Saturday, October 31, 2015

Weekend progress


Renee, being the hard working girl that she is, has a "real" job that occupies here throughout the week, has her crunching numbers, strings of crazy long gene sequences AND teaching a class and students as well. Thank god she can relax and take things easy on the weekend.



Renee is also like a little excavator in human form, and I don't know where she finds the energy (She's nuclear powered, I suspect).


On Saturday, she had a vision, then promptly started to make it real.



Or maybe she just couldn't stop digging. The woman is, seriously, just a digging maniac. Ellie is searching for leaves, and the neighbors dog is searching for Ellie.


We've got soil in abundance, lying all rich, loose and crumbly atop the lava. The Aluhe ferns that were here before, blanketed the area with leaves and other decomposing matter for the last few hundred years, eventually producing this wonderful soil. Soil is truly an amazing resource, something that too many of us take for granted, but not us. We are conserving every bit that we can. After living here for nearly a year, we have seen just how rare this type of earth is. More common is to have the barest skin of dirt lying on top of large sheets of lava. This is the first place that we've been where you can actually use a shovel.


It is common here to ask, "How is your land? Is there soil?"



Ellie has been making birds from various leaves found in the forest. This one must be a cardinal, judging from the crest on its head (the next step will be working on camera focus :-)



Our baby cardinal friend lives here somewhere, and it's my hope that if we would start laying out some food, we'd see him again. None of the cardinals are about, so there must be some better food elsewhere.



Dogs and dirt.....what's the attraction?



I'd say that she is hunting up a gopher, but I'm pretty sure that we don't have them here in Hawaii, certainly not on this side of the island. She's just loving the dirt, digging and helping out.



This is the place on Sunday.



She dug out a big pocket of soil, separated out the jumbled chunks of lava, then layed a solid base for a parking area. She's a monster.



This entire island we live on, soil, trees, food, animals, everything that we know and see every's just a skin atop rock. Everywhere, the entire world is like that, but it's something that we've forgotten, most places. This miniscule layer is all that we have, that gives us life and sustains us. The big island of Hawaii is new, geologically speaking, and here we are reminded constantly that life is a short and wonderful thing.


The soil is life, and the lava underneath is the origin, the beginning. These volcanoes erupt continually, lava breaking free onto the surface and covering everything, then quieting down again for 10 years...100 years.... 1,000 years....


When the lava flows, it often covers, but doesn't always scour the earth. It buries. So what we are seeing as we dig our little garden bed, is evidence of a millenia of events. The lava comes, then life gradually colonizes. The native Ohia trees are some of the first to return, having evolved to be able to live in thin soil, putting out thin strands and clumps of aerial roots to aid them in obtaining the water they need, water from the air itself. Eventually you get a mature Ohia forest, which is what we have now. Then the lava returns, covers it all, and the cycle begins again.


Our little garden is thin lava, broken by time, atop more lava which is also broken, atop probably more lava. There have been many different lava flows here, and there will be more.....probably. The island is still moving, and as it drifts further from the thin spot on the Earth's mantle that caused the island to form in the first place, the island will cease to grow.


Anyways......dirt and rocks. Lots of dirt. Renee is in heaven.



She has exposed two ridges of lava, and right down the center, she is seeing in her mind a waterfall cascade of steps, the early stages of which you can see here, from the side.





The broken lava is an absolute joy to work with, coming in a wealth of different shapes, many flat surfaces, and some with square corners.



If you've done rock work before, you know that square corners are like gold, something to be saved and hoarded for the future. The rock above isn't a corner per se, but is even more unusual, shaped like an inverted "L". It's also blue in color. Renee is using blue and silver stones for the steps, placing the red and gray rock elsewhere.



And up above, she planted some Okinawan sweet potato runners.



This is a new favorite of mine, though I've never been a fan of sweet potatoes. This plant is gardener's ease personified, just drop it on the ground, place a few handfuls of dirt here and there on the runner stem and that's it. It will soon grow and spread everywhere that you let it, and it also works well as a cover crop/living mulch. The young greens and shoots are eaten steamed, and taste somewhat similar to spinach, minus that uncomfortable oxalic acid feel in the mouth. VERY tasty, both the greens and the purple fleshed tuber.


Part of being a good gardener (which I am emphatically NOT), is knowing what grows where. This is a new climate, and to be rigid in our thinking and demand that all of our old favorites be grown in the garden, well, that's just absurd. Normal potatoes, lettuce, tomatos, peas....there is a long list of what doesn't like to grow here, primarily due to the high rainfall. There is an entire new world of plants that DO love it here though, and "right living" comes from that understanding. Effect change where you can.....don't try change the plants (because they won't listen), change your diet instead.




I have a different set of time constraints than my wife, so I get to work on the new place most every day. I start out as I usually do, by clearing the building site of undergrowth, then piling materials dead in the middle where they are guaranteed to be underfoot, whether I need them or not.



I ran a stringline around a rough perimeter going from tree to tree at an arbitrary height above grade. The slope right here is about 1/10 and, where the patch of ground that Renee has been working has lots of soil, this spot has essentially none. That's why I chose it. It's a horrible spot to grow things. Keep life where it is most happy.



Raise the camera a bit, and the strings come into alignment.



The lines are level, but the camera is not.




Some of you might recognize some joinery here.





So honest to God, I drive myself crazy. This is supposed to be a simple elevated platform, a level surface from which to work, and a basic tin roof. I'm not even planning for walls. 80% of the materials are ugly and salvaged and I'm planning on using guava sticks for the roof members. A long service life is not a consideration, and take-apart modular is a minor design theme. I finally caved and bought a screwgun, so screws are here, nails are here, and I should just bang this out, right?


To all of you who know me.....I can hear you. Yeah, right, sure.


It starts with a simple splice......


This lumberyard 2x6 would feel so much nicer in the hand if it were planed....


Height above grade will be over 36" at the most likely side of approach, so maybe if the nicer sticks were used on that side, maybe introduce some curved elements......


And so it goes. I can't help myself. People kindly (and sometimes NOT so kindly, haha) call me a perfectionist, but it's not true. I'm an incrementalist. Perfection is an illusion that can never be attained, but nearly everything can be made just *sliiigghtly* better.


Naturally, this drives others crazy too.




I chose a site with a minimum of existing growth because I don't want to disturb the area any more than necessary but, because the guava is:

  • A) Considered a pernicious invasive that everyone wants to kill anyway, and....
  • B) is also a lively and resilient growing machine, that....

..... I start envisioning using the few existing trees as the foundation posts of the structure and extending up to serve as supports for the roof as well. These things are so tough, that I fully expect them to bounce right back, sending out new lateral growth, despite being viciously "topped". And if they die.....well, I was going to cut them down anyway.


But what if they DO live? Wouldn't it be cool if the structure was as "alive" as possible? Not only is the guava a vigorous and hardy tree, it's also enthusiastically innosuculate, meaning that it is self-grafting. If you want to weave a living wall, there would be few better choices of plant to begin with.


In any event, while I entertain grand thoughts, I also rig a tarp overhead, to keep the tools dry.



The sumi ink that I'm using for layout works great on damp lumber, but if the stick is actually wet, the ink just runs and bleeds. If I swipe the area with a rag, then lay down a very fine line, the ink will set enough to hold, but it's not the same as say, marking on dry wood. FYI, for those of you working in the rain. Fresh cut green wood, no problem. Compared to pencil, there still is no comparison. A pencil only works well on dry lumber, and it's been nearly 6 months since I've touched one for carpentry. I used one the other day...for about 2 seconds. How the hell do you cut to such a fat f***ing line, haha?!




I also built a new sharpening station.



Haha.....nice, huh?! I miss using good stones though. My standards are currently low.


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Japanese saws– salvage the junk


One of my new favorite saws is an old piece of junk.



Found in a water filled wooden tray, out in the wilds of Hawaii, it had some unusual company. A good (albeit rusty) saw set, a pre-1917 Disston keyhole saw, a 1950-ish rip kataba Z-saw (stamped Honolulu), and a weird Swiss-army saw/multi blade thing, among other stuff.



Well, I cleaned off some of the rust and it's not so bad really.



It's no work of art, just a tool, but I'm liking it a lot more than I had expected. As a "cut down anything then forget it outside in the rain" kind of tool, it excels. I've found that it holds a good edge, and the spring and temper was well done. It had no kinks when I found it, and we haven't introduced any new ones, despite our best efforts. The saw back is taper ground to a knife edge, so much so that I can use it as a machete for thick grassy stems. It has proven itself to be deceptively capable.



As is expected, it could do with some improvement.



It has probably been sharpened a few times already, but the nib on the nose still stands proud of the teeth. It needs to be made even with the teeth. More importantly, the teeth height is uneven, one side being longer than the other. Whoever was sharpening it had a definite "strong side". I know that because I do, too. Because the teeth are longer on one side, the cut drifts to the longer side, binding the saw at about 2" deep.



And, as I was saying in the prior post, the saw teeth are still not as clean as they could be. Let's see if I can improve things a bit.


Scrape 'em clean.....



.....then polish 'em up a bit.



FYI, sandpaper isn't the best way to do this, but if you do, try to rub parallel to the tooth itself. If you rub back and forth, it mostly cuts up the sandpaper and rounds the tooth shape in undesirable ways. Anyways, the sandpaper method didn't totally ruin anything, and may have helped improve the teeth marginally.


I use the edge of a really hard oilstone instead. It's WAY better. I just do the minimum required to get the outer face of the tooth bright. No matter which method you choose, this does reduce the amount of set some (x)amount. The less you do, the better.



Sighting the length of the blade, you can see that the nib at the tail of the saw stands proud as well as a few odd teeth.





I joint the saw using a standard western mill file, running the length until I see a bright tip at each tooth.



I joint at each sharpening, because I'm training myself and my body. If I was REALLY good, I could probably get away with 1 joint/ 3 sharpenings, but what's the harm? You're only going to get better if you work on refinement, and in my head is a picture of a saw with teeth of a perfectly even height, not just "good enough".





And what do I get for all my high talk of standards?



Haha! Missed a big 'ol dip...whoops! I see a bunch of low teeth, mostly on one side, my "strong" side.



Maybe two. Jeez.....what a hack!



When I sharpened, I changed the tooth geometry a little bit, but that's for the next post. I've been thinking about and researching saw teeth for nearly two years now, but it's only recently that I've been able to test the saws so rigorously. Living this off-grid, extreme bush lifestyle, I am cutting live wood, green sticks and lumber, lumberyard "dry" Wood, and a fair bit of aged salvage lumber as well. And lots of it.


One of our new neighbors kindly offered to bring over his generator and a bunch of saws for me to use, after I told him that I was cutting everything by hand. You try to explain that you are actually enjoying the act of cutting the wood, and anyway, you can't easily cut much of this stuff with power saws get that half perplexed, "huh.... OK, whatever" look. It's good to have such generous neighbors though.



Even though the tooth height is less than perfect, it still cuts well.



The cut through this hard (wet) Ohia went faster than you'd think, and the saw tracked straight and true, no binding anymore. I guess that I improved it some.



The wet wood shows scars easily, but it looks like a couple of teeth are set a tad more than the others. The scars look worse than they are, and I can't feel them by hand, but it's not perfect yet.


Because the saw is severely taper ground, it probably had very little set initially, and after a handful of sharpenings, it's probably about ready for asari/setting again. The lack of set, combined with the light weight of the saw has the saw itself riding up at times, meaning that you need to maintain downward pressure as you are using it for a ridiculously deep cut like this. What's happening is that the improved saw teeth are cutting more efficiently and are making more sawdust in the process. The problem is that the teeth are still the same size that they were before, and now the gullets are too small to hold the additional sawdust. The next step for this saw would be to give it some raker teeth and a few deeper gullets, turn it into a little madonoko saw, maybe.


This saw is for smaller stuff, like 2" and under, but it's good to have the capability nonetheless. I was felling a couple of 6" guava trees yesterday with this little guy, and it was a bit of a struggle. Why I don't use my chainsaw is a mystery to me. Scares the birds, I suppose.


What I really want to write about are teeth. Japanese saw teeth.


Monday, October 26, 2015

Some thoughts on sharpening Japanese saws– It's the little things


Lately I've been waking up in the morning and *reeeaaly* wishing that more people were writing about sharpening saws, Japanese saws in particular. I guess that I'm just obsessed, but saws have been in my mind for a while now, and I just can't get enough. 3 o'clock in the morning, and I'm wondering if it's too early to get out of bed and get back to work, sharpening more saws.


Yeah.....better not. It's too dark to see, anyways. Have I mentioned that we don't have electricity?




Almost nobody writes about this stuff, not even in the Japanese blogs. Sebastian has been doing a great job resurrecting the sharpening art, and Gabe is doing wonderfully with his big Maebiki-oga's, but.....I want more. What little I find amounts to :

  • Here is a diagram of a rip tooth. Copy it.
  • Here is a diagram of a crosscut tooth. Copy it.






The truth of it is that those directives are absolutely correct, and as a beginner, there is no better way. Look at what a "proper" tooth shape is, then emulate. When your saw starts to behave strangely, it's probably not your imagination, because they do get dull. Just because your saw is a superawesome Japanese tool,'s just steel. Before it gets too dull and something nasty happens, point that bugger up. Freshen up those facets, it's not that hard. If your saw isn't too messed up, you merely copy what's already there. It's easy (almost). Assuming that you've got a decent, non-impulse hardened tooth saw....and a file.




Sebastian, Mark Grable and I went in on buying a Yahoo Japan auction lot of saw files, bought and shipped through the excellent kindness of R-K Trading Company (thank you, Murakami!). I'll tell you this....I'm never paying retail again! Admittedly, it seems like we did get a bit lucky, we got them so cheaply. I wish that we had bid on the other lots as well, but in any event, I now have an embarrassment of 75mm, standard cut, double edged yasuri feather files.



From what I've been able to determine, Japanese saw files come in a standard cut and a finer cut (called "aburame"). If you take two files, one standard and one aburame and place them side by side, you will see that not only does the aburame have a much finer tooth spacing, it also has a thinner cross-sectional shape. These particular 75mm files are almost a perfect cross-sectional match to my fine tooth aburame 125mm file, despite its being almost twice the size. All of these files are incredibly narrow, delicate creatures, but comparatively speaking, these 75mm files are bruisers.


These files are all NOS from an old hardware store or something, Tsubohi File Works and Co., God only knows how old....50 years? These files leave a relatively coarse finish to the saw teeth, not exactly what you'd want for a final sharpening. I've been sharpening every saw within reach, and so far I'm still using the first one that I pulled out of the box, so I would say that these Tsubohi files are both forgiving and VERY durable. What the hell am I going to do with the rest of the 4 boxes.....I need more saws, obviously!


Japanese yasuri saw files come double sided, as these are, and single sided fine cut, a seemingly rare beast. 80-90% of the files that I see at auction are the standard double sided, and this must be indicative of something. I see two immediate possibilities. Assuming that 50 years ago the manufacturer made an equivalent number of all types of saw files, we can see that everyone loved the fine tooth single sided files so much, that they used them all up. All that are left now are the sucky, hated, standard double sided files.




Standard tooth, double sided files were made in far greater numbers because they are such useful creatures and were used for such important tasks, that the stores needed to keep their shelves well stocked. I don't know, I'm just guessing, but I'm thinking that these files have a specific purpose.....and the fun is in the finding, no?



All this talk about files, but they are actually only peripheral today. Today is about the forgotten side of the tooth, the actual "side" of the saw.



I was working on a saw the other day and I took some pictures to get a better look at things.




Not horrible (aside from the gullets being sloped the wrong way....too much island bliss, I guess), but when I look closely at the "dark" side of the tooth facing the camera, I see little specks of light. Those specks will be tiny jagged areas, perfect for snagging stray wood fibers and clogging the action of the saw.



A few of us have been pestering Mark Grable mercilessly for tips and information, anything Japanese saw related, and he's been wonderfully forthcoming with his knowledge and experience. Often, the briefest statement will have broad influence, importance far in excess of its brevity. Nerdy though it is, I've got a document of "Grable'isms" that I read before working on a saw, and it's amazing how something that you've read a thousand times before, will suddenly being new insight into a problem you are having. Case in point, Mark has mentioned that it's difficult to know what you are seeing, if the saw is all dark and pitted with rust.


What?! Rusty saws?!


Being attracted to the old and neglected, all my saws are rusty to varying degrees. Check out these treasures.



The little rip kataba in the center you might remember as being the subject of an aborted series on saw rehab I never brought to completion. I may have "massaged" the poor thing to death, just as you can soften metal by using a planishing wheel. The narrow bladed saw just to the right of the kataba has become one of my favorites, though. Ugly, rusty little thing, but it's a handy blade shape for pruning and trimming green wood.


I've already sharpened this a couple of times –I'm currently sharpening the saws at the merest HINT of being dull–, but then I started thinking about the side of the saw tooth. This is the equivalent of the "back" of a plane blade. You can't get a plane iron sharp if you only sharpen the face and ignore the back.




The simple solution to the problem is....well...I don't know.


Ignore please, my use of a file here.


What I am really doing is gently scraping any trace of surface rust from the sides of the teeth that are facing toward me. I'm using the forward edge of the file as a scraper because it is easily the hardest steel that I've got handy. Really handy, like, already in my hand, haha.



And for Sebastian.....This is the saw that I mentioned in you comments regarding your universal dozuki. It was originally a purely perpendicular tooth rip pattern, with all teeth being the same size. I gave it more of a short and fat crosscut shape, with a stubby top facet. I'm putting together a post on my experiments with varying tooth geometries, but it might be a little while before things slow down some.


This saw, like most others, has teeth with a slight set, so the teeth are slightly bent to a curve, not straight. To polish the side of the tooth requires a curved implement of some sort. I tried using a curved/rounded edge wooden block with some #220 sandpaper wrapped around it. A flat sanding block will just level out the sides of the teeth, leaving you a saw with no set. Binds-ville, man, Binds-ville.



It works, and if that's all you got, use it. It's a pain though, and the tendency of the sandpaper is to round over the edges of the teeth. That's bad obviously, so try to find something better.



Much better for me, was a little Washita sharpening stone with a radiused edge. Different saw, but the idea remains.



Hey! My saw grew another set of teeth! A synthetic stone was too soft for polishing the edges of the saw teeth. An Norton medium India slipstone would be perfect.



Edit: Added a pic Here.


Here you can get an idea of the polishing effect at the tops of the teeth, although these are far from perfect. Remember, only the teeth that are facing upward are being polished. The ones that face away don't matter. Small steps, incremental change.



More than anything though, this really seems to point out how skilled you are in setting the teeth, because every discrepancy leaps right out at you. It's a good opportunity to even things up, work on your Asari skills.





Of course, once I got started.....



The dark red stone next to the soap is a small offcut of a synthetic #1200 waterstone. I takes a few swipes with that first, to seed the surface with abrasive grit, then do the bulk of the rubbing using the much slower natural stone.


This revealed lots of lumps and bumps.....Oh boy!!!




Off to the anvil, just give me an excuse, any excuse.



The lighter spots are deviations from the average plane of the saw. Lumps. They aren't bad though, so my little tack hammer seems the proper tool. Many small strikes, focusing on the areas around the bumps more than the bumps themselves.



My point here, assuming that there is one, is that the smallest things can have large effects. The teeth of your saw will never be truly sharp unless the sides of the saw blade are clean and smoothly polished. A little bit at a time, if your saw looks as bad as most of mine. If I were to get the blade to a polished state, most of my teeth would be gone, abraded away in the process. Better is to sneak up on polished, taking a little off at each sharpening, so the edges get incrementally improved. With just a slight amount of work, I've probably made the saw 30% sharper, although cleaning and working the sides of the teeth actually dulled them a bit, so some touch up was required.


The big ryoba worked fine with those little bumps and dents along the blade, but as with the rust, it is better to have as straight a blade as possible. Less friction, and it's fun to hit things with hammers.


It's the little stuff, dontcha know.



Oh's finally getting light out. Time to sharpen something!


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Building a charcoal kiln #4

Part 4 of,

"More than you ever wanted to know about building a kiln for making bladesmithing charcoal."

I've got a few more things that I'd like to try.

For starters, my burn chamber is just a horizontal tube of tin. Once the draft gets established, the heat and smoke gets drawn into the coaling chamber nicely. It works OK, and you can't get much more simple than that, but when I look at the diagrams of the traditional earth berm kilns, you can see that the burn chamber is much more enclosed within the body of the kiln. 

The metal drum Iwasaki kilns that I've repeatedly referenced use a separate partial drum to serve as a burn chamber, and that's great. Mine could be improved though. See, the reason that I like the more enclosed fire chamber is that it looks like a smaller fire could be used, since the heat and smoke are more tightly directed into the coaling chamber. By reducing the size of the fire, we are trading a possibly longer coaling time, with the lessening of heat and the force of the flames.......At least that's my thinking.

The second thing that I've been wanting to test out.

The traditional kiln shows the wood being tightly packed and VERTICAL. I did the best that I could, and the back has a higher proportion of vertical, but.....This was a huge PITA, and I doubt that I'll do it this way again. Maybe with a rectangular coaling chamber it wouldn't be so difficult. We'll see what the charcoal looks like.

So here is my quick and dirty improvement to the burn chamber. That's not parallax error, it really is tilted.

The end that abuts the barrel lid has a mating flange that it sort of hangs from and also seals the join a bit, point being that it forms a tighter fit than before. Towards the center of the burn "tube" is the feed door, a 3-sided cut, bent down at about a 45 degree angle. The end of the tube at the left is still fully open. If it bears repeating, I'll take better photos next time. The description is hard to follow.

What I've made here is closer to being a top loading, horizontal draft "rocket stove", and it works so much better it's surprising. The separate air channel on the left let's you pack the fuel port totally full, without starving the fire of air. The burn chamber creates good air turbulence as well, contributing to better combustion. These simple mods make the fire much easier to start, it burns hotter, and it's easier to load the fuel charge (meaning you can cram it full and then just check back every 30 minutes or so to refuel). The slight incline to the chamber might help induce a properly directed draft too. It seemed that way, despite the visible flames occasionally shooting out the fuel port. 

It's still ugly and cheesy looking, but remember, I need to be able to whip this whole assembly out of the way in seconds, when it's time to shut down the coaling process. I can grab a stick and lift this nasty mess out of the way in two heartbeats. Also, don't forget that the galvanized metal that I am using gives off extremely poisonous fumes as the zinc burns off. Don't sit too close, not before making peace with your gods.

And the third thing.......

Right after my last firing, I was sitting around reading about Sumi-yaki (Google : 炭焼き ), looking for more tips and improvements I can make to the process. I found a couple of good ones. 

This is from a site making bamboo charcoal, slightly different, but essentially the same.
Charcoal making process according to the drum charcoal kettle is as follows.
1. pilot flame to burn and raise the temperature of
2. smoke up to 85-95 degrees and make sure that "it was deliberately fart" (strong smell) (0.5 to 1 hour)
3. fired to stop the pilot flame, to limit the supply of air, keep the temperature of the smoke (4 hours)
4. temperature of the smoke if promoted carbide begin to rise (2 hours)
5. temperature of the smoke misses the thermometer When equal to or greater than 180 degrees (one hour) is
6. smoke Open the internal cover Once colorless, do "Nerashi" (about 10 minutes)
7. Exit to close the air inlet and the chimney outlet (total of 8 hours)

When you get to the "Fart-smelling, yellow smoke phase", stop firing and cut back the air supply......huh.

I don't think that I've ever seen that referenced before, stopping the fire (the fart smell....everyone knows that. The yellow smoke has a large sulfer component, I think). The thought behind this is that once you get the yellow smoke going, the wood inside the drum has established a kind of oxygen deprived combustion, so any additional heat input only would be causing potential damage to the coal.
When you get into making traditional bladesmithing charcoal, you quickly realize that there is something missing in our body of knowledge, some little detail. Nearly everyone out there is making nasty, overcooked char. It's fine for the garden, but not as good in the forge. Everything that I've read has you firing the burn, right up until it's time to shut 'er down. Maybe this simple thing is one of the details?

Cutting back on the air supply will further slow the process of coaling, but it also gives greater control. Once you get to the yellow smoke phase, things start to happen ever more quickly. During my last burn, from YS phase to done only took a little over an hour. This time.....closer to 2 hours, but the rate of change towards the end of the process felt much more relaxed. I'm hoping that the charcoal felt the same too, nice and relaxed. We'll see.

So the yellow smoke for me and this Guava I'm coaling went on for quite a while, but essentially, I stopped fueling the fire and cut back the air a bit.

The yellow smoke phase is around 350*F at the stack. 

The partial brick at the front can be bumped either way to give enough air to keep the stack temperature rising.

I didn't really need to do anything though, just sat and watched the smoke.

We are getting close to shut down time. The stack temp reads around 500*F and there is still quite a bit of "white" in the smoke.

The amount of finishing time is one of the more important aspects that determine the qualities of the charcoal. Because I am using this for bladesmithing, I don't want to cook everything out. If I was using this for an indoor hibatchi or a charcoal heater, I would try to cook the charcoal until it was as clear as possible.

I guess that it goes to show just how divorced from the mainstream I am just occurred to me, the number one use for real charcoal is likely to be for grilling a barbecue, haha. Would you believe that I've not tried that yet?!

Wow! Get a life, kid!

Here is where I shut down, nearly 800*F at the stack.

If you compare the smoke to the prior pic, you can see that most of the "white" is gone. The time interval between the two was approximately 15 minutes.

I dragged the firebox out of the way, piled up bricks and dirt to shut down combustion, capped the stack and called it a night. 

So what do we get this time? Trash or treasure?


I'm thinking trash. Where does all of the wood go?! The barrel was packed as tightly as I could get it. Lots of ash......


Oh all burns, right?

I grab the shovel and sieve to start cleaning up, but this stuff doesn't shovel. Just past the overcooked stuff are sticks of solid carbon, and they aren't falling apart like the other charcoal that I've made.

Almost the entire burn looked like this......sticks, magically shrunken and transformed. 

It's too bad that the bark is still on the sticks, because that thin outer layer affects the resonant qualities. I've finally made the "hard" charcoal, paradoxically known as "white" charcoal, or electrolytic charcoal. These carbon sticks are now conductive to electricity. The light was pretty flat, but you can see that the charcoal looks silver, not black. Cool, huh?

I don't think that this would be considered true "white" charcoal, but it's getting close. This charcoal kiln is definitely capable of getting up to the 2000*F needed for complete carbonization, and I've been wanting to attempt the making of the "white" charcoal, but to get it right, I would need to open the barrel at the finish, then quickly smother the charcoal. Scary! The burning charcoal gets buried in old wood ashes.....ironically, something that I don't really have much of, haha.

This charcoal is really starting to exhibit the resonant qualities that I find so interesting. The water being completely driven out of the wood, making the carbonized cells ring like bells, each stick like part of a strange looking wind-chime.....I don't know, but it's neat to experience, charcoal that sings.

The resonance is dampened by both the outer bark layer and the amount of wood shrinkage within the stick itself. These didn't ring well.

As you'd expect, a solid bar of carbon rings clean and loud, while one that is covered in tiny plates of carbonized bark – which also resonate, but at different rates/frequencies– sounds flat or muddy.

These sound like tuning forks.

You only get a couple of whacks before some fracture occurs and the stick breaks in two. Some of the smaller stuff must've been fairly dry when they went into the kiln, because they showed no shrinkage splits at all, just solid carbon. When they break, it's with a super high pitched *TINK* that hurts my ears a bit. Some of them shattered forcibly, like a candy cane.

Towards the rear of the kiln, in the area of the vent stack, the wood barely even looks like charcoal. It has a brown hue, but it's not undercooked. There was also an iridescent blue in spots, some strange chemical compound flaring off, I guess.

So, at the very bottom of the barrel I laid four sticks full length, and of the entire load, it was only these sticks that didn't fully carbonize. Everything else was fully cooked, through and through. 

The verdict is in. 

I deem the charcoal kiln a success, though my firing procedure could still use some refinement. This kiln design is far and away the easiest and most reliable way to make high quality blacksmithing charcoal, at least compared to what I've done in the past. I'm having a hard time restraining myself from burning all the time, I just love opening the kiln up, seeing what has been created. Maybe it's because good charcoal is such a rarity? I don't know, but I just love it. 

A big question this charcoal any good? I am following my interests here, doing this just for fun. I mean....I still need to build a fuigo and small forge, I'm not even prepared to test this stuff properly. Right now, I'm learning the art, getting to know the kiln itself. I'm just seeing what *kinds* of charcoal I can make, and I'm not worried about whether or not the stuff burns hot/cool/too slow/fast, whatever. This batch ended up very "hard".... fun, but not what you want for forging, exactly. 

For forging you want the softer "black" charcoal, not this hard "white" charcoal, at least that's my understanding. When I was using my home made charcoal before, I was using the soft, crummy, and overcooked charcoal for lower temperature work like quenching and tempering, and saved the best hard pine charcoal for welding. It was soooo much nicer to work with, but it was also touchy, too. Get my timing off, forget what I was doing for just a moment and I'd start to hear the metal breath....then hiss, the sound of the steel burning. The charcoal that I made from rotten cedar deck boards could also reach welding heat, but it took MUCH more effort. Not beter/worse, just different. It should be a relatively simple matter to make a variety of slightly differing charcoal that will be task specific. 

Hopefully when Mark Grable reads this, he will be able to comment on what the charcoal was REALLY like, the charcoal that Yataiki preferred for forging his saws. I've got so many questions.......
  • Red pine for forging, so I've heard, but were there different qualities that were used to differentiate? I can imagine opening a bag o' charcoal, sorting through the sticks and making different piles.....Chopping into ever smaller pieces.
  • Is there anything that must be avoided, when choosing? Different species would burn differently, but also might introduce a chemical component that would be good....or bad.
  • What am I obviously missing here? I mean....this is what I've come up with after watching a handful of YouTube videos, written anecdotes and allusions that I've found, and my own slight experience. But mostly this is the product of inference, experiment, and some guessing, haha.
And of course, there is the question of tree species. For all I know, guava might be a terrible bladesmithing charcoal.....I guess that I'll find out. This wood is still fairly wet, but surprisingly, it doesn't seem to matter much. Using dry wood must speed the operation some, but that might not be a completely good thing. This wet wood is shrinking dramatically, and shows many cracks and fissures. That keeps it from being used as part of a totally kickass Halloween themed windchime, true, but it also means that it is easier to split. The hard and solid ones are harder to break.....kind of loud too.

That a person can make a simple little charcoal kiln out of an old paint can, make some char, then start burning steel.....needing only a armfull of bricks and an old bathroom fan (and the paint can).....That's freakin' cool.

I've already got the kiln started on the next batch, this time loaded with all of the sticks lying flat, easy as can be. If anything strange happens, I'll let you know. If you know something that I don' let me know, OK?