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.


Barbeque briquettes are mixed with clay and are not suitable for making black powder. Charcoal can be purchased from supermarkets, BBQ supply stores and directly from online pyrotechnic chemical suppliers. Charcoal can easily be prepared at home.

 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.


Raw material

Suitable for BP? Suitable for spark effects? Additional information
Activated charcoal no suitable
Ailanthus (altissima) suitable unsure
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
Bamboo suitable unsure
Beech suitable suitable Used in english powders
Birch (White) unsure unsure Specifications coming soon...
Birch (Black) unsure unsure
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
Cherry (virginian) suitable unsure
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)
Grass no unsure
Hazel suitable unsure
Hemp suitable suitable Popular for BP manufacture in the east
Hornbeam no unsure
Horse chestnut suitable very suitable
Jute suitable unsure
Lime unsure unsure
Madrone (pacific) suitable unsure
Maple very suitable unsure Reputed choice of GOEX, member reported excellent results using silver maple
Mesquite suitable unsure
Oak (chrysolepsis) suitable unsure
Paulownia very suitable no A top performer, popular in the east
Peach suitable suitable  
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
Sesban suitable unsure
Tamarind suitable unsure
Teak suitable unsure
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.

Compositions containing Charcoal :