Making Charcoal: An Easy Guide to DIY Charcoal

At a great American BBQ party, what’s the one thing that ties it all together? That makes the cookout so great and memorable?

You can say the meat, the ice-cold beer, and some good old potato salad, but that’s all moot and void without a good bag of charcoal to fire up your grill.

If you run out of it, a quick visit to the store can quickly fix that. But what if SHTF and the stores are all goners?

Enter: making charcoal at home. Let’s get started.

What Is Charcoal and Why the Need for It?

Before we dive deep into making charcoal and DIY-ing it, you might be asking: why are we even hyping up something so insignificant? Do you really need it when SHTF or when disaster strikes? And what the F is charcoal anyway?

First, charcoal is a substance made from heating wood at a high temperature and in an airless space. In an open fire setting, that wood will burn down to ashes. But in this airless space, instead of ashes, it turns into charcoal. Pretty straightforward, huh?

Second, HELL YES, WE NEED IT! Knowing how to make this dirty black nugget might just be your saving grace post SHTF for the following reasons:

1. Easily light, maintain, or transport fire

In the department of cooking and heating, charcoal does one hell of a job. Lighting it is straightforward and you only need a small amount of fire to do so. Once you get the charcoal lit, it’s easy to maintain and transport. It also lasts for hours, even after the flame has gone.

2. Useful for camouflaging

When you need to stay hidden in a survival situation, charcoal is a great bet to help you stay outta sight. Our minds are geared to recognize faces in everything, so smearing your face with charcoal will help you camouflage.

3. Mask unwanted smells

Ever seen a block of coal in your fridge and wondered what the heck it’s doing there? It’s there to absorb that icky fridge smell. Charcoal is an excellent odor absorber, and in a survival setting, you can use it to mask human scent when hunting or evading enemies.

4. Writing instrument, anyone?

Got no pen or pencil? Bring out the charcoal! When on the run, leaving markers will be a great help if you ever get separated from your group. The dark charcoal color will stand out to any trained eye.

5. It can become valuable trading material

When SHTF, things like coffee and cigarettes become valuable and tradeable. Who says charcoal won’t be the same? With what we’ve listed above, we think it’s highly possible.

Steps to Making Charcoal at Home

So now that we’ve laid out what charcoal is and why knowing how to make it is important, let’s get down to the details and show you (at least in words) HOW to make it.

Luckily, making charcoal isn’t that hard. Here are some things you’ll need to prep beforehand:

An entrenching shovel

You’ll be using this to sift dirt and move hot materials out of the way, so an entrenching tool or shovel is key to making charcoal.

A firestarter

Matches will do the job but if they aren’t available, opt for a Ferro rod.

A lid

Make sure that the lid that you use won’t catch fire or melt. A piece of metal roofing will work well for this.


Branches, stumps, and other types of wood will work fine. If the wood is about 4 to 5 inches wide, cut it in half. Make sure you also have a lot of wood on hand, probably about a couple of armfuls, just to be on the safe side.


A stray spark can do a lot of damage. Always have a bucket of water or a garden hose near you to help you if something goes awry.

Now you’ve got the equipment, and we’re ready to show you how to make DIY charcoal. Mind you, there are other ways to make charcoal, but we’ve chosen this because it’s the best method at home or when you’re out in the wild.

Here are the steps to making charcoal:

Step 1: Choose a site

This is an important first step to DIY-ing charcoal. You can’t just pick ANY site. Come on. You gonna make some coals in a garbage dump? No, boy. Choose a site that is clear of obstruction, preferably a spot you can see the dirt, and more importantly, a place that isn’t near to anything remotely flammable.

You don’t want to start any accidental fires with this one. Also, make sure there aren’t any stray roots around.

Step 2: Dig your pit

Once you’ve found the best entrenching tool or shovel on the market, it’s time to dig a pit. Your freshly dug hole will be the “airless space” where you’ll create your homemade charcoal. Make sure it’s at least 3 feet deep, which is enough to put the wood in. As for width, the rule of thumb is that it should be wide enough for your lid to snugly fit over the pit.

Step 3: Prep your wood

By this point, your wood should probably be prepared, but it’s always good to double-check. Your wood should be cut to the right length so that it fits into the pit perfectly. Next, you have to make sure you have enough wood.

Don’t underestimate making charcoal—one-third of your gathered wood will be used just for feeding the fire to high heat and maintaining it.

Step 4: Start the fire

when making charcoal, having a good fire is key

Now you’re ready to get your fire started and going. You’ll want to start this fire at the bottom of the pit. If you’re not confident doing that, you can get an adequate supply of coals going outside the hole.

Once they’re nice and hot, you can dump them into the pit. From there, you’ll have to tend your fire until you get a nice bed of coals of at least two inches. It has to be at least two inches or more because you need a high combustion temperature to turn the wood into charcoal.

Step 5: Add the wood

Once you’ve got a glowing bed of inviting coals to rest, add the wood you’ve prepped from earlier. Wait for all the wood to catch fire before putting the lid on to cover the pit. For this part, you can use your entrenching tool to place the lid on if things are too hot to handle by hand. You’ll want to limit the airflow getting into your pit for about 4 to 7 hours, and you can do that by covering the lid with dirt or soil.

Step 6: Let things cool down

The smoldering wood shouldn’t produce smoke after 7 hours, or there should barely be any visible at least. Once you’ve reached that point, leave your covered coal pit alone for at least 24 to 48 hours to cool it down. Doing this makes sure the live coals die off, your homemade charcoal cools, and that no crazy combustion happens when you take that lid off.

Step 7: Check on your charcoal

Once the 24 to 48 hours are up, it’s time to open the lid! If you covered it with soil, use your shovel to sift it aside. You’ll notice that the contents of your pit are less than what you started with. Don’t worry, that’s normal. We did say you’d be using up a lot of wood for this.

You can take out your DIY charcoal and get another batch going if you need or want more.

Step 8: Store your charcoal properly

The last and final step of making charcoal is proper storage. Ensure your storage space is free of dew or moisture—you want it to be as dry as possible. Water doesn’t exactly damage the charcoal but ensuring that it’s dry gives it a better chance of re-igniting.

If you’re planning to use your charcoal pit again, cover it adequately so that no one falls in. Or turn it into a booby trap for those pesky trespassers.

If you’re on the move, fill your pit up with dirt or fill it with water to make sure no stray smolders accidentally start a fire.

Final Thoughts

It’s gonna take a bit of your time to learn how to make charcoal, but things get easier once you get the hang of it. With a supply of charcoal, you’ll be able to cook anywhere, anytime, and you’ll never have to rely on a gas stove or an electric one again, too, along with all the other great benefits that charcoal has.

Have you tried making charcoal? Let us know how it went in the comments section below!

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