Historically, the production of wood charcoal in locations where there is an abundance of wood dates back to a very ancient period, and generally consists of piling billets of wood on their ends so as to form a conical pile, openings being left at the bottom to admit air, with a central shaft to serve as a flue. The whole pile is covered with turf or moistened clay. The firing is begun at the bottom of the flue, and gradually spreads outwards and upwards. The success of the operation depends upon the rate of the combustion. Under average conditions, 100 parts of wood yield about 60 parts by volume, or 25 parts by weight, of charcoal; small-scale production on the spot often yields only about 50%, while large-scale became efficient to about 90% even by the seventeenth century. The operation is so delicate that it was generally left to colliers (professional charcoal burners). They often lived alone in small huts in order to tend their wood piles. For example, in the Harz Mountains of Germany, charcoal burners lived in conical huts called Köten which are still much in evidence today.
The massive production of charcoal (at its height employing hundreds of thousands, mainly in Alpine and neighbouring forests) was a major cause of deforestation, especially in Central Europe. In England, many woods were managed as coppices, which were cut and regrown cyclically, so that a steady supply of charcoal would be available (in principle) forever; complaints (as early as the Stuart period) about shortages may relate to the results of temporary over-exploitation or the impossibility of increasing production to match growing demand. The increasing scarcity of easily harvested wood was a major factor behind the switch to fossil fuel equivalents, mainly coal and brown coal for industrial use.
The modern process of carbonizing wood, either in small pieces or as sawdust in cast iron retorts, is extensively practiced where wood is scarce, and also for the recovery of valuable byproducts (wood spirit, pyroligneous acid, wood tar), which the process permits. The question of the temperature of the carbonization is important; according to J. Percy, wood becomes brown at 220 °C (428 °F), a deep brown-black after some time at 280 °C (536 °F), and an easily powdered mass at 310 °C (590 °F). Charcoal made at 300 °C (572 °F) is brown, soft and friable, and readily inflames at 380 °C (716 °F); made at higher temperatures it is hard and brittle, and does not fire until heated to about 700 °C (1,292 °F).
In Finland and Scandinavia, the charcoal was considered the by-product of wood tar production. The best tar came from pine, thus pinewoods were cut down for tar pyrolysis. The residual charcoal was widely used as substitute for metallurgical coke in blast furnaces for smelting. Tar production led to rapid local deforestation. The end of tar production at the end of the 19th century resulted in rapid re-forestation of affected areas.
The charcoal briquette was first invented and patented by Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer of Pennsylvania in 1897 and was produced by the Zwoyer Fuel Company. The process was further popularized by Henry Ford, who used wood and sawdust byproducts from automobile fabrication as a feedstock. Ford Charcoal went on to become the Kingsford Company.