Learn how to make charcoal sticks for creating works of art using a new paint can, a campfire, and some small sticks.
By Susan Verberg
To make your own charcoal drawing sticks the old-fashioned way, all you’ll need are some sticks and a low-oxygen burn. By choosing an assortment of twigs from various species of trees, you can even make charcoal sticks of different densities. With the help of a homemade charcoal kiln and a nice bonfire, you’ll be well on your way to making your very own charcoal art supplies.
1) First, you’ll need to procure a charcoal kiln, which can be any kind of metal can with a tight-fitting lid. I prefer to use new, all-metal, 1-gallon paint cans because they have lots of room, a handle, and minimal chemical residue, and you can find them at most home improvement stores. Be aware that many places sell paint cans with an epoxy liner. If possible, try to find a paint can with bare metal on the inside instead. If you can only find one with the liner, you’ll want to dry burn both the can and the lid to remove the liner before you add your sticks. After your can is prepped, you’ll punch three small holes into the lid using a hammer and a nail. This will allow the steam and volatile gases released by the heated wood to escape.
2) Next, you’ll want to find some good sticks. Keep in mind that the sticks will shrink significantly as they become charcoal, so use sticks that are at least as thick as your thumb. If you want to make drawing charcoal like the kind in art supply stores, use grapevine or willow, both of which make especially good charcoal for drawing. If you don’t have any growing on your property, try looking for wild grapevines along roadsides and forest edges, and for willow in ditches and near water.
3) Once you’ve collected your sticks, you’ll want to remove the bark and cut your sticks to length so they’ll fit vertically inside your kiln while still leaving enough space to close the lid. It’s fine to mix different types of wood of various diameters so you end up with a nice variety of drawing sticks. After filling your kiln, hammer the lid on well. Its purpose is to keep oxygen from entering the kiln chamber.
4) Now, make a good wood fire. After the fire is going, use a long stick or pole to place your filled kiln in or right next to the fire. Depending on the amount of moisture in the wood, you may start to see jets of steam coming out of the holes in the lid. If the steam starts coming out too forcefully, be cautious; the pressure can blow off the lid. Use a long stick to either scoot the can away from the fire or remove it completely. If you need to add another hole or make the holes bigger, wait until the can cools and steam is no longer coming out to avoid steam burns. If it’s steaming but suddenly stops, something may be obstructing the vent hole. Use a pole to fish the kiln out of the fire, let it cool, use the nail to poke open and slightly enlarge the hole, and try again. As long as steam is coming out, no air can come in, which means the charcoal is doing fine.
5) Heat the kiln for at least an hour if it’s directly in the fire, or for a couple of hours if it’s next to the fire. After all the water has evaporated from the wood, the jets of steam will dwindle away and candle flames will suddenly spout out of the holes in the lid as the volatile gases begin to burn off. When the flames also dwindle away, carefully remove the kiln from the fire using a long stick or pole.
6) Immediately plug the holes in your kiln and let the can and its contents cool completely. If you remove the lid before your kiln has cooled, you’ll risk creating a flash of flame as you suddenly reintroduce oxygen to the hot charcoal, and your art sticks will burn away to ash.
7) When your kiln is cool to the touch, pry open the lid, and behold your own freshly made drawing sticks! Store your fragile sticks in a sturdy container so they don’t get crushed or broken. The neat thing about charcoal sticks as an art medium is that they smudge easily, which you can use to create impressive shadows and highlights (though, you’ll want to use an art fixative to protect your finished work). Now, go forth and create!