Learning how to make biochar is a no-brainer if you’re trying to improve your soil without spending any money.
We became big fans of biochar years ago when we went to this workshop. Then we hosted a workshop at our farm to learn how to make biochar vessels out of 44-gallon drums.
That technique is useful but complicated enough to put us off making it ourselves. It seems like a lot of effort to produce a small amount of biochar.
Discovering the bathtub method was a game changer.
A simple method for making biochar
We were lucky enough to be invited to a small, privately run workshop that introduced us to a much simpler system for making biochar in a bathtub.
It was hosted for us by Grow Great Fruit members Win Westerhoff (below left) and Clare Claydon, and the workshop was presented by biochar enthusiast Jim Sansom (below right). We were so impressed that we asked Jim to present a workshop at our place.
Jim started by talking us through the main steps of the method.
A simplified Kontiki Cone Kiln
The bathtub method is based on the ‘Kontiki Cone Kiln’ but is a much simplified version. The Kontiki Cone Kiln is a large (about 1.6 m across) kiln for making biochar.
One of the challenges with this method is that there are no hard and fast rules about when to stop the burn. “Judge when to stop” was Jim’s advice, “when a stick has lost its identity as a stick”.
Another thing to know before you start is don’t use a cast iron bathtub, or it may crack when you light a fire in it. And obviously, don’t use a modern plastic or fibreglass bath either. You need to find an old steel bath at your local tip shop.
Biochar making method
At the workshop, we went through the actual process of making biochar under the expert tutelage of Jim, Clare, and Win. It was surprisingly fast and easy.
Here’s how it works:
Fill the bottom of the bathtub with light, dry fuel.
Light it on fire. (Pro tip: use a bit of metho if needed). Aim to get a good strong fire going along the whole length of the bathtub.
Once it’s burning, pile up with bigger stuff, but make sure it’s burning the whole length underneath. (Pro tip: this is much easier on a still day than a windy one.)
Stack the bath until it’s 3/4 full. If the fire is burning well, it shouldn’t be too smoky. It’s fine to use bigger wood in the bathtub as long as it’s all roughly the same size so it burns at about the same rate.
Use a metal rake to pack the wood down hard. This also keeps the fire burning evenly and everything burning at the same rate.
The gases will be pushed out of the wood and are then burned in the bathtub. This prevents oxygen from getting down into the fire. If too much oxygen gets into the fire the wood will just burn away to ash.
New research has shown that if the biochar is made at a lower temperature you end up with biochar that has a higher level of organic matter.
When you judge that most of the material is blackened to char (and the sticks have lost their essential ‘stickness’), quench the whole thing with a hose.
It’s completely fine to have sand, dirt, clay, or mud on the wood and in the cooking process.
In fact, this may be beneficial by creating a more highly mineralised final product.
Using your biochar
How do you apply the finished product? We’ve covered this before in other blogs, but here are the methods that some people use:
- dig a trench, tip in a barrow load of biochar, add compost and a scattering of blood and bone;
- broadacre – spread with a fertiliser spreader and then go over it with harrows.
The point is to find some way to incorporate biochar into your soil where it will work its magic. And as we’ve covered in this blog, it’s crucial to “charge” your biochar first to make it really effective.
Of course, it’s not magic, it’s science!
Biochar has remarkable effects on soil by providing both a stable form of soil carbon and an extensive habitat for soil microbes.
And the best bit? If you make it yourself, it’s completely free!
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