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Antony Sankovic
Memories
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  How to Build a Krbunica
(in the style of Vele Mune/Zejane about 25 km northwest of Rijeka)

During [my father's] childhood and early adulthood, he made and tended many charcoal piles. Charcoal selling helped to make extra money for many families in the Cicarija. I am preparing some graphics files to make some of the discussion more clear. Look for those in the near future.

Denis Sankovic
Euclid, OH, USA
Sunday, August 15, 1999


Begin in a flat field. You are going to need about a 3-4 meter diameter area to build the krbunica. This area stacked about 3-4 meters high will provide you with approximately 50 bags of 50 kilos of charcoal (2500 kilos total). Begin in the center of your area. Begin by standing two pieces of wood almost vertical in your center. Then stack even length wood (0.5-0.7 meters long) so that the pieces stand each other up, starting from the inside and working out. Do not stack pieces exactly vertical as this will make your pile very unstable and prone to collapse. Continue to stack your wood in a tight circular pattern for the first layer, slightly off vertical, leaning pieces against the inner circle. All the while, pack twigs and branches into open spaces left between wood pieces. Continue in this manner until you reach your 4 meter diameter mark.

Make sure there are no open spaces that have not been filled with twigs, branches, and smaller pieces of wood. Wood to  wood contact is essential to completing the process. While you are doing this you must keep a small passageway open to the center of the first layer. This passageway will be used to light the entire pile.

Begin the next layer in the same fashion, working from the center toward the outside, stacking pieces and filling open spaces. Work out to a diameter smaller than your first layer diameter. Once again, check for open spaces. Begin the next layer the same way.

This continues until you reach you 3-4 meter mark , depending on how high you're willing to go, how much wood you have, etc. Each layer's wood piece length is smaller than the layer before it. The final shape should resemble a cone, like a pine tree.

At the base of your first layer, add a border of stones separated by approximately 0.5 meter, right up against the outside edge of your first layer. From stone to stone, place one piece of wood to bridge the two stones, leaving an air space under the piece of wood.

These areas will be the vents for your charcoal pile. Continue all the way around the perimeter of the pile. Cover the entire pile with a layer of dry grass, leaves, hay, and/or straw, depending on what is on hand at the time. On top of the layer of grass, leaves, etc. add a layer of 2-3" of dirt, not dry dirt but with some moisture content, to seal the wood, leaves, grass, etc. from the outside air. Continue packing the dirt layer for the entire pile until you reach the top. Leave about 4" on top free of dirt. This will be the smoke vent for your pile.

Make yourself a long stick, wrap some cloth on one end, dip in kerosene, light and place in the pile at this location, to the center of the pile. Once smoke starts coming out of the top smoke vent (approximately 1/2 hour), cover the top smoke vent completely with dirt. Also, you will have gathered a large quantity of moss that you will now use to block your bottom air vents (under the wood, bridging the stones). When the top is covered and the bottom air vents are blocked, poke holes in the dirt near the top around in a circular manner. At this point, there should be no fire, only smoke. If there is too much of a fire, cover up your vent holes. If the fire is starting to overtake your pile, stir the center of your pile, add fresh wood, cover with dirt and then again add the near-the-top vent holes. This procedure is to make sure that the fire is out but that the process is beginning at the correct rate. This will take up the first to second day of the entire process.

Once the dirt near the top gets hot and dry, close those vent holes, and open new vent  holes at a lower location again proceeding in a circular fashion. The radius of the pile will also shrink giving you another indication that it's time to move the vent holes down. You can control the rate of "burning" by opening and closing your vent holes. You want to have a uniform burn from the top down. You can adjust the positioning of your burn if portions of the pile are burning too quickly or too slowly.

When the burning comes down to approximately 4" from the bottom, remove the moss that you packed into the bottom air vents. This will help the bottom portion continue burning. There will always be a couple of inches at the bottom that will not burn. Remove the border of stones, remove all dirt. Clean off dirt, remove grass, leaves, straw, etc. Take cleaned dirt, pack it back onto the pile. Leave overnight to cool.

Dismantle the pile by starting on one side, using a pitchfork to separate the charcoal from the dirt. At this point the charcoal will be very light, compared to a piece of wood, and will have a distinct hollow sound.  Let it cool if it's still hot, check for any pieces that continue to burn. You don't want to pack any of those due to threat of a fire. Pack it into burlap sacks. Total time from building the pile to having charcoal in sacks was typically 5-7 days depending on wood quality, moisture content,  size of pile, number of people working, etc..

Notes:

  • Any wood can be used but beech is the best. Oak pops too much.
  • Both men and women built and tended charcoal piles but the majority were men. Tending was day and night.
  • Supplies consisted of an ax, a saw, burlap, some kerosene, a lantern, and rope.
  • All other tools were built by hand : pointed stick to make vent holes, long stick to light the center fire, ladder to reach top of the pile.
  • Small shelters (a bit larger than a doghouse) were built, since someone had to constantly tend to the krbunica. Small tentlike structures, built with wood, straw, and burlap, provided protection from rain and snow, a place to cook, and a place to make a straw bed.
  • Women bore the brunt of the work during charcoal-making time. They had their normal chores, the extra chores since the men were unavailable, and they had to supply the men at the krbunica with prepared food (usually lunch and dinner), water, coffee, cigarettes, corn meal, lard, etc.
  • No charcoal was made during the World Wars.
  • The last time my father made charcoal was 1956. The last time my mother's family made charcoal was 1957.
  • Charcoal was sold in both Rijeka and Trieste.
  • Some shop owners traded food for charcoal. One week of working charcoal usually brought you one week worth of groceries. That is, one week worth of food back then, not by today's extravagant standards.
  • The job was understandably dirty.
  • Fall and winter were generally the charcoal making seasons.
  • While watching one pile, you would usually prepare another pile nearby.
  • At night, when the work was done, the men would go around from hut to hut and get together with their neighbors who were also tending their own piles. These were chances to talk, to sing, to help pass the time. They would also each other help dismantling the pile and packing the charcoal.

Antony Sankovic

See also:

Related Links:

  • Typical Carbonaia construction in Europe (Photos) - (Source: Le fasi della carbonaia-Photos by Andrea del Zozzo):  The carbonaia under construction (la carbonaia in costruzione) - http://www.altometauro.com/Ambiente/frAmbiente.htm (go down the page and click on "La coltura del bosco," then choose "Le fasi della carbonaia.")

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This page compliments of Denis Sankovic

Created: Sunday, August 15, 1999; Last updated: Friday, December 28, 2012  
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