Artist Charcoal and the “Withies”

Not all art materials come from large manufacturers.  The Coate family in Somerset, England makes willow baskets and artist willow charcoal on their own land.  They have been growing ‘withies’ and producing wicker baskets and willow products since 1819. Their artist charcoal is generally recognized as the best in the world!

Here’s how the artist charcoal is made…

After being harvested, the willow rods are boiled for ten hours to soften the bark so it can be removed. The rods are then cut into regular length pieces the size of charcoal sticks. The sticks are packed tightly into cooking tins, and the tins are heated in custom made kilns for 10 hours. This cooking temperature must be constantly monitored to prevent either a fire or uncooked willow sticks. A small portion of the willow crop is left to grow for several years, so that the rods can be made into larger sticks.

Many suppliers of artist charcoal purchase their sticks from Coates, and relabel them with their own name. Somerset is the only area left in England where willow is still cultivated for the production of baskets, furniture, and high quality artists’ charcoal.

On their land, the Coates actually have a visitors center with…

  • Video Room, showing the way they are keeping the best of traditional industry.
  •  Basket Museum with a large display of unusual willow artifacts.
  • An exhibition highlighting the history of both the countryside and traditional English industry. 
  • A display that tells the story of the way water has shaped the Somerset Levels and continues to play a major part in the area today.
  • They sell artist paintings at the visitors center.

Coates artist charcoals are available here: https://www.arttreehouse.com/store/content/willow-charcoal-coates

Photo by Ian Sherlock from Puriton, UK (Snow covered Taunton Town centre, Somerset) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons