Artists Charcoal

At the time of writing this blog it’s that wonderful time of year when the willow trees are giving up their bark freely for use in crafts and cordage. I made my first willow bark woven sheath and stored a little for later in the season when I can rehydrate it and use it again, but willow bark is not what this blog is about. In the spirit of letting nothing go to waste I was left with the peeled branches of willow sat around doing nothing, so I decided to give making artists charcoal a go to make full use of the material.

To begin this project, you will need a metal tin to hold your branches of willow, I used an old metal biscuit tin. We do like to collect a nice tin in my house and this time it proved useful. The only thing you need to do to your tin is in the centre of the lid pierce a hole through. This will allow the gases to escape as we transform the willow into artists charcoal.

Sticks placed into the tin

Start to lay your willow sticks into the tin, if they are already pencil thickness then brilliant but even bigger thumb thick sticks can be split down into smaller diameter pieces if you wish. If you want thick charcoal, then keeps the pieces chunky or thin them down for pieces that are to be used more precisely. I went for a mix of thick and thin pieces to give me options. Fill the tin as much as you can without overloading it, you can see in my picture how much I placed in my tin.

Tin on the fire

Now to the fire, low flame to embers will work nicely for you. To turn the willow into charcoal we are burning it but in a heavily reduced oxygen environment. This makes the wood char but not fully ignite and burn. Think back to the good old fire triangle, we have heat and fuel but by sealing the wood in a tin with only a small hole we have limited the oxygen. One change I would do next time, and I suggest you do if you try this is to wrap your tin with some metal wire. I found the gasses and changes to the tin during the heating caused my lid to nearly pop off so a good wrapping of wire should help prevent this.

Tin cooling with hole plugged

Monitor the tin on the fire and watch the hole in the lid that the smoke comes out of. When you stop seeing the smoke coming out of the hole, your artist charcoal should be ready. You will need to remove the hot tin from the fire so think about how you will do this safely. I had some improvised tongs to remove mine. Once the tin is off the fire, we need to plug the hole in the lid with a stick to take away the oxygen and allow the tin to cool. WARNING if you just take the lid off while the tin is still hot you will complete that fire triangle by introducing lots of oxygen to the heat and fuel. All the willow will ignite and burn, and your efforts so far will be wasted, so be patient at this stage.

Artist charcoal

When you are certain the tin is good and cold you can remove the lid and enjoy what you have created. Willow makes for great artists charcoal which you can use yourself or maybe gift to a friend who is of artistic persuasion. Give it a try and enjoy using natural materials. Finding a use for all parts of something which I have collected brings me great joy and hopefully it will for you too.


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