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Problems with charcoal


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Hi everyone! This is my first post here! :)

I'm sorry to use an old topic, but it's better to recycle than create a new one on the same topic, right?

So I took a one-year blacksmithing course at Herefordshire's College of Technology in, you've guessed it, Herefordshire in the UK. It was excellent! Then I came back to Portugal, and I've been in university ever since, so I've had no time for forging... These holidays, however, I finally got everything together and managed to hit some hot metal! It was great! I did ended up burning my piece (it was going to be a fire rake), turning it into... well, two pieces. Heheh.

I think I've found the reason, but I need your help making sure that was it, and how to solve it. I was used to coke, which was heavy stuff. The fire nearly went out after about 10 or 15 minutes without blowing, and it created a fair bit of clinker (a large, closed fist after about an hour and a half).

So far, I've only managed to find charcoal - pine, I think, so that's what I'm using, here in Portugal. I've attached a picture of my forge. The actual firepot is really small, only being around 4" wide and 2, 3 or so deep (I'm European, so I hope I've gotten the measurements right).

First of all, there's a HUGE, horrible amount of flying burning fleas. Me and my sweetheart (who I convinced to join me, yay!) looked like we had freckles all over for awhile. It's hard to move the charcoal around and keep a blast going, because we get all burnt.

Second, that stuff is LIGHT! After a half hour or so, it seems like all we have in the fire is pinky-fingernail sized pieces. We do add some more, but they're still there, and fly off if we increase the air-blast. I also think that, related to this lightness, it is common for the firepot to become an open dome full of oxygen, because of the constant air flow. Unfortunately, since the pot is so shallow, that ends up being where I put my piece. Oxidation paradise. I had been drawing out the 16x16mm square bar I had (a bit more than half-inch), so it was pretty thin, and I think that as soon as it hit yellow (which is darn hard with that charcoal flying off and creating that dome), it burnt away.

So, short of finding a new source of (char)coal, is there anything I can do? I do have access to clay (the grey type), but I'm not sure I want to put too much of it on there because of the weight. It seems like the ideal thing would be to increase the depth of the firepot though. Not sure that would avoid the empty dome... no idea about the fleas.

Sorry about the long post! I hope I manage to keep coming here every once in awhile. It'll be kind of hard!



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Greetings, John,

A couple things...

You need a deep fire for charcoal, and you have a shallow forge. You might try building a deeper pot by stacking some fire brick around your pan. Not the whole pan... just create a nice, deep pot in the center.

Be very patient with your heat. Run the air slowly and let your iron heat slowly. It's always tempting to fire the afterburners to get there fast, but take it easy. You might find that your heat is more controlable with a lighter, but steady blast with a good, deep fire.

One more thing... sometimes it helps to let the charcoal "cherry out" a bit before you crank up the air. I find that the forge fleas get much worse when the charcoal absorbs humidity. The slow burn / cherry process will dry all of that out.

Hope this helps some,


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Glenn, thank you very much. I apologize for any inconvenience, I was avoiding creating another topic on a similar issue.

I'm guessing around 3 to 4 inches deep (from the air entry-point to the top of the mound), and I'm just using the hand-crank blower you can see on the picture. I'm actually amazed at how much air it manages to push through, it's quite nice.

Thank you too Don and Pete, I'll try those out as soon as I get some more forging time! I'm sure they'll help!

I don't have any easilly available firebrick, but I'll build the edge around the existing firepot with some clay. From the topmost bit of fuel to the air entrance, how many inches do you think is appropriate? From 5 to 8 inches, from what I've read in other topics?

Regarding the air... I believe we did try that. Maybe it was a lighting issue, but it didn't seem like it went far beyond a semi-bright orange. From what I remember being told, if you have a constant air-flow, the temperature of the fire will also remain constant. And if you've got a piece in a constant fire, then the piece will not absorb heat above the fire's temperature.

I'm accustomed to bringing this sort of piece to a bright yellow. It drastically reduces the effort. Again, might've been the lighting, though I doubt it.

Thanks again, you guys are great! :)

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The type of wood used to make the charcoal can have some bearing on the amount of sparks. Just last weekend at a blacksmiths meet I heard an experienced charcoal maker say he avoided using certain types of Eucalypt for that reason, but others worked fine. Don't know about pine.

Good luck

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Anvilfolk, not a problem, it is the job of a site admin to try to make things easy for everyone to find the information.

Look at Iforgeiron.com > Lessons in Metalworking > Blacksmithing > LB0007 Seeing colors. This should help a bit in trying to define what you see. But please tell us if you inside or outside and the type of sun so we can adjust our answers to fit your light conditions.

I just made a 55 gallon drum full of charcoal to try it out in the forge. You will have to listen to the wisdom of others on this matter.

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If you learned with coke, you may not have been taught to use water on your fire. Sprinkle or splash water around the edges of the fire. This helps to control it as well as those "fleas." I will use as much as 5 gallons of water a day when I use charcoal. Sometimes I even through a ladle full of water right into the fire when it is too big and sparking too much, while I am pumping the bellows to make certain air is keeping the fire going.

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Wow, what a helpful community :) This is great :) Thank you all very much :)

Glenn, thank you again. These were my first experiences with charcoal. Thank you also for the link, I have read it and will use what I've read! I'll try to post a picture of the place I'm currently using. It's a small room, walls made of cement, the windows are negligible, and we have a big wooden two-part door. I usually keep one closed, and the other wide open so the opening should be around two and a half feet, or along those lines. This was during a portuguese summer, so it was pretty bright outside. The anvil is about one and a half, two feet from the door.

The lighting conditions I was used to were a huge warehouse, it had 3 bays of 6 two-fire forges each, and plenty of space besides. It had some artificial lighting at the very top (it was also very high), and it was in England, so the weather was different. I might very well be underestimating the brightnesses, but the time I brought it to a nice yellow, the metal moved so well! It's also really easy to misjudge, since it's been over two years since my last blacksmithing experience :(

The charcoal might've been eucalyptus or pine, I'm not sure. Those are the two more abundant trees in my area. I will be sure to ask next time I buy. Thanks for the tip, Makoz.

Also, the picture was taken with a digital camera, and it didn't take too well to bright colours, it amplified them, so don't take those colours too seriously.

I wasn't taught the water part, no. Coke fires don't expand a lot if you start with a small initial fire - I'll have to find a handy bucket & sprinkler can! Thanks!

Thank you all again. Maybe the weekend after this one I'll get another go at the forge!

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I use charcoal all the time,had the same problems until I made a firepot 8" deep and throttled back on the air.I make my own charcoal and have found in Australia the harder the wood the better the charcoal but don't know if this applies everywhere.The addition of a sidedraft hood took care of 90 percent of the fleas.

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The pink got to me! I want one of those! Heheh! The can idea is awesome though!

Since the forge probably going to have to move somewhere else, I want to avoid anything that makes it heaver than it is. If I ever find a permanent workshop, I'll start making modifications to perfect it. For now, the fine-mesh seems like a great idea! Shouldn't weigh a thing!

8" deep? Wow! I had no idea charcoal required that much! Good thing I have enough clay! I'm going to make a wide, kind of V shaped pot, 8" deep then. Kind of like a volcano shape, if you get what I mean. I'm itching to try all the great ideas!

I'll let you know how they went! It'll take awhile though!

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  • 2 weeks later...

Anvilfolk, nice to see you have arrived at IFI. If you are making your own charcoal or purchasing it locally, then either way try if you can to avoid pine. I don't know about eucalyptus but pine is full of "fleas" and burns up rather quickly. I live in an area with an abundance of hardwood, oak, ash, hickory, maple and getting hardwood for free is never a problem. I've made my own charcoal when I could not get coal. Pine is always trouble.
Being in Europe you may find hardwood difficult to obtain and costly. If you are near a port you might inquire about obtaining shipping pallets, a good source of hardwood from which to make your own charcoal. Hope this helps. Dan:)

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I guess to each his own. Roughly 10 years ago I met a fella from Wisconson at the Wapello County Iowa county fair. He had a 1700's demo setup. Small ( very ) forge and nice set of bellows. He burned commercial lump charcoal. This was my first exposure to charcoal. His pot was I guess 2-3 inches deep and had some bank ( natural ) clay slurried around it. Just a piece of pipe on a side blown pot made of clay setting on a piece of plate. The pot edge worked as a guage to set the stock in the fire and I believe he may have had something else further out to hold stock and had a leg stuck in the ground for a stock stand for longer stuff. He forge welded a piece of 1 " square stock in this fire to prove his point to me ( as I was skeptical ). Jens Butler's forge is fairly shallow too. Light blast. I have enjoyed reading the posts in this thread. Thanks for the input. I use a commercial Centaur round pot in the trailer forge ( coal or charcoal ) and a Cannedy Otto crank blower. When I use charcoal I just bank the fire with a chunk of firewood.

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Thanks again!

It does burn rather quickly. I bought a nice large sack, and it fed around 3 or 4 one-hour fires, maybe a bit more. It must be the type of wood. We do have some types of oak here in Portugal, but they're not "natural" per se, they're the ones grown for cork. It takes a long time until you can harvest the cork, I doubt they'd like the idea of oak charchoal ;)

Anyway, I do not have much time (university) at all, I do not want to go into making charcoal right now. It's an open option for the future! The man at a small steel warehouse near here said he might be able to get me some coke, I'll have to go and see him. I'm suspicious that the owner of the coke might not be aware of this arrangement....... I want to go to the source, be a little more direct. I can't keep on buying fuel by small bags.

Any ideas about what charcoal he was using, Ten Hammers?

Thanks again!:)

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Just make sure you don't get suckered into buying the briquettes. Then you'd really be fighting fleas and not getting much heat out of the hassle.

Heheh, yeah, that I've heard of :)

They're not briquettes. The bag I bought was charcoal made by a couple of the townsfolk. Since the trees around the area are either pine or eucalyptus, I guess I'm out of luck.

The search for fuel continues! *grin*
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I don't understand the "problem" with pine charcoal. In Japan, pine charcoal is the preferred fuel, although coke and gas are taking over. I use pine charcoal myself and don't have problems with forge fleas, although I've seen a lot of fleas when using mesquite. I'm using a box bellows so maybe the lower air velocity/volume has something to do with our different experiences.

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Hey Anvilfolk, I don't think there's any problem with pine charcoal, according to everything I read it's okay. I make a lot of charcoal, mostly oak and popular. I can't really tell much difference in the two woods. I think when you get it burned down to charcoal, that's pretty much it.

Also, I've never had a problem with flees, I don't know why everyone else does. I think maybe it's because I sift my charcoal and get all of the small particles out.

Cowboy (brand) charcoal is good charcoal if you want to make a scientific comparison. My wife bought me a bag one time, and it actually is the real thing.

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It seems some charcoal users have problems with 'fleas' and some don't. I 've used charcoal off and on for years, and I've seen the same thing.I make all my own charcoal from hardwoods and also softwoods( mainly pine) .And some of my charcoal makes 'fleas'! This may be related to HOW the charcoal is made.

Some where in his posts,Frosty explains that there are three different ways to make charcoal.

Direct: where you just burn the wood

Semi-direct: build fire in container,add wood,put lid in place to stop air from entering container

Indirect: wood is placed in almost sealed container,heated externally

Look up Frosty's post......he explains much better than I do.

Most often, I just burn wood, then extinguish with a water hose......few fleas

I also use the semi-direct and indirect methods at times too.

With these 'sealed container ' methods, sometimes when remove the lid, there is cresoate...pinetar?...or other gooey stuff attached to the lid itself.
I'm just guessing, but perhaps there's a wide temperature range in which charcoal can be made. (With the container methods being a cooler burn which doesn't burn up all the volitiles.)

I haven't been scientific enough to draw any hard conclusions from this, but it's worth thinking about.

I have noticed that these different cooking methods produce charcoals which appear and burn differeintly in the forge.

So here's the question.......does all this have any bearing on the performance of the charcoal when smithing?


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