Making Charcoal for Drawing, with monologue by Cennino Cennini

Some time back, I wrote about making my own drawing charcoal. But really, the idea of making it began way before then. Most likely, I learned it from The Craftsman’s Handbook: “Il Libro dell’ Arte” Making Charcoal for Drawing, with monologue by Cennino Cennini by Cennino Cennini, or perhaps from an old printed Encyclopedia Brittanica from 1927 or so.

For added entertainment value, I have animated the section where Cennini discusses making charcoal. After the video, I’ll discuss the differences between his process, my process, and how you might make it yourself. Of course, the entire “Craftsman’s Handbook” Making Charcoal for Drawing, with monologue by Cennino Cennini is well worth reading and touches on a multitude of other subjects.

And here is Cennini, looking spiffy:

While Cennini calls for rather small charcoal sticks (“like a bunch of matches”) I made mine larger. The sections of wisteria vines I cut up were around 8″ and many different thicknesses. I wanted my charcoal in a range of sizes. I also didn’t bother sharpening the sticks. From the context, it seems that Cennini and his contemporaries used these small sticks of charcoal the way we might use a pencil for drawing today.

Cennini says to use a casserole, with luting to seal it; he also says to seal it completely. My method is a modern invention: aluminum foil. You could also use a metal can, or you could find some other fire-proof material to encase your material. Contrary to what Cennini says, you need a small hole to allow the smoke to come out. (Perhaps Cennini expected the luting to leak; and hence says to seal tightly, so that in firing the material, only small, desired leaks occurred.)

So cut up your twigs or vines; then wrap a bundle of them in foil. Get it tight, and make a few small holes with a toothpick. The idea is to combust the material thoroughly in the absence of oxygen, not allowing it to burn to ash. Watch the smoke coming out. It will change colors, getting clear at the end. Depending how hot your fire is, it may take several hours. You could even leave it overnight in a covered grill. You could also use a kiln or a campfire.

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