How Willow Charcoal is made

I’m going to start a series of posts about how art materials are made – and I’m starting with how willow charcoal is made.

First a preamble. I’m now halfway through my 12 week (minimum) post ankle fusion surgery recovery period and I’m beginning to feel more myself.
(Notwithstanding a horrendous 36 hour episode this week when I discovered my hypersensitive skin was allergic to the liner of my new walker boot! Now thankfully resolved.)

So I’ll be looking to try to post more – but with an emphasis on shorter posts for the time being.

Given I’m still 100% non weight bearing on my right ankle, this means I’m very much limited to commenting on:

  • videos online
  • art on television
  • books I’ve already got
  • photos I’ve taken

So here we go with the first in the series.

What is Willow Charcoal?

Artist quality willow charcoal made by Coates Willow Charcoal

Willow Charcoal is a dry art medium. The charcoal is

  • made from burning willow
  • NOT compressed
  • there are no other ingredients ie no binding agent as you get with compressed charcoal

It’s a form of charcoal which has a particular characteristic much loved by fine artists.

Artist Quality Willow Charcoal (like vine charcoal) is

  • very soft and marks paper easily
  • capable of producing a wide range of marks and tones
  • not as dark as compressed charcoal
  • BUT erases almost completely if you want to use it for an under-drawing

How is Willow Charcoal made?

Below are two YouTube videos about Coates Willow Charcoal – made by Jacksons Art. Coates are one of the world’s biggest producers of willow charcoal for artists.

The videos are:

  • HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: How Willow Charcoal is made (On Location with Coates) This first short video is purely visual – watching the process from start to finish. It’s aesthetically pleasing in both visual and audio terms – so kudos to whoever made the video. The camerawork is well thought through, the editing is fantastic and it tells you all you need to know without saying a word! (the words come next – but there are captions is you permit them!)
  • INTERESTING: In Conversation with Nicola Coate from Coates Willow Charcoal | Jackson’s Art – The second video is an interview with Nicola Coates from the Coates family business which farms willow and produces the charcoal. She explains how the development of artists willow charcoal came about and how they set up production on their farm. She goes on to explain how labor intensive its production is – and all the different stages it goes through.

How Willow Charcoal is made (On Location with Coates) (1 min 49 seconds)

In Conversation with Nicola Coate from Coates Willow Charcoal (13 minutes)

This article charts a day in the life at Coates, a truly unique family run business that has manufactured willow for over 200 years and is one of the largest producers of artist charcoal in the world.

More about Coates Willow Charcoal

My first ever box of willow charcoal was made by Coates – and I think I’ve still got the box somewhere!

is a family run business. It has its own willow plants in fields on its farm based at Meare Green Court, Stoke St Gregory, a tiny village in Somerset. The family have been involved in the commercial aspects of farming willow and producing products made from willow since 1819 – some 200+ years ago!

They started making artist quality charcoal in the 1960s – 50+ years ago – when the demand for willow baskets declined. The willow grown is now split equally for the artists charcoal and other products.

Green is the new black!

Coates also have solid green sustainability credentials

New willow beds are planted in the spring using pieces of willow from the harvest harvested during the preceding winter. The new willow bed will not be fully productive in the first three years, but once it is well established, with careful management the plants can last up to 30 years. Each mature plant or “stool” gives rise to over 30 rods. The crop is harvested each winter time after the leaves have died and fallen, these old leaves provide nutrients for the following years, eliminating the need for artificial fertilisers. The willow beds provide food and shelter for many species of birds and animals during the summer months. Willow growing is part of the rich environmental heritage of this area of ​​Somerset. Both the commercial willow crops, or beds and the pollarded willow trees contribute to the character of the landscape here.

The obvious corollary of this is that being a family firm with its own willow plantation it has total control over its raw material supply and thus very unlikely to suffer the awful vagaries of product quality that many artists have experienced with other companies which have

  • either been taken over
  • and/or started sourcing raw material from cheaper suppliers elsewhere in the world.
This is obviously a family business which maintains a complete focus on where the demand for its product lies and the product range is now extensive again and you can view more on their website – so if you’ve ever fancied a willow sculpture…. .

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