High Weald

Charcoal burning is one of the world's oldest crafts dating back to pre-Roman times. It has a long history in the High Weald, being used in the production of iron from the time of the Roman occupation.

Low value, coppiced or 'waste' wood is normally used for charcoal production. Ideally the wood needs to have been seasoned for a couple of months as the dryer the wood the faster the burning process. Burning therefore usually takes place once the wood cutting season is over - between March and October.

The production process has changed very little over the centuries. Most burning takes place on the site where the wood has been felled. In the past the wood was carefully stacked in a dome and covered with litter and then wet sand and turf.

charcoal_burningNowadays the wood is stacked in portable steel kilns, sealed with sand (at the bottom) and a metal lid. Stacking the wood is a skilled process. It has to be carefully placed in a strict rotary pattern that maximises the amount of charcoal produced but allows just enough air to maintain the fire.

In the past the stack would have been lit through a chimney in its middle, now the wood is lit through the kiln's air inlets. The inlets also control the flow of air - which must be slow so the wood is charred not incinerated.

Once lit the smoke appears white as the water vapour is burnt off, turning to yellow as the tar is burnt and eventually a thin blue, as the wood starts to convert to charcoal. The length of the burn varies but roughly takes about 24 hours.

In the past the charcoal would have been used as a domestic and industrial fuel as well as a range of other uses gunpowder, shoe-blacking, hop-drying.... Now most locally produced charcoal is graded and packaged into three of five kilo paper bags to supply the BBQ market.

Many local outlets such as village shops are supplied by individual charcoal burners. Some burners work co-operatively to supply larger, national outlets such as DIY chains and petrol stations.