Harvesting Wood

From Iron Allentown Wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Charcoal production involved extensive woodcutting over broad forest areas, which led at times to whole forests being depleted. Wood must be dry before it could be used for charcoal production and iron production, and wood cut in the late autumn and early winter proved to hold the least amount of water. For example, wood cut in April would typically contain 10 to 20 percent more water than wood that was cut in January, while wood cut in December and January was more solid and would dry faster[1]. If the wood was still moist, a collier would allow the wood to air-dry, which was more efficient than drying the wood in the charcoal pit[2]. Dead or decayed wood was of no use for making charcoal[3].

In 1878, 4 cords worth of charcoal provided about 1 ton of pig iron [4]. Places like Hopewell Furnace would use a 30-year cutting cycle, which meant they had to use enough land so that the cut trees had plenty of time to regrow. Around 200 acres would be cut annually at Hopewell, and approximately 147,000 acres or 230 square miles of forest were harvested annually nationwide, which led to obvious cases of forest depletion. In response to the depletion, furnaces and their employees became very strong supporters of forestry early on in order to maintain a steady supply of wood [5].

The kind of wood used has a major impact on the quality of charcoal. Denser types of woods (oak, hickory, chestnut and elm) were preferred to soft woods (gum and poplar) as they produced more heat and were less friable[6]. It has been recorded that sometimes a mixture of soft and hard woods would be used to create charcoal[7]. Old growth forests had higher yields, while second growth could take up to a century to be able to produce that high a yield[8]. Even the ground condition for the pit plays a role in the carbonization of wood. A perfectly level ground, free from any draft that is dry and solid is optimal charcoal production [9]. It was also important that the wood being harvested was in good condition, which meant that no decaying, or wood with knots or defects could be used[10]. The season in which the wood is gathered and burned is also very important. Charcoal is usually made in the late summer early fall so that the wood from the previous season has time to dry out [11]. Even the condition in which the wood is burning can play a part in the quality of charcoal produced, since things like temperature and wind speed can effect the time it takes for a piece of wood to carbonize [12]. Optimal size for commercial charcoal is about 25 to 80 mm across the grain[13]. Most, if not all species of wood can be carbonized to make charcoal.


A cord of wood is four foot lengths of wood stacked four feet high and eight feet long, and woodcutters could cut anywhere from a few cords to more than one thousand cords. Many woodcutters were farmers who supplemented their income in the offseason[14]. For example, between 1851-1853 Edwin Gault was paid for 1993.5 cords[15]. One must remember, however, that he may have had helpers whom he then paid. Colliers also became woodcutters during the winter months in order to get a full-years wage[16]. Payments for cutting wood varied greatly due to location and time[17].

Wood cutters comprised a large proportion of the workers at any charcoal iron furnace. At Hopewell Furnace between 1851-1853, 225 people were paid for any type of work and 116 were paid for cutting cord wood[18]. At Hopewell, on average approximately two cords of wood could be chopped down in a single day[19]. Two and a half cords was the average at Hanging Rock District[20]. It was noted, however, that in the Hanging Rock District there worked "...Reuben Beverly, who was reputed to be the champion chopper of this region and who, it is said, could cut, split and rank eight cords per day indefinitely. His name was as familiar throughout the Hanging Rock field as was that of the lad who cut down the cherry tree"[21]. Crandall also indicated that he personally had "known many expert wood choppers who could chop, split and rank from four to five cords a day"[22].

Another way woodcutters sometimes earned additional money was by delivering the wood to the charcoal hearths. Hauling to the pit could earn $1.50 a cord, while, "delivering in the ring" might go as high as $1.75 a cord[23].


While studying Charcoal production in the United States it is important to note the detrimental effects it has on the natural landscapes including the forest. Charcoal production created a huge impact on forest depletion, sparking movements across America to find more ethical and less harmful methods of both charcoal production and deforestation. The three main factors of charcoal production that contributed to deforestation were: furnace productivity, charcoal making, and woodland yield. Forest destruction tended to be complete near smelters and furnaces, and it was generally localized near the demand for the fuel.[24]. The average annual furnace output was 1000 tons of pig iron. Some experts would say an average iron plantation furnace would require fuel from 150 acres of woodland per year, but putting these figures together is not a straightforward process. This is because yields vary by the furnace used, the collier and the types of wood involved[25].The woodland area surrounding the furnace was extremely important to feeding the charcoal furnace. [26]. Because of the consistent use for the furnaces, regeneration and growth were so slow that wood supplies would likely be depleted after a decade or so of woodcutting[27]. The furnaces acknowledged the slow regeneration of wood and as a result many furnaces practiced various forms of conservation and land management as a way of maintaining their source of fuel[28]. The idea of a sustainable forest came from European forestry. It requires cutting only as much forest so that the same amount can be regrown in a year. This allows a cycle to take place where each year there is the same amount of mature wood available to harvest as is needed[29]. Over time iron production became increasingly efficient, ergo more acres of woodland were required to fuel production[30]. Woodlands in the east were typically more plentiful than that in the western United States and they typically took less time to regenerate[31]. Calculations of woodland required for production varied based on factors such as location, furnace productivity (pit or kiln), and forest regeneration[32]. Eastern woodlands typically supplied more wood per acre and regenerated more quickly than their western counterparts, but it is important to remember that the productivity of the furnace, the skill of the collier and the yield of various types of trees can all impact the productivity rate of charcoal production[33].


  1. Overman 1854, 80
  2. Straka 2014, 107
  3. Overman 1854, 83
  4. Straka 2010, 60
  5. Straka 2010, 60
  6. Straka 2015, 106
  7. Straka 2014, 106
  8. Straka 2014, 105
  9. Straka 2010, 107
  10. Straka 2014, 106-107
  11. Straka 2010, 107
  12. Straka 2010, 107
  13. Svedelius 1875
  14. Walker 1966, 238
  15. Walker 1966, 238
  16. Kemper 1941, 10
  17. Overman 1854, 84
  18. Walker 1966, 239
  19. Walker 1966, 239
  20. Crandall 1906, 20
  21. Crandall 1906, 20
  22. Crandall 1906, 20
  23. Walker 1966, 239
  24. Straka 2014, 105
  25. Straka 2014, 105
  26. Straka 2014, 110
  27. Straka 2014, 111
  28. Straka 2014, 106
  29. Straka 2014, 111
  30. Straka 2014, 106
  31. Straka 2014, 111
  32. Straka 2014, 110-111
  33. Straka 2014, 111


  • Crandall, Elias. 1906. Reminiscences of the Hanging Rock District (Concluded). The Iron Trade Review, July, 19.
  • Kemper, Jackson. 1941. American Charcoal Making in the Era of the Cold-Blast Furnace. History 14. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior; National Park Service.
  • Svedelius, G. (1875). Hand-Book for Charcoal Burners. New York: John Wiley & Son
  • Walker, Joseph E. 1966. Hopewell Village; a Social and Economic History of an Iron-Making Community. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.