Charcoal makers were workmen who made charcoals. Charcoal making was usually an occupation connected to the family tradition and it was passed on by father to son for many generations. Charcoal makers from Lesvos provided with coals many regions. Seasonally, they (also) worked in Crete, Volos and other places, because in local level there was a relatively low demand. The domestic use of coal was generally substituted by the olive pit (that is, the olive crushing remnants of the olive presses) for the winter “braziers”, while the demand by grill houses – coffee shops was limited and did not cover their expenses.
Concerning the charcoal trade, some charcoal makers sold their product to coal traders or dealers. But most of them preferred to sell their product by themselves, because, as they said, many traders “cheated in weighing” or “sucked their blood”. Despite the fact that charcoal makers were not organised in a professional guild (esnafi or sinafi), they had very good relations among them and in certain regions or cases, they worked in groups helping each other with the shifts at the kilns, due to the fact that the production procedure was time consuming, laborious and attention demanding.
The production took place in open-air kilns and lasted from spring to autumn. Charcoal makers after collecting wood, such as holm oak (prinaria), oak, oleaster (agrilidia) etc, from mountains and fields, they cut them into billets. Then, they “built” (made) the kiln, by arranging the pieces of wood in a circle on the ground, usually “the thinnest” first, such as roots etc. on which they placed a “panel” (table) where they put the thicker billets. They piled them on top of each other, with an inwards inclination in the form of a funnel. This “funnel” of wood, had a shaft in the middle (like a flue) from the top to the bottom, to facilitate the fire. After making the “funnel” they made perimetrical openings (bastardoi), from top to bottom so that the kiln could “breathe”, that is, it could free the vapours of the combustion to avoid bursting. These openings (like “small pipes” between the woods) were arranged as follows: on the right and the left of the opening they placed two bricks roofed by a tile, creating the required “vacuum” from where the smoke of the combustion was released. When the kiln (the “funnel” and the openings) was ready, they covered it with wet pine needles (because they are flammable) and over the pine needles they threw sifted (cleaned) earth, sprinkled with water for another layer of earth to stick on it. The kiln was then ready for burning. The fire started always from the top, and the openings helped its gradual spread downwards. The most important phase during the combustion was the so-called feeding (ntolmas), that is, the continuous filling of the kiln with wood to maintain the stability and balance at its interior, because without special attention it collapsed. The burning was slow and charcoal makers had to supervise it continuously. The duration of the combustion depended on the quantity of wood: for example, thirty tonnes of wood produced approximately eight tonnes of coal (four hundred sacks), and the burning lasted 15 days. During the whole procedure the smoke coming from the top of the funnel was dark, whereas when the burning was completed it had the colour of the sky. Then, they gradually removed the earth with shovels, piled the bricks and the tiles, as well as the charcoals which afterwards were stored in sacks. Their main tools were axes, shovels (“ntarakia”), “forks” and a type of gimlet.
Today, there are few charcoal makers that make kilns in Lesvos and provide mainly the local shops with their product on a custom-made basis.
- Interview with Giorgos Drakoulis [charcoal maker], in Molyvos, Lesvos, 03/08/2004
- Interview with Eleftherios Koutouroglou [charcoal maker], in Molyvos, Lesvos, 02/08/2004
- Antonis Papastylianos, “Fading crafts: Charcoal makers”, Ta Kalloniatika, October - December 1985, issue 33: 12, 13, 26