Let’s give gratitude to our ancestors, the ones who passed on the skills and knowledge through the ages. Without their gracious teachings, we might not get to enjoy the great advancement in technologies that we do today. Humans have evolved with fire, as a means for surviving and thriving. It is easily one of our greatest tools.
This project is about how to make a yucca (or agave) stalk coal-burned container. More importantly, this project is about learning how to use fire as a tool for removing material. Did you know that 8000 years ago, our human ancestors used this same method of controlling fire to hollow out the center of logs to make boats? These canoes are the oldest boat types that archaeologists have discovered. You can read more about them here on wikipedia: Dugout Canoe.
You will need the following:
- Dried piece of yucca or agave
- Sand or dirt – this is to help control the speed at which the coal-burns the stalk
- Fire – only one coal is needed for this project. You could get by with just a friction-fire coal…
- Water – to put out your fire when you are finished. Have a bucket nearby or a hose.
- Chopsticks – for handling a coal safely.
- Flat-bottom stick – used for scraping away the charred material.
- Saw (optional) – for cutting the stalk. You could break it off, use a knife, or burn it off.
- Knife (optional) – for scraping away additional charred material.
- Sandpaper (optional) – for making a smooth finished surface.
- Drinking straw (optional) – for safer, more precise blowing of air.
- Fire – let common sense be your guide. Follow your city rules and restrictions for having fires at your home. If you’re not an adult, make sure there is an adult with you or get permission from them to have a fire. Pay attention to potential RED FLAG WARNING days when conditions become dry and windy.
- Smoke inhalation – make sure to stay clear of the smoke trail. Wearing bandanas and face masks can help prevent inhalation, but avoid the smoke trail as well. (I’ve had to learn this lesson the hard way and have had one too many post-fire headaches from being too close to the fire and smoke. It is no fun!)
- Smoke in your eyes – Reposition yourself to be upwind from where the smoke wants to travel. As wind tends to shift, you will need to move around in order to keep yourself safe.
- Blowing sparks and ash onto yourself – Dump out any residual ash before giving the container any added air or breath. Blow gently or use a straw.
- Sharp tools – Practice knife safety. Check in with your attitude, make blood circles (an area designated to let others know you are using a knife), and carve away from yourself.
- Agave plant toxins – Be aware that some species of agave, when not fully dry, have the potential to cause irritation to the skin. Use gloves and long sleeves if harvesting “questionably dry” material.
- Super windy days – Do not try this on a windy day. It will become dangerous real quick! A light breeze is okay if the ground is wet.
Where to find yucca & agave:
- Yucca, Hesperoyucca whipplei, is native to our region and grows in chaparral along the ridge of Santa Ynez Mountains. Drive up Gibraltar road or take 154 highway to Camino Cielo East or West. You can also find it out towards Figueroa Mountain or towards the Cuyama Valley. Look for last year’s stalks or older that look dead and dry.
- Agave, Agave americana, is a non-native species to our region. It is used heavily as a horticultural plant, growing near parks, along roads, and in peoples yards. Ask for permission to harvest dead, dried, and fallen over stalks. Note that this species has mild toxins in the sap that can cause minor dermatitis (skin irritation).
1) Find a safe area to have a fire: backyard fire rings, barbecue grills at parks, holes in the ground, and beaches where it is safe and legal to have a fire.
2) Start your fire and let it burn down to coals. You won’t need much. One-coal is usually enough for this project. Even just a small friction fire coal can work.
3) Get your materials ready: cut the stalk to the appropriate size you would like for your container. Keep in mind you will want at least an inch of the stalk at the bottom to not burn. This will ensure that you don’t burn all the way through. Make sure you have sand ready for putting out any areas of your project that get out of control.
4) Grab a coal with your chopsticks. Place it on the top of your container. Move it around in order to start burning the area you want. This process happens quickly so be ready! Note that there should not be any flame, the coal should smolder through the pithy material.
5) Once most of the area has begun to burn, take the coal off of your container. ***COMMON SENSE TIP – Reposition yourself to be upwind from where the smoke wants to travel. As wind tends to shift, you will need to move around in order to keep yourself safe***
6) Let the container begin to burn down, keeping an eye on the sides of the container to make sure they are not burning. Areas that have turned black in color mean it is not burning efficiently. Areas that are white are the areas that have recently burned. And areas that are glowing red are actively burning now. Use your flat-bottomed stick to scrape the char from around the side walls. By scraping around the sides, you are helping the charred wood adhere to the unburned edges, insulating them from the central fire, and keeping the majority of the burning focused downward.
7) Once you have scraped it a bit and ash has accumulated, dump it into your sand bucket or back into the fire. Then, you can give the container a little bit of air from your breath or the breeze. ***COMMON SENSE TIP – Be cautious when blowing air and getting your face close to the burning container. This can blow sparks and hot ash back into your face, or onto your arms and legs potentially burning clothing or your skin. This is why it is important to dump out any residual ash before giving the container any added air*** If possible, you can use a straw to blow air gently onto your container.
8) Continue this technique – scrape, scrape, dump, blow… scrape, scrape, dump, blow… until your container is looking close to your desired depth. Don’t be hasty, you can always use another coal to start the burning again, but you can’t fix it once it has burned too far. Remember to use the sand to smother any areas of your container that may be burning more than you like. ***Do not use water on your container because it will make it soggy and ruin the material. ***
9) Once your container has burned down to your liking, fill it all the way up with sand to stop any further burning from happening. Keep it there until the outside of the container no longer feels hot, and then pour it back out. Check to make sure all areas have stopped burning before moving on to the next step.
10) Scrape away any loose charred material: You can continue to scrape with your flat-bottomed stick or use a knife to remove more material. If using a knife, go slow and be sure not to poke your knife through the bottom of the container.
11) Sand the inside, bottom, and edges: Be sure to give the lip edge some sanding so it does not feel as brittle. You can also sand down the bottom of the container and bevel the edges for a pleasing appearance.
Now your container is ready for dry use storage. If you’d like to take it a step further, you can dip the bottom of the container in some hot beeswax to protect it when stored on surfaces that could get wet. You could possibly wax the inside as well for even more moisture protection, but I have not tried this to tell you from personal experience if it works or not.
Don’t forget to put out your fires safely and responsibly. Use water and stir-it with a stick like a big pot of soup. Make sure that ALL areas have been wetted and have become cool to the touch.
Coal-burning can be a fun way to connect with older and slower ways of making things. I learned a valuable lesson teaching this technique to some friends of mine while we were hanging out in the forest one evening. As I began to show them how it was possible to burn out the center of a log to make a wooden bowl, our progress was delayed. The wood we were using was just a little too wet for it to work efficiently. Then one of my friends thought he had a million dollar idea. As he saw me struggling and tirelessly trying to blow air into a pile of coals, he ran to his car to get something. When he came back, he had a battery-powered Ryobi air compressor that he thought would quicken the process. To his credit, the air compressor worked amazingly well at getting a lot of air to help burn the wet wood more efficiently. Looking back, our struggles may have been appropriate because of the wood not being seasoned properly. Although, additional air wasn’t going to solve this problem either. Because the wood was slightly damp and too fresh, the bowl he made in 5 minutes ended up splitting as it continued to dry. An appreciation for slower-paced traditional handcraft techniques were challenged that day. But in the end, it seemed that the speedy trick was no match for the methodical process of hollowing out a log. Enjoy the process!
Questions for reflection:
What are some other things that you do in your life that connect you to an older way of living in the world? (that has been done for hundreds or thousands of years?)
Have you ever wished for something to happen quicker or get frustrated when it takes too long?
What is something you loved about this process of making a container?
My hope is that this project becomes a stepping stone into a world full of other interesting project ideas. If you are looking for further coal-burning inspiration try making the following:
- a wooden coal-burned spoon or bowl.
- a container to be used as an arrow quiver
- a didgeridoo
- Or even a boat or canoe!
Other projects to be made with different parts of the yucca or agave plants:
- String or rope. Cordage!
- Harvesting the fresh stalks or flowers of yucca for food
- String bags (there is a museum in Oaxaca, Mexico dedicated to this)
- Or even a Surfboard!
***If you liked this project or have any comments or questions, please email me at gro.pyw@DnailuJ ***