Wood Colliers (or charcoal burners to you and me)

With the sun occasionally showing its face and gardens coming to life, many people will be dusting down their barbecue.  So I think it is time to take a visit down to the woods and seek out a charcoal maker or two.

Top Dog's hot dogs

If we are honest, most people don’t give charcoal much thought;  it’s black and messy, it comes in a bag and it impresses people if you can light it.  Even more impressive if you have thought ahead and got it going early enough so people aren’t waiting half the afternoon before you sizzle a sausage.  Plus if you keep it burning long enough to cook all the burgers then you really are a barbecue top dog

However, charcoal has been around a lot longer than our modern obsession with burnt sausages.  Charcoal burners and their apprentices, known as wood colliers, have been part of British woodlands since before the Bronze Age.  In fact, it was charcoal that enabled tin and copper to be smelted together to create the bronze which defined the age.

Charcoal burners were not confined to any one area of the UK, so it is not a traditional regional craft but it would have been one of the essential crafts in most areas in the same way as blacksmiths and wheelwrights.  So, although it is officially outside the remit of this blog about traditional regional crafts, I am including it anyway!

Charcoal burner outside his hut

This image was taken in the Wyre Forest, it caught my eye as you can see an oak spade basket lying next to the hut.  (Image courtesy of www.revolutionaryplayers.org.uk)   

Charcoal ceased to be important in the process of metal smelting when people worked out how to make coke in the seventeenth century.  But it has continued to have many uses and at the beginning of the twentieth century it was still in use, predominantly in the production of artificial silk.  It is still essential in water purification – did you know you can turn red wine into white wine by pouring it through charcoal?  Shame it can’t do the same to water.  I have also learnt through investigating for this post that charcoal tablets are good for relieving wind and indigestion.  I might get some for someone I know!

Image courtesy of www.charcoalburners.co.uk

By 1980 production in the UK was down to a few thousand tonnes a year and things were not looking good for the wood colliers.   It is only very recently things have started to pick up.  Over the last twenty years there has been a massive increase in demand for charcoal for the domestic barbecue market.  But as we live in a topsy turvy world, instead of sourcing the charcoal from UK suppliers, 90% of the stuff sold in the UK is produced by chopping down the endangered rainforest and mangrove habitats of South America, West Africa and South East Asia.  It is then transporting half way around the world just so we can sizzle our sausages on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  You can find a fantastically detailed post on Aaron Price‘s blog describing charcoal production in Namibia.  Read it and see if you still enjoy your sausage cooked on imported charcoal.

Do you know who is making your charcoal?

To counter the issue of imported charcoal, there has been a massive push in recent years to reestablish viable charcoal production in the UK, so that our barbecue habit can be sustained in a more responsible manner.  By buying from a British supplier the carbon emissions from your bag of charcoal can be cut by up to 85% due to the transportation costs being so dramatically reduced.  The local product is also far more suitable for use on a barbecue as it is also less dense than imported charcoal and so is easier to light and it reaches cooking temperature much quicker.  Plus, it has a carbon content as high as 90% compared to only 60% in many imported varieties which means a better burning experience.

Brand new charcoal kiln - Hand made in Wales

All this can only mean one thing – If you use British charcoal you will find it easier to impress your friends with your barbecue skills whilst also collecting brownie points for not destroying the planet for the sake of a sausage.  It’s a win win situation.

You could go even further and buy your own kiln and make your own charcoal but I personally will leave that to the experts and concentrate on not burning the sausages.



Below I have gathered together some links to local producers of charcoal and related products so you can find local suppliers.  If you can’t find a local supplier then the large supermarkets and home stores do now stock British charcoal – impressing  Sunday luncheon guests is now within everyone’s reach!

www.bmwilson.co.uk  –  Blacksmith who makes charcoal kilns

Charcoal Suppliers

www.forestryfuels.com – Beds, Herts, Bucks, Northants and Cambridge

www.croydoncoppice.co.uk - South London

www.lakelandcoppiceproducts.co.uk - Cumbria

www.dorsetcharcoal.co.uk - Dorset

www.wildwoodcrafts.com - Malvern

www.nigelsecostore.com - online supplier of Sussex based WildWood Charcoal products

www.charcoalburners.co.uk - West Sussex.  Website has detailed description of the process of small scale UK charcoal production

www.fourseasonsfuel.co.uk - West sussex

www.englishcharcoal.co.uk     Great site extolling the benefits of buying British, plus has detailed timeline of the history of charcoal production

www.bioregionalhomegrown.co.uk      Supplier of British charcoal to Sainsbury’s etc

And finally……….

www.charcoal.uk.com      These people make charcoal tablets for help with flatulance etc

www.fao.org  Document on the future of charcoal production in Africa.

www.fao.org  Analysis of trends within Charcoal production industry in Namibia


NB – If you are a UK charcoal burner and would like a link through to your website then please drop me a line.



This entry was posted in Cumbria, Dorset, Heritage Crafts, London, Sussex, Traditional Crafts, Wales, Wood and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Wood Colliers (or charcoal burners to you and me)

  1. Michael says:

    This is great and certainly food for thought!

    However, there is dilemma here as with many situations that make absolute logical sense conceptually but struggle to transfer into practice when personalised. What I mean is this- you quite rightly point out that it makes no sense to transport the coal across the world after being created by under paid and under valued labour. How would you put it on a personal basis to one of the Namibian gentlemen that you would rather he didn’t earn even the pittance that he needs to survive, in order that the planet is saved and or create more wealth for ourselves. This is a dilemma in the true meaning of the word – in fact a Sophie’s choice one could say. Do you starve the Namibian and his family to death or save the planet for the rest of us.
    I leave you with a couple of thoughts:

    There is no dilemma compared with that of the deep-sea diver who hears the message from the ship above, “Come up at once. We are sinking.””

    “A man’s work is his dilemma: his job is his bondage, but it also gives him a fair share of his identity and keeps him from being a bystander in somebody else’s world.”

    • Rachel Reynolds says:

      Yes unfortunately there is always a flip side and the guys in the picture are not even Namibian farmers but Angolan refugees. They are poor even by Namibian standards. But the demand for charcoal within developing countries is high and sustainable production for local markets is possible and is gaining ground. As European markets are increasingly asking for certification of wood sources the charcoal industries in Africa are forced to find more local markets. Personally I believe the future of power in Africa lies in the utilization of solar power. Every village could have its own power source without the need to build a national grid………….
      As for the diver? He’s a dead man anyway so he should go and help his ship. And Sophie? she should have clasped both children to her breast and died before boarding the train. We all die so lets die trying.

      • Michael says:

        America, Europe and the fast growing economies got and are getting rich not because they become masters of self sustainability and delivering a local selling strategy. They are rich because they sold to every corner of the globe and have protected these markets, the key is to open markets to everyone on an equal basis and follow true demand and ethical supply. Self sustainability plays into the hands of those who wish to keep poor people poor. I agree with the potential impact of Solar power and other such measures. However, the macro solution is open up markets ethically and equitably, that way the power of foreign exchange is unleashed and useable income in generated of course it then depends on politicians to have the good of their people at heart and spread wealth.
        I share your solution for Sophie- for me my antenna is raised not by the solution she ultimately chooses but the circumstances that make the choice arise in the first place – without the Nazi’s Sophie has no choice to make!

        • Rachel Reynolds says:

          Oh blimey – I am reaching my ceiling of knowledge here. I am sure you are right on a macro level but not sure me and my blog will be able to deliver on that level. I might have to stick to the micro and promoting traditional crafts. I suppose we could discuss if it’s right to import Argentinian beef to make the burgers that we cook on Namibian charcoal, but the idea of having a barbecue has lost it’s appeal. I think I may have a chinese takeaway instead.

  2. Jo Hull says:

    Please contact us to add to list of suppliers of charcoal. We are a small family run business supplying to Beds, Herts, Bucks, Northants and Cambridge areas. We sell under the Forestry Fuels brand name and produce 3kg, 5kg and 10kg bags for the public. Available through many local specialist Farm shops and butchers. Please post any enquiries back to us at info@forestryfuels.com and let me know if you need any more details from us.
    Kind regards,
    Jo Hull.

  3. steve says:

    hi,just read your webb site and thank you.off to norway monday to talk about biochar…britishbiochar.co.uk ;) steve…

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