The Charcoal Burner’s Story

Fascinating film of English swill basketmaker Owen Jones making charcoal:

He has a website that you can visit here. Very cool, and very traditional, work.

For those of you who don’t know (and I’m assuming that’s most of you), oak “swills” are long, thin, pliant lengths of oak that are split from small trees. The technique was imported to the U.S. from Great Britain. Native Americans were were certainly familiar with the utility of split white oak as well, and the extant American style is probably a mixture of the two traditions (apologies for that ambiguous statement; I’m not a scholar here).

In any case, the process was widely used in pre-industrial America, but it’s especially linked to the Appalachians, where it survived to much more recent times than in other parts of the country (here’s a great book on that topic). In the U.S., we typically refer to the material as “splints” rather than swills. Baskets are the most common and familiar use for white oak splints, but they were widely used as seating material for ladderback chairs as well. I’ve woven a few chairs from the material, myself.

I like that Owen got into the charcoal-making to find a use for his waste wood. That’s a common problem we run unto as woodworkers. It’s incredible how much wood has to be removed to get down to the piece that actually goes into your furniture (or basket, in this case). Personally, I’ve found that my hardwood scraps make an awesome substitute for store-bought charcoal for grilling. I haven’t paid for briquettes in at least five years. This video has me itching to make some proper charcoal, though (albeit on a smaller scale). Grilling with wood scraps does have its shortcomings. Hope you enjoy the video as much as I did!


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