Softer than compressed charcoal but generally more brittle as well, willow charcoal and vine charcoal are especially useful for sketching as their marks can be erased with greater ease. These lightweight sticks are similar—and some brands will confusingly describe their products as both—but vine and willow have distinct qualities that make them suited for different types of projects. Willow charcoal, which is made from natural willow branches, is darker and more forgiving and can produce a range of tones; vine charcoal, made from grapevines, comes in shades of gray and is slightly harder. You may want to experiment with both to see which you prefer, and our picks can help you sort through the many options available.
1. Speedball Coates Willow Charcoal
To many artists, the name Coate is synonymous with high-quality willow. Since the 1960s, the P.H. Coate family has been cultivating the shrub in the fertile land of southwest England’s Somerset Levels, and producing drawing charcoal following a careful process of boiling, cutting, and cooking. The resulting rods are free of impurities so they feel velvety smooth and produce a deep black color. They are sold in sizes from thin (2 to 3 millimeters) to jumbo (16 to 24 millimeters), and this set of 30 assorted pieces provides a good basic kit for creating both fine and broad lines. Don’t expect them all to look the same: due to the Coate process, each stick is unique, but they all will give you beautiful marks with distinct texture and softness.
2. Grumbacher Vine Charcoal
Grumbacher’s charcoal has a natural feel similar to Coates’, with slight variations in the pieces you’ll receive. This vine charcoal is made by burning hand-selected grapevines at high temperatures, and the results come in a range of light to dark grays that maintain their hue regardless of pressure. Soft and free of grit, this set of 12 sticks can be used to create gorgeous tones for sketching or for underdrawings. The sticks are very light and brittle, requiring a gentle pressure at most.
3. Winsor & Newton Willow Charcoal Sticks
These artist-grade charcoal sticks are made of willow that is carefully selected for uniformity and lack of imperfections, then baked to achieve further consistency of body. The resulting sticks—each about 5.5 inches long—have the same texture throughout so they lay down very smoothly. Because they draw, blend, and smudge well, you can achieve both gentle grays and deep blacks with little effort. This 12-piece set comes in an assortment of sizes that lean toward the thin side—more than half are about 3 millimeters in diameter—which makes them great for detailing.
4. General Pencil Willow Charcoal Sticks
Founded in 1889, General Pencil has had quite a while to hone its craft, and it consistently delivers in its pencil and pencil-related products. Its sketching charcoal is a great all-purpose implement for preliminary drawing and adding fine details. Confusingly, this product’s packaging calls it both willow and “artist vine charcoal,” but the former is accurate: the five included sticks are made of pure willow grown in England, then burned and processed to lay down rich black lines. You get a nice assortment of sizes to cover all bases: two thin (3 to 4 millimeters), two medium (5 to 6 mm) and one thick (7 to 9 mm), which you can manipulate with the included kneaded eraser.
5. Derwent Charcoal Collection
For a taste of both vine and willow charcoal, consider Derwent’s charcoal set, which offers good economy and versatility. In addition to three charcoal pencils and three charcoal blocks, you get two long strips of vine charcoal and one chunky piece of willow charcoal. The former is perfect for looser, more organic mark making, and the latter is a nice, weighty tool for making intense black marks as well as broad and expressive sweeps. While not the best-quality charcoal on our list, this set is an excellent introduction to a range of charcoal media.