Old king coal ... burn him!
October 10, 2011 2:58 PM   Subscribe

My cousin long ago found some coal along the tracks and tried to light it in the wood stove. It wouldn't light but now it makes me wonder how you can take a piece of coal or a pile of coal and light it? Maybe I could make a small outdoor oven to bake bread with coal. Any ideas?
posted by CodeMonkey to Science & Nature (10 answers total)
You could use plans for any masonry wood-fired oven and use coal instead. (Traditional NY pizza comes from a coal-fired, rather than wood-fired, oven.) Plans for such ovens abound online and in books.

The problem is that ovens of this type take a long time to heat up, and are brutally inefficient for small batches-- i.e., running them for less than 12+ hours a day. Check out this Serious Eats post about a variation on the typical outdoor oven that's far more efficient for home use. I don't know whether coal would work in this application, though.

What you really want to do is make/buy a smoker, like the Weber Smokey Mountain, the king of vertical water smokers. And you light it with a chimney starter, NOT lighter fluid.
posted by supercres at 3:07 PM on October 10, 2011

My grandfather used to heat his greenhouse with two coal stoves. He would start a wood fire and after it was going well (log size pieces starting to turn into coals, maybe after an hour) he would put a layer of coal on top of that. The advantage he found in coal was that it was easier to acquire, keep and transport in bulk than wood and also that it burned all day with just a little care.

Wood, if you work a little at it, is cheaper, and it's much more fun to use if you're doing this to suit your own pleasure.

With enough research, diligence and intelligence, you could find a decent coal stove (for cooking) at a scrap yard for a good price. Much easier than making one, I would bet.

Neither type of stove, unless specially designed to produce the least amount of particulate, is much good for the environment.
posted by pynchonesque at 3:15 PM on October 10, 2011

Oh cripes; most of what I wrote is advice re: charcoal, not coal. Don't put coal in a WSM.

But yeah, wood is probably the way to go. It's just not very efficient for home cooking. If you want to make pizza (a common use for homemade wood-fired ovens), rigging up something like this is far easier and more efficient. Any time you have to heat up a large mass of stone or brick (like with masonry ovens), you're going to waste a lot of fuel.
posted by supercres at 3:21 PM on October 10, 2011

"A coal fire is much more challenging to start and is more difficult to manage than a wood fire or gas burner. Simply getting anthracite coal burning requires an ignition source in excess of 900 F that is usually provided by a bed for burning charcoal or wood. Dry wood by comparison, burns more quickly and starts burning at around 450 F. Coal has roughly twice the heat/energy potential of wood (13,000 BTUs per pound for coal versus roughly 6,500 BTUs per pound for wood) so accessing and managing its potential energy when and where you need it can be challenging."

I used to scavenge coal from the tracks to help heat my palatial country estate, but quit because it smelled much worse than wood and I worried about the resulting ash.
posted by Floydd at 3:24 PM on October 10, 2011

Coal isn't bad to deal with if you're heating continuously (my parents used it for years when they lived in the Poconos in PA) but a pain if you're thinking of using it for the occasional loaf of bread. Go with wood for your baking and spend time on the bread, not the oven.
posted by tommasz at 3:30 PM on October 10, 2011

As any blacksmith or farrier will tell you, coal smoke stinks. I mean, it's not a bad stink at a distance, but you definitely do not want to burn coal in your oven. Bleah.
posted by bricoleur at 3:36 PM on October 10, 2011

I kind of like the smell of coal fires from a distance; they were common in New Zealand when I was there since the coal was easier to transport to areas without readily available timber.

As mentioned above, can't match-light it; you start with a wood fire and go from there.
posted by craven_morhead at 3:47 PM on October 10, 2011

A blacksmith showed me how to fireup his coal fueled forge by starting a kindling fire in the center and pushing coke, coal that has been baked but not burned into the fire. Then you lay a ring of coal outside of the ring of coke and you keep pushing it all very slowly inwards. the heat in the center baking the outer coal into coke.
The coke lights easier than coal and when you are finished you will have coke for the next startup.
posted by Iron Rat at 8:43 PM on October 10, 2011

Not all coal is equal and useful for cooking. Some coals have quite a few toxins that are removed by scrubbers in industrial use. This is part of the reason why there is an uproar over coal power plants which may not remove a safe quantity of toxins. Stick with wood or charcoal to do your outdoor cooking.
posted by JJ86 at 8:13 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

The social implications of this question are extremely interesting, reflecting as they do a huge change in human activity. I used coal for many years for heating. It lights extremely easily simply by placing small pieces of coal on burning wood. Even more simple is to use fire lighters used to light charcoal bbq's.
posted by nickji at 10:27 AM on October 23, 2011

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