Different types of charcoal

I am often asked, “What kind of charcoal are you using?”

There are a few kinds of charcoal but their qualities are suprisingly diverse. I use all of them – for different purposes. Here is a quick run down of the different types and their key characteristics:

Willow charcoal

Willow charcoal

Willow charcoal is a made from natural willow, you can see some typical variations in the photo above. It is made by cooking the willow wands in a low oxygen environment.

Generally willow charcoal is soft to use and the broader sticks are fantastic for fast coverage or large areas, ideal for techinques that rely on wiping out. It is very forgiving to work with as it erases easily but this also means that it does not adhere particularly well to the paper.

Vine charcoal

Vine charcoal

Vine charcoal is also a natural charcoal, again you can see the stem markings above.It is made in the same way as willow  charcoal.

It is harder than willow charcoal and slightly more difficult to erase than willow. It makes a fairly grey black. It is much harder to find in art shops than either willow or compressed charcoals. I found this at Green and Stone.

Nitram Charcoal

Nitram charcoal

Nitram charcoal is pretty unique and hard to get hold of, it is available from Pegasus Art, online and in their shop in Gloucestershire. Judging by its appearance, it looks to be made from machined wood but the exact process and manufactuing equipment were designed about 40 years ago by its creator.

It is available if different hardnesses and can be sharpened to an extremely fine point. It’s less messy than willow charcoal or compressed charcoals, creating much less dust. It makes a reasonably strong black but remains easy to erase. It allows close control over the precise value of the marks you make.

These qualities make it particularly popular with ateliers and academies where traditional sight size and similar techniques are taught. I used it at LARA, it gives an amazing amount of control in your drawing but it doesn’t cover large areas well.

Compressed Charcoal

Compressed charcoal

Charcoal pencils

Compressed charcoal starts out as charred wood dust and other materials to which a binder is added. The amount of binder can be used to control the hardness, so different grades are available. The format varies too, from pastel type to wooden pencils or paper wrapped pencils (not shown above).

Compressed charcoals make the darkest blacks but because of the binders they can be very difficult to erase. The sticks in particular can be incredibly messy to use since the dust will stick and transfer to most things. The pencil format is much more convenient and widely available although the quality and binders variy a great deal between different brands.

Here’s a quick comparison for blackness and erasability, shown on white cartridge paper and partly erased with a kneaded eraser:

From left to right: willow, vine, compressed, charcoal pencil, Nitram

This image shows the blackness of compressed charcoal (centre) very clearly, making the vine charcoal (2nd in from the left) look a little chalky next to it. Note the differences in texture, dust created and the colour/temperature. The colour/temperature difference is most marked between the vine which has a cool bluish tint and the Nitram with a warm brownish cast.

Written by Metadrawer

Metadrawer is me, Helen Frost: Artist/Architect/Fire dancer/Freelancer. Metadrawer is a blog of my reflections on drawing and my current studies at LARA. I draw to think, to explain, to communicate, to record, to understand and to express myself. I hope that you will find more questions here than answers and...
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12 Comments

Alaa

Thanks a tons! all the time I was wondering why willow charcoal didn’t cut it for cast drawings. Really can’t thank you enough.

Reply
Metadrawer

Hi Alaa, I’m glad it helped. Working with a good sharp point also makes an enormous difference, especially in the later stages of a drawing.

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Metadrawer

Thanks for the info Bjoern, I am glad to hear Nitram is available in Europe.

I have also found an online supplier at an will update the post.

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JD Mumma

I am looking for the most eco-friendly / environmentally responsible / compostable ingredients
Q: How do I find out what else is added to the charcoal (binders…)?
Thanks!

Reply
Metadrawer

Hi JD Mumma,

Natural charcoals, i.e. those labelled, willow or vine charcoal will not have anything added, they are just wood, burnt under controlled conditions. I think Nitram also comes into this category but I don’t know what kind of wood it is made from. Anything labelled ‘compressed’ charcoal or similar will have binders added. In terms of environmental credentials it may be more relevant to look for a supplier using sustainably sourced timber, you could try contacting the charcoal manufacturers for more information. Or you could try making you own, that way you will know the provenance of all the materials and you’ll be able to cook some dinner at the same time. There are lots of how to videos on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKeHfO6Cegg for example. I’d love to know how you get on.

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Samantha Shellard

Dear Helen Frost

I really like your illustration of the different types of charcoal and their eras ability.

Kindest Regards
Samantha Shellard

Reply
Jo Waters

We are small scale bbq charcoal producers. We also produce some willow charcoal in our kiln. We have acquired some knotty bits of vine about the size of the palm of your hand and wish to experiment with it in much the same way as we produce the willow sticks, i.e. de-barked and then cooked in a heavy duty tin inside the kiln and left to cool for 24 hours.
Have you ever seen naturally produced vine charcoal of this sort? Or better still do you know anyone who sells it so we could compare?

Reply
Metadrawer

Hi Jo,
That sounds interesting. I don’t have any experience in producing charcoal but I would be concerned that the knots might make for a scratchy charcoal – only one way to find out though! Many charcoal producers make larger format charcoals, though I have not seen one produced from vine; Nitram (natural but not vine), Coates Charcoal (natural willow) and Derwent (looks to be composite) for example which are available online and in art stores.

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