Making your own food-grade wood pellets is very satisfying. It’s fun, it’s eco-friendly, and you know exactly what you’re cooking with.
Also, if you have access to copious amounts of cheap sawdust, wood chips, scrap lumber, or even logs, it can even save you money…in the long run.
However, there’s a lot of heavy equipment involved in making your own wood pellets. And, this equipment can be expensive to buy, run and maintain. So, it may take you a while to recoup your investment.
In this guide, I’ll answer the following questions:
- What do I need to make my own wood pellets?
- How can I make my own wood pellets?
- What are the advantages and inconveniences of making my own wood pellets?
Table of Contents
- What Do I Need to Make My Own Wood Pellets?
- How To Make Wood Pellets
- Advantages & Inconveniences
- Frequently Asked Questions
What Do I Need to Make My Own Wood Pellets?
To make your own wood pellets, you’ll need raw materials and heavy equipment. In the sections below, I’ll cover both.
To make your own wood pellets, you’ll first need to source a substantial amount of raw material, i.e. wood. Preferably you’ll want to use sawdust, but you can also use larger pieces of wood such as wood chips, offcuts, or even logs.
The main ingredient in wood pellets is sawdust, also called wood dust. Sawdust is composed of small particles of wood and is a by-product of woodworking activities like sawing, sanding, planing, routing, or milling.
The best sawdust for making wood pellets comes from hardwood. Hardwood is very dense and heavy and contains very little moisture and resin. As a result, it has a high energy content so produces more heat for a given volume of wood. It also burns cleaner and produces less smoke and soot.
Examples of hardwoods are:
Sawdust is the ideal raw material because it’s already in small particles, and more or less ready to be transformed into wood pellets. However, if you only have access to wood chips, offcuts of wood, or logs, you’ll need to mill them down into sawdust before making pellets.
Wood chips are slightly bigger than sawdust. Wood chips can be produced from branches or parts of a tree that are too small or the wrong shape for making boards or planks. Because these cuts of wood aren’t of much value to wood mills, wood chips are often inexpensive.
Wood chips can also be made from pruned trees or bushes, when gardening.
Off-cuts of wood are the bits that are left over after woodworking operations, such as sawing. They’re bigger than sawdust or woodchips, and can’t really be used by factories for anything other than making wood chips or sawdust, so are also relatively cheap to source.
Logs are sections of tree trunks or branches. More often than not trees are used to make planks or boards, or indeed logs. Logs are big and chunky and are used to heat homes by burning them in fireplaces. It doesn’t really make sense to use logs to make wood pellets as they will require the most processing to transform into sawdust, and could instead be used for more useful purposes such as heating.
Equipment & Machinery
With the raw materials taken care of, let’s take a look at the wood pellet making equipment required to make your own pellets.
A woodchipper is a piece of equipment used to reduce large pieces of wood into smaller chips. They are popular with gardeners and forestry workers, as they can be used to produce spreadable mulch from otherwise cumbersome branches and logs.
A hammer mill is a mill used to pound and crush material into smaller pieces by the repeated blows of one or multiple hammers.
A hammer mill is used to make sawdust from woodchips or offcuts, by pounding them and breaking them down into much smaller particles.
A kiln (sometimes called a drum heater or an industrial dryer) is used to heat and aerate materials in order to dry them.
Before compression of sawdust into wood pellets, the moisture content needs to be within a certain range (approx. 10 – to 15% maximum). A kiln is used to achieve this result.
A large sieve, preferably an automated industrial sieve, can be used to separate the sawdust from other undesired particles such as stone, or even metal.
Indeed, depending on where you source your raw materials, they can be “contaminated” with these hard materials that A) won’t burn and B) may damage your pellet grill, and mechanical parts such as the augur or the firebox in particular, if present in the pellets.
A batch mixer is used to blend the raw materials together. In most cases, these raw materials are the sawdust you’ve sourced or produced, along with some sort of a binding agent like vegetable oil for example.
The pellet mill is what actually produces the wood pellets from the raw material mix. It achieves this by compressing and shaping the mixture into small cylindrical pellets.
Once the wood pellets are formed, they need to dry out to harden up, keep their shape for storage, transportation, and use in the pellet grill, and also burn properly.
Drying racks can be used to achieve this outcome. generally speaking, a drying rack is a large box like tray, with a perforated base made of mesh or drilled wood with small holes, to help the air circulate and wick away moisture from the drying pellets.
How To Make Wood Pellets
The basic idea is simple. Here’s a quick overview of the process.
Wood sawdust is either sourced from a wood mill or produced from wood chips, offcuts or logs with a woodchipper and/or hammer mill. The sawdust is then dried in a kiln, and mixed with a binding agent such as vegetable oil, in a batch mixer. The mixture is then poured into a wood pellet mill, where it is compressed and shaped into small cylindrical shapes. Once formed, the pellets need to be left to dry so they harden up, keep their shape, and burn better.
Whilst they are commonly burned in a Traeger or another brand of wood pellet grill, these homemade wood pellets can also be used as fuel for a wood pellet stove or even a fireplace. With this in mind, let’s take a look at how you can make your own wood pellets.
Follow this simple guide to learn how to make your own homemade wood pellets for your pellet grill or pellet stove.
Step 1: Preparing Raw Materials
The first thing you need to do is prepare your raw materials. The product you’ll be left with at the end of this step is a blend of sawdust and a binding agent, ready to be put in your pellet mill.
The number of steps required in this process will vary, depending on what type of raw material you’re starting with – ranging from sawdust, through wood chips and offcuts, all the way up to logs.
If you can source sawdust directly, you’ll be saving yourself the need to use a wood chipper and a hammer mill. So, using buying readily available sawdust from a factory or wood mill is the ideal scenario.
Because you will be cooking food with your pellets, make sure that the sawdust or wood you are using is free from potentially toxic substances such as pesticides or fungicides, paint or varnishes, or chemical treatments. It should be completely natural and untreated.
Any of the hardwoods listed above make great raw material. Each one has different strengths of smokiness, from mild to strong, so pick depending on what you are after.
Step 1.1: Preparing Your Sawdust
If you’re sourcing sawdust directly (i.e. you don’t need to make it), you can jump on below. Otherwise, check out the following section.
If you’re going to use wood chips, offcuts, or logs to make your wood pellets, you’ll have to turn them into sawdust first.
Starting with Offcuts or Logs
If you’re starting with offcuts or logs and branches, you’ll need to make wood chips out of them first. To do so, you need to pass this raw material into a wood chipper.
Ideally, you want to obtain small chips roughly 1 inch or 2.5cm in length maximum – the smaller the better. You may need to feed the chippings through for a second or third pass to achieve the desired size.
Starting with Wood Chips
Once you have your wood chips, you need to break them down further into sawdust. with a maximum length of 0.2 inches or 5mm.
To achieve this you’ll have to feed the wood chips into the hammer mill. The hammer mill will pulverize the chips into sawdust by striking them with little hammers, repeatedly.
Step 1.2: Drying Your Sawdust
Once you’ve obtained your sawdust, you’ll need to dry it in a kiln, also called industrial dryers or drum heater.
The kiln will spin, thereby tossing and tumbling the sawdust inside it, all while blowing hot air through the material. This process will dry out the sawdust by wicking away any excess moisture. The drier your wood pellets are the better. The recommended moisture content is between 10 and 15%.
Step 1.3: Remove Foreign Objects
Once your sawdust is dry, and before mixing it with a potential binding agent, you need to ensure that it’s free of foreign objects (contaminants), such as stones or metals. Ideally, you’ll have removed most of these before drying (the biggest, most noticeable pieces). But, there may still be small pieces left in the sawdust. These pieces could build up in your pellet grill, and damage and jam mechanical parts such as your augur or firebox.
To remove these contaminants, pass your dry sawdust through a sieve. The small heavier pieces of stone or metal should fall out through the bottom of the sieve. When you’ve finished this step, you’ll be left with almost 100% pure sawdust.
Step 1.4: Preparing Sawdust Mixture
When your sawdust is dry, it can be mixed with your binding agent. Not everybody uses a binding agent, and they rely solely on the remaining moisture content in the sawdust to help bind it together in the wood pellet mill.
If you decide to use a binding agent, use a natural, edible oil such as vegetable oil. Add it to the sawdust in the batch mixture and let it spin and mix the raw materials together until they’ve completely combined.
Step 2: Turn on the Pellet Mill
You can’t make pellets without a machine to help, so in order to create pellets you will want to use a pellet mill.
It can take a few minutes to fully warm up, so give it time. One of the areas that need to heat to a high temperature is the metal dies.
Once it is good to go, place a bucket under the chute to capture the wood pellets on their way out.
Step 3: Insert the Sawdust Mixture
Now the pellet mill is ready to go, you will want to feed your sawdust mixture into the hopper.
The dies will create the pellets by compressing and heating the sawdust mixture and forming it into little cylindrical shapes. The pellets are then ejected from the pellet mill via the chute.
Step 4: Let The Pellets Cool Down
Once the pellet mill has finished doing its job and there is no sawdust left, switch it off.
Now that you have a bucket full of pellets, you will want to give them time to cold down. At this stage they will likely be hot to the touch.
To help with the cooling down, spread them over your drying racks. Air will circulate through the pellets and help them further dry out and cool down.
Step 5: Burn the Pellets
Once the wood pellets have cooled down, they are ready to be used in your outdoor wood pellet grill. You can even burn them in your pellet stove if you want to.
If you don’t plan on using them immediately, make sure to store them correctly. If they aren’t kept away from the elements and moisture comes into contact with them, then they will be ruined. They’ll act as a sponge, soak up moisture in the air and swell out of shape.
To store them, put them in an airtight container (such as a large bucket large plastic container, with an air-tight lid) or put them in a sealed plastic bag. Basically, anywhere that water and moisture cannot get to them – and that includes humidity.
Advantages & Inconveniences
Advantages of Making Your Own Wood Pellets
Why Make Your Own Wood Pellet for Grilling? Even though you can buy wood pellets from a hardware store, there are certain advantages to making your own wood pellets.
- Fun side hobby for the hardcore grilling enthusiast.
- You know exactly what’s in your pellets (and what’s NOT).
- Economical in the long run, if you burn very large volumes of pellets.
- Potential extra source of income, if produced and sold at scale.
- Self-sufficiency for cooking & potentially even heating.
Inconveniences of Making Your Own Wood Pellets
Making your own wood pellets is a significant project. It takes a significant budget, and a lot of planning & logistics, and will require an inevitable learning curve to get things right!
- High upfront investment in equipment.
- You need a reliable source of raw materials, preferably locally.
- Complicated process.
- Not economical for the vast majority of grilling enthusiasts (hobbyists).
- You need a large, weather-tight production & storage area.
Making your own wood pellets is a fun project, you know what you’re cooking with, you’ll be more self-sufficient and you may even save money in the long term if you burn a lot of pellets for grilling or heating.
However, making pellets isn’t cheap. There’s a lot of expensive equipment involved and you’ll need a large shed or warehouse to set it all up and store your homemade pellets. Moreover, the process is quite complicated and you’ll need to source quality raw materials.
If you own a grilling business or heat your home with pellets, you may save money in the long run. But, making your own wood pellets is not for everybody. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t really make sense for most people.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are a few questions asked about making your own wood pellets for grilling:
Is it worth Making Wood Pellets for Food?
It depends on the volume of pellets you burn, either for grilling or for heating your home. If you burn a lot of pellets every year, it may make sense financially. Otherwise, you’re better off buying 100% natural hardwood pellets from a reputable manufacturer.
Is it Expensive to Make your Own Wood Pellets?
Initially, the cost will be up if you make your own wood pellets. This is because in order to do so, you will need some specialized machinery such as a pellet mill.
Which Wood Is Best for Making Wood Pellets for Grilling?
The best wood for making wood pellets for grilling is 100% natural hardwood, such as oak, alder, maple, hickory, mesquite, cherry or apple.