Making Charcoal & Preserving Wood


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Here is a broad summary of the Sustainable Forestry Project to date.

August 2006 UPDATE

Photo on the left shows the Picuris forestry storage area with charcoal bags neatly lined up. Luther Martinez is stacking the charcoal and Julian is on the right. The charcoal is for sale at the local farmers market, 10 pounds for $7. The white bags are 50 pounds each and several Santa Fe restaurants are trying them out, especially the Indian restaurants that use it for certain dishes.

Advantages of this charcoal:
lighter fluid is not needed to light it,
it burns hot, long and clean.
This wood charcoal burns twice as hot as cut wood,
it is 50% lighter to transport,
it will last in storage without degradation many years longer than firewood, so it is a good way to convert and store energy long term.


SCZ now has the results for two more types of charcoal, from Pecan thinnings and from Salt Cedar. These results also compare favorably with the four commercial brands of wood charcoal. Here is the updated charcoal comparison chart.

This quote from Joey Sam of Picuris Pueblo gives a good picture of our charcoal from the cook's viewpoint. "I have cooked bison meat, salmon and bison kabobs on the charcoal. It burns hot so I usually let them burn down a little before cooking. It's a good product."

July 2005 Update

In July 2005, Sustainable Communities/ZERI-NM sent samples of our natural wood charcoal for testing by Huffman Laboratories, Inc. in Golden, Colorado. The samples were made from juniper, piñon, SDT ponderosa, Ocate ponderosa, and Encino oak.

These samples compared favorably with four commercial brands of wood charcoal for BTUs per pound, the amount of fixed carbon, and the amount of remaining ash. One of the commercial brands was made from mesquite, another from oak. The third was from old hardwood floors, and furniture. The fourth was made from wood chips and turned into briquettes.

See the charcoal test results charts for more details.

How this SCZ project developed

To demonstrate the use of wood preservation ovens and charcoal pits, Sustainable Communities/ZERI-NM (SCZ) brought ZERI expert Antonio Giraldo (in photo at right) from Colombia, South America to New Mexico. In the two months between May 1, 2004 and the end of July, Antonio and workers from the Picuris Pueblo completed two demonstrations.

They built an oven, moved it to the selected location, constructed a charcoal pit, filled the pit with wood for charcoal and the oven with wood to be preserved, and started making charcoal and preserving wood.

After building the 1,200 lb oven (in photo at left), it was a difficult task to move it into position.

The charcoal pit was filled with wood from the small diameter trees being thinned for fire safety. Most of this wood is unused for other purposes and would go into land fills and be wasted. The wood was covered with smaller green branches and finally sealed with dirt to keep out oxygen. This necessary step insures that the wood will turn to charcoal when burned. The oven was connected by flexible hose and fume hood to the charcoal pit.

Meanwhile, the oven was filled with wood to be preserved and tightly closed.

The pit was ignited and the smoke flowed into the oven. Tubing filled with circulating water condensed the smoke and gasses to keep them in the oven. The oven must be kept closed for 20 days until the fumes have permeated the wood and the process is complete.

After burning for two days, the charcoal pits were allowed to cool for 24 hrs. and then opened to recover the charcoal. Laboratory tests will determine its thermal potential and chemical composition.

Part way through this process, a section of the charcoal pit collapsed allowing fumes to escape and requiring rebuilding. This problem was caused by wood shrinkage. In June SCZ built and tested a commercial 3 cord size metal charcoal oven. In July we built a 1 cord metal charcoal oven. Although they are more expensive than an earthen oven, they are easier to stack and more efficient.

Shown above are:
Chris Simbolo, a Picuris Pueblo forestry team member,
Dale Snake, Picuris Forestry,
Luther Martinez, head of forestry team at Picuris Pueblo,
Ignacia Peralta, US Forest Service Coordinator of the Collaborative Forest
      Restoration Program, a grant program for the Carson National Forest,
Antonio Giraldo, of Colombia, SA, ZERI expert on charcoal and preserving wood,
Dorotea Martinez, Fire Information Officer for the Carson National Forest,
Sally Rodgers, NM Energy, Minerals & Natural Resources Dept. on behalf of
      their Division of State Forestry. She holds a newly made piece of charcoal.

Left to right in front are:
Gilbert Vigil, co-manager of SCZ forestry project
      at Picuris Pueblo and former Supervisor of Carson NF
Cordell Arellano, Watershed Coordinator, La Jicarita Enterprises,
      non-profit partner with SCZ on this project.

Antonio explained that wood preservation with fumes from a charcoal oven is not limited to a small oven. Longer lengths of wood and different types of wood of different diameters can be preserved by adjusting the size of the preservation oven, the size of the charcoal ovens, and the amount of time allowed for preservation. This process can replace the dangerous arsenic treatment previously used and now barred by the EPA.

SCZ intends to demonstrate that natural repellents, in the fumes and pyrolytic gasses from charcoal, infuse and preserve wood for construction of all types. According to ZERI International tests, wood and bamboo, preserved in this manner, are undamaged by insects or weather for 50 years or longer, depending on the climate. In New Mexico's dry climate, it will likely be longer. Our testing should give us the answer.

(At left) Antonio, Luis and Luther fill the 1,400 lb., 3 cord charcoal oven SCZ tested in June 2004. It is filled with small diameter juniper, pinõn and ponderosa. Since the different types of wood are in separate sections, we will be able to measure which makes the best charcoal.

(At right)The charcoal oven is covered and connected to the wood preservation oven in the same way the charcoal pits were in our first trial. A great deal of time was spent on cleaning the wood preservation oven damaged by overheated gases from the collapsed charcoal pits.

Governor Manuel Archuleta of Picuris Pueblo came to observe this sustainable forestry project and its value-added potential. He saw the new oven and its connections as well as a piece of charcoal made in the first trial.

During the second trial, pyrolytic resins oozed out of the wood preservation oven and were collected for analysis and consideration as another product that will add value from what was previously considered waste.

(Photo at left shows Luis Torres, Antonio Giraldo, Governor Archuleta, Luther Martinez, Lynda Taylor, Gilbert Vigil and, in front, Waylon Martinez, Chris Simbolo, Dale Snake and Cordell Arellano.)

In July 2004 SCZ tested the 1 cord charcoal oven, photo at right (by Robert Haspel). Because it is easier to move from one location to another, it will be more useful for different areas where small-diameter trees will be thinned for fire prevention and the resulting timber and brush would be considered "waste".

Go to the charcoal photos page for more photos and recent information about the taller preservation oven built in September 2004.

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Sustainable Communities/ZERI-NM
(Our legal name is Sustainable Communities, Inc.)
P. O. Box 8017,
Santa Fe, NM 87504 USA
Phone: 505-820-0186
FAX: 505-986-6019

Sustainable Communities/ZERI-NM is a public 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

This page was last updated on November 12, 2004

Copyright Sustainable Communities/ZERI-NM, Inc. © 2004. All Rights Reserved.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs are © 2001-2004 Lynda Taylor.