Monday, July 11, 2011

Willow Charcoal For Drawing

Earlier this month, we peeled willow bark to dry for dyeing fabric. Willow is a wonderfully renewable resource, and cutting it just encourages new growth. Still, we hate to waste anything. Many of the peeled willow sticks will be used in Bill's rustic furniture. Most of the rest goes on the brush pile to provide wildlife habitat as it slowly composts. And some becomes willow drawing charcoal that we give to friends.

A few years ago, Bill learned to make willow charcoal from Lee Zieke and Lindsay Lee of Willowglen Nursery in Decorah, Iowa. Here's what we do.

We have an old oatmeal tin with a tight-fitting lid that we keep for this job. We pack the tin as full as possible with the green, peeled willow.

We've poked a couple of holes in the top to let steam escape.

The can then goes into the campfire on a good bed of coals. We scrape up coals around and on top of the can, and feed the fire until we no longer see steam coming out the vents in the lid. Then we just let the fire burn out with the can in place. The closed can restricts airflow to the fresh willow. It's that slow burn that produces charcoal.

The next morning, we open the can.

I've read that blacksmiths and backyard grillers make charcoal using the same process but with larger-diameter willow. For those uses, I can't imagine it's necessary to start with peeled willow. Actually, I've made charcoal from unpeeled willow, too, but prefer the smoother surface of the peeled willow charcoal.

And since most of our charcoal is given as gifts, we want our friends to think we made every effort to produce premium-grade stuff for their drawing pleasure.


  1. Historic re enactor types also use the same technique to make linen or cotton fabric scraps into "charcloth" for flint and steel firemaking. (another great gift made from leftover scraps) When the can is in the fire, be sure to aim it away from where people might be walking by . . . the escaping steam and gases can make a flaming "blow torch" !!

  2. I've also heard the same process can be used to make a component for firing black powder guns. Hmmm -- what else?

  3. Hi Donna, What variety did you use? I have willow I expect to strip this spring. Is there a type that worked better? PS my Siberian iris are expanding into my willow beds (tee hee hee.)

    1. Teresa, I use whatever I've peeled for the bark. But it would be interesting to do a Teresa-style experiment on how different varieties work as charcoal. I think it could be done in small batches wrapped in foil on the gas grill. Will get right on that -- right after I finish dividing all my Siberian irises! Always nice to hear from you :-)


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