Charcoal finds widespread use in pyrotechnics. Many types of charcoal exist, each with its own properties. It is a complex organic substance containing moisture, ash, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and a variety of volatiles. All of these elements have a vital use in fireworks. Charcoal made from willow or grapevine is considered great for black powder, while hardwood charcoals e.g. pine charcoal are commonly used for spark effects. The particle size and the process used to make the charcoal also play an important role in the quality of the charcoal for a specific purpose. Very fine charcoal floats in air and is therefore sometimes referred to as 'airfloat'. Because charcoal is a very important chemical it is listed in the Beginners’ pages.
The following table lists general suitability guidelines for charcoals coming from different types of raw wood. It must be noted that much depends on the specific subspecies used, the manufacturing process, the derivation of the wood and other factors like the season of cut. Charcoals "make or break" gunpowder; those listed as "suitable" can be used for BP manufacture and can give adequate results. However, scientific tests show that speed increases up to 500% are possible when using high performance charcoal. Thus, who wants optimum performance is referred to the latter.
It is plain that the final performance of any powder is also largely determined by the production method used. Thus it is not uncommon if e.g. a precipitated Hazel black powder clearly outstrips a hand ground powder using alder buck-thorn charcoal even if the latter contains the better material.
There are still many blanks remaining. Feel free to complete or expand the table wherever authentic information is accessible.
|Suitable for BP?||Suitable for spark effects?||Additional information|
|Alder (Alnus Rubra, Red Alder)||very suitable||unsure|
|Alder (Alnus Tenuifolia, Thinleaf Alder)||suitable||unsure|
|Alder (Alnus Glutinosa, Black Alder)||suitable||very suitable||Specified for BP by the british military|
|Alder (Alnus Cordata, Italian Alder)||very suitable||unsure||Italian alder|
|Apple||unsure, most: no||suitable||"Pyrus mains" gave excellent results in BP|
|Aspen||suitable||unsure||"Trembling aspen" is a top performer|
|Balsa||very suitable||no||Expensive raw material|
|Beech||suitable||suitable||Used in english powders|
|Birch (White)||unsure||unsure||Specifications coming soon...|
|Buckthorn (alder)||very suitable||unsure||A top performer; specified for BP by the british military; "Frangula alnus"; highest porosity|
|Buckthorn (carolina)||very suitable||unsure||A top performer|
|Coconut||no||unsure||Often found as laboratory charcoal|
|Cotton||unsure||unsure||Said to give excellent gunpowder|
|Cottonwood (narrow leaf)||very suitable||unsure|
|Dogwood (cornus florida)||very suitable||unsure|
|Dogwood (cornus sanguined)||suitable||unsure||Used for BP charcoal in Britain|
|Grapevine||unsure, most: very suitable||unsure||Performance depends on variety used; high ash content (consider formula adjustments)|
|Hemp||suitable||suitable||Popular for BP manufacture in the east|
|Horse chestnut||suitable||very suitable|
|Maple||very suitable||unsure||Reputed choice of GOEX, member reported excellent results using silver maple|
|Paulownia||very suitable||no||A top performer, popular in the east|
|Pine||unsure, some: very suitable||very suitable||Maybe the best for fire dust; BP: tests done with "Pinus radiata"(hardwood pine!) gave excellent results; too many species to generalize|
|Plum (prunus domestica)||very suitable||unsure||A top performer; low ash content|
|Poplar||suitable||unsure||Related to willow|
|Umbauba||suitable||unsure||Reputed choice of Elephant Brand|
|Willow||very suitable||very suitable||Acceptable results with any type; Black willow gives excellent results, Rocky mountain willow is inferior, white willow is good and specified by the British military, weeping willow and pacific willow both give very good results. Gives long lasting sparks.|
Fine charcoal dust is easily breathed in, and a dust mask should be worn when working with it. Freshly prepared charcoal can be pyrophoric even when not powdered and it must be allowed to stand for a day at least before it is used in any compositions.