This article charts a day in the life at Coates, a truly unique family run business that has manufactured willow for over 200 years and is one of the largest producers of artist charcoal in the world.
On one uncharacteristically wet May day in 2019, we paid a visit to Meare Green Court, the home of Coates Charcoal. Stoke St Gregory is a charming rural village just outside of Taunton, in the South West of England. Having got stuck behind a very slow tractor on the narrowest winding country road, we eventually found ourselves at the site of one of the world’s biggest producers of willow charcoal.
However, it would be easy to mistake the place for being simply a pretty tourist destination – a cluster of coffee shops, art and gift boutiques, and a discreet visitor centre that houses a willow museum and shop selling intricately woven willow fences, baskets and outdoor furniture. We soon discovered that behind the quaint facade lay a willow charcoal production line steeped in a 200 year history, run on the enthusiasm of its team and the ingenious purpose-made machinery they have invented along the way.
We were warmly welcomed by Anne Coate, who married Chris Coate in 1965 and dedicated her working life to the growing, harvesting and use of willow, be it for charcoal or basket-making. She showed us a treasured photo album which documented their lives on the farm, while she talked us through the Coates Charcoal history.
The Coate family have been growing willow commercially since 1819, and to begin with, the demand for willow was solely for the purposes of basket-making. However, towards the end of the first half of the twentieth century, the demand for willow baskets was on the wane, as plastic began to take over. The Coate family faced a challenge; they would need to diversify, if their farming of willow was to continue. Then in the 1960s the idea of producing artist charcoal came to fruition.
It all started when one morning in 1967, Percy Coate found that a piece of charred willow, used to light the previous evening’s open fire, was capable of drawing lines and marks. Thus inspiration struck! He decided to pursue this idea, gradually solving problems at every stage of production; refining a process of charcoal manufacture that continues to this day.
Chris Coate, the 77 year old son of Percy, drove us to the nearby willow fields. When we visited this year’s harvest had only really begun to grow, although a field of two year old willow stood in all its 12 ft glory in the adjacent field (this will be used for thicker charcoal as well as hurdle uprights and furniture legs).
It takes two to three years for the willow sets or ‘withies’ to become established and to grow rods that are mature enough for commercial use. Once planted, the sets produce initially only a few willow rods, maybe two to four, but once matured, a set forms a stump that will yield 10-20 willow rods each annual harvest.
Usually, the growing season for commercial willow rods for charcoal starts in May and ends in October. This means that each stick of charcoal will have a single ring in its cross-section. During this time the willow will grow about 8 ft. After which they’ll be harvested, leaving the stump in the ground. The following spring, this stump will produce new willow rods, ready to be harvested in the winter, and so on for up to 30 years.
The ground on which they are grown is situated on the Somerset Levels and is relatively wet, so it is rare that the withies need anything more than rainfall for water. Cattle are brought to the withy beds to eat the weeds and early growth that could be damaged by a late frost. The process of harvesting the crops was once carried out by hand, but since the late 80s, the rods have been harvested with the use of a cutting machine which not only cuts the rods but bundles them. Harvesting takes place in mid-November when the plants have stopped growing and are dormant, and the leaves start to drop from the rods. The leaves provide nutrients to the soil, so this means that artificial fertilisers are not required for the withy beds. Once the bundles are transported back to Meare Green Court (just a three-minute drive away) they are dried in the sun before being stacked in the store shed.
The willow then needs to be graded by length. This is done by hand, with the aid of a very long ruler fixed to the wall, and a 3 ft deep sunken barrel in the floor. John will take a bundle and place it into the barrel, and measure the length against the ruler on the wall (unfortunately John is not 8 ft tall, which is why the 3 ft sunken barrel is a necessity). Using this system he is able to quickly sort rods of a similar length and arrange them in piles and tie them into “wads” ready to be boiled. This method of grading has been in use for over 200 years.
Only willow stripped of its bark is suitable for Coates charcoal production, and the easiest way to remove the bark is to boil the willow first. Approximately 150 wads at a time are packed into a crate and lowered into a vat of boiling water, where it will boil for 10 hours. The water is heated with a combination of oil and biomass fuel.
Stripping and drying
The bark is then stripped, with the aid of a couple of very noisy but very efficient stripping machines, which use friction to remove the bark. The stripped willow rods then need to be put back out in the sun again to dry in order to stop mould forming. When the weather isn’t too good, it is necessary to dry the rods in a drying shed, which again is heated with biomass. Once the willow is dry it can be used for basket making or charcoal.
Turning the stripped rods into charcoal
The rods are then sawn into regular lengths and graded into sizes mechanically, apart from the very small or large sizes which are graded by hand. After that, they are packed tightly into tins by the hands of the dedicated team.
The sticks are hammered into place in their firing tins, as it is imperative to get rid of as much space for air as possible. This prevents any combustion during heating, which would cause the sticks to burn to ash. Once all the sticks are in the tin, it is topped up with sand to fill in any remaining gaps. The lid is put on and sealed with plasticine before the tin goes into a firing kiln for 10 hours. The process of firing is a sensitive, tried and tested one—with gradual rises in temperature with intermittent cooling. Over the decades of production, the optimum firing has been worked out to achieve consistently smooth qualities in each stick that is capable of expressive black marks.
Once the firing is completed the sticks of Coates Willow Charcoal are packaged in their sets by hand and sent out to retailers and art materials companies. Any sticks that fall short on quality—that are too short or brittle, or have any irregularities—are ground down to make charcoal powder.
Visiting Coates really opened our eyes to the artistry and care that goes into willow charcoal production. It was awe-inspiring to see centuries’ of working tradition being put into practice, following a process that minimised waste, maximised on fuel efficiency, and was conducted by a team of workers that take pride in every stage. So when you’re next sat at an easel with a stick of willow charcoal in your hand, take a moment to consider the history, craftsmanship and purity of the material you are about to make your mark with.