Bonawe is a remarkably complete charcoal-fired 18th-century iron furnace. Opened in 1753, it is possible to trace the entire manufacturing process from the surviving components at the site. These include the lade directing water to and from the furnace from the River Awe, driving the waterwheel which powered the bellows. There is an iron-ore shed, also built from local stone, for the storage of imported haematite ore as well as limestone. Other components include the charging house, where the raw materials were weighed and carefully loaded into the furnace mouth, and the furnace itself, adjacent to which can be found the blowing-house and casting-house. In addition, the manager’s dwelling, 'Bonawe House' and two blocks of workers' housing survive, as does Lorn Quay, where most of the raw materials were landed, and where all finished products were loaded for dispatch by boat.
Charcoal-burning iron furnaces were rendered increasingly obsolete by the the advent of iron smelting using coke derived from coal, as originally pioneered by Abraham Darby in Coalbrookdale, England in 1709. In Scotland, the new technology was taken on with spectacular success by the Carron Ironworks in Stirlingshire from 1759.