An Introduction to Charcoal

 

 

 

‘Charcoal by the bushel, charcoal by the peck, charcoal by the frying pan, or anyway you lek!’

“It was an era of charcoal and a time of disappearing trees”

Oh the wonderful things you can find at secondhand stores. My mom was once at a used goods store, and knowing my love for history, bought me a book called A Reverence for Wood, by Eric Sloane, © 1965. It had a price tag of $1, half of its original price of $2. I started reading the book, and was intrigued by the wast variety of wood related subjects covered in this compact but dense manuscript. One of the things that caught my attention was the portion written on the charcoal makers of old.

‘The charcoal burners were always a strange breed, living a lonely life in the forest, almost like wild beasts.’

Charcoal was used widely for a great number of applications. It was utilized for making Iron long before coal was widely employed for the purpose, but it was also used to store meat, make printing ink, gunpowder, and medicines, brush teeth, and even purify water. As you could imagine, something with such a wide variety of possibilities really piqued my interest.

‘At its best, the job of making charcoal was not for any normal human being. The time required for charring a small mound varied from one to two weeks, but with mounds of wood thirty feet or more round, a month was average. During that time, through every kind of weather, the maker of charcoal lived with his mound, sleeping only in dozes for fear a flame might start and explode into a full fire which would demolish the mound.’

Now, if you don’t know what it is already, I’ll try to explain charcoal really quickly.  *Stay tuned to this blog, and I’ll likely post something more detailed about the science of charcoal later on.* Charcoal is different from ashes, which is the grey/black stuff found after a fire dies. I like to think of charcoal as wood that has burned as much as it can without actually breaking down. You’ll see in my instructions below, that all the flammable gasses from the wood burn, but it burns outside of the container and doesn’t break down the wood, leaving it charred, not burnt.

Instructions for homemade charcoal:

You’ll need a metal can and its matching metal lid (any size is great, but the bigger it is, the more charcoal it makes, and the longer it takes) and a bunch of sticks, preferably all the same kind.

Cram the can full of as much wood as you can fit, and before placing the lid on top, poke a small hole in it (the lid). Close the box tightly, and put it in your fire pit with the lid facing upwards. Build a fire around the tin, and keep it going as hot as possible. In a couple minutes you’ll see a small flame pop up out of the hole in the lid. This flame is all the gasses from the wood. As soon as this flame goes out, you can let the fire die down, and once cooled, your charcoal is done. It may take an hour or two, depending on the size of the tin.

This is a fun and interesting project, that costs almost nothing, and is easy to do. And to find out what kinds of wood are best for different purposes, the internet is your friend.

Also, if you try this and use it for something cool, let me know in the comments below.

 

One final note:  I am interested in finding out the old method of making charcoal in huge mounds covered with sod and dirt.  If you know anyone with information about the old methods of doing it who would be willing to share what they know, please let me know by commenting below.

 

 

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Diorama

jungle stripWhat is a diorama? I didn’t know until a few weeks ago when we were visiting some friends and I had the opportunity to make my own. A diorama is basically a three dimensional model of a landscape, which can include trees, rocks, hills, sand, water, roads, people, cars, etc…

Our friends had recently learned how to make them, and while we were visiting they showed us how. I’ll give you a quick description of how I made mine, and then you can research more detailed instructions elsewhere.

I started by taking a thin sheet of plywood, and drawing out where the hills and elevations would be (a bit like the way a topo map looks). I then cut out different layers for the hills out of styrofoam, and used toothpicks and glue to fasten them on to the base to form mountains. You can get large quantities of hard foam inexpensively from a hardware store.

The next step was to tightly cover the whole landscape (except rocks and cliffs) in burlap. I used a glue gun and my fingers to press it into corners and attach it. When the hot glue was dry, I painted the whole thing in a generous coat of white glue.

Once that glue dried, I painted it. I did grey on rocky areas, and brown on the forest floor and ground. Then I sprinkled ‘grass’ dust on the areas where grass would grow. This powder gives the impression of grass or moss on a miniature landscape. I sprayed that with hairspray, which helps stick everything down to the burlap.

After that I took tree fluff and rocks and glued them to make a jungle/forest landscape, as I was making a missionary jungle airstrip, so I had mountains on either side, with a flattish grassy area running down the centre.

After all the finishing touches, I sprayed again with hairspray (which has many more uses other than just on hair, including making a mini compact flamethrower).

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Note the painted burlap and hard foam visible in this shot from the side

That’s it! You can research more detailed instructions online, and search for pictures to inspire you. Remember, you can also save a lot of money by improvising cheap things instead of using the recommended modelling materials, for example using scent free kitty-litter instead of packaged rocks.

Here’s a few more pictures of my diorama.

Pilot
The view from the cockpit of an approaching bush plane.

We had fun making these together, and they all turned out pretty nice.  Below are some pictures of some of the dioramas that the others made.

 

Sourdough Bread

img_0111Sourdough is easy to make, it just requires some preparation time and a sourdough starter (which you can find out how to make here). I have mentioned sourdough before in my post A Pretzel Attempt.

Our friends (whose blog can be found here) who got us started with sourdough, gave us a recipe that works well. I have changed a few things around, so here is how I do it:

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I start by putting 4 cups water, 2 cups sourdough starter, and 8 cups whole wheat flour in a large bowl, which I then place at room temperature (or by the fireplace) for about 4 hours. This part of the process is called the “sponge.”

DCIM100GOPROG0047884.img_0088After that, in an even larger bowl, I mixed the sponge, 5 cups water, about 16 cups flour – I like to play around with different combinations of white and whole wheat flour; the more whole wheat, the healthier, the more white, the fluffier – and a couple tbsp of salt. Once this is kneaded together, I mix in either some molasses, cinnamon and raisins, or whatever I want to have the bread taste like.

DCIM100GOPROG0057970.I divide it into loaves, put them in buttered bread dishes, and let them rise overnight. The dough also works well for buns. In the morning I baked the loaves at 400° f for about 45 minutes.  Sometimes it will take longer or shorter depending on the size of the loaves.

img_0110The instructions I above will yield six regular sized loaves, so be prepared for large quantities.

Brownie Birthday Cake

img_0124I made my own birthday cake this year. I doubled this brownie recipe, and added some shredded coconut to spice it up a little. I baked it in two square pans. I then doubled this recipe for healthy chocolate avocado icing. Both of these recipes are sugar free and gluten free.

I made a cake platform out of cardboard and aluminum foil, and once the brownies finished baking I put the first one down as the first layer. I then spread some of the icing on it, and lay the second brownie on top as the top layer. I used the rest of the icing to cover up the sides and top of the cake. The result was this nice simple chocolate cake.

Airplane Mural

DCIM100GOPROGOPR7853.If you’re looking for a great way to brighten up your bedroom (or any room for that matter) here’s an idea: Paint a mural! That’s what I did, and it turned out to be a lot of fun.

I chose to paint a WWII airplane called the P-51 Mustang. I started by using a projector to project the image on the wall. Then I used a pencil to trace the outline and all the main features. After that I started working on painting it, using just regular craft paint. I had fun playing around with light reflection, shading, textures, and colours.

Once done the main airplane, I continued to fill in the background with some smaller planes. For these smaller planes, I printed pictures out, cut out the outline of the plane, and traced it on the wall. I then finished with paint.

You could try painting anything that holds your interest. I hope this inspires you to get working on some art.

Note: some of the smaller planes you see in the top picture are actually models hanging from the ceiling.

A Pretzel Attempt

img_0004While some friends were visiting from Thunder Bay, they gave us some of their sourdough starter and showed us how to use it. Sourdough starter is a bacterial culture (like a ginger bug) and is used to make healthy fermented bread products. You can look up all sorts of recipes on what to do with it, and you can also look up how to start one. Our starter is made from Rye flour, and I feed it a cup of Rye, and a cup of water every week to keep it going. There are other types of starters too.

Originally my sister was in charge of feeding the starter, but she moved on to some other things and passed it on to me. My first idea was to make pretzels. I found a recipe online, and prepared the dough. After following the instructions right up until I had to shape them into pretzels, I started to find that the dough was very sticky (apparently the rye starter is what made it sticky) and when I would try to make it into a shape, it just sort of morphed back into one big blob.

I was getting slightly annoyed because it wasn’t working very well, but my Mom encouraged me to try something else with the dough instead of the classic pretzel shape. So, I just cut of little lumps of dough and made bite sized pretzel nuggets, which actually turned out really well. They didn’t look very appetizing, but they tasted great.  Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures of them to post here.

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This is the pot I boiled the pretzels in.

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I made about half the dough into those, and with the other half made a couple of loaves of bread (I added a bit of maple syrup and cinnamon to make it a cinnamon loaf) which were fluffy and tasty.

img_0005It’s fun to try new stuff, even though it doesn’t always work out.  When something goes wrong, it can be easier just to give up, but when we try to improvise and make something good out of a bad situation, we can often end up with something really good, even if it wasn’t what we were expecting.

Coconut Bird Feeder

img_0103One day my Mom asked me to crack open a coconut she had gotten. I first drilled holes to pour the coconut water out, then used my hatchet to chop off the top. I scrapped all the fruit out of the the shell, then had the idea to make it into a bird feeder.

I drilled more holes in it about an inch apart, and then put a string through the bottom (similar to the way I did the Oriole Feeder) with a couple twigs attached. I filled the coconut up with suet, and hung it with our other bird feeders.

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img_0106Not long afterwards birds started showing up and eating the suet through the holes while perching on the twigs tied below.

I realized later that this would be a good feeder especially for when it is warm and you have melty suet – like mine is sometimes 🙂 – because the suet will melt down into the holes. I also recommend not including any seeds or bugs or anything bulky in the suet you use for this feeder, because it could clog up the holes.

This is a great way to make use of your coconut shells after you have eaten the fruit inside.