AskDefine | Define charcoal

Dictionary Definition

charcoal adj : very dark gray [syn: charcoal-gray, charcoal-grey]


1 a carbonaceous material obtained by heating wood or other organic matter in the absence of air [syn: wood coal]
2 a stick of black carbon material used for drawing [syn: fusain]
3 a very dark gray color [syn: charcoal gray, charcoal grey, oxford gray, oxford grey]
4 a drawing made with charcoal v : draw, trace, or represent with charcoal

User Contributed Dictionary



According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the first syllable may come from the French charbon. The second syllable is the word coal.


  • a RP /ˈtʃɑ:.kəʊl/, /"tSA:k@Ul/


  1. impure carbon obtained by heating wood or other organic matter in the absence of oxygen.
  2. a stick of black carbon material used for drawing.
  3. a drawing made with charcoal.
  4. a very dark gray colour.
    charcoal colour:   


heated matter
  • Czech: dřevěné uhlí
  • Dutch: houtskool
  • Esperanto: lignokarbo
  • Finnish: hiili
  • French: charbon
  • German: Holzkohle
  • Japanese: (すみ, sumi), 木炭 (もくたん, mokutan)
  • Korean: (such, sut), 목탄 (木炭, moktan)
  • Kurdish:
    Sorani: خه‌ڵوز
  • Latin: carbo
  • Navajo: t'eesh
  • Polish: węgiel drzewny
  • Portuguese: carvão
  • Russian: уголь (usually used in its plural form угли)
  • Spanish: carbón
stick used for drawing
  • Czech: uhel
  • Dutch: houtskool
  • Finnish: hiili
  • German: Kohle
  • Japanese: 木炭 (もくたん, mokutan)
  • Polish: węgiel
  • Portuguese: carvão
  • Russian: уголь
  • Spanish: carboncillo


  1. of a dark gray colour.



Extensive Definition

Charcoal is the blackish residue consisting of impure carbon obtained by removing water and other volatile constituents from animal and vegetation substances. Charcoal is usually produced by heating wood, sugar, bone char, or others substances in the absence of oxygen (see char). The soft, brittle, lightweight, black, porous material resembles coal and is 85% to 98% carbon with the remainder consisting of volatile chemicals and ash.
The first part of the word is of obscure origin, but the first use of the term "coal" in English was as a reference to charcoal. In this compound term, the prefix "chare-" meant "turn", with the literal meaning being "to turn to coal". The independent use of "char", meaning to scorch, to reduce to carbon, is comparatively recent and is assumed to be a back-formation from the earlier charcoal. It may be a use of the word charren or churn, meaning to turn; i.e. wood changed or turned to coal, or it may be from the French charbon. A person who manufactured charcoal was formerly known as a collier (also as a wood collier). The word "collier" was also used for those who mined or dealt in coal, and for the ships that transported it.


Historically, production of wood charcoal in districts where there is an abundance of wood dates back to a very remote period, and generally consists of piling billets of wood on their ends so as to form a conical pile, openings being left at the bottom to admit air, with a central shaft to serve as a flue. The whole pile is covered with turf or moistened clay. The firing is begun at the bottom of the flue, and gradually spreads outwards and upwards. The success of the operation depends upon the rate of the combustion. Under average conditions, 100 parts of wood yield about 60 parts by volume, or 25 parts by weight, of charcoal; small scale production on the spot often yields only about 50%, large scale was efficient to about 90% even by the 17th century. The operation is so delicate that it was generally left to colliers (professional charcoal burners), who often worked in isolated groups in the woods and had a rather bad social reputation.
The massive production of charcoal (at its height employing hundreds of thousands, mainly in Alpine and neighbouring forests) was a major cause of deforestation, especially in Central Europe. In England, many woods were managed as coppices, which were cut and regrew cyclically, so that a steady supply of charcoal would be available (in principle) forever; complaints (as early as the Stuart period) about shortages may relate to the results of temporary over-exploitation or the impossibility of increasing production. The increasing scarcity of easily harvested wood was a major factor for the switch to the fossil fuel equivalents, mainly coal and brown coal for industrial use.
The modern process of carbonizing wood, either in small pieces or as sawdust in cast iron retorts, is extensively practiced where wood is scarce, and also for the recovery of valuable byproducts (wood spirit, pyroligneous acid, wood tar), which the process permits. The question of the temperature of the carbonization is important; according to J. Percy, wood becomes brown at 220 °C, a deep brown-black after some time at 280°, and an easily powdered mass at 310°. Charcoal made at 300° is brown, soft and friable, and readily inflames at 380°; made at higher temperatures it is hard and brittle, and does not fire until heated to about 700°.
In Finland and Scandinavia, the charcoal was considered the by-product of wood tar production. The best tar came from pine, thus pinewoods were cut down for tar pyrolysis. The residual charcoal was widely used as substitute for metallurgical coke in blast furnaces for smelting. Tar production led to rapid deforestation: it has been estimated all Finnish forests are younger than 300 years by their age. The end of tar production in the end of the 19th century meant also rapid re-forestation.
The charcoal briquette, first invented by Henry Ford, was first made using wood and sawdust scraps from his automotive assembly plant.

Types of charcoal

Commercial charcoal is found in either lump, briquette or extruded forms:
  • Lump charcoal is made directly from hardwood material and usually produces far less ash than briquettes.
  • Extruded charcoal is made by extruding either raw ground wood or carbonized wood into logs without the use of a binder. The heat and pressure of the extruding process hold the charcoal together. If the extrusion is made from raw wood material, the extruded logs are then subsequently carbonized.
The characteristics of charcoal products (lump, briquette or extruded forms) vary widely from product to product. Thus it is a common misconception to stereotype any kind of charcoal, saying which burns hotter, etc.
Charcoal is sometimes used to power commercial road vehicles—usually buses—in countries where oil is scarce or completely unavailable. In the years immediately after the second world war, charcoal buses were in regular use in Japan and are still used today in North Korea.


One of the most important historical applications of wood charcoal was as a constituent of gunpowder. It was also used in metallurgical operations as a reducing agent, but its application has been diminished by the introduction of coke, anthracite smalls, etc. A limited quantity is made up into the form of drawing crayons; but the greatest amount is used as a fuel, which burns hotter and cleaner than wood. Charcoal is often used by blacksmiths, for cooking, and for other industrial applications.

Cooking fuel

Charcoal briquettes are widely used for outdoor grilling and barbecues in backyards and on camping trips.
In many non-industrialized countries, for instance in Africa, charcoal is used for everyday cooking by a large portion of the population. This is potentially a serious health problem when used indoors since carbon monoxide (CO) is a combustion product.

Industrial fuel

Charcoal is used in art for drawing, making rough sketches in painting, and is one of the possible media for making a parsemage. It must usually be preserved by the application of a fixative. Artists generally utilize charcoal in three forms:
  • Vine charcoal is created by burning sticks of wood (usually willow or linden/Tilia) into soft, medium, and hard consistencies. Bamboo charcoal is the principal tool in Japanese Sumi-e (炭絵 lit: charcoal drawing) art.
  • Compressed charcoal charcoal powder mixed with gum binder compressed into round or square sticks. The amount of binder determines the hardness of the stick. Compressed charcoal is used in charcoal pencils.
  • Powdered charcoal is often used to "tone" or cover large sections of a drawing surface. Drawing over the toned areas will darken it further, but the artist can also lighten (or completely erase) within the toned area to create lighter tones.


One additional use of charcoal rediscovered recently is in horticulture. Although American gardeners have been using charcoal for a short while, research on Terra preta soils in the Amazon has found the widespread use of biochar by pre-Columbian natives to turn otherwise unproductive soil into very rich soil. The technique may find modern application, both to improve soils and as a means of carbon sequestration.

Sources, references and external links


charcoal in Bulgarian: Дървени въглища
charcoal in Catalan: Carbó vegetal
charcoal in Czech: Dřevěné uhlí
charcoal in Danish: Trækul
charcoal in German: Holzkohle
charcoal in Spanish: Carbón vegetal
charcoal in Esperanto: Lignokarbo
charcoal in Persian: ذغال
charcoal in French: Charbon de bois
charcoal in Korean: 숯
charcoal in Croatian: Ugljen (crtački)
charcoal in Indonesian: Arang
charcoal in Italian: Carbone vegetale
charcoal in Hebrew: פחם עץ
charcoal in Dutch: Houtskool
charcoal in Norwegian: trekull
charcoal in Japanese: 炭
charcoal in Norwegian: Trekull
charcoal in Polish: Węgiel drzewny
charcoal in Portuguese: Carvão vegetal
charcoal in Russian: Древесный уголь
charcoal in Slovenian: Oglje
charcoal in Finnish: Puuhiili
charcoal in Swedish: Träkol
charcoal in Vietnamese: Than gỗ
charcoal in Chinese: 木炭

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

air brush, alcohol, art paper, ash, ashes, benzine, black and white, blackening, blacking, blackwash, brand, briquette, brouillon, brush, burnable, burnt cork, butane, calx, camera lucida, camera obscura, canvas, carbon, carbon black, cartoon, chalk, charcoal drawing, chiaroscuro, cinder, clinker, coal, coke, combustible, coom, crayon, crow, delineation, design, diagram, doodle, dope, draft, drafting, drawing, drawing paper, drawing pencil, drier, dross, easel, ebauche, ebon, ebony, esquisse, ethane, ethanol, fireball, firing, fixative, flammable, flammable material, fuel, fuel additive, fuel dope, fume, gas, gas black, gas carbon, gasoline, graph, ground, heptane, hexane, inflammable, inflammable material, ink, isooctane, jet, jet fuel, kerosene, lampblack, lava, lay figure, line drawing, maulstick, medium, methane, methanol, natural gas, night, octane, oil, paint, paintbrush, palette, palette knife, paraffin, pastel, peat, pen-and-ink, pencil, pencil drawing, pentane, pigments, pitch, propane, propellant, raven, reek, rocket fuel, rough copy, rough draft, rough outline, scoria, scratchboard, siccative, silhouette, silver-print drawing, sinopia, sketch, sketchbook, sketching, sketchpad, slag, sloe, smoke, smudge, smut, soot, spatula, spray gun, stove black, study, stump, sullage, tar, tracing, turf, varnish, vignette
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