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).

sideways
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.

 

Bottles in the Atlantic

In 2013 my family drove all the way to Nova Scotia, Canada, to visit extended family. We stayed at a cottage on a small lake called Lake Deception, near Shelburne, NS.

After launching canoes on the lake, we found that although the surface appears quite flat, there are many hidden rocks barely beneath the surface. We figured this could have been the reason behind the name Deception.

I found an empty glass bottle (the kind used for rootbeer, soda, or beer) that one of the previous renters chucked from the deck behind the cottage. It instantly gave me the idea to write a message, roll it up inside, and toss it into the lake, in the hopes that someone from one of the 10 or so other cottages along the lake would find it.

When my Uncle Ed heard of my plans, he took the idea to a whole new level, by suggesting I throw it in the ocean instead. He also gave me the idea of doing more than one bottle, so as to increase the chances of someone finding it, and even went out of his way to help me photocopy the note (which included my name and address and a request for the finder to write). I left all the ten notes with Ed. He told me that he had a friend at a liquor store, where he might be able to get some bottles.

Later that day while I was at a beach with my family, Ed pulled up in his mini-van and called me over to it.

He gave me a box of ten shinny, brand new, freshly sealed beer bottles. Inside each bottle was one of the notes, tightly rolled up and fastened with an elastic band. On each bottle was a crisp white cap with a red octopus that had a bottle instead of a head.

I put the bottles in our van, and later we drove as far towards the open sea as roads would allow, than walked for a bit on a path, ‘till we got to some rocks where you could see the frothing Atlantic Ocean right below.

My cousins, siblings, and I took turns lobbing the bottles off the cliff like hand-grenades, and watched as they bobbed gently up and down, moving slowly out to sea.

Uncle Ed had told me that it would take several months before the bottle caps would rust through, so if they had not been beached before then, they where goners.

After arriving home from NS (Nova Scotia), I wondered, is someone actually going to find one of these on a beach somewhere?  If so, how far away might they be?

A couple weeks later I got a letter in the mail from NS. Since it wasn’t from Uncle Ed or his family, I wondered who it was. I opened it up, and inside found a letter from someone who had found one of the bottles while walking on a beach on Cape Sable Island, NS. This is not very far from Shelburne, but it was still exciting news.

Two or three days later I received another letter, from another island nearby called the Cape. The two people found their respective bottles two days apart from each other!

I replied to both letters, and wrote to Ed to tell him the good news. I even continued to correspond with one of the people for some time, although the other person never replied a second time.

Sometimes I wonder what happened during the journey of those bottles, and what befell the other eight bottles which I never heard from again. Still, I deem it quite a success, and am very grateful to Ed, without whom I would not have been able to carry out such a great experiment.

I Got a GoPro!

I first heard about GoPro action cameras this spring.  A friend of my Mom was telling us about a cool video she had seen that had been made with a GoPro.  Later on I looked them up on the internet, and found the GoPro website.

If you have not heard of GoPros, here is a quick intro:

GoPro action cameras are small lightweight cameras that have three modes:  multi-shot, video, and single photo, with many settings and options for each.  You can use them to capture top quality video and photo footage, in a variety of different settings.  GoPros come with a protective housing that protects them from dirt, dust, snow, water, and other conditions that might damage the camera.  The housing also allows you to attach the camera to all the compatible mounts and harnesses so you can film from your head, chest, wrist, bicycle (or unicycle), surfboard, or even your dog!  Click here to see all the different mounts and accessories.

After using a friend’s GoPro to make a video – that I posted here called Off-Road Unicycling – and researching a little more, I decided it would be a good investment to make.  I just needed to decide which one to get!  At the time I was looking there were three available:  the Hero4 Black, the Hero4 Silver, and the Hero Session.  I decided to get the Hero4 Silver because, even though the Hero4 Black has a few better video quality features, the Hero4 Silver has some things I liked more, such as a built-in touch screen.  I got it in the mail a couple weeks after ordering.

I am very happy with the GoPro I bought, and definitely recommend it.  The video above is my first video made with it, and hopefully there will be lots more to come!

img_5479Here is a photo of my GoPro attached to a floating handle.

 

 

Knives

IMG_8834If you do a lot outdoors, having the right equipment is essential to your own safety, and to accomplishing the task you set out to do.  For example, supposing you are using a cheap, breakable hatchet that you found for a great deal (because no one else wanted it!).  If a part of the axe broke, it could hurt you, or someone else standing near by.

A good all around tool for anyone, whether you live in the city or the country, and whether you have been a logger way up North for twenty years, or have lived in the city all your life and are just a kid, is a knife.  I don’t mean a huge machete hanging in a gigantic sheath from your belt (although some people do have them, they are not very practical for everyday use)!  I mean something small with a two or three inch blade.  Something that you could carry in your pocket, or on your belt.

The reason a knife is such a good all around tool, is because you can use it in lots of different situations.  If you’re trying to clean something out of a very thin crack, just use the blade of your knife.  If you are opening a box or package sometimes you need a blade to tare through some tape or something.  Or you might use it to cut the string of a straw bale.  There are countless other reasons and situations where you could use a knife, which is why you should not just go grab the first cheap knife you see.

Depending on what you are using it for, you will want different kinds of knives.  A good one for a lot of people is a two or three inch long folding blade knife.  Of course some people will prefer a fixed blade knife (stored in a sheath at your belt).  A fixed blade knife is usually stronger, because it does not fold in the middle.  However, they are a little less handy to carry around, and sometimes can make it hard to run if they bang against your leg.  In my opinion, probably the most handy option for a knife is a multi-tool.  A multi-tool usually has a knife blade, plus all the extra tools, sometimes including a screwdriver, pliers, bottle opener, saw, file, scissors, wire cutters, and lots of other things.  I have a multi-tool in a case on my belt that I carry around all day, and I never have to worry about it falling out of my pocket or rubbing against my leg.  You could also use a utility knife.  They are sharp but very breakable so I don’t recommend using one.

I have a friend who has collected over thirty knives of every shape and size!  This is really handy for him, because whenever he is going outside, he can grab whatever knife best suits the job he is going to work on.

The more expensive a knife is, probably the better quality it is.  Before you buy your knife, it is a good idea to look up reviews about the knife you are thinking about, or to ask someone you know who has bought something with the same brand name.

Remember, a knife is a blade and you have to be careful when using it.  A dull knife will more likely slip from whatever you are cutting, which could cut you.  So it is generally better to have a good sharp knife.

Make sure you know what kinds of knives are allowed in your area, and if there are knives that are not legal, don’t buy it if you are offered one!