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Company ships high-quality charcoal across the country

Robert Oren Eades examines his recent batch of homemade lump charcoal made from recycled hardwood at his mulch facility in Sherrills Ford.

MICHELLE T. BERNARD
Staff Writer

When Robert Oren Eades of Sherrills Ford went to Troutman to pick up some recycled fan blades he was utilizing for an art project, he saw an old Webber grill in the corner of the warehouse and asked if he could buy it. Eades had several wood-fired cookers that he had been using for years to make traditional North Carolina barbecue so he had a lot of experience cooking with wood, but he didn’t have a lot of experience cooking with charcoal.

“I haven’t seen a charcoal grill in use since I was a child – my father had one,” he said. “In those days he was just using briquettes. I knew enough from reading about cooking that most serious grillers at least tried to use lump charcoal so I bought a bag of it and as I was standing there watching it burn I started thinking about what I have here at the mulch yard.”

Eades owns and operates Timber Creek Mulch in Sherrills Ford, where he recycles thousands of tons of wood, leaves, yard trimmings and grass on a yearly basis. Until he started making lump charcoal, what hardwood that came into his yard was used for firewood or made into mulch.

“I thought to myself that I had truckloads of really good wood coming in every day and it was already cut to firewood length – I bet I could learn how to make my own lump charcoal,” he said.

Charcoal (also called “char”) is made by cooking wood in a low oxygen environment. The cooking process burns off volatile compounds such as water, methane, hydrogen and tar. What’s left is pure carbon.

Those charcoal briquettes that can be bought in the store are like charcoal “fast food” – they are cheap and can be bought just about everywhere. Like fast food, they may contain fillers, binders and chemicals. For example, the ingredients in the popular Kingsford brand include wood char, mineral char, mineral carbon, limestone, starch and borax.

After making his own charcoal for about two years, Eades decided to test the market to see if he could sell it. He discovered there was a large market for his charcoal and now sells a good bit locally and ships it around the country.

When a good load of oak, hickory or cherry comes into his yard, Eades sets it aside to be used to make charcoal. It has to be split and allowed to dry, just like firewood. Once it’s dry, he loads the wood into a “retort,” also called a kiln, which is simply a metal chamber that Eades made out of recycled materials. He separates the type of wood and burns it separately in its own retort. Around the outside he stacks up wood, usually oak, and covers it all with a cover with a stovepipe. He lights the outside wood and as soon as it hits 400 degrees it starts putting off gases, burning off everything that’s in the wood except the carbon. It takes at least two days for the entire process.

In addition to making charcoal and running his mulch business, Eades is an attorney and he still practices on a limited basis. He’s also a well-known folk artist, making art from recycled materials like bottle caps and whirly gigs out of fan blades.

“I have often found in talking with the artists I know, whether they are folk artists who paint, sculpt or potters, they are all fine artists,” he said. “They always seem to me to be curious people whose creativity is rarely confined to one area. I think that the notion that someone who likes to make art might also look at some wood and think ‘I can transform that into something else that’s not art but is useful and productive’ seems to be within that spectrum of creativity.”

Eades said making charcoal is so rewarding because of all the good wood that comes into his yard. It can be made into mulch, which is a good product and he enjoys making that too because it provides him with an immediate sense of accomplishment – something he doesn’t see as much while practicing law. Good mulch doesn’t necessarily need to be made out of really good wood though – it can be made from maple, beech or gum trees that aren’t as well suited for firewood or charcoal.

“It’s a higher use for this wood – whether it’s being used for charcoal or firewood,” he said. “You can take something that’s in one state and transform it into something else with just a little bit of labor. It’s a useful product – the firewood keeps someone warm and makes them happy. That’s the key component – when you do something like art or charcoal that people are making good food with or even firewood that they’re heating their house with or burning in a fire pit outside – you can look at it and think somebody is enjoying that. I like that – I like making people happy.”

Eades sells his charcoal directly from Timber Creek Mulch on 3085 Steam Plant Road in Sherrills Ford. To learn more about the charcoal, firewood, mulch visit the web site at http://www.timbercreekmulch.com.

Image courtesy of Michelle T. Bernard

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