What is Sea Coal? (7 Common Questions Answered)

What is seal coal? It is another name for bituminous coal, which is a relatively soft coal containing a tarlike substance or asphalt.

However, there’s a lot more to know about sea coal if you are interested in learning. In this article, we’ll answer the 7 most commonly asked questions about sea coal.

How Did Sea Coal Get Its Name?

People disagree about the exact and specific origins of the name. It could have been one of these, or maybe even many.

People theorize that it was called sea coal because it was collected by folks in the UK from the beaches when it washed ashore from oceanic coal deposits, or perhaps even from nearby mine waste dumped into the ocean.

Instead of going into the forest to cut wood or collect sticks, villagers would go to the beaches (especially after a storm) to see if there was any coal washed up on the shore to burn.

People also collected the sea coal from the coastlines and transported it to the large city centers. (If you pay attention, you might even notice references to sea coal in classic literary works).

An alternative theory is that sea coal is thusly named as it is/was because it was exported by sea from coal mines near coastal areas.

Yet another theory is that inland in the British Isles in the middle ages, people used charcoal made from wood. The name “sea coal” was to differentiate the substance from charcoal so people wouldn’t be confused.

Is Seal Coal Different From Other Types of Coal?

Yes and no. We have no doubt that there are different types and grades of coal around the world. But folks picking up coal on the beaches to burn in their home stoves probably had/have no idea exactly what about the coal is different.

There are four types of coal: anthracite, bituminous, subbituminous, and lignite. It depends on just how much carbon the specific piece of coal contains, which translates directly to the amount of energy the piece will produce.

Seal coal generally refers to bituminous coal. But the odds are good that people around the world are calling just about any kind of coal they find on the beach “sea coal.”

In the US, back when steam locomotion was popular, a grade between bituminous and anthracite was used. It was called “steam coal,” but it was also called “sea coal.”

Is Sea Coal Different Than Beach Coal?

Not really. Sea Coal is what coal washing up on beaches is/was called in the UK, though coal washes up on beaches for various reasons around the world. In many places (like Alaska and Pennsylvania), it is called “beach coal” interchangeably.

In most cases, beach coal washes up on beaches because it is falling off of ships transporting coal, or the coal is breaking free from underwater coal deposits.

What Does Sea Coal Look Like?

The look of sea coal probably depends on where you find it and how long it has been in the ocean/on the beach.

Some folks claim that it differs from other types of coal, that it tends to be shiny and sparkly, and looks a bit like a large black diamond.

Others say it looks like a normal piece of coal without any sort of special differentiating feature.

In many instances today, people who find sea coal on the beaches note that its edges are smooth and more rounded than what you might find inland. This is not unexpected given what water can do to stone over time.

It can look like chunks of blackened wood, or shiny round black pebbles.

It can also look like rough black sand, which can be raked up and shoveled or bagged, to be sold privately or to power stations. (source)

What is Sea Coal Used For?

These days, during a time of electricity, sea coal is not used for all that much. People might collect it to burn in their homes, or as a hobby.

In the past, it was used for the energy it produced when it was burned, for light, for heat, for industry, for transportation.

It was a desirable fuel source (as compared to mined coal) because it burned with less smoke and leaves less ash residue.

Can You Burn Sea Coal?

Yes, you can. This is the primary reason people used to collect sea coal. It tends to burn hotter than you would expect (to the point of damaging the fireplace), so it is recommended that you feed it into a fire slowly.

How To Burn Sea Coal?

There is no great secret to lighting a sea coal fire. Build a fire as you might normally with wood as your fuel source.

We generally focus on starting a fairly small fire (even in the stove) and feed is slowly to ensure the flame doesn’t get smothered.

When you are certain that the wood is caught and burning (and not just burning through your more combustible material like paper), add some pieces of coal.

We can’t say this is true in every case, but sea coal may catch more easily than mined coal, and make your fire starting efforts all the more easy.

As noted above, be wary as to how much sea coal you add to your fire, as it tends to burn hot and long.

Gathering Sea Coal: How To

You won’t find sea coal on every beach in the world.

If you are interested in combing a beach near to your home for sea coal, we would first recommend that you do some research (either internet or by calling around) to see what spots in the past have produced any results.

This is a great question to ask of grandparents or elderly folk who are familiar with the area.

The best time to hunt for sea coal is right after the ocean has been turbulent, after a storm, an extremely high/low tide event, and in the winter months.

This increases the likelihood that coal deposits in the ocean will be disrupted enough break off some pieces, or that coal buried in the sand (especially in gravel bars) will be exposed.

Walk the beach near the hide tide line and look for pieces of anything that looks really dark and black.

Also look for gravel bars or areas where gravel accumulates.

Looking to learn more about interesting specimens like hag stones, lightning stones, or black onyx? Check our our Knowledge Vault page for more articles about collecting rocks and minerals.