When you take a left turn at the Bird-in-Hand Inn, the heart and centre of the small village of Stoke-St-Gregory, you’re nearly there. Just a few more kilometers of tall hedges which segment the view into small mosaic bits of landscape and presumably house a million nests. Just a few more country lanes with delightful cottages and you enter the Coate domain in the heart of the Somerset moors, one of the few remaining wetlands in Britain. Not raining today thank God, but you get the impression it must do that a fair bit around here. Which is good, because willows love water. And with willow, men have made so many things.
In this part of the world, willow has been produced commercially since the 1800’s and by this particular family, the Coate, since 1819. A typical cottage industry where women and even children endlessly stripped the three coloured willow produced here: long pliable reeds one to three years old (don’t expect trees, they are actually only shoots coming straight from the ground). These could be woven into baskets, lounge chairs, topiary ornaments and all sorts of things the Victorian era needed and was very fond of. Of course by the mid twentieth century most of these things were on their way out. Plastic and other fossil fuel-based products were signaling the end of an industry here as in so many others places.
The story goes that, back in the 60s, Percy Coate was musing one night about this in front of his fireplace. Pushing back some stranded charred willow twig into his fire, the beautiful black mark it left gave him the idea to try and diversify into making drawing charcoal. Although it took some years to perfect the technique, a decade later Coate’s willow charcoal was on the market and an immediate success. It was soon recognized, and still is, as probably the best quality artist charcoal in the world.
So why did it take him so long to create a drawing tool that had already been available to cavemen?
Well, he had the soft wood needed aplenty but producing charcoal industrially is a bit different from sitting around a fire every night and collecting in the morning a few sticks and bits which have charred to perfection -not turned to ashes, yet not a twig or a branch anymore, but this new substance where the vegetal and mineral meet: a perfect charcoal stick.
And so the recipe… to make a good willow charcoal
1) plant rows of willow rods from the previous year’s crop two feet apart and wait three years until they become productive. Meanwhile let insects, birds and flowers run wild (in fact a true Bach flower pharmacopoeia could be developed as a side line to your business!).
2) After that a willow stump will for the next thirty years need only one year to grow reeds ready to use. In the winter let the leaves fall and you won’t even need fertiliser! Come harvest time, in the early spring, cut the long reeds and assemble them in a bundle. Use one reed to tie them with a beautiful “rose knot”… The reeds are so flexible you only need to swirl one to get it into that shape (maybe twenty years of practice help too!)
3) Stack until time to be calibrated by height (the pieces from the top of the rod become thin charcoal and the pieces at the bottom of the rod become the thick or tree size charcoal, with the pieces in the middle becoming medium charcoal) and go into the boiler.
By the way, back then to make rough wares, you needed not bother with stripping the bark at all. Barked reeds made baskets good enough for fishermen, peasants, even for the British Navy. But soon it was found that if you boiled the reeds, they could then be easily stripped and a much more delicate and pliable willow would be available to make refined and stronger goods in a variety of colours: from off white to buff to dark brown. Because ten hours of softening in boilers (from decommissioned steam ships still in use to this day) releases all the tannin from the bark, the tenth batch is pretty dark indeed. If you want a pure white, let the reeds stand in a water pit all winter and in spring cut the roots and leaves and strip easily the very soft willow to make delicate baby cots and the like.
4) I realise these colour nuances are bit lost to the artist who only wants the charred variety! But of course, once boiled and whatever the colour, his reeds also need to be stripped. In the 60’s and before health and safety regulations came on board, this was done in the second generation of stripping machines and not anymore by children… you might be please to hear. Twisted and twirled by a hundred steel spring loaded little heads, the bark would relent. These days, this is achieved by a much more efficient and less dangerous machine, one of its kind in the world. It still looks pretty basic to me but it does the job apparently. (By the way, this is the only place in the western world I have seen people still sitting on the floor to do a job! The deft basket weavers here have nothing to tell them apart from their counterparts in North Africa or even the women circles of Australia.)
5) The reeds, cut into 6 inch rods, are then sorted again by diameter and placed into “cooking tins”. These will be filled with sand and vibrated to make them completely air tight so they do not catch fire during the ten hour burning process at 500 degrees Celsius.
Once cooled, the sticks will go to the nearby cottages to be sorted once more and wrapped in delicate grey tissue paper in the appropriate boxes: thin, medium, tree size… while the discarded ones will be turned later into powered charcoal. Shipped then, to the four corners of the planet, under many brand names (Faber, Micador, etc including Coate’s of course) these artist willow charcoal sticks are at last ready to answer all your creative needs and urges.
If you ever make it to Stoke-St-Gregory and their charming shop you will immediately notice that baskets take up most of the space, despite two thirds of their business being the art charcoal these days. But I will urge you to forget about willow altogether at some stage and make it to their tea shop… the scones are to die for!
Of course I wish you nothing of the sort but when indeed it does happen, you can now choose a very elegant and “artistic” way to go… in a Coate’s willow coffin!
That’s it from me this month but Yippee! I’ve just finished my pages about the whole Carbon family of drawing materials, or you might only be interested in the charcoal drawing materials? You know what to do… click on the links… enjoy!