How to make your own charcoal and bistre ink

Making my own charcoal and ink sort of falls in line with stuffing a mushroom – life is too short. But on holiday we sometimes do strange things to fill time and make projects with children!

It is a dream of mine to have a compact travelling art kit. Sometimes I manage to neatly pack the essentials (fishing tackle boxes are great) but often the art kit bag grows and grows. Well, we are holidaying in the UK with the car so there have to be some perks 🙂 So you would think I had enough with me, but after a day of drawing small in my sketchbook I had a hankering for large and messy…

Clearing out the woodburner I salvaged some lumps of charred wood thinking they might make good drawing materials. Plus, with my daughter in tow, it might save us another expensive trip to the local art and craft shop!

charcoal blocks

What is regular charcoal?

Charcoal you buy is usually powdered and has a binder to make it into stick form. Essentially it’s just carbonised organic material (usually wood but you can use bone too) which is burnt without flame so that all the oxygen is removed. Usually a softwood such as willow is used, but my lumps were any old wood, possibly oak, but we are using up old wood stocks so it could also have been hazel or beech.

Another artist suggested on Instagram that we could also collect soot and add water to make ink – apparently called bistre. Oooh! So that sounded a good idea; off for some more research:

What is bistre?

Bistre is a form of natural brown toned ink made from wood soot, historically used for wash drawings. Apparently it should be beech soot and the kind of wood burnt affects the final colouration, but we just went with what we had.

crushing the soot

We scraped soot flakes from the inside of the woodburner into a flat dish and used the back of a spoon to crush the pieces into a fine powder. Being impatient, we simply tried to mix it with water – it didn’t really work so well. You know when you are trying to mix cocoa powder with milk and the powder stays separated? It was a bit like that – eventually we mixed it in but it was more of suspension.

getting materials laid outBeing impatient we headed outside to set up some large pieces of lining paper as our test sheets. We also collected grasses and sticks that we were going to try to get some different marks on the paper.

So did it work?

The charcoal worked great – a little crumbly perhaps, but I think that is the result of having no binder. However it was a good deep black which you can see on the right hand side below. Using it in large chunk form felt good and different from the usual sticks. It was nicely soft and drew across the paper smoothly. Once an edge was worn down you could make good solid areas which blended well with no remains of lines that you can sometimes get with compressed charcoal. It was quite messy, with the broken fragments so working outside was definitely a good idea!

colour of bistre and charcoal

On the left is the first attempt at bistre ink, the right shows the charcoal marks

The bistre, as suspected was more of a suspension. I like the slight brownish tone and the separation of pigment as it dried. The combination with the more blueish black of the charcoal was interesting, but you couldn’t really say it was ink. So we did a little more research and realised we should have boiled it up first….

Back to boiling point

boiling soot with water to make bistre

Once the water started to boil, it bubbled up much like milk and started to look thicker and blacker. We boiled it for around 4 mins as it didn’t appear to be changing further. As we could still see fine powder we made a simple filter from kitchen paper, maybe a tea strainer would also work.

The strained liquid in the glass looked fairly dark but when we tried painting with it, it was very pale (left below). Good thing we kept the strained part which made a better, rich slightly granulated black (right below).

It had lost the brownish tinge of the original mix, but this thicker mixture you could definitely paint with. A little more trial and error with water ratio and a pestle and mortar, perhaps longer to boil it all down together and thicken it up and this could be very useable. If it’s good enough for Rembrandt….

second attempt samples

What next?

Once you start delving into alternatives there are all sorts of natural pigments that can be used. One technique has you holding a metal lid above a candle to collect the very fine black soot and then adding water. This is called ‘lamp black’ and was the main form of writing ink made by collecting soot from oil lamps. It is very stable and light resistant.

Next time we have a big outdoor fire I will try again using the technique on this video to make charcoal sticks. It needs a little more preparation – removing the bark first and wrapping the wood sticks very tightly in multiple layers of foil. But this could create plenty of charcoal for free – definitely worth trying!

As you can see it was certainly a big messy muddle, but it kept us entertained for a while. I will probably cut up the sheet and use it for collage as it’s not exactly a finished drawing!

drawing outside with homemade materials

In my last post I mentioned that Barbara Rae sometimes used wine to mix her colours. Have you ever been stuck and resorted to making art with strange different materials?

I also made this small postcard drawing more in line with the new studio landscapes where the suspended pigment helps to add texture to the wash areas. I will be pulling a name at random from my mailing list in the next few days to post it out to – a drawing of the landscape, made with the landscape. Somehow that seems fitting! If you’d like to receive this, and other studio updates you can add your details in the box below.


7 replies
  1. Shiloh Humes
    Shiloh Humes says:

    We buy bags of 100% Natural Oak & Hickory Lump Charcoal for a certain grill we have.
    I was researching DIY ink and it said you could use charcoal (didn’t mention what kind)mixed with distilled water (not tap because the iron will separate everything) and gum arabic. The ratios were not listed.

    So I’m using a glass jar, a few Unused wood lump charcoal pieces with enough 70% isopropyl alcohol to cover the pieces half way then put the lid on. Day three the liquid is black and the lumps are still same size.

    In another jar I had (equal parts):
    The ashes from the Used lumps, distilled water, %70Alcohol, **clear liquid school glue. same amount for all 3, **half amount.
    Glue is for a binding agent because I don’t have the arabic gum.
    Both have worked out well. The longer I left the lid closed and mixed to sit the darker it became.

  2. jbyrd
    jbyrd says:

    Ive been stumped, excuse the pun, for money and materials, even paper. We are a self-sustainability family living high up the mountains of Europe, so shops are few and far between, but I’m always trying to find ways to make my materials, like paintbrushes. Once upon a moon ago i had a head full of dreads and for some reason, don’t ask me why, i kept hold of the rat tails, in my attic.. I’m not one for throwing stuff away and like to see its usefulness maybe some day down the line, you should see my attic art studio. So, i made the dread ends into paint brushes, i know how expensive real pig hair brushes can be…lol… Anyway… I’ve have wondered about liquid charcoal for a while now, and researching on google how to make liquid charcoal only adverts for expensive stuff came up, apart from you, I’m glad to see that there are others out there who would try experimenting with natural resources. Im thinking a fat of some description would be the way forward to mix with the ground down powder charcoal.. I already make my own soap from ash and water, and olive oil. So, ill try a few examples… I don’t know about this ,mailings list to enter into.. would love to enter….Im not on social media i don’t know if that is my problem… i only just found you and glad that i did… i can’t wait to visit your website more.. blessed be… one love

    • Kerry-Lyn
      Kerry-Lyn says:

      Hi … I’m also experimenting with making charcoal and trying to make liquid charcoal – but with little success. I’ve tried methylated spirits and acetone but it isn’t great. Please let me know if you have come right with a liquid additive. My email is I live in South Africa. 🙂 Many thanks, Kerry-Lyn

  3. Vicki
    Vicki says:

    I love this Alice, and I have a woodburner so I’m definitely trying this! To think I pay a chimney sweep, when all that soot could be gorgeous wash. Love your experiments, and would love to win your giveaway (I’m already a signee).

    • Alice
      Alice says:

      Oh good, let me know how you get on with the soot making. I was thinking whizzing it in a Nutribullet 🙂 There are a few other articles on the Internet but nothing that gives a recipe as such so I think trial and error is the only way. Giveaway done by random number generator – will keep my fingers crossed…

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