays a role.  When chopping hard dry wood, less of the energy from each blow of the axe is dissipated in cutting, whereas when cutting soft and green woods, the energy is dissipated gradually as the axe sinks deeply into the cut.  You may or may not be able to control what wood you end up cutting, but you can control other factors that cause or prevent the kind of handle shock and fatigue that might keep you from working or cause a longer term injury that will put you off of work for a while.  The stuff mentioned here is important if a person want's to be able to use an axe under varied conditions, on varied woods, for longer periods of time, on consecutive days.  What separates the men from the boys isn't being tough enough, young enough or dumb enough to tolerate a club of a handle or an axe that otherwise doesn't cut well, but to be wise enough to work smart and not hard.  If you are going to sit at your computer trying to breath life into your flaccid member to some freaky internet porn, or work your thumbs out pushing buttons on your t.v., remote then I guess maybe none of it matters all that much.  If you're going to dig, carry, lift, hammer, weed, process and otherwise use your hands, wrists and arms, you'll be able to do all of it more, and longer, day after day if you pay attention to these types of details.

Introducing Axemanship Series, S.T.A.T.E. Five Factors in Effective Axe Work

Somehow in thinking often and long about what makes using an axe effective, I came up with these five things that I think are pretty fundamental.  Surprisingly, they not only formed a real English word to use as an acronym, but three of them!  Some of these are interrelated and it is not a completely tidy concept.  It's more like a framework to define and identify the things we need to work on or have in line to operate effectively.  But if you think about these five factors and removing any one of them, it becomes obvious that effectiveness will suffer.  I think pursuing these ideas will ultimately make us able to function at a high level.  This video series will be 5 videos long aside from this introduction.

Strategy:  Strategy is all important.  Starting to cut a log with no strategy is like starting on a trip with no map, no idea how to get there, just the general direction and that eventually with enough time and fuel you'll probably get there.  Strategy is the planning of the trip to get to center of that log in the most efficient way.  It may not be the shortest direct distance on a bumpy windy road, but it's something that we think will be the fastest or require the least fuel and time.  Strategy is neglected for two reasons.  One is not knowing that it's important.  A lot of beginners will think about getting to the center of the log, but not how to best get there.  Another is lack of faith in the strategy or abandonment of it due to frustration.  Have a strategy, even if you aren't sure it is the best strategy and stick with it.  Sure, vary it, experiment, adapt, but do those things with intent.

Tool:  An axe is not just an axe.  Most of them need work out of the box in order to cut effectively.  There are seemingly infinite axe head designs, handle designs, lengths, weights and grinds that could work effectively.  But, there are certain parameters outside of which chopping will become much less effective.

Accuracy: with an axe is a hard won skill.  It certainly requires time spent, but I believe it can improve more quickly with intent and a little instruction.  Without it, you can't execute your strategy effectively.  Lack of accuracy is not a reason to abandon strategy or give up on attempting to be accurate. Quite the opposite I think.

Technique:  as I mean it, technique is separate from Accuracy and efficiency, though related to both.  What I mean here is the mechanics of chopping and what you do with your body to actually make the axe cut the wood effectively.  If all the other 4 factors are in place, you will still cut the wood, but there are things you can do to make the axe cut better all else being equal.  Mostly we'll be talking about the generation of velocity, but there are other things and not unlikely some I don't know about or haven't noticed.

Efficiency:  Like the word Technique, efficiency could be interpreted in multiple ways.  What I mean here though is economy of energy and motion.  Basically how much result from a given expenditure of energy.  We already know that it can take one person way more energy to get the same log cut in two.  The ideal of efficiency would be to whittle the amount of energy down to a theoretical minimum by letting go of unnecessary, effort/tension/movement/error etc.

As Onix Pyro said in the comments on this introduction video, "practice makes better, not best"  Any ideal of perfect axemanship is a fantasy when knowledge necessarily has limits, the machine is not perfect and the conditions are variable.  And there is no need for perfection or ultimate speed or any other ideal.  But realizing that there is something out there vaguely resembling a theoretical perfection gives us a measure to observe our effectiveness against.  While I lack the teaching experience to prove it, I believe that a little thought and action around these five points will quickly accelerate a beginners effectiveness with an axe and provide a framework for anyone to measure and improve.  I consider this a work in progress and am willing to revise this list if necessary, but it seems pretty solid as far as I can think and from the feedback I've gotten so far.


Simple Remote Biochar Production Experiment Part 1

I have a situation that is faced by many in my part of the world.   After many decades of wreckless logging, the whole area is pretty much a mess.  Overgrown forests with massive quantities of Dead, Diseased, Decrepit, Dying, Deformed, Decadent (I'm running out of D's, whats a D word for crowded? Dense maybe...) trees and brush.  Just the amount of already dead and down wood is sometimes enough to make a bunch of charcoal at any given site.  The forests are generally unhealthy and not very productive of food for wildlife.  The trees are crowded and instead of having a reasonable number of healthy trees we tend to have a lot of competing trees that are just hanging in there, with very healthy large productive trees of any kind being the exception.  The forest is seeking an equilibrium as always, but that is a process that takes time and we can intervene to speed up the process or steer the ecology in a certain direction such as managing for diversity, wildlife, timber, or all three at once.


Given the general success of biochar growing experiments and the remarkable prehistoric and historic examples of charcoal amended soils, it just makes sense to pursue conversion of a portion of that biomass into charcoal.  While sophisticated methods utilizing the energy released in charring will no doubt be developed (and should as soon as possible), there is no good reason for citizens with woodlots not to engage in small scale production of charcoal and at this point I think it's pretty much nuts to burn brush piles into ash.  With the pit and trench methods, we have completely eliminated the need for chopping up or chipping wood 3 inches diameter and down.  That is a huge step and makes burning charcoal extremely accessible to anyone that can get away with having open fires.  But, I find myself faced with a problem that many others will also have.  That is extinguishing the charcoal once it is formed.  Most of my brush is in areas with no water.  This simple idea might take care of that problem and make burning charcoal in remote areas very easy.

Anywhere I walk in the woods here there is clearing to be done.  I think most areas that are unmanaged I could probably dig a trench and produce at least a couple hundred gallons of charcoal without having to drag the wood very far.  Otherwise, I have to clear a way to drive in so I can either drive the brush out or bring water in (sometimes feasible and sometimes not).  While my idea is very simple, solving that problem opens up huge possibilities for me and anyone else in a similar situation.  

My friend Erica and her daughter Jessica live on 200 acres with the same problems.  Like me, Erica does forestry practice, just because it is the right thing to do and needs doing.  The result is huge amounts of biomass that could be converted to charcoal.  When they have a window of good weather to come over, we're going to test out this idea and possibly be looking toward further experiments to assess the feasibility of char production as a cottage industry for land holders in this situation.   I think there is great possibility there.  I'm always interested in ways that people here can make a living doing something useful using the local resources of which none is more abundant than excessive biomass.  That is more relevant than ever since the economy has been artificially buoyed by black market marijuana production for some time, and that won't last much longer as more people in more states are going into Marijuana production which is causing prices to plummet.  Good riddance I say, but don't get me started on that!  Eventually, we will no doubt return to the kind of hardscrabble existence that characterized the area previously.  Personally, I see that as mostly a good thing as it forces people to be creative and do a diversity of things to get by.  I have lived in areas like that before and there are negatives for sure, but I generally like the "necessity is the mother of invention" kind of effect which makes for interesting and less entitled people.  It certainly weeds out the weak.  I think that most people have become too lazy to pick up a shovel, walk off into the woods, produce some charcoal, haul it out, set up some processing apparatus and then prepare, bag and sell biochar; but I'm hoping that it may actually be feasible at this particular point in time to do so, and actually make enough doing it to make is profitable enough to pursue for people that like that kind of work.  Personally, there is hardly anything I like more than being out in the woods with some hand tools and cutting, trimming and burning stuff.  Most people would benefit from that kind of exercise and meaningful, direct work.  That's my idea of a good time!

Starting the Husqvarna Forest Axe Project, Intro and Testing the Stock Axe

This is the beginning of a look at the Husqvarna 26” Multipurpose Forest Axe.  After seeing my unflattering review of their hatchet you might expect me to be frothing at the mouth about this one, but I actually think it has potential or I wouldn't have bought it.  The video is a short intro with a lot of chopping.  I kept falling asleep while trying to edit it because the repetitive chopping is somehow very soothing.  This is a class of axe that is light enough to pack, but as the name implies is good for a lot of different stuff.  I like this class of axe for running around the woods here or doing a little limbing.  The Gransfors Bruks Forest Axe is the most famous example, which I own.  Having put that axe through a lot of firewood last year just to see what can really reasonably be done with it, I can say that these light short axes can do some real work!  They are probably not the best at anything.  It’s compromises all around.  I would not really recommend this as a firewood axe to most people.  it is too light and it would be better if it were longer..  However, if someone interested in a packable axe and improving their skill at using one, I think it would be an excellent exercise to get one of these and cut a quantity of firewood with it.  It is also probably an easy axe to learn to chop on.  Although a somewhat longer handle could be safer, the shorter handle should be more accurate.

I’ve had the gransfors for a very long time and thanks to the outstanding quality of the handle wood and my hard won skill at not breaking axe handles all the time, it has survived the years and seen a lot of use.  I like the design, but it’s a tad short at 25 inches, which is my short limit for a truly effective and comfortable axe at my height (5’ 10”).  The workmanship on the head is terrible though.  The bit is extremely crooked.  So if the Husqvarna works out, which I think it will, the Gransfors will go on the auction block.  I’m not interested in these things hanging about gathering dust.

Coming up in this project, we’ll talk about the axe, buying it and what I do and don’t like and then start modifying it.  Some stuff I know what I want and other stuff will be experimental.  during and after, we’ll test it at various uses to see how it performs.


Posted on October 22, 2016 and filed under axes, firewood, Forestry, tools.

Cool Axe and Hatchet Technique for Small Diameter Wood

Okay, this is a simple technique for wood up to around 2 inches in diameter.  It is very effective and reasonably efficient, especially when you consider maintenance and cost of a chainsaw.  Cutting up small wood with a chainsaw can be dicey too, especially if it's crooked.  It can fly all over and cause the saw to snag and kick back.  This technique is probably faster than using most, if not all, hand held manual saws and it is certainly a lot funner.

One Cord, One Year, Cutting All of My Firewood With an Axe This Year.

Greetings internetians.  There is just something about axes and hatchets that gets some of us all worked up.  If you’re one of those types, I have an interesting project to talk to you about.

I’ve been interested in and using axes and hatchets for a long time.  It’s something I enjoy thoroughly.  If at any given time I think, what would I like to do if I could do anything, running out to the woods with an axe and chopping wood is right up near the top of the list!  Seriously, I think that all the time.  But I rarely do it.  There is no time, it takes too long, I have other important things to do, blah blah blah… so when I need firewood, out comes the chainsaw.

I started out as a complete novice with only some books, like Kephart’s Camping and Woodcraft, and others in that genera.  Later I met Mors Kochanski and picked up his excellent book Northern Bushcraft.  I almost hurt myself many times, broke handles, replaced handles, broke them again, made my own handles and generally picked up the basics in the school of hard knocks.  I’m not a rank amateur, but I’m no pro either, and by any traditional standards I’m still probably a complete and utter dorkus with an ax.  Why?  Because I don’t use them often enough, or consistently enough.  I use hatchets a lot more for small tasks around the place, and running around in the woods doing other stuff, but axes find less day to day use.  I do a lot of my limbing with an axe, but not a lot of felling or bucking.  Well, I’m over that.  I’m feeling better these days than I have in a while and as always making ridiculously optimistic plans, like cutting all my cordwood this year with an axe!

To some, that may sound like a nightmare, or like the least fun thing ever, but to me it sounds like just about the FUNNEST thing ever!  I’ve already started.  Best idea ever.  Now, I will be forced to dial in my gear, clean up, profile, make handles for, haft and sharpen all those axe heads that have been languishing coated in rust for years.  I’ll also develop even more personal, contextual opinions about handles, profiles and blade shapes than I already have, and chop my way through enough wood to be entitled to opinions about any of it.  Yep, fun galore, and not probably as hard as it may sound.  

Most people that have swung an axe have not exactly had a great experience.  There are a lot of factors that go into efficient and effective axe use and few of them are typically in play in the average scenario.  Sure, if we start with a dull axe, that has a fat bit and a thick handle, and if we have no practice, don’t understand the necessary strategy, strike at the wrong angle, can’t hit what we’re aiming at and start out expecting to make progress if we just give it a huge effort, it’s going to suck and we are mostly going to end up tired and discouraged with very little work done, if not injured or with a broken axe handle.  Honestly, even starting with a sharp axe will not help that much if everything else is not dialed in pretty well.  A good sharp axe in effective hands, if used to make careful, measured cuts, is effective and fun to use.  Watch a lumberjack competition sometime.

When I first was thinking about doing this project, I found the idea daunting.  Now I don’t.  One of the things that encouraged me was reading that a good hand in the old days could put up two cords of wood a day with an axe.  Two cords is a well stacked pile 8 x 4 x 8 feet.  YEAH RIGHT!?  Here is a quote from a random account I was reading the other day out of the 19th century.  It is an instructive letter to the editor about not using too heavy an axe.  Full text below: 

“When night came we piled up our wood and measured it. Joe's pile measured one and a half cords, mine only three-quarters of a cord…..  The next morning I felt lame and stayed at home. Joe put in his cord and a half, as usual.”  The farm implement news, volume 7 1885

Now, it doesn’t say what length the wood was cut to in those things, and that could make a very big difference.  Cutting 24 inch fireplace logs, 4 foot logs for transport, or arm-span lengths for a furnace of some kind is a good bit different than cutting the 16 inch logs I need for my wood stove.  200 feet cut into 24 inch lengths is roughly 100 cuts, while at 16 inches it’s 150 cuts.  That is very significant.  The other woodstove on the property takes logs about 12 inches and down.  I’m not cutting for that one :)

Another encouraging thing was hearing Mors Kochanski saying in this video that he could drop a 12 inch 50 foot tree, limb it and cut it into arm span lengths in guess how long?  10 to 15 minutes, maybe less!   skip to 11:00 min for that part.

You just don’t get that good, or any good at all, whackin’ at a few trees or logs on the weekend.  Nope, as I’ve said about other things, if you want to get good at something and really understand it contextually, put yourself in a position where you do it as a lifestyle thing.  I need to cut wood this year.  If I decide that this year it’s axes only for felling, limbing, chopping and splitting a certain amount of wood, I’m going to learn a lot very fast!  Immersion! that’s what it’s all about!

Axes have become very popular.  That is really cool.  It is heartening to see the upsurge in interest in interacting with natural environments and using basic tools and materials.  Because of that, there is an increasing amount of information out there, but very few people that can actually use an axe effectively.  Of those of us who are not complete novices, fewer yet are anything like experts.  And it’s no wonder.  How many people chop enough wood with an axe to even get good, let alone very good?  Not very many.  That is an inevitable consequence of our modern way of life.

Well, one Person’s work is another’s play I guess.  As long as I have the energy to do it joyfully, effectively and relatively safely, chopping wood is fun as hell.  Using an axe, or splitting wood, or doing anything that requires skill and focus is very similar to a challenging sport.  And boy does using an axe require focus!

Axes and hatchets are extremely dangerous.  An axe is nothing to play with and chopping anything with an axe is a time for humility and sharp focus.  At first it is clumsy and tiring and seems futile, but as you gain skill, it becomes increasingly an extension of you and you can get into a groove, or zone as they say in sports.  The danger inherent in using an axe has a good and bad side.  On the one hand, danger makes us focus and adds an element of immediacy, much like a competition sport or a hunt does.  But, then it is also just dangerous and there is no way around that.  It can be more or less dangerous, but it is still dangerous to everyone, all the time, not matter how much experience they have.  And it’s especially dangerous when we’re learning.  

I was planning to do a cordwood challenge where I challenged people to cut a chosen amount of wood with an axe.  I decided to put that off.  Putting yourself on a deadline with only two months to go (done by june first is my goal, so there is time for drying) is not safe when doing something dangerous and unfamiliar.  My personal goal this year is just a cord, which is 4 x 4 x 8 feet stacked neatly.  I’d kind of like to do more honestly, but I actually don’t even need to cut a cord to get through next winter.  Honestly, I have a lot of wood now and may not need to cut any at all.  I might make charcoal out of some of my left over wood just to make room!  I probably don’t usually burn much more than a cord most years and often less.  I thought it could be a one cord challenge, but that is unreasonable for a lot of people and it seems better to just challenge people to pick an amount, even if it’s small, like a quarter of a cord (One quarter of a cord equals 4x4x2 feet stacked).

A person, could end up with an expensive hospital bill using an axe, or worse be maimed for life.  You could cut yourself where there is no one around and bleed to death.  We face these kinds of possibilities every time we pick one of these things up.  If you lack experience with an ax entirely, or with using similar long handled tools, a year of gaining familiarity might be in order.  That is a challenge in itself, so no hurry.  I’m just suggesting that this could be an edifying experience for some people.  There are many ancillary skills required too that one might not pick up if not pressed a little to do so in order to accomplish a goal.  An axe needs be sharp to be safe and effective.  It also needs a good handle.  Novices often break them.  I've broken many.  We all do.  Or you may have an axe with an old, weathered or warped handle that needs a new one.  Every axe user should be able to replace an axe handle, and it’s ideal to be able to make one.

As far as resources for learning go, I’m not sure I’m up to the task of teaching you how to use an axe, though I will certainly be sharing stuff and talking about the things that I learn or improve at.  I’ll try to spend some time on YouTube collecting some stuff worth watching.  Maybe I’ll make a playlist of them all, we’ll see what I come up with, but honestly, most of it is either not very useful, if not actually dangerous.  Book wise, Mor’s Kochanski’s Northern Bushcraft is a great read and probably the best thing going when it comes to axe safety.  I’ve also read the axe book by D. Cook this year and like it very much.  Both authors are thorough and thoughtful.  most importantly, their knowledge is something they own out of experience.

So, axe interested parties experienced or not, give some thought to taking on my challenge next year.  If you are inexperienced, it will be a journey.  You’ll need to acquire an axe which may or may not need renovation.  Spend the next year learning about axes and getting your gear dialed in, practicing etc.  Then when next late winter/spring rolls around, you’ll be primed to improve rapidly and succeed.  There is much to be learned and skill to gain.  Axes and hatchets can be very versatile tools.  Using one requires a lot of energy, but it is also great exercise.  Compared to using a chainsaw, an axe will greatly increase your coordination and strength.  It is also a more intimate way to interact with wood.  You have to pay attention.  Enough said for now.  I’m hoping to have my cord cut by June 1st so it has time to season.  I’m sure you’ll be hearing more from me about this project and various axe related things in the coming year or more.

The Axe Book by Dudley Cook:

Mors Kochanski's Bushcraft, great for axe use and safety  

Horace Kephart's Camping and Woodcraft, read free!  


full text of  Light versus Heavy Axes.
A correspondent of the Albany Cultivator describes his experience with axes, which we give in part as an item of interest to our readers who rely so much upon work with these tools:
"My first axe weighed 4-1/2 pounds, being the heaviest one I could find at the time. I was fresh from a class in natural philosophy, knew all about inertia, and had learned something of the force of gravity and the laws of falling bodies; had rightly guessed that chopping wood might be hard work, and determined that my knowledge of physics should help me out. I would have a heavy axe, a long handle—would move slowly, and take strokes that would count when they fell. My axe handle was 34 inches in length, the longest one in the store. I had hired a tough little French Canadian, weighing about 120 pounds, to help, he brought an axe—a mere toy I called it, which weighed 2-1/2 pounds, with a handle only 26 inches long. I told him I had a fair-sized job for him, and thought it would pay him to buy a full-grown axe. He smiled and said he gussed his would do. I had decided that we would work separately during the first day or two, in order that I might show what I could do. As I began to swing my axe I felt proud of its ponderous blows that rang through the woods, and rather pitied the poor fellow who was drumming away with his little axe, taking about two blows to my one. Presently I had to stop to rest, and then again, and still again; but my man, kept pecking away quietly, steadily, and easily, and seemed perfectly able to do all necessary breathing without stopping his work for the purpose. When night came we piled up our wood and measured it. Joe's pile measured one and a half cords, mine only three-quarters of a cord.
The next day I felt lame and stayed at home. Joe put in his cord and a half, as usual. When I went to the woods again we worked together. Not many days passed before I found an excuse for buying a lighter axe and a shorter handle. And every axe and handle that I have bought since, has been lighter and shorter than its predecessor. Whenever I use an axe now I select one very much like Joe's, both in weight and length of handle. I can use this without getting out of breath, and can hit twice in the same place. The result is that I can do more and better work and save a vast amount of strength.
Posted on March 26, 2016 and filed under firewood, Forestry, tools.

Splitting Wood by Hand, #5, Just Splitting Some Wood.

This is #5 in my wood splitting video series, but it's being released out of order.  After shooting the footage for segments3 and 4 on technique and strategy, and trying to explain it all, the gears in my brain really started turning.  I feel like I can do a much better job of explaining and demonstrating those things now.  Having put it all into language in my head I also feel like I have a better personal understanding too and can probably further refine my technique.  So the technique and strategy videos will be re-shot this year, although I'm putting a few bullet points and a teaser below.  Also below are a list of other wood splitting videos worth watching.

I also have better slow motion capabilities now, which I can use to make a study of the mechanics of splitting.  Some of the important stuff that I'll be talking about in the technique video is presented in this segment as subtitles.  I'll make blog posts with photos explaining segments 3 and 4, but this video stands on it's own more or less, and it is intended for visual learning anyway.

I just spent a couple of hours looking for a few decent wood splitting videos to link in this one, and I can tell you, my stuff is top shelf compared to the vast majority of what's out there.  Hopefully people will actually see it.  I'm still ranking low in the search engines.  Comments, likes and shares anywhere help me reach more people.  I'm very excited to make the next two videos and get deeper into the details that matter and which could really help people increase their splitting effectiveness!  The previously released videos, along with this one, are in my firewood playlist.


Some notes and bullet points.

You'll notice that I don't favor using a splitting block for the most part.  Splitting on the ground requires a tool with a pretty obtuse edge for strength, but it has some benefits as follows.

*We don't have to move the wood to the block, especially important with big rounds.

*We don't have to pick up pieces and set them on (or back on) the stump.

*We don't have to set the tool down to pick up wood

*We have better mechanical advantage (more speed can be generated if target is lower)

*It is safer, since the work is closer to the ground.

*Less interruption to the work flow.

I've come to think that the equation Mass+Speed= Inertia/Momentum/Power is a core principal here.  I believe that any energy transfer to the target after contact is negligable compared the energy embodied before impact.  By having a low target and tightening the radius of the swing into a shorter arc at the end of the stroke, you can generate a tremendous amount of speed which equates to stored energy.  I know there is more involved than just that, but I suspect that things like the shape of the head, angle of attack and any twisting or manipulation of the head is really secondary to that equation.  Even if twisting, the head, at the moment of impact to open the split, you are still using mostly that stored energy, you're just sending it off in a different direction.  Aim and Strategy are of course also extremely important.  But, assuming you know where to strike and can hit the target, being able to embody a great deal of energy in the maul or ax head will most certainly serve you well, even if you don't need it all the time.

These video stills helped me understand my technique better and will no doubt lead to further refinement.  They are evenly spaced and shot at 24 frames per second, so covering just 9/24ths of a second.  Notice how much faster the maul head travels from frames 4 to 6, due to a tightening of the radius of the swing. It is hardly visible in frame 6, too fast for the camera to catch. 

After frame 5, the arc revolves around my fixed wrist position.  Between frames 5 and 9, my wrists move very little, but the head moves 4 feet or more.  I'm not pushing the head through the wood, I'm whipping it on the end of this long handle to throw it through the wood.  The force generated by this technique can be very powerful.  It's about taking the mass you have to work with and accelerating it very fast using simple leverage.

Also, note that because of that tighter radius, the angle of attack is significantly toward me.  If the round were up on a block, that could put the mauls edge pointing dangerously at my ankles or feet... not to mention that I would have less time and distance in which to generate speed unless I'm 7 feet tall.  A low block is an option, but requires moving each round onto the block.  Of course, this much momentum is often unnecessary.  Splitting blocks are great sometimes, but I've come to use them less and less for the type of splitting I'm usually doing around here.

Other youtube videos worth watching

Wood splitting videos worth checking out.  I had to sift through a load of crap to find these few gems!

*Damn, can anyone say badass?  I like the splitting horizontal pieces on the ground.  Been playing with that for smaller pieces.  

*And another bad ass!  A serious professional.

*Score one for the badass ladies.  115 pounds of hellcat!

*Delicate and graceful, but effective.  And splitting over rocks even.  Just beautiful.  this is one of the Vido Daughters.  I have communicated with them about scythes and other self reliance/tool stuff.  Lovely people, check out their youtube channel, scytheconnection for some amazing videos, and also the scythe connection website. These people are the real deal!  When they talk, people should listen.

*This guy split professionally with a relatively light and very thin axe he designed just for splitting.  Entirely different than my generally heavy handed maul approach.  Here he races a hydraulic splitter.

*Eustace Conway, subject of the book The Last American Man.  I met him when I was 19.  He blanked out a piece of wood for me with his hatchet.  I was trying to make a bowl out of it, but I only had a dull swiss army knife.  It was the first time I saw anyone use a hatchet with any proficiency, a Eureka moment for sure.  I've been in love with axes and hatchets ever since.  Anyway, his technique is interesting.  Poetry in motion!

*I like this guy's video.  His wood is easy splitting and sounds/looks frozen, which makes it even easier, but he's using a small short handled axe and he clearly knows what he's doing.  He's got the speed building rotation around the wrists thing going on too.  Also, very interested in his hit overhanging the far edge of the round technique.  I'll definitely be playing with that.

*This guy is great.  he's got a big old axe and is just totally berserk, but very effective and deadly accurate!  I'd love to see what he could do with that axe on some of the harder wood I split around here.  It's nice to use an axe when it does the job it just sort of slides on through, unlike the fat maul bits I use most of the time, but when axes jam up, the narrow bit sinks in deep and is a lot harder to pull out.   Watch beginning of part 2 as well. with the very straight, grained soft, easy splitting wood though.

Peeling Oak Bark for Tanning Leather and Apple Breeding Update

Here are a couple of recent videos I did on the stuff I do around here.  One is a short update on labeling and protecting fruit that was pollinated earlier this year as part of my apple breeding project.  I talk a little about the breeding parents and related stuff, but it's pretty straightforward and short, with a quick visit to my new pig. The second is a follow along while I cut down, cut up, and peel the bark off of a tan oak tree that is infected with the organism involved in sudden oak death.  I use the bark for tanning skins.  I'm working on a book right now on tanning with plant materials like bark, various leaves and pods and stuff like that.  Writing, research and experiments around that project now consume most ofmy time, energy and thought.  In the video I show a few pieces of leather tanned with oak bark, peel the bark, split the wood and clean it all up.  There are few things I'd rather do with my time than that type of forestry work.  Splitting wood, playing with wood, using my axe, burning brush to make charcoal, etc..   is all my idea of a good time!  woo hoo!  It's really hard for me to cut these videos down and focus them in.  There are so many satellite topics I want to talk about!   Definitely some stuff coming on axe use, wood splitting tutorials, forestry and forest ecology, and lots of tanning and skin working stuff.

Simple, Efficient, Cheap, Flexible Biochar Trench Video, and Frankentree Trailer

Coming next weekend!  I guarantee the actual video is less exciting than the trailer, but it is much more edifying!  This video will just be an introduction to the idea, and the benefits of frankentreeing.  I will certainly put together a much more technical video in the future.

Below is my second fast motion video on the two simple biochar methods I've been experimenting with.  A few notes...

Fuels:  I suspect that pieces larger than about 3 inches are better either split down or charred by another method, and chips might be better done in a TLUD or some such device.  I haven't tried either in the trench though, so that's just speculation.  I doubt that large wood will char well in the trench because it takes so long to char all the way through, but chips might be just fine if fed pretty constantly in thin layers.  As long as everything you're putting in turns to charcoal and you're not getting a lot of ashes or a lot of smoke with it, you're doing well.  I've done green and dry wood.  Dry is better of course.  I think the jury is still out on green wood.  The one I did mostly with pretty green wood was a very hot, large pit and the wood was brushy allowing for the ingress for large amounts of air.  It was still pretty sluggish and I'd certainly tend to let the stuff dry for a summer first if possible.

Wood size and shape:  It's hard to say without actually measuring things, but the trench seems to have a very efficient conversion ratio (wood to charcoal with low ash production) if the material is of a nature that it can be laid thickly and flat onto the coals, and of course if it is tended adequately.  This method takes a little more effort than last week's open burn, since you have to dig a hole, but it handles certain materials better.  I've done a number of these now and have found that they don't handle tangly brush all that well.  I did pretty good with douglas fir limbs, but not with oak, madrone and similar branches that have a lot of twigs poking in every direction.  The fir limbs are pretty linear and stack into the trench closely enough to get by.  If the fuel doesn't lay into the trench well, it will allow too much oxygen to reach the coals and result in more ash formation.  So, really tangly stuff that takes up a lot of volume of space might be better burned in an open pile, or reduced in size and shape to fit into the trench better.  When I take trees down, I typically limb up the 2 1/2" to 3" branches and larger, setting them aside, while anything smaller is brush for burning.  So, I'll usually end up with a pile of each, larger stuff with little to no brush for the firewood pile or the trench, and small tangly stuff for the open pile method.

A trench burn using mostly untrimmed douglas fir limbs worked adequately well.  Better than very spreading tangly type branches, but not quite as well as lengths and chunks of wood without any small branches.
A trench burn using mostly untrimmed douglas fir limbs worked adequately well. Better than very spreading tangly type branches, but not quite as well as lengths and chunks of wood without any small branches.

Trench v.s. Pit Shape:  You could just dig a round pit, and that might be good for small wood, and especially small chunks like lumber cutoffs, but the long shape allows burning of long wood without cutting it up which can be a huge savings if long wood is what you've got.  It of course works fine for short wood too.  I haven't done a burn in just one end of the trench, but it seems like it should work fine as long as the open end of the fire has wood added to it same as the top.  If nothing else, the trench could be blocked with dirt of bricks for small burns of short stuff.

Other options:  FYI, this is based on the Japanese Cone Kiln concept, and you can also do it in other containers, like a webber BBQ for micro scale (be sure to seal any holes on the bottom).  I think you could also use an old wheel barrow body.  You can see Backyard Biochar for more on the cone kilns and other simple methods.

The burn requires maintenance, but not constant maintenance, so bring a book or a project to work on.

Summarizing:Between this and the open burn pile method in last week's video, a lot of wood types that most people have access to can be charred easily, with a minimum of preparations, planning or technology.  Considering the simplicity and low inputs of these two methods, there seems little reason not to turn the woody resources that accumulate around a homestead, or even backyard, into charcoal instead of ash.   That is my main message here.   You could of course turn smaller stuff into compost, but since charcoal can serve some of the purposes of organic matter in the soil (nutrient reservoir, microbe housing, moisture holding and soil texture changes)  but permanently with a one time applications, it's worth considering charring it in your webber for a while, or some of it at least.  It's not a complete substitute for organic matter, but it should, in theory, help you get more out of the organic matter and other nutrients you add to the soil in the future.  I add some organic matter to the soil, but I consider the most important the plant roots that are left behind after every crop.  

Anyway, that's more than enough said.  Most of what you need to know is in the video...

Posted on October 4, 2014 and filed under BioChar, Forestry, Garden Stuff.

Sloping Pit Charcoal Kiln and Agave Roasting

charcoal cone pit headerIn the comments on the biochar experiment post, Lars mentioned Japanese cone kilns.  I checked them out on Kelpie’s cool blog, Green Your Head and they do indeed look way cool.  Although slapping a crude one together out of sheet metal would probably be pretty easy, Lars had just simply dug a pit in the same shape.  I tried Lar's pit idea the other day, burned some charcoal in it, and learned a few things that I want to pass on.  This is slightly premature compared to most of my post, which are typically backed by a bit more experience and contemplation, but I'd like to get this idea out there more.  There is very little posted about it anywhere on the net, but it seems very promising, accessible and meets a lot of criteria for a good charcoal production system with very little effort. Commercially available cone kiln from Amazon Japan

Part one.  Sage, Agave and fishes (which have little to do with charcoal production.)  If you are interested in burning charcoal and have a short attention span from internet overstimulation, skip ahead!

When I was in my 20’s I spent a lot of time backpacking out of Big Sur, on the coast of Central California.  One of the common plants is Black Sage, White Sage’s little known, and much more potent sibling.  I've always loved Black Sage and much prefer burning it to the white.  When I moved here, I got some cuttings from someone and rooted them so I could have it around me.  The scent still evokes a lot of fond memories from those good times out in the mountains.  At the time, I lived in the Santa Cruz mountains and used to pick Black Sage and tie it into smudges.   I now have quite a few plants growing, and tying Black Sage smudge sticks is one of many crafty cottage industry occupations that help bring in a little income around here.  Most sage bundles are tied with cotton thread, wrapped in a spiral.  That was way too domesticated for me  back then, so I tied mine off with another plant I harvested in the Big Sur area, Yucca.

Black Sage

When I’d go out backpacking, I’d always harvest some yucca leaves on the way in to camp, pound them on a log by the river, and wash them clean of pulp to extract the long fibers.  I’d twist those fibers into a cord, attach that cord to a stick, add a couple feet of fishing line on the end.  The hook was nearly always a crude fishing fly I'd make by wrapping on whatever bits of feathers or fur I spotted on the hike in.  My fishing kit fit in a tiny pouch, and that’s all I had to carry.  My crude makeshift fishing rig worked awesome!  Wow did those fish bite.  Anything that remotely resembled a bug in the water got hit.  That is elegance.  extremely effective, low input, low cost, less junk to carry, connects me with the environment, builds skills, very little landfill material.  Anyhoo, I always brought out some extra fiber or yucca leaves with me when I eventually made my way back to civilization, and ended up using yucca to tie up my sage bundles.  The practice stuck.

There are several ways to process yucca.  You can pound it fresh with a wood mallet on a smooth log and repeatedly wash and scrape it.  (the pulp is soapy, so you can wash your clothes or dishes while you’re at it.)  The pulp is somewhat tenacious though, so it’s easier to clean off if it is softened by either cooking it, or rotting in water in a process known as retting.  Retting in water is pretty easy, but it takes a long time, and boy does it stink!  The fibers don’t absorb the smell at all, but hands sure do.  If left soaking too long, the fibers are also attacked by bacteria and weakened.

Up around these parts, there isn’t any yucca, but my neighbor Rob grows a lot of Agave americana, a large plant related to yucca which is also used to make tequilla.  Agave americana is not the best agave species for fiber, but it is decent and good enough for tying sage bundles.  I recently harvested some leaves over at Robs garden, an impressive meandering wild affair built up on a bare skim of soil over a serpentine rock  outcrop and consisting only of the toughest most drought resistant plants.  I wanted to bake the leaves because the last batch I tried to ret didn’t work out that great, and it’s winter so it could take months to ret a leaf that is 2 to 3 inches thick in some sections.

agave leaves

 Ok, on to the charcoal kiln:  I couldn’t just build a cone kiln.  As soon as I saw the shape of the cone, I knew I’d be spending a lot of time cutting wood to fit it.  That is a problem with many charcoal making apparatus.  Fuel sometimes has to be reduced to a certain size.  I figured that the principal of the Japanese cone kiln ought to work just as well (and actually better for my purposes)  if the shape were longer.  With a longer kiln pit, much less wood cutting would be entailed.  I don’t mind doing work to get what I want.  I’m not workophobic.  I like cutting wood.  But I like getting shit done too, and cutting longer wood means more wood cut at the end of the day, which equals more charcoal.  I also like efficiency.

 So I put agave leaves and charcoal pit together.  I could dig a long pit kiln, burn the long wood and use the residual heat to roast long agave leaves to soften them up for processing out the fiber.

Ideally the kiln would have been even longer for even less wood cutting (UPDATE: which I've now done and it was great for long unprocessed limbs with twigs and all), but I didn’t have a ton of wood set aside to fill it this time around, and didn’t need a huge pit to cook the leaves in.  I think the opening was probably about 6 feet long and sloped down from there on all four sides.  I didn’t screw around trying to make it nice, even though I had already generated ideas about how to best build and run such a pit.   This run was all about observing what did happened, rather than second guessing exactly what was going to happen.  I knew I’d learn something by just digging a hole and going for it.  I lined the bottom of the pit with bricks to retain heat for roasting the agave.  It is sometimes possible to use just the heat stored in soil to cook things in the ground, but I knew it wouldn’t be adequate in this case, especially since the ground was already wet.  I had doubts that one layer of bricks would even provide enough mass for heat storage, but I just left it at that.  I think more mass would have been better, but it worked okay.

The fire was built and maintained until the pit was fairly full.  The coals were then raked out (most of them anyway) and a few scrappy sacrificial leaves laid on the bottom against the hot bricks and coals, followed by the remaining leaves.  About a gallon of water was thrown on for steam, and the dirt was piled back on as quickly as possible.  No really, as quickly as possible, like all out, fast as you can.  (No pictures of putting the pit together, since I was rushing in order to retain precious heat.)  The charcoal was quenched with water on the ground.  A small brush fire was built on top of the pit for about 8 hours to keep heat in.

This is toward the end of the burn.  I could have fit at least two more layers, but I was running out of wood.  Note the close spacing and attempt to cover the top pretty well in order the shield the coals below from receiving too much air.


Here is some of what I learned.

The cone kiln concept works.  The principal is so simple that I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of it before and almost surprised that I didn’t think of it myself.  You start with  a fire and establish a layer of coals covering the bottom.  When each layer is almost burned to coals, another layer is added.  Each new layer effectively uses up incoming oxygen before it can get to the coals below, thus putting them out, or causing them to barely burn.  You can see this effect in a brush burn pile.  Generally there is a good pile of unburned charcoal in a burn pile when the flames subside, and it takes up to a day or more to finish burning out.  That is with piles that are managed for less smoke by piling stuff on one layer at a time as the fire burns, which is how I usually do it.  I don't like making piles way ahead and burning them, because lizards, frogs, salamanders and snakes all move in and get burned up.  A brush pile is a wildlife magnet.  Kelpie builds brush piles and burns them from the top down to reduce smoke and produce char.  The cone pit burns with very little smoke.  Low smoke is a huge departure from most primitive charcoal making methods, and one of my criteria for a good system of char production.  You could probably do this in many backyards without raising any eyebrows or calls to the fire department.

I think that using wood of similar size for each layer is important.  Each new addition should burn down fairly evenly, that is with all pieces burning at a similar rate.  If half the wood is one inch diameter and the rest is 3 inch, the one inch material is going to be burned to ash by the time the 3 inch stuff is burned down enough to add a new layer of fuel.  This principal probably would also apply to differences in wood species and condition, i.e. oak mixed with pine, or green mixed with seasoned.

The layer of wood added should be tightly spaced and/or thick enough to adequately smother the fire below.  Think of each layer of wood as an intercepting shield.  the shield should adequately cover and protect the layer below from infiltrating air.  I chopped the pieces to fit as necessary, and packed them pretty close together.  I left just enough room between pieces to let a little air in between them to keep it all burning cleanly.  More experimentation should be revealing as to what can be gotten away with.  At some point too much attention to detail is going to cost more than it gains.

Square corners are an issue.  I should have seen this one coming.  Square corners create cold zones.  Visualize fire in a rounded corner, v.s. in a square corner.  The rounded corner creates no cold zone and heat is radiated back into the fire in a parabolic effect, like a satellite dish, or solar dish cooker.  I had trouble filling the squared corners with wood in order to keep a hot fire in them.  The corners also ironically tended to burn out underneath once they did get going due to too much oxygen infiltration.  In short, they seemed hard to manage.  Not horrible or anything, but they seemed unpreferable.  I’m not sure one couldn’t effectively manage a pit with square corners, but it seems more finicky at the least.

The shallowly sloped walls are there for a reason.  I mean duh, we’re dealing with Japanese technology here, elegant and effective.  I think the shallowly sloped walls are there because they lead to more effective covering of the previous layer.  Wood on top extends out past the previous layer shielding it from oxygen more effectively.  I could tell I was having losses on one side that was dug with a pretty steep wall, making it more difficult to cover the lower layers adequately.  That's what it seemed like anyway.  Maybe some other reason will become apparent with more experience, but I think that is the reason.

Dirt is messy.  I dug this pit, barely cleaned it out, raked the charcoal out onto the ground and dumped water on it.  It was messy.  Lots of rocks and dirt in the charcoal,  and grass and leaves everywhere.  It would have been much easier to get the charcoal out of the pit if the sides were smooth and clean.  And, it wouldn’t hurt to have a clean area to rake coals out onto.  Dirt and rocks can be washed out by throwing all the charcoal in a tub of water and swirling it around for a second.  All the rocks and nails or whatever will fall to the bottom, and the charcoal is scooped out with a colander, but it’s a messy hassle.

I plan to test all of these observations and assumptions in the future.  For now, I feel like I know where to go next.  If you want to experiment with the cone kiln principal, here are some bullet points.

*Use shallowly sloping sides.  Just like the free standing metal kiln in the picture above.

*If you dig a long pit, make rounded corners.  More like a diminishing oval than a diminishing rectangle.

*Dirt can be dealt with and may not even be a significant hassle in some contexts, but if the kiln is to be used many times (as for biochar production) paving the sides with brick or pasting it over with a clay sand mix might be in order.  Adding that mass would also make the pit into an effective oven as well.  With the right sized pit and enough mass, you could cook large amounts of food, a whole animal, agave leaves, or whatever.  It’s nice to be able to use all that residual heat for something, even if it's just to set a pot of beans in there overnight.


The metal cone kilns are way cool and have the obvious advantage of portability.  But they are also expensive, if you can even find one to buy outside of Japan.  You can probably have one fabricated out of stainless steel at a metal shop.  You could also probably whip a decent one up out of sheet metal with a pop riveter and a pair of metal shears, which I hope to get around to (caution, don't use galvanized metal.  Zinc is toxic when burned.)  It doesn’t have to look good, though the seams might need to be reasonably tight to prevent air infliltration.  The pit is very attractive as an idea.  Anyone can dig a pit, and many could effectively line it with stone or masonry.  A pit is going to be cheap or free, and you can use the residual heat to do other stuff.  One idea I had was to build an above ground pit.  Here I can only burn in the rainy season, so a lined “pit” built in a raised mound of well draining material like gravel or gravelly soil, would be ready to use all year, even when the ground is soaked.

My yield of charcoal to fuel burned seemed decent, and there were almost no unburned pieces remaining.  I think there may be room for improvement in yield with better management or feedstock, but I'm happy enough with what I got out of it.  I want to go other places with this concept eventually, with as much function stacking as possible.  For instance, burnt clay is also a great soil amendment and could be produced by lining the pit with clay and chipping it off to add a new layer each time the pit is burned.  Maybe a few shells could be added to make some agricultural lime while we’re at it.  Wish I'd thought of that this last time around.

Many char producing systems will only take one size/shape of wood.  In the cone system, it seems like each layer should be composed of pieces of similar thickness, but otherwise, there is a lot of leeway in fuel size and shape.  Some methods also use up extra fuel in order to burn the charcoal.  Not using extra wood to generate adequate heat, and being relatively efficient, are other good design parameters that the cone kiln, in spite of it's simplicity, seems to do pretty well with.  In producing char, it is probably going to be best to have a variety of options here for the different types of feed stock that might be produced on 40 acres of varied species, combined with pallet and scrap wood, wood chips I can scrounge up, etc.  For now, the cone kiln concept seems well worth pursuing further, and a great addition to the stable.  I'm actually pretty excited about it, because it possesses a lot of good points, combined with simplicity/accessibility.   I’ll leave you with some agave processing pictures.

(edit:  Since writing this, I trailed some links back to find Josiah Hunt is doing something similar in Hawaii.  His burning style is different, but pretty much the same concept.  Check it out.!topic/biochar-hawaii/ohoqDcuHMiQ )

Roasted leaves look like dead fish.

agave leaf structure

scraping agave fibers

Some cleaned fibers.

Finished smudge sticks.  Frequent discreet ties mean no unravelling.  My smudge sticks are ridiculously dense, ridiculously intense and won't unravel when you travel.

Posted on December 21, 2013 and filed under BioChar, Forestry, Garden Stuff, Uncategorized.

Biochar in 19th Century Europe and North America: A partial review

(The comments in this article have been slightly updated and the title changed since first publishing.  The original title was: Some 19th Century References on Biochar Use in Europe and America, which was just sort of lame.)

Biochar, the promising expedient of adding charcoal as a soil amendment, is often represented as a recent discovery of a very ancient technique originating in South America.  But, the research I've been doing lately shows that its use probably has more of a history than we may think and may have been gaining momentum among European and American horticulturalists in the 19th century. I will present all of that research here after a short introduction.

As a keen experimenter, super geek and infoholic interested in what are now mostly considered archaic arts, I find myself frequenting online archives of old books to find knowledge on various subjects.  The most searchable and useful of these that I know of is the arm of our big brother known as Googlebooks.  This is an astounding tool for the type of research I do!  Wow!  I have collected over the last 2 and a half decades any interesting books I can find on various archaic subjects such as glue making, argiculture, electricity, casein, animal fats, tanning etc... Those few books have been hard won by perusing used book stores, flea markets, junk shops and yard sales, but in the end often amount to little in the way of information when I go to consult them on this or that subject.  Sometime a couple of years ago I ran across a reference to something called  biochar.  I had always wondered if charcoal might be either useful or detrimental when added to soil, so I looked into it a little.  I found a collection of enthusiastic experimenters making claims about the greatness of adding specially burned charcoal to the soil.  I was intrigued by some of the evidence, but it was all good news, which generally raises red flags for me and I was hesitant to jump in with both feet preferring to wait a bit for more research and more information, both old and new, to become available.  The information available on the net has exploded since then.  In the meantime, I’ve instructed everyone in the house to pick the charcoal out of the fire in the morning before relighting it and have also salvaged charcoal from campfires and brush burn piles and we have accumulated enough to start experimenting. Researching some other subject last year, I ran across a 19th century reference to putting charcoal in potting soil.  Having recently discovered that I could search a gigantic array of books by century, I did a short bit of poking around on the subject of using charcoal as a fertilizer (or fertiliser as the archaic spelling goes) and came up with quite a few interesting looking references.  I determined to go back and collect some of them systematically and have now finally done so.  I used the search “charcoal fertilizer” and spent many hours systematically sifting through 35 pages of results collecting snippets with references and URLs.  Presented below is sort of a reader’s digest version of what I thought were interesting sections.  I cut out a huge amount of material and anyone more interested might consult the Long PDF version and possibly also follow the URLs to see if anything else of interest is missing, or to view the broader context of the publication or discussion.  Also note that spelling is somewhat dicey.  I did a quick correction, but the text recognition software often makes mistakes.  If you plan to quote this material, I highly recommend that you consult the original references rather than relying on my selection of material and spelling correction. Having read this material, I’m ready to jump into char with both feet now and hoping to get started post haste.  What interests me the most I suppose was the enthusiasm of people with first hand accounts.  I feel and hear the same enthusiasm and indeed the same claims from biochar proponents now, only many of these older accounts were borne out of greater personal experience by farmers fit to judge the matter and sometimes over a longer period of time.  Another thing that interests me in the material is the repeated claim that everybody was privy to the fact that charcoal has a positive effect on plant growth as well as the claims of its widespread use.  These claims may be somewhat exaggerated, but my feeling is that there was a small boom going on which had gained some little momentum.  So what happened?  That is a question worth asking, but which is not going to delay my haste in beginning to make and use char here at Turkeysong. There was a debate about the action of charcoal and the role of carbonic acid which I’ve mostly deleted.  Also, the size of the charcoal that should be used is in debate.  I’m leaning toward powdered or at least very fine charcoal, but that remains to be determined.  Just how far a rootlet can penetrate a lump of charcoal is beyond my knowledge, but it would seem that smaller particles would give access to a much greater area. There are also, I noticed, many references to burnt clay as a valuable soil amendment.  This claim interests me a great deal.  For one, it would be possible, and probably easy, to add some clay or soil to a charcoal burn to make use of the heat to vitrify the clay.  I plan to look into this concept more and, if it seems promising, experiment along with doing charcoal burns which could produce burned clay and possibly lime at the same time. Some seem to claim that only charcoal burned in a certain way qualifies as biochar, these men were using whatever plain old charcoal they had or could get and, produced by the same slow smoky creosote producing methods that had always been used and are still mostly used the world over today.  That to me does not mean that charcoal burned more carefully, cleanly and thoroughly is not better than traditionally produced charcoal, I wouldn't know for sure, but rather that it is clear that regular ol’ charcoal works and that we might accordingly all do well to call this claim into question.  I feel at this point that we needn’t worry overly much about the source of our charcoal unless it is from a toxic industrial process which may be contaminated with toxic metals or chemicals.  It would seem likely that charcoal made by one or the other method would have more beneficial effects due to a greater total surface area or some other factor, and that we might go out of our way to “do it right” when setting up to burn our own.  However, there may be many situations where burning a brush pile in a manner which yields some charcoal might be the better choice over something more inconvenient or too high tech.  Intelligent adaptation always wins over dogma. I hope some people find this information useful and inspiring.  It is from the 19th century only.  I have not followed up any references mentioned and probably will not.  I got what I need out of it for now and have other things to do besides sit in front of a computer, such as applying the knowledge I’ve gleaned.  It would be interesting however to search in other languages of Europe and Asia.  A friend told me that in the sixties he knew loggers in Humboldt county that would burn huge brush piles and then bury the charcoal with their bulldozers to make lush gardens.  His claim is that they were after the charcoal specifically.  Another friend just told me that charcoal is or was buried in gardens in Japan.   Another friend from Guatemala claims that it is used there as well.  I’m sure there are interesting references and anecdotes from all over the world if one seeks them out. ________________________________________


The American wheat culturist: a practical treatise on the culture of wheat ... 1868

Charcoal Dust As A Fertilizer. Charcoal is composed almost entirely of pure carbon; and when small fragments are exposed to the influences of the weather, they undergo very little change during a long term of years. Still the roots of growing plants will lay hold of the small pieces of charcoal, and appropriate the substance contained in the coal to the growth and development of the stems, leaves, and seeds of grain, fruit, and vegetables. Experienced chemists assure us, charcoal, and particularly charcoal dust, has the power of attracting and fixing large quantities of ammonia, a substance which enters largely into the formation of useful plants, and of retaining this fertilizing material when buried in the soil, until the fine fibres of the roots of growing plants require it for promoting their growth. Charcoal has the power of attracting and retaining other gaseous substances besides ammonia, which are highly beneficial to growing wheat plants, as well as grass, vines, trees, and shrubs. Every observing farmer who has been accustomed to raise wheat cannot have failed to notice the luxuriant growth of cereal grain round about the places where charcoal has been burned, even more than thirty or forty years ago. The growing stems of wheat that are produced on such old charcoal-beds are seldom affected with rust; and besides this, the straw is always much stiffer than that which grows where there is not a dressing of charcoal. Before charcoal can promote the growth of plants of any kind, the particles must be thoroughly decomposed, and reduced to a liquid condition. For this reason, previous to the application of charcoal dust as a fertilizer to any kind of soil, the coal should be run through a mill that will reduce the small pieces to fine powder. And even when charcoal is thus finely comminuted by some mechanical means, the action of the fertilizing matter on vegetation will be very slow. .......... R. Ranson, Ashtabula County, Ohio, writes, touching pulverized charcoal, as follows: "I tried another experiment in 1860. My lands are coarse or loose gravel of rather poor quality. I sowed an acre of winter wheat (the blue-stem) preparing my ground as follows: "The field was sown with barley in the spring previous ; yield small (eighteen bushels per acre). I turned in the stubble the last week in August, harrowed it over, then took about eighteen bushels charcoal crushed fine, and top-dressed a strip through the middle of the acre over about one-third of its length; I then sowed on my wheat broadcast and harrowed it over twice. The result was, the heads when ripe were at least twice as long as where no coal was put on. I harvested all together; the yield was forty-three bushels. I think by applying about fifty bushels of coal to the acre as a top-dressing, made fine by grinding in a common bark mill, it would increase the yield at least four hundred per cent., if the soil is poor. "He further states he used burned clay and ashes in the fall of 1860, at the rate of about one hundred bushels of burned clay, taken from a fallow where timber had been uprooted several years by heavy winds. The soil on which the timber grew was burned together with the old roots and clay entwined, and perhaps some muck; the whole, ashes, clay and muck, after being burned as above, were hauled off in a wagon and put upon the wheat field as a top-dressing, and harrowed in with the wheat. The land was poor quality of gravel; the yield was about five hundred per cent. over the remainder of the field where no clay was put. I think there is no fertilizer ahead of this as a top-dresser." See Mixing Soils, second volume of Young Farmer's Manual. ___________________________________________

A Dictionary Of Modern Gardening”, by George William Johnson, David Landreth, 1847.

Charcoal Soot, a chief constituent of which is charcoal, has long been known as a very effective fertilizer; and burning has still longer been known as a mode of reducing stubborn soils to prompt productiveness. But both these sources of fertility might owe their efficiency to other causes than their affording carbon to plants; and it is only within these very few months that anything like a general knowledge has been diffused that mere charcoal is one of the best of manures. The fact has been known for many years to individuals, as, for example, to Mr. Barnes, of Bicton; but it is only very lately that gardeners generally have learned, and I am happy in being able to join my voice to that excellent cultivator’s in announcing, that - charcoal is a most efficient manure to all cultivated plants, especially to those under glass. Heaths, rhododendrons, cucumbers, roses, orchidaceous plants, hydrangeas, camellias, melons, and pine apples, have been the subjects of extended and most successful experiments. The advocates are too well known to require more than naming, for among them are Dr. Lindley, Mr. Barnes, Mr. Maund, Mr. Snow of Swinton Gardens, Mr. Stewart of Stradsett Hall Gardens, and Mr. Rivers. I think no cultivated plant would be unbenefited by having charcoal applied to the soil in which it is rooted. The following communication from Mr. Barnes shows, that carbonized vegetables are a better manure for onions than even bone-dust. “A piece of ground that was cropped with coleworts last autumn, (1843,) was cleared early, and the refuse trenched in during the winter. 95 feet in length and 10 feet in width, was planted with small onions on the 14th of February, which onions had been sown the second week of September in the previous autumn. They were planted in rows one foot apart, and six inches from plant to plant - with the intention of drawing every alternate one for use through the summer - but the whole nine rows did not get entirely thinned. The following is the weight when ripe for storing on the 1st of August. “Five rows grown where 4 lbs. of bone-dust to each row had been sown in a drill drawn 3 inches deep and filled up, and the onions planted over it - producing 420 lbs. weight of onions - each row yielding from 82 to 88 lbs. “The other 4 rows had applied to them of fresh dry charred refuse and ashes, made from the garden rubbish-heap, two common buckets full, weight 14 lbs. They produced 366 lbs. of onions, the rows weighing respectively 99, 89, 95, and 83 lbs. The last row being injured by a row of red cabbage growing near. “Many of the foregoing onions, which were a mixture of the Globe, Deptford, and Reading, measured in circumference from 14 to 16.V inches, and weighed as many ounces. I weighed 12 together, that turned the scale at 12 lb. 9 oz. I can only fancy what a wonderful saving and benefit it would be to the country, to char the refuse of old tan, chips, sawdust, ditch scourings containing sods, weeds, bushes, and refuse. By keeping the surface of the earth well stirred, no crops appear to suffer by drought that are manured by charrings, but continue in the most vigorous health throughout the season, never suffering materially by either drought or moisture”. On spring sown onions and on turnips, Mr. Barnes finds charred or carbonized vegetable refuse equally beneficial. Three rows, each 95 feet long, of the white globe onion, manured with bone-dust, weighed 251 lbs.; whilst three similar rows of the same variety, and grown under precisely similar circumstances, but manured with char-rings, weighed 289 lbs.


Charcoal As A Manure 1860...........

Liebig gives the results of a series of experiments by Lukas on the use of charcoal as a manure, which seem to corroborate his opinion. From the facts which these chemists, however, adduce, it is evident that the beneficial action of charcoal, as a fertilizer, depends upon the presence of other substances besides carbon. Liebig notes (Organic Chem., p. 62) that "plants thrive in powdered charcoal, and may be brought to blossom, and bear fruit, if exposed to the influence of the rain and the atmosphere. Plants do no not, however, attain maturity under ordinary circumstances in charcoal powder when they are moistened with pure distilled water instead of rain or river water. Rain water must, therefore, contain within it one of the essentials of vegetable life; and it has been shown that this is the presence of a compound containing nitrogen; the exclusion of which entirely deprives humus and charcoal of their influence on vegetation.  It is ammonia, to whose presence in rain water Professor Liebig thus refers, in whose valuable work (p. 207) the experiments of Lukas will be found. From these we learn that in a division of a low hothouse, in the Botanic Garden at Munich, a bed was set apart for young tropical plants; but instead of being filled with tan, as is usually the case, it was filled with powdered charcoal, the large pieces of charcoal having been previously separated by means of a sieve. The heat was conducted by means of a tube of white iron into a hollow space in this bed, and distributed a gentle warmth, sufficient to have caused tan to enter into a state of fermentation. The plants placed in this bed of charcoal quickly vegetated and acquired a healthy appearance. As always is the case in such beds, the roots of many of the plants penetrated through the holes in the bottom of the pots, and then spread themselves out; but these plants evidently surpassed in vigor and general luxuriance plants grown in the common way; for example, in tan. M. Lukas then gives a list of several of the exotic plants upon which charcoal appears to have produced the most beneficial effects. It appeared also to promote the rapid germination of seeds. He then proceeded to try the effects of charcoal when mixed with vegetable mould, all of which answered very well. "The charcoal," continues M. Lukas, "used in these experiments was the dust-like powder of charcoal from Firs and Pines. It was found to have most effect when allowed to lie during the winter exposed to the action of the air. In order to ascertain the effects of different kinds of charcoal, experiments were also made upon that obtained from the hard woods and peat, and also upon animal charcoal; although I foresaw the probability that none of them could answer so well as that of Pine wood, both on account of its porosity and the ease with which it is decomposed. The action of charcoal consists primarily in its preserving the parts of plants with which it is in contact, whether they be roots, branches, leaves, Ac., unchanged in their vital power for a long space of time, so that the plant obtains time to develop the organs for its further support and propagation. ........In moist charcoal the seeds of the gardener are found to sprout with remarkable quickness and certainty, but after they have sprouted they do not continue to grow well in charcoal alone." - (7. W. Johnson's Modern Agricultural Improvements.) - J., in Cottage Gardener.


Effect Of Charcoal, On Flowers 1875

All red flowers are greatly benefited by covering the earth in their pots with about an inch of pulverized charcoal. The colors (both red and violet) are rendered extremely brilliant. Yellow flowers are not affected in any way by charcoal


The Cultivator  By New York State Agricultural Society, 1853

Experiments with Charcoal. We have been favored with the following extract from the forthcoming Report of the Survey of Essex County, by W. C. Watson, Esq., which will be read with interest: Enormous masses of dust or debris of the charcoal, accumulate about the iron works of the county, and create incumberances and deformities. It has been annually spread in vast quantities along the highways, constituting an admirable material for roads. An incalculable amount has been cast into the streams. The attention of men of observation and sagacity has been, within a few years, drawn to the use of this ingredient as a fertilizer. Experience has established its exceeding utility. In the midst of the disastrous drouth of last summer, while crossing a field in Moriah, occupied by Mr. Richmond, in pursuit of some Durham cattle I wished to examine, I observed a lot with its surface deeply and singularly blackened. -Upon inspection I found it thickly strewn with pulverized charcoal. The field presented a rich verdure, strongly contrasting with the parched and blighted aspect of the adjacent country. The following detail of this experiment, supplied at my request, attests the value of this material as a fertilizing principle. "The soil is loamy. The charcoal was applied on four acres of dry land, and one acre of moist soil, by top-dressing. The amount used was about one thousand bushels to the acre, spread on so as to make the surface look black, but not to incumber or obstruct vegetation. It was applied in September and October, 1850, at an expense by contract, of forty dollars. It was procured at a furnace, from a mass of pulverised charcoal left as useless, and was drawn one mile and a half. The effect was immediate. The grass freshened, and continued green and luxuriant after the surrounding fields were blackened by the early frosts. Although the last season had been so unfavorable for vegetation, Mr. Richmond realized one-third more than the ordinary yield of hay, and sufficient to repay the whole outlay. He thinks that he cut nearly double the quantity of grass upon this lot, that he did upon any similar meadow on his farm, and that the quantity of the hay is improved." The Hon. J. S. Whallon has made the most decisive and valuable experiments on this subject.  His operations were extended through several seasons, and were observed with great intelligence and discrimination. The result amply sustains the conclusions derived from the preceding experiment I may add that a similar application has been made under Mr. Whallon's supervisor upon another tract in Elizabeth town on a soil of lighter texture and with entire success. In this instance the charcoal was applied chiefly to a crop of oats. The action of this substance seems to be effected by its physical combinations and its chemical affinities. It attracts the rays of the sun and unites with the fertilising gasses of the atmosphere; it absorbs moisture, and combines as a new constituent in the formation of the soil. Almost imperishable, it must remain indefinitely, with no exhaustion of its properties, a perpetual invigorating agent in the earth. The succeeding extract from a communication of Mr. Whallon, elucidates his experiments and views on this very important subject: “I began the use of it in the year 1846, and first employed it as a top-dressing on a strong clay soil, which was plowed in the fall of 1845. I spread on about fifteen wagon loads of the dust to the acre, after the wheat had been sowed and harrowed one way. I was surprised to find my crop a heavy one, compared with my neighbor’s, raised on the same kind of land. The wheat was of better quality and yielded four or five bushels extra to the acre. I have since used it on similar land, sometimes mixed with barn-yard manure, and sometimes alone, but always as a top-dressing, usually on land seeded for meadow. ‘ The results were always the most favorable. I find my land, thus seeded, produces more than an average crop of hay and always of the finest quality. “I have also used the dust on loamy and interval land, with the potato crop. During the series of years in which the rot almost ruined the potato crop, I scarcely lost any potatoes from that cause, and supposed it was owing to the coal dust I used. My manner has been to drop the seed and cover it with a small shovel-full of the dust, and then cover with earth. In this way I have used all the coal dust I have been able to save from the coal consumed in a forge of five fires, and which amounts to about 250 loads per year.” In the colder regions of the Adirondacks, charcoal dust has been used with great advantage. The note of Mr. Ralph presents the experiment in tho following language: “As a top-dressing for meadows, charcoal dust and the accumulation of ashes and burnt earth left on old charcoal pit bottoms have been used here with remarkable results, and I judge from the trials which have been made, that this application has added at least one-third to the hay crop, where it has been used. It was remarked during the past very dry season, when vegetation was almost burnt up by the long continued drouth, that those fields which had been dressed with this substance were easily distinguished by the rich green color of their herbage.”


The farmer’s magazine 1850

PEAT CHARCOAL. TO JASPER W. ROGERS, ESQ. TO THE POOR-LAW COMMISSIONERS OF IRELAND. Gentlemen,—In consequence of my being in temporary charge of the Workhouse Infirmary of this Union, I have had the opportunity of seeing your circular of the 16th instant, No. 61,763, 1849; and I beg to state—and I trust that the information will not be considered unacceptable — that your recommendation of the employment of peat charcoal as a deodorizer has been, at my suggestion, anticipated ; and, according to my directions, fully carried into effect, at the workhouse here, since the 3rd of May last, with the most gratifying and satisfactory results. Having been called on that day to attend a meeting of the Board of Health, held at the workhouse, I was at once struck with the intolerable and sickening effluvinm which, arising from the sewers, cesspools, and privies, pervaded every part of the establishment; and which, with the chlorine, which was being evolved in every direction for the purpose of correcting it, formed a compound of villanous smells, which no stomach but one accustomed to it could for a moment tolerate. Your very active and efficient inspector, Captain Hanley, told me that he had done everything that could be thought of, and had spared no expense to try and have the nuisance abated, but that all his exertions were useless. I then begged him to send down and purchase a few loads of peat charcoal, which were selling at the market; and having told the master how to employ it, the suggestion was at once adopted, and though the material was not of the best description, nor “ recently prepared,” in a very few hours the most delicate and practiced nose could not have detected the slightest offensive odour. Since then the master, with very praiseworthy attention, has had a large pit of the charcoal prepared every week, and by its occasional use through the grating of the sewers, and by sprinkling it over the nightsoil in the privies, the workhouse is, as far as entire freedom from every noxious and offensive effluvinm, a model to every other in the kingdom. In every respect the results have been most satisfactory. Instead of paying from five to ten pounds, every half year, for having the privies cleansed; and having itself and the whole surrounding neighbourhood at the same time poisoned for weeks by the intolerable stench ; the establishment has that task now performed by the paupers, without the slightest reluctance on their part;—and the contents of the sewers, cess-pools, and privies are now collected into inodorous and innoxious heaps, or mixed with the other refuse of the workhouse until removed by the contractor; which, before, he absolutely refused doing, but which he now considers the most valuable portion of what he contracted for. But the efforts on the health of the inmates of the workhouse are very far more satisfactory. I find that the numbers registered during the half year ending 25th March last were 353, of these 132 (or one 26 ll-13ths) died during that period. In the half year ending 29th September last, the numbers are respectively 4,262 and 68, or a mortality of one in 62.23-24ths, and of these 68.23 died between the 25th March and 4th of May—a period of little more than five weeks, before the charcoal was employed, while during the last four weeks in which I had the temporary charge of the Infirmary and Fever Hospital but three deaths have occurred; one from Phthisis, one from Variola, and the third, a poor bed-ridden idiot, from Chronic disease of the bowels. Giving the utmost credit to all the officers of the establishment for the extreme cleanliness and order which prevails throughout, the difference in the mortality of the two periods is so striking, and even startling, that I feel I am not assuming too much in attributing it principally to the improved and healthy state in which the atmosphere is maintained. It must also be recollected that the latter was the period during which cholera was so prevalent, and, though some rapidly fatal cases occurred in the town and neighbourhood, not a single one presented itself in the workhouse, where it was most likely and most dreaded to prevail.


Country gentleman, Volume 33 1869

"NEW" FERTILIZER FOR GRAPES. It is interesting to observe how "old things become new," and how old methods and receipts are periodically revived. Many years ago there was a great stir made about the value of the pruning of the grapevine as a fertilizer for vineyards. Those of your readers that have read Liebig's Agricultural Chemistry will remember how emphatic hoe was in advocating the value of such matters. The California Farmer has lately been impressed with the importance of returning to the soil all the prunings and other waste matter; and the American Journal of Horticulture and some other periodicals give their endorsement of the system. That the prunings, finely chopped up and well plowed in, would be of value there is no doubt, although there are some drawbacks which have not been taken into consideration. Thus it has occasionally been suspected that decaying wood is apt to induce disease in the roots of vines if in contact with them. But the great difficulty is the labor involved. In this country of expensive labor we cannot afford to hire men or even boys for the purpose of cutting up our waste prunings. It is not impossible, however, that a very strong and powerful machine like a straw-cutter might be used. One such machine would serve a whole neighborhood and would reduce the cuttings to such a condition that they could easily be plowed under without any difficulty. Still after all it is a serious question whether it would pay. Our impression is that the benefit to be derived from the use of chopped up cuttings has been greatly over-rated. We tried the plan once, selecting out the smaller shoots and cutting them up with a straw cutter, while the larger we cut with a small hatchet. We applied the prunings of ten vines to the roots of five, and then we invested the amount which we thought we ought to have for our labor, in charcoal which we applied to the remaining five. We thought the charcoal produced the best results. Since that time we have disposed of our prunings of all kinds by converting them into charcoal and at the same time burning with them a quantity of heavy clay. The greatest difficulty is to make the heap sufficiently compact to allow it to be covered conveniently. This we accomplish by means of a few stout hooked stakes. After all the rubbish from the fall, winter and spring prunings, has been collected together, we lay a few stout branches or poles on the top. These poles are then pegged down by means of two or three hooked sticks applied to each pole, and in this way the mass is rendered so compact that it is easily covered with sods and similar matter. The heap after being kindled is allowed to smoulder away, more earth being thrown on as the fire progresses. Several days generally elapse before the work is finished, but at the end of that time we find ourselves in possession of several tons of material of the very best kind for fertilizing vines or any kind of fruit trees. It consists of a mixture of ashes, charcoal and burned clay, and our present opinion Is that there are no better fertilizers for fruit trees, and especially grape vines and peach trees, than just these three articles. As for the shoots and leaves which are removed during the summer, the proper place for them is the compost heap. In many parts of the country the cheapest plan no doubt is to go to the woods and make a lot of charcoal or buy the refuse of the charcoal heaps, and in that case of course the easiest way to get rid of the prunings is to burn them. Under any circumstances we are in favor of subjecting most of the prunings of our gardens or orchards to fire. We thus get rid of a great many Insects and their nests. The prunings of the apple, peach and plum trees; of currants, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, &c, should all be brought together in one heap and treated as described. The quantity which thus accumulates is astonishing, and still more astonishing is the amouut of clay which it will burn.


The Plough, the loom, and the anvil, Volume 2, 1849

YET MORE OF PEAT CHARCOAL AS A DISINFECTOR AND FERTILIZER. “I then stated what I do now, that the fertilizing power of peat charcoal can scarcely be over-estimated. It acts upon all that the soil produces—I except nothing: and, to use the words of Dr. Lindley, in reply to a correspondent, (although the learned doctor was at first a doubter,) ‘ Use it for your onions, but it is good for every thing.’ (Hear, hear.) My own experiments have proved its value beyond a question, but I shall give you a few particulars of those made by two- gentlemen of large landed property in Ireland, who, immediately after my first publication on the subject, entered into correspondence with me, and closely followed out my “proposition—Henry Newton, Esq., Mount Leaster^ county Carlow, and James Russell, Esq., Danlivey House, county Donegal—and I beg to say that both were strangers to me until my publications came before them. Mr. Russell commenced his experiments in 1846. He tried it with all the usual farm produce except wheat, with uniform success, and as a top-dressing for grass land he had fully borne out all I had stated in that respect; but his trial on a field of four acres with potatoes in 1847, was very remarkable. They were planted in ridges, or, as termed here, ‘lazy beds;’ one-half the field manured with farm-yard manure, the other with peat charcoal only, about a handful thrown on each seed. The result was more than a double crop from the charcoal; and he informed me that he was himself so astonished at the fact, that he requested Lord Donegal to see and vouch it. At my suggestion he planted oats the next year On the whole field without any further manure, and he assured me the increase on that portion manured with charcoal was nearly in the same, ratio as the potatoes. Now, what is the cause? Simply this. The charcoal lay on the land throughout the winter. Every shower of rain that came brought it ammonia and common salt in abundance. This continued for the winter months, and when spring came, every grain was rich in nutriment, while it held moisture besides, to give it to the seed at once, and stimulate it into growth. Mr. Newton was most anxious to tell you these facts himself, but he arrived in London too late for our last meeting. He brought potatoes, of which I will tell you the history. In February last he planted a large field in drills, manured as usual, not then having charcoal; but in. April he got some, and, before the potatoes being earthed, he top-dressed a few yards at the foot of all the drills as far as he had charcoal. He authorizes me to state that the result was not only very nearly a double crop, but that there was not a taint in one of them, while all the rest of the field was more or less diseased. (Hear, hear.) I regret extremely that he was unable to “wait for the present meeting; but he also authorizes me to say he has now a crop of Swede turnips that cannot be exceeded, to use his own expression. Yet they were not sown till June/. No rain came for a month after; all the crops in his neighbourhood failed, and his were only manured with peat charcoal. In short, he has fully proved its value for all plants; like me, he excepts nothing. But I must tell you his reply to my inquiry as to his experience of its value for grass land. He said,1 Nothing can exceed it; and there is little or no labour in using it.’ My friend Fenwick swears by it, and he declares he will write his name on the best grass in the country with black charcoal, and it will be the greenest part of the field in ten days.”


A cyclopedia of agriculture, practical and scientific: in which ..., Volume 1 1855

As a fertilizing application by itself, charcoal can never be injudiciously used, if the supply of the article is abundant. The qualities that make it valuable to manure, render it equally so to soil in cultivation, as a storehouse of the food of vegetation; while its physical properties may be made useful when it can be applied in sufficient quantities. For garden purposes, its special and peculiar effects upon the health of diseased, and the vigour and beauty of all flowers and plants, make it an acquisition much appreciated..... ...We are not, however, without direct experiment upon the subject of charcoal as a manure, beyond that which has been furnished by ancient authority or indirect practice. The American publications give many striking experiments with it. "It is frequently used for Indian corn at planting, also on grass land, and we have generally noticed that its effects were very favourable."—(Albany Cultivator, 1844, p. 142.) In a trial by Mr. Pell, recorded in the same Journal (1844, p. 183), land which had been manured with charcoal powder produced seventy eight and three-fourths bushels of wheat per acre. Some equally striking evidences of the fertilizing power of charcoal are given by Mr. IHepburn, of Jersey Shore, Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. Many precise experiments with vegetable charcoal, and also with other carbonized substances, upon farm crops, have been made during the last few years, to a few only of which we are now able to refer. In an experiment made in 1841, by Mr. Fleming, Barochan, fifty bushels of wood charcoal increased the crop nearly three tons per acre:— In an elaborate experiment with twenty-eight substances, as top-dressings upon the hay crop, in 1842, by Mr. Maclean, of Braidwood, Pennicuik [Trans. High. Agr. Soc., July 1843, p. 30):— Nothing . . . yielded 125 per acre. 
Carbon . . 8 cwt." 230" 
Animulizcd carbon 8 cwt." 170" 
Soot . . 80 bus." 200" Upon a crop of white turnips, carbon was again tested in 1842, with success:— 30 carts of dung per acre . . . yielded 19 4 15 do., and carbon . . .5 cwt. " 21 9 15 do., and sulphate of magnesia 2" "19 10 15 do., and nitrate of soda. . H" "20 5 15 do., and common salt . . •" "25 4 15 do., and sulphate of ammonir. } '• "19 3 15 do., and gypsum . . . 3" "18 15 In this trial, it will be observed that five cwt. of carbon produced two tons, five cwt. of turnips more than an extra fifteen loads of dung, and exceeded all the other dressings except salt. Upon Oats, the crop dressed with carbon, Mr. Maclean states, "made considerable advances over the undressed portions." An experiment with charcoal, by the Earl of Essex, upon turnips and carrots, in 1844, serves to show the striking influence of charcoal pushing on vegetation. In this trial, No. 1, nothing; No. 2, charcoal and salt; and No. 3, charcoal alone, were sown on the 3d of June. The drought being severe, Nob. 2 and 3 vegetated quickly, and grew rapidly, while No. 1 appeared to make no progress. On July 17, the Earl of Essex exhibited a plant from each plot, which plants, he states (Jour. Roy. Agr. Soc., vol. v. p. 280), bore the following proportions to each other:—. "No. 1. Just coming into rough leaf. "No. 2. Eleven inches long, from end of root to the head. "No. 3. Twenty inches long, and as big as my little finger at the crown of the root, and very vigorous." Six acres of carrots were also sown by Lord Essex with charcoal, "the ground at tho time being dusty, and no rain falling for many weeks." Upon which trial he comments—" Carrots, under any circumstances of rain, <kc, seldom come up in less than four or five weeks; mine, in spite of the drought, were up in three weeks, and held their own during the drought." The sources from which charcoal, for farm purposes, may be obtained, and the several processes connected with its preparation, are subjects of agricultural importance. The supply of pure vegetable charcoal, through the ordinary commercial markets, can only be obtained at a price which excludes it from the list of purchased manures. It may, however, in a great majority of cases, be imported or prepared upon the farm, at a price that makes it an acquisition. The districts where timber is in abundance, or where clearings of wood are in progress, abundant supply of waste wood is not unfrequently at hand, and may be prepared very cheaply. Upon our own farms, we have, in a majority of instances, in the branches of useless trees, in the roots and branches of hedges which may be removed, and, failing these, in the loppings of trees and hedges, and other vegetable remains, material enough for the manufacture of a valuable stock of vegetable charcoal. The ordinary process of preparation is as follows:—.... ....."In the spring of last year," he remarks, "I collected a quantity of peat for various purposes, and part of it was charred, or burned. This mixture was applied to land about the beginning of May, to a sandy soil, for a crop of Swedish turnips. The quantity used was at the rate of at least 200 bushels per acre. We tried it against well-made stable manure, in a state like mould, to cut well with the spade, which was applied at the rate of about twenty tons to the acre, and spread into drills. The plants grew well in both cases. We tried to ascertain the amount of produce per acre from each manure, as late as the middle of January 1846; for, from the mildness of the season, the turnips till then appeared to be in a growing state, each plant having had about two square feet to grow upon. The surface was kept flat, and the ground chiefly worked with the Dutch hoe. The weight of bulbs fit for use, manured by the peaty mixture, was upwards of forty tons per acre; while those produced from stable dung weighed only about thirty tons."


The Farmers' cabinet, and American herd-book, Volume 11 1847

From the Farmer and Mechanic Comparative Merits of Charcoal and Barn-yard Manure as Fertilizers. In the year 1788, my father purchased and removed upon the tract of land in Hanover township, Morris county, N. J. The land, owing to the bad system of cultivation then prevailing, was completely exhausted, and the buildings and fences in a state of dilapidation. The foundation of the barn was buried several feet beneath a pile of manure, the accumulation of years: little or none ever having been removed upon the lands. Even the cellar, beneath the farm-house, was half filled with the dung of sheep and other animals, which had been sheltered in it. The former occupant of the farm had abandoned it on account of its supposed sterility, and taken up the line of march for the Valley of the Miami, along with the first caravan of pioneers who accompanied Judge Symmes. The barn, before referred to, was removed to another situation soon after its foundation was uncovered, by the removal of the manure to the exhausted fields; and its site, owing to the new arrangements of the farm, became the centre of one of its enclosures. During the seventeen years which I afterwards remained upon the farm, the spot could easily be found by the luxuriousness of the grass, or other crops growing thereon; though the abatement in its fertility was evident and rapid. On revisiting the neighbourhood in the autumn of 1817, I carefully examined the corn crops then standing upon the spot, and was unable to discover the slightest difference in the growth or product, upon that and other parts of the field. This was about twenty-eight years after the removal of the barn. Upon the same farm and upon soil every way inferior, were the remains of several pit-bottoms, where charcoal had been burned before the recollection of any person now in the vicinity, and most probably, judging from appearances, between the years 1760-70. These pit-bottoms were always clothed, when in pasture, with a luxuriant covering of grass, and when brought under tillage, with heavy crops of grain. Eleven years ago I pointed out these facts to the present occupant, and his observations since, coincide with my own, previously made; that they retain their fertility, very little impaired, a period probably of about seventy or eighty, certainly not less than sixty-five or seventy years. Here then is an excellent opportunity of observing the comparative value of charcoal and barn-yard manures, as a fertilizer of lands. The former has not, after at least sixty or seventy years exposure, exhausted its powers of production, while the latter lost its influence entirely in twenty-eight years, and most probably in much less time. I have since had many opportunities of’ observing the effects of charcoal left in pitbottoms, upon vegetation, one of which only,. I will relate. The last season, in the northern part of Ohio, was one of uncommon frost and drought . In May, the wheat fields, when promising a luxuriant crop, were cut off by frost;—especially in the valleys, and very much injured in the high lands—which was succeeded by the most severe drought ever experienced in the West. The moiety which escaped both these scourges, was afterwards very much injured by rust. Near the village of Canton, upon a farm on high ground, which had been mostly cleared of its timber by its conversion into charcoal, it was observed that upon the old pit-bottoms, the wheat grew very luxuriantly—was clear of rust—and had ripened plump in the berry; while in the adjacent parts of the field it was short in growth, the stem blackened with rust, and the berry light and shrivelled.. The hint has not been altogether lost upon some of the farmers in the vicinity, and some of them are preparing to make an application of charcoal upon their lands; the result of which, when fully ascertained, I shall be happy to communicate to the public, especially if the facts above stated succeed in attracting the attention of agriculturists. Lewis Vail


The New Jersey Farmer Vol. II, No. 1, September 1856  By Orrin Pharo

CHARCOAL AS A FERTILIZER. For two years past I have used some fifty loads each season of refuse charcoal, and being fully convinced that it pays, I wish to recommend it to my brother farmers. I have tried it on grass, corn and potatoes—hare tried it alone and in the compost heap, and in all situations it has proved faithful to its trust. As a top dressing for grass, it gives a green color and luxuriant growth.. Applied to half an acre of early potatoes the last summer, the yield was 75 bushels of as fine healthy potatoes as could be desired, that sold readily for one dollar per bushel, and yielded the best profit of anything raised on the farm. The virtue of charcoal mainly consists in its absorbing power. The purity of the air around a charcoal pit has long been known, and the colliers, notwithstanding their smutty appearance, are robust men. The secret of this purity of the air and the health of the colliers, lies in the fact that charcoal absorbs from the air the ammonia and other noxious gasses, unsuited for our lungs, but just the food for plants.— Every good housekeeper knows that if her boiling meat gives forth an unsavory odor, a piece of fresh charcoal put into the pot will not only sweeten the air, but will remedy that taint of the meat. In the same manner it acts when applied to the land. It absorbs from the air those gasses offensive to the nostrils, but the main food of plants. And this it will do, not once only, or for one season, but very possibly for a century. Where an old coal-pit has been burnt, the land never seems to wear out, and the first settlers point to the coal bottoms that are fifty years old, still by their exuberant vegetation marking well the spot where the wood was converted into coal. A fertilizer so lasting is well worth some expense at the outset. But where can we get it? some may ask. If any charcoal pits are burned in your vicinity, the bottoms will furnish three or four loads each of refuse charcoal, mingled with burnt soil. The latter is highly valued also as an absorbent.— Around furnaces and blacksmith shops, the waste charcoal also accumulates, and in many instances may be had for the carting. It may be found also around engine houses, thrown out from locomotiv«s. If none of these resources  are at hand, then use the best substitute possible, which is muck, or swamp mud, and double the manure heap by composting, and if the crops are not doubled, then my experience is vain.— Country Gentleman.


The horticulturist and journal of rural art and rural taste, Volumes 18-19 1863

BY FOX MEADOW. If Mr. Bright should ask Dr. Lindley for his opinion of the use of charcoal in the soil, (vine borders,) he could refer him to thousands of instances of it as an effective fertilizer, and especially to those plants grown under glass. Heaths, Rhododendrons, Cucumbers, and Melons, Onions, Roses, Orchidaceous plants, Camellias, Hydrangeas, Pineapples, and a host of other plants, have been the subjects of extensive and successful experiments; and we will vouch our word for it, that Dr. Lindley would tell friend Bright that charcoal may, with decided advantage, be applied to almost every known plant in cultivation.


Waste products and undeveloped substances: or, Hints for enterprise in ... 1862

Apparently, however, much remains to be done before the delicate chemical processes required to obtain many of the valuable chemical products alluded to can be made commercially useful; but the employment of peat charcoal as a manure or fertilizer, as well as a valuable disinfecting agent, is now established, and is extensively used


Friends' review: a religious, literary and miscellaneous journal, Volume 38  edited by Samuel Rhoads, Enoch Lewis 1885

Charcoal In Horticulture.—Not only florists but the growers of small fruits in Europe are making use of charcoal for promoting the growth of the plants they cultivate. It is not claimed that the charcoal is in any sense a fertilizer. It is an inert substance, and one not liable to pass into a state of decay even under the most favorable circumstances It endures longer when exposed to the action of the elements than any of the metals, except those that are ranked as precious. When it forms a union with the oxygen of the air it forms nothing but carbonic acid, which, though highly useful to plants, is obtained from the air without the trouble of producing it. It contains considerable potash and some lime, which the roots of plants will appreciate. Its principal use, however, consists in storing up moisture, fertilizing elements contained in water, and various gases, as ammonia, and giving them out as the wants of plants require. A barrel of freshly burned charcoal will absorb nearly its own bulk of soap-suds or liquid manure without presenting the appearance of being wet. The roots of the plants will pass between the pieces of charcoal, and will often penetrate them, and in so doing will be in a position to appropriate the substances in the pores. Charcoal is very desirable for placing in pots or boxes in which house plants are raised. It will retain many of the bad odors that are likely to arise from most fertilizers. It is also very desirable for garden beds, in which roses, annual flowers, and edible vegetables are raised. It is an excellent substance to bury in the ground where grape vines are planted. For placing in pots, boxes, and garden beds, it should be tolerably fine. For grape vines and large shrubs it may be in the form in which it is taken from the kiln, or is usually found in the market. For these purposes it should be buried quite deeply. Persons who sell or use charcoal often have considerable that is too fine for keeping up a fire, and will dispose of it at a nominal price. This will be very suitable for use in the house, or flower, or vegetable garden. Persons who have large graperies will find it to their advantage to burn their own charcoal.


Southern planter, Volume 3 1843

CHARCOAL AS A FERTILIZER. It will be recollected by our readers, that in our last two volumes we have published several able papers upon the virtues of charcoal as a fertilizer of the soil, and of its supposed efficacy in the preservation of wheat from rust. One of these papers, by Judge Hepburn, particularly points out cases in which lands which had been dressed by charcoal had grown wheat free from rust, when wheat grown on other lands, contiguous, which had not been so treated, had suffered greatly from that cause. We allude to these circumstances now, with a view of introducing the subjoined paragraph to the notice of our readers ; by which it will be seen, that in France the same virtues have been ascribed to charcoal as in our own country. Of the precise mode of action by which this exemption from rust is produced, we are not prepared to speak positively ; but will claim permission to observe, that it may be owing to the very great affinity which charcoal is known to possess for ammonia, and the reluctance with which it gives it out after having once absorbed it. If the opinion which is now gaining strength and consequence, that the cause of rust is plethora, and that ammonia is one of the chief aliments or food of plants, be correct, the preventive properties of the charcoal may arise, first, from its absorption of ammonia as formed, and, secondly, from its yielding it slowly to the wheat plant in the last stage of the maturing of its stem, thus, as it were, hindering it from feeding to that degree of excess productive of repletion, and the consequent disruption of the stem of the plant. At all events, as the rust is one of the most disastrous diseases in its effects, to which the wheat crop is subjected, we think that the use of charcoal to a limited extent, by way of experiment, is worthy of the consideration of every wheat grower. If it should, on trial, fail of the anticipated efficacy, it can do no possible injury either to the grain or to the soil, and may be beneficial to the latter, in supplying it with silicate of potash, a substance of vast importance to all grain crops, and especially useful in giving strength and elasticity to the straw. With these remarks we will direct attention to the following paragraph : Charcoal As A Fertilizer.—We have been astonished at the enormous increase of the wheat crop in France within the last eight or ten years, and have devoted some attention to the investigation of the subject. It appears that charcoal—an article that can be obtained here for a tithe of its cost in France—has been extensively used, and with marked effect, in fertilizing the wheat lands in that kingdom. A correspondent of the New Farmers’ Journal, an English print, states that during a sojourn in one of the central departments of France he learned that some of the most productive farms were originally very sterile; but that for a number of years their proprietors had given them a light dressing of charcoal, which had resulted in a large yield of wheat of excellent quality. Since his return to England he has tried the experiment upon his own lands with the same happy effect. The charcoal should be well pulverized, and sown like lime, after a rain or in a still, damp day. Even in England, the writer says, “the expense is a mere trifle, in comparison with the permanent improvement effected, which on grass is truly wonderful.”— He states one other very important result from its liberal use. “I am quite satisfied that by using charcoal in the way described rust in wheat will be entirely prevented; for I have found in two adjoining fields, one of which was coaled and the other manured with farm-yard dung, the latter was greatly injured by rust, while that growing in the other was perfectly free from it.”—Buffalo Commercial Advertiser.


Fruit recorder and cottage gardener, Volumes 7-8 1875

[Charcoal renders the soil light and triable, gives It a dark color, and additional warmth for early crops. The bed whereon charcoal has been burnt is always marked by a most vigorous growth of plants when it becomes effectively mixed with earth. It contains also small quantities of salts of potash and other fertilising salts. It absorbs both carbonic acid and ammonia from the air. and yields them to the roots of plants. It is most marked in its effects on plants which require abundant nitrogen. As it is indestructible, its beneficial effects last as long as it remains m the soil, sup. [.King the rootlets of plants with carbonic.acid, which Is renewed as fast as abstracted. Its good effects Begin to be seen when the dust is applied at the rate of forty bushels per acre. Charcoal is invaluable for destroying the odor of decaying animal matter, retaining the gases in its own substance ready to yield them up fur the use of plants. Hence, the best application of this substance is not directly to the soil, but to compost it with putrescent animal matters, urine or night soil, of which it will absorb all the odor and fertilising gases given off during their decomposition. Composted with the last named substance, It becomes Poudrette is second only to guano as a fertilizer.

ln striking cuttings or potting plants, fine charcoal is a valuable substitute for sand, plants rooting in it with great certainty. Plants will flourish in powdered charcoal alone with considerable vigor, and, added to the other materials used in potting, it is found greatly to promote healthy growth in most plants.)


The American farmer: devoted to agriculture, horticulture and rural life  By Maryland State Agricultural Society 1861

Charcoal and Some of its Uses. There are various opinions afloat in regard to the value of charcoal as a fertilizer. As an absorbent of ammonia, carbonic acid, &c, it certainly has scarcely a superior. It is also pretty well ascertained, that it readily yields up for the use of the plant, the substances thus absorbed. But there are two features connected with its use which have always commended it to my favor. One is its mechanical effects upon the soil, rendering it more open and friable, and consequently more easily worked, and more open to the action of the atmosphere. The other is the warming effect produced where it is applied in any considerable quantity. A dark soil, we all know, has the power to a greater extent of absorbing heat than a light-colored one. This, in many locations, is a great desideratum. Many plants which it is desirable to grow, but which, for the want of a sufficiently warm soil, is next to impossible, may be cultivated by the use of charcoal. Its carbon yields no food to plants, consequently, even if applied in large quantities, it can do no harm, unless it renders the soil too light and open; not a very likely result. In gardens, therefore, I esteem it highly, and have found it, for the purposes briefly named above, most excellent.—Farmer and Gardener.


British husbandry: exhibiting the farming practice in various ..., Volume 1  1847

A still better mode, when the quantity and quality of the manure, as in a farm, is an object. is to mix the gypsum with a considerable proportion of either charred peat, burnt clay, or any other substance containing a portion of charcoal; for by this plan the whole of the urine, of at least the shed-fed stock, is not only entirely preserved in the pores of the charcoal from putrefaction, but when carried on to the field it is gradually and steadily emitted, and becomes the food of growing crops. Of the use of charcoal as a fertilizer I shall hereafter have occasion to speak, and for these purposes an impure variety is profitably attainable, either in charred peat or refuse tanners’ bark, or even in the charred matters of clay on moist farms. Whatever doubt there may exist of the value of charcoal, in its tolerably pure state, as a manure, there is I am convinced, from the result of my own trials and observations, none as to its value for the purpose of forming a bed on which the ordinary manure of animals is prepared.


Annual report of the Commissioner of Patents, Part 2 1855

Charcoal powder acts mechanically in absorbing ammoniacal gas, and also by its color in absorbing the heat of the sun’s rays, and retaining the heat by impeded conduction. When the charcoal is burned only to brownness, then it acts also chemically, being in a condition to form humus, and to undergo oxidation by the action of the atmosphere. Charcoal is undoubtedly a powerful fertilizer, and one of great duration, as is shown by the continued fertility of places where the aboriginal inhabitants of New England built their camp-fires more than two hundred years ago, while nothing peculiar to those spots can be discovered beyond the admixture of large quantities of charcoal and clam-shells with the soil.


Farmers Magazine  By Joseph Rogerson 1848

PEAT CHARCOAL THE BEST DEODORIZER. In 1845 we brought before the public the facts which had come to our knowledge of the value of peat charcoal in its natural state as a fertilizer of the soil. It was then doubted, because Liebig and his followers had laid it down that all plants were indebted to the atmosphere for the carbon they contained—in fact, that inhalation gave to the general structure their mass of woody fibre, amounting, when converted into carbon, to from 40 to 50 per cent, of the whole. We doubted this assumption; and since, our doubts have been set at rest; for the Royal Agricultural Society offered a prize for an essay on the subject, and almost every farmer in the country now knows the value of charcoal as a manure, and that which was smiled at then, is not only admitted, but practised now. We feel no small gratification in having been the first to draw general attention in England to this most valuable fact; and we feel the same as regards the extraordinary value of peat charcoal as a deodorizer—but not only a deodorizer, hut the producer of a manure, the value of which we believe there is scarcely any means of estimating.


Ohio Cultivator vol. 3 No. 1 Columbus, Ohio, January 1, 1847

Charcoal as a Fertilizer. Mr. Bateham:—Sometime since there was an enquiry in your paper, respecting the use of charcoal as a fertilizer. I have one word to offer on the subject, which is this: some 15 or 20 years since, while owned by another individual, there was much coal burned on my farm while in the act of clearing the land. The land since that time has undergone much tilling, with little or no manure and not much rest until lately; and notwithstanding the time that has elapsed, the places where the coal pits were burned, produce the best of crops of every kind whenever the fields in which they are found are tilled. I am so much pleased with it that I wish my farm was covered I 3 or 4 inches thick with pulverized charcoal. I think the benefits of it could never be exhausted. Respectfully,


Journal: Appendix. Reports, Volume 6 1874  By California. Legislature

I sowed, on May sixteenth, six seed grains which had been steeped twenty-four hours in urine, and then coated with charcoal dust; and the same number similarly steeped, but not dried with charcoal dust. From the former, on May twenty-first, nine plants had come up; on the twenty-second, thirteen; and, on the twenty-third, two more, making fifteen in all. From the latter there were, on the twenty-first, five plants; on the twenty-second, eight; on the twenty-third, thirteen. It thence follows that the seed kernels treated with charcoal dust produced more and stronger plants than without. That fifteen plants should be produced from six kernels (planted one fourth inch deep) is in consequence of the size of the capsules. A large seed capsule may produce five plants; only a single plant sprouts from a very small one.


Agriculture: twelve lectures on agricultural topics: delivered before the ...  By Alexander Hyde 1871

CHARCOAL AS A FERTILIZER. We have all noticed that where a charcoal pit has been burned the soil remains good for a long time. On the mountains of Berkshire we have seen white clover growing luxuriantly on the bed of an old charcoal pit, making an oasis in the desert of ferns and briars that surrounded it, and on inquiry we found that the coal pit must have been burned half a century ago. On digging into this soil we discovered the charcoal with little if any appearance of decay, and promising to do good service for half a century more.


American journal of agriculture and science, Volumes 5-6 1847

PEAT CHARCOAL. The use of charcoal as a fertilizer is generally well known. Its expense, however, often precludes its use. To cut down a forest for the sake of the charcoal it would furnish for agriculture would undoubtedly be bad policy. As a substitute, however, for the ordinary wood charcoal, it is certainly important for many to know, that peat charcoal will prove an excellent substitute. In some respects it may be regarded as a superior article to wood charcoal, inasmuch as it will be obtained in a state of fine subdivision, and consequently in a state to operate to the best advantage. Most persons are perfectly familiar with the effects of charcoal upon vegetation. The great desideratum is how to obtain it in quantities, and at a rate to make it an object in husbandry. Surely no one can afford to buy coal, not because there is so much expense in making it, but on account of the value of the materials of which it is formed. Peat however, is a material lying in a waste, useless as it is, and in order to make it valuable, it is only necessary to raise from its half submerged condition, and char it


Annual report  By North Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station 1887

Last year we investigated a ease and found, on inquiry at Washington, that the government had given a man a patent on a method of making a “complete fertilizer,” the whole of which was to cover a large heap of pine-needles partly with earth, and then set fire to the pine-needles and burn them, as charcoal is burned. When they had burned all they would, you were told to mix the earth and charred mass together, which was your fertilizer.


Commercial relations of the United States with foreign countries  By United States. Dept. of State, United States. Bureau of Foreign Commerce 1872

The first day of our trip, we saw the farmers engaged in burning stocks of millet, &c., in heaps of earth, as it is done in the manufacture of charcoal, in order, we supposed, to bring out their fertilizing properties. It a very likely then, that, in China, they have known the value of charcoal as a fertilizer long before us, It’s use for that purpose being among us of a recent date.


The Gardener’s monthly and horticultural advertiser, Volume 9 Refuse Charcoal. 1867

The refuse charcoal, obtained from the rectifiers of spirits, from the Railroads where wood is burned in locomotives, from old charcoal beds, &c., is a very useful material in the garden. As a mulching about fruit trees I consider it very valuable. It keeps out frost in winter: it keeps the soil loose and moist in summer, and it does not afford a harbor for mice or insects. In the soil, it assists to promote moisture in a dry season;........ It is an excellent mulching for Strawberries, in winter or summer.


The farmer's friend: a record of recent discoveries, improvements, and ...  By National Art Library (Great Britain) 1847

FERTILIZER. By Cuthbert W. Johnson, Eso., F.R.S. I Hardly deem it necessary to prove to any one the value of charcoal as a valuable manure; and if it was necessary to obviate the suspicion that there is any difference in the effect produced by the use of charcoal-ashes and the impure variety of these ashes afforded by peat, I am readily supplied with the means of doing so by a recent report by Mr. Peter Mackenzie, of West Plean, near Stirling. He tells us that he has been for some years past trying experiments with peat, charred peat, and peat-ashes, as a substitute for stable manure, and for many kinds of crop grown by farmers and gardeners. He remarks,—“ In the spring of last year, I collected a quantity of peat for various purposes, and part of it was intended to be charred or burned. It was not so well prepared for burning as I wished, a good deal of moisture being in it; however, a good fire was made of wood to begin with, and as the peat dried it was drawn to the fire, and in this way was kept burning for two weeks. It required little watching, only once or twice in twelve hours. The partially dried peat was drawn to the fire, because it was intended to have a quantity of charred peat and ashes mixed together, and in order to obtain both, the fire was kept in a smothered state to char the peat (let the farmer mark the distinction). It commonly burst through in some parts, and there supplied the ashes. When we had a quantity to begin with, the unburnt peat, and the charred, with the ashes, were all well mixed together; at least one-half of the mass was unburnt peat.” This mixture was applied about the beginning of May, to a light sandy soil, for a crop of Swedish turnips. The quantity used was at least at the rate of 200 bushels per acre. “ We tried it,” continues Mr. Mackenzie, “ against well-made stable-manure in a state like mould, cut well with the spade, which was applied at the rate of about 20 tons to the acre, and spread into drills, like the peaty mixture. The plants grew well in both cases. We tried to ascertain the amount of produce per acre from each manure, as late as the middle of January 1846; for, from the mildness of the season, the turnips till then appeared to be in a growing state, each plant having had about two square feet of surface to grow upon. The surface was kept flat, and the ground chiefly worked with the Dutch hoe. The weight of bulbs fit for use manured with the peaty mixture was upwards of 40 tons per acre; while those produced from stable-dung weighed only about 30 tons.


Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, Volume 6  By Royal Agricultural Society of England 1933

(on peat charcoal as a fertilizer...) I have previously mentioned the power of charcoal as a fertilizer in hastening the germination of the seed, and on this account alone charred peat may with great advantage be used as a manure for root-crops. Its manner of application maybe broadcast by hand, or with the shovel; this may be better performed by means of a broadcast drill, or by drilling in rows at the same time as the seed by the common manure-drill. For the latter purpose it. is a cheap and excellent substance for mixing with the more expensive artificial manures previous to their application, such as guano, bones, super-phosphate of lime, &c. &c. Ashes are frequently added to artificial manures; but an objection to their being used in a dry state (which by the way is the only state in which they can be applied by the generality of drills) is this: that, should dry weather follow the sowing, the dry ashes, being under the seed, will retard its germination. It is perhaps hardly necessary to mention that the charred peat will require to be sifted before it is drilled. The large pieces that will not pass through the sieve can be pulverised by a rammer, or by drawing a garden-roll over them. The quantity used per acre will of course vary with the circumstance of the crop: when drilled in rows, with or without the addition of other artificial manure, the quantity need not exceed * Mr. Crosskill of Beverley has constructed an excellent implement for sowing manures, which, I believe, has been approved by the Royal Agricultural Society. from 20 to 40 bushels per acre; when drilled broadcast, from 100 to 150 bushels will not be a very expensive dressing. I have never made any very careful experiments with peat charcoal in comparison with other manures; but if we maybe allowed to judge from appearances, the results are evidently satisfactory. As an instance, on July 2, 1845, 40 bushels per acre of peat-charcoal were drilled with green-top Aberdeen turnips on a light sandy loam, the previous crop being rye and vetches mown for soiling. The young plants appeared above ground in a short space of time, and were singled out within a week, as soon as turnips of a quicker growing kind that had been drilled twelve days earlier with 14 cwt. of guano mixed with peat-ashes per acre; this was on the same description of soil, the previous crop being rye fed off with sheep, and the land then manured with 15 cartloads per acre of farm-yard dung; the other, in addition to the peat-charcoal, had been folded. The crops were good, but the cost of the peat-charcoal was barely one-half that of the guano, without taking into consideration the extra dressing of farm-yard manure.* Cirencester, Nov. 28, 1846. * The crop of turnips to which the peat-charcoal was applied in 1845, was fed off late in the spring of 1846; the land ploughed and subsoiled, and on May the 9th drilled with Belgian carrots; the seed being mixed with 2 bushels per acre of powdered wood charcoal: notwithstanding the dry weather the carrots came up well. The produce was about 1200 bushels per acre, and each bushel of carrots weighing 3 stone 3 lbs., will give upwards of 24 tons of roots per acre, exclusive of the tops. The only manure, besides the 2 bushels of charcoal, being the folding of the sheep while feeding the previous crop of turnips.


The Journal of agriculture, Volume 1  By William S. King 1851 

ON THE USE OF CHARCOAL. BY COL. M. P. WILDER. I notice in the last number of your valuable periodical the request of Mr. Trimble, soliciting advice as to the advantages of charcoal, and the best method of using it as a manure. I reply with pleasure, but my experience has been on a limited scale, and my operations confined rather to the garden than the farm, on account of the difficulty of procuring it in sufficient quantity for the latter purpose. My attention was first drawn to the influence of charcoal, by the wonderful experiments of Baron Von Liebig, in the propagation of plants, and the facility with which cuttings were rooted in this substance. Its use became very general in Europe by amateurs and cultivators of plants, and for a time it was considered a great fertilizer. Chemists soon, ascertained, however, that its chief virtue consisted in its great porosity, being able to absorb 90 per cent, of its bulk of ammonia. As a medium for storing up the volatile portions of manure and compost heaps, and for absorbing the ammonia which descends in the snow and rain, it has probably no superior. But what renders charcoal still more valuable is its power of holding in reserve those subtle elements, and yielding them up only as they are wanted for the purposes of nutrition, and as the vital force of the root searches for food. It will therefore readily be perceived, that charcoal is not only valuable as a component part of manures, but that its influence, when applied alone, is highly beneficial. Instances similar to those quoted by Mr. Trimble, where large crops had been obtained from lands on which charcoal pits had been burned years' before, are frequently witnessed. In this vicinity a farmer has annually, for the last eight years, harvested extraordinary crops of hay on these charcoal lands, without the application of any manure whatever; and from the indestructibility of this substance, I know no reason why he may not continue to do so for the next twenty years to come. One of the most striking illustrations of its efficacy, when applied alone, that has come to my notice, was the experiment made by Mr. Hayward, of Sandusky, Ohio, many years since, and which, if I am not mistaken, was published either in the last volume of your Farmer's Library, or the first volume of The Plough, the Loom, and the Anvil. The facts I think were substantially as follows: — Mr. H., having prepared his coal by grinding in a mill, set apart seven lots of land for experiments, the soil and cultivation being precisely alike on each, except as it regarded the application of charcoal. The result was, that on the lots where fiftly bushels of coal were applied, there were twenty-five bushels of wheat obtained, while on those lots where there was no coal applied the crop was only five or six bushels. It will be borne in mind that there was no other manure administered to the crop, and that consequently the fertilizing properties must have been imparted by the ammonia which was stored up in the coal. This experiment was very satisfactory, but not more so than many others which we have witnessed, particularly in the application of charcoal to fruit trees, plants, and garden vegetables; and I have yet to see the first instance where charcoal formed a part of the compost, that vegetation did not grow luxuriantly,producing the increasing and quickening effects described by Mr. Trimble. In fact, it is no unusual circumstance to notice the roots of trees and plants either clasping pieces of charcoal, or piercing them through with their fibres. The best method, where any considerable quantity is to be used, would undoubtedly be to grind the charcoal, and I should prefer that one half at least should be as coarse as Indian corn. As to the amount which may be applied to the acre, I think Mr. Hayward’s experience will furnish a good criterion, although I have no doubt a larger quantity than fifty bushels to the acre, for the first dressing, might produce an increase of the crop. If charcoal is to be applied alone, and without manure, the time is not material, except that should be well incorporated with the soil, either by ploughing in, or harrowing, but not deeply. Mr. Trimble describes his soil as being “ generally a strong yellow clay based upon limestone.” Charcoal will no doubt prove valuable on these lands, but more so on light soils which allow the salts of manure to leach through; for clay is also a substance which holds securely the volatile portions of manure, and when made fine by the frost or otherwise, is a capital ingredient for the compost heap,


Good housekeeping, Volume 2 1886

When the baskets have been selected, cover the bottom to the depth of two inches with little pieces of charcoal which serve a threefold purpose,—that of fertilizer, purifier and drainage. The dust of charcoal is excellent, beside, to mix with the earth for growing plants.


American desert (The Western garden ..., Volume 1, Issue 2 - Volume 5, Issue 2 1893

Palm culture is not nearly so difficult as most people imagine. Nearly all the finest sorts thrive well in good, fibrous, yellow loam or soil composed of rotted sods, sand and old, well-decayed manure. A sprinkling of charcoal added to this will help to keep the soil fresh and sweet for the tender young rootlets.... ....I like to use broken bits of charcoal for draining all my pots, because when the roots reach down to it they feed upon it greedily, the tiny fibers clinging all about it; and then, too, the charcoal keeps the drainage and bottom soil sweet and healthful for the roots. My experience has been altogether with wood charcoal....


The Horticulturist and journal of rural art and rural taste, Volume 24  edited by Andrew Jackson Downing 1869

Charcoal, already well known to be of inestimable value as an absorbent or disinfectant, and likewise containing abundance of nutritious food for growing plants, has also a remarkable influence on the color of flowers. This fact is too well known to gardeners to require much repetition. A few years since, a New-Haven gardener tried the experiment of the use of charcoal on the health of plants in pots in his greenhouse, and said that he could not possibly see the advantage of continuing under the old system without it. " The result of my experience is, that, when not using charcoal in growing roses, they have been more or less subject to mildew, and the roots of the plants more apt to be injured by fungus, whereas with the free use of that material they are not liable at all to be attacked. " And besides, when treated in this way the plants are remarkable for their freshness and beauty; the flowers are so much improved that they seem as though they had been “dipped in colors native well”. We observe that the subject is again being discussed with practical interest in France, and we quote a paragraph from the Revue Horticole, of appropriate effect. “ A correspondent of that journal says that not long ago he made a bargain for a rose-bush of magnificent growth and full of buds. He waited for them to blow, and expected roses worthy of such a noble plant and of the praises bestowed on it by the vender; but when it bloomed, all his hopes were blasted. The flowers were of a faded hue, and he discovered that he had only a middling multiflora, stale colored enough. He therefore resolved to sacrifice it to some experiments which he had in view. His attention had been directed to the effects of charcoal, as stated in some English publications. He then covered the earth in the pot in which it was, about half an inch deep, with pulverized charcoal. Some days after, he was astonished to see those which bloomed of as fine a lively rose-color as he could wish. He determined to repeat the experiment, and therefore, when the rose-bush had done flowering, he took off the charcoal and put fresh earth about the roots, and waited for the next spring impatiently, to see the result of this experiment. When it bloomed, the roses were at first pale and discolored, but, by applying the charcoal as before, they soon assumed their rosy-red color. He then tried the powdered charcoal in large quantities upon petunias, and found that both the white and violet colored flowers were equally sensitive to its action. It always gave great vigor to the red or violet colors of the flowers, and the white petunias become veined with red or violet tints ; the violets became covered with irregular spots of a bluish or almost black tint. Many persons who admired them thought they were choice new varieties. Charcoal has no effect on yellow flowers.”