Evan Lindquist, Artist - Printmaker
First Artist Laureate for the State of Arkansas

How to Make Drawing Charcoal

(From my original classroom handout dated 1970; expanded and published online July 2000; later additions undated.)
Charcoal is available commercially in three grades of hardness, but it is possible to create a wider variety of charcoal for drawing. Different types of wood and preparation allow warmer or cooler color and different qualities of texture. It is also possible to create various sizes of charcoal sticks and blocks.
There is little in literature to guide us in making charcoal. One mention of the process is found in The Book of the Art of Cennino Cennini, a 1437 treatise on Italian painting, translated by Christiana J. Herringham in 1899. Cennino describes cutting the twigs, placing them in a casserole, and sealing the casserole with clay. The casserole would be placed overnight in the local baker's oven with the loaves of bread. The following morning, Cennino would pick up his charcoal when the baker opened the oven. Using Cennino's book as a guide, we can use a modern version of his process to make small batches of charcoal.
For those who wish to make serious quantities of charcoal, use this link to download a PDF file (6 pages) of Robert Lea's Charcoal Making at Home reprinted by permission of the author.
The following method is useful today for making small batches of charcoal:
1. Twigs from nearly any type of tree, many woody shrubs, and woody vines may be used. Avoid twigs from growth less than one year old; they usually produce soft, powdery charcoal. Two-year-old growth is generally reliable. Dowel sticks and scrap lumber are also good sources of material. Nearly any kind of wood will make charcoal. (Important: Do not use treated lumber because of toxic fumes emitted during the roasting process.)
2. Twigs may be of any diameter. Very thin twigs, however, will be too weak for drawing. Try twigs at least 1/4 to 3/8 inch (7 to 10 mm) in diameter. Lumber scraps may be ripped to one-fourth inch (7 mm) squares or larger. The wood will shrink as it turns into charcoal.
3. Cut the twigs to the desired length (five to seven inches is good). Cut off forked joints, and peel away all the bark. If the twigs are cut from fresh, living tissue, they should be allowed to dry for a few days before going on to the next step.
4. Wrap several dry sticks tightly in Extra Heavy aluminum foil so that no air may infiltrate the package. Air entering the package would reduce the sticks to ash rather than charcoal. If the aluminum comes in contact with open flame a hole could be burnt through the foil, spoiling the charcoal; so you might wrap a second layer of foil tightly around the package for security. (But don't overdo it; each layer of foil reduces the amount of heat reaching the wood.) Experiment first with five or six sticks per bundle. If the bundle contains more sticks, higher heat and longer roasting time will be required to completely carbonize the wood. Soft wood species, such as pine and cedar, will require less roasting time than hardwood species (such as birch, ash, oak, walnut). Evan Lindquist artist-printmaker, wood samples and charcoal sticks for drawing
5. Place the package in the coals of a fireplace or a barbecue pit. It may take several hours (or overnight) in the coals for the sticks to carbonize and then cool down. Do not open the package until it has cooled enough to be handled comfortably. You must be willing to experiment beyond the first attempt. Too much heat will melt the foil. Insufficient heat will produce brands; you should get consistently good results after a few experiments. Charcoal can also be made in a ceramics kiln, which should be vented outdoors. If you use a ceramics kiln, experiment cautiously with temperatures above 300 degrees Celsius (572 degrees Fahrenheit). Hotter temperatures cause rapid carbonization and are hard to control. 6. You may find that some charcoal sticks did not char completely. These are known as "brands", and they occur when there is insufficient heat for the quantity of wood in the bundle. Remember: larger sizes and hard wood species will require much more heat to char completely to the core. Brands may be saved and included in the next batch. Although making a few sticks of charcoal has been reduced here to a very simple process, a complex chemical reaction goes on inside the airtight bundle of twigs. As wood is heated above 250 degrees Celsius (482 degrees Fahrenheit), it decomposes more rapidly. Without an adequate supply of oxygen, the combustion of the wood is incomplete. Gases, vapors and solids are formed, some of which go up in smoke and manage to escape from the foil bundle. Most of what remains is the carbon, which originally made up about 75 to 95 percent of the wood. When the bundle has cooled and you open it, you will recognize the smell of various tars, oils, and other organic compounds. You will see some small patches of dark, sometimes sticky, residue adhering to the foil. This is what remains of smoke that did not manage to escape.
Following are two interesting charcoal methods which I have not tried. Try these processes at your own risk. I have no independent confirmation that they are safe. Attempt them only if you are experienced in this type of research. Brian Ineson of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, has generously submitted the following method. Contact him at: (Note: Old contact information may not be valid.) My method ... could easily be applied to twig drawing charcoal. I invert 2 empty cans into each other. I use a 48 oz juice can and a 28 oz canned tomatoes can (the smaller fits into the larger with a nice tight fit ... open ends face each other). I fill the small can with wood, fit its open end into the large can's open end and toss the unit into my chimnea (or fireplace) when I am having a fire. The wood "cooks" inside the cans and after several minutes you can see a ring of flames (burning gases) where the two cans meet. When the flames stop (in a half hour or so) the wood is "cooked". When the fire cools take out the cans, open them and voila...charcoal. Brian explained that his chimnea is a Mexican clay "firepot" with the following estimated dimensions: Spherical bottom about 2 feet in diameter (about 61 cm). Chimney about 3 feet high (about 91.4 cm). Round or oblong opening in the front of the sphere about one foot in diameter (about 30.5 cm).
Chimneas are also made in China in cast iron. Thanks to Doug Hauge of Fillmore, California, for submitting the process he uses to make charcoal for drawing. Doug would be interested in hearing from anyone who may try this process. Contact him at or P.O. Box 901 Fillmore, CA 93015. (Note: Old contact information may not be valid.) I make my charcoal in a retort. My retort consists of a steel teapot that was once glass coated. Its volume is about one-half gallon. I load the retort, place it on a back-pack type camping stove (just aburner screwed to a propane tank) and cook the wood in the teapot with the lid on. As a result of destructive distillation, flammable gases are emitted from the spout. As the cooking is in progress I light a match to the gases coming out of the spout and know that the carcoal is done when the flame is gone. With this method I can make charcoal for an entire class of students about 15 to 20 minutes before class. Usually students come early to see the charcoal being made. Later they bring their own wood samples and experiment with different types of wood to find the charcoal of their preference.
WARNING. Keep clear of all combustible objects, fumes, and vapors. PLEASE BE CAREFUL. This process requires adult supervision. Use commonsense.
Doug said to follow these safety guidelines: (1) This process must be done out of doors on a concrete slab or brick surface. (2) The only safe materials to roast are wood and naturally grown products. (3) DO NOT remove the lid of the retort until the stove is turned off and the flame from the spout or vent has extinguished itself. (4) The retort is HOT. You must give it time to cool before unloading it. (Do NOT try to cool it down with water.) NOTES: Doug says it is easier to get good results with a smaller pot than with the half-gallon pot that he uses. In a larger pot, the process may not always run to completion, particularly if the heat is inadequate. Hardwood and softwood can be processed simultaneously in the same retort. Doug does not recommend trying to make charcoal or drawing material from anything but wood. Some synthetic materials could be explosive or produce toxic fumes.
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