DIY & Inspo

How to remove barrel char

By Midwest Barrel Co.

August 28th, 2021

A person scrapes away char off the head of a used whiskey barrel.

Let’s not beat around the bush here. While we love the authentic, rustic nature of used whiskey and bourbon barrels, they can be a bit messy.

One of the primary culprits of this mess is the char on the inside of the barrel. Open one up and you’ll see what we mean. It looks like somebody took a torch to the inside of the barrel. Actually, that’s basically what happened.

All that charred interior can sometimes break off the wood or can be rubbed off easily when touched. As you’d expect, this can create a bit of a mess.

Close-up look at black char on the inside of a barrel stave

So, when you’re working with authentic whiskey or bourbon barrels for a DIY decor, furniture or art project, it makes sense to want to remove quite a bit (or sometimes all) of the char to create a cleaner appearance.

Why are whiskey barrels charred?

That “charred” appearance comes from the process cooperages use to open up the barrel wood, introducing different types of flavors to the spirits that are aged in them. As a spirit ages in a barrel, the wood soaks up liquid and then releases it as it expands and contracts over time due to temperature shifts in the space where the barrel is being stored.

Without charring, the flavors imparted by the wood would not be nearly as complex – or tasty.

Flame coming out the top of a barrel as it's charred at a cooperage

How does charring affect whiskey/bourbon?

This is where we get into the more technical details.

You see, charring actually unlocks a lot of what’s going on inside the wood. There are different char levels, too. Each level highlights different aspects and flavors when aging.

Those flavors are made available as the result of charring. When a barrel is charred, the high heat level causes hemicellulose in the wood to break down into wood sugars. This can help add notes of brown sugar, caramel and toffee.

Charring also allows lignins and oak lactones to interact with a spirit aged inside the barrel. Lignins add flavors of vanilla and spice, while the oak lactones are where any wood or coconut flavors come from.

Tumbler glass of whiskey, next to decanter of whiskey and small barrel on top of a wooden tray

Finally, charring helps reduce the level of those harsh, bitter tannins in oak.

All that is to say that while charring can make a mess when you’re looking to repurpose authentic barrel staves and heads into decor or furniture, it is completely necessary for making really good whiskey and bourbon!

How should I remove the char?

Before you get ready to remove the char, you’ll probably want to read up on how to break down a barrel. You don’t have to completely disassemble, but you’ll have to get to a point where you can access the inside.

As for removing the char, there are a number of ways you can go about it. Sandpaper will work, but a sander will make the process go much smoother (pun intended). All you have to do is sand down until you’re happy with the appearance of the wood.

You can also use a hammer and scraper as shown in this video.

Should I keep some char on the wood?

While you can sand or scrape away to your heart’s content, some people (count us among them!) actually like to keep some of the char on the staves. It helps prove that the wood came from an actual barrel with an actual story to tell.

Every barrel sold at MWBC comes with a story. Not every barrel goes on to continue aging beverages, but every barrel did, at some point, age a spirit.

With whiskey and bourbon barrels, that means char was involved. We’re just not big fans of erasing that entire story.

Whiskey barrel that's been converted into a container with door and shelving inside

Good luck on your next DIY barrel project!

No matter your DIY project, our promise is that we provide quality decor barrels for any and all of your DIY needs.

If you have any other questions related to barrel care or preparation, then please contact us. We’re always here to help!

You can also read our blog or follow us on Facebook and Instagram for more tips and information.

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Midwest Barrel Company

Just your resident barrel slingers delivering some damn good content

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