Charcoal challenge

Which type of wood makes the best charcoal for drawing? Experiment with using different types of wood; softwoods such as willow, hardwoods such as oak and other plant materials such as grape vine. The simple process of making your own charcoal for crafting and drawing can be used for maths challenges for older children.


INVESTIGATE: Spot and identify twigs from different trees to cut and collect into a tin for burning on the fire. The tin needs a firm fitting lid and a hole made in the top for smoke and gases to escape.

For an added maths challenge, record the length and weight of your twigs to compare with the resulting charcoal later.

OBSERVE and DISCUSS: Place the tin of wooden sticks on the fire, cover with burning embers but with the hole in the tin exposed. You will see smoke coming out of the hole. Keep the fire hot until the smoke and gases stop being released through the hole in the tin. This will take about an hour depending on the size of your fire and tin. Carefully remove the tin and leave to cool.

CREATE:  Use your charcoal to draw and decorate paper, wooden discs or stones. Compare the different materials. Which do you prefer for drawing?

CHALLENGE questions:
Measure your twigs before and after charing to record the changes in length. Alternatively, cut all the twigs from the same tree to the same length, e.g. oak 9cm, willow 12cm. Keep one of each of the twigs out of the tin to compare the length with the charcoal sticks later.
Does the volume and density of wood change after it has been transformed into charcoal?
Do different twigs change at different rates?
How many centimetres of drawing do you estimate 1cm of charcoal will produce?
Which type of wood produces the longest charcoal line?

What’ll I Whittle?


There is only one simple requirement to becoming a expert whittler – practice. Once you have got started this is very easy to come by because whittling is completely addictive. 




  • A knife. Everyone has a favourite but I don’t think you can go wrong by starting with an Opinel penknife (I like the round-ended for beginners) or a classic Swiss Army penknife (my trusty Hiker).
  • A sharpener to keep the knife at its best. A blunt whittling-291014_640knife is both difficult and unsafe to whittle with.
  • A piece of greenwood cut straight from the tree.  I scour the hedgerows for perfect pieces of ash, hazel, elder and sycamore to save before the cutters arrive to trim hedges. I do recommend asking first. It avoids those awkward conversations when neighbours come out to ask what you’re up to. Perfect branches that you won’t be using for a while can be cut to useful sizes and put in the freezer in a plastic bag for a rainy day.
  • Thumb/finger protectors. These can be cut from an old rigger glove, but the perfect homemade version is a few wraps around the thumb or finger of vet bandage. These always stay in place and can be removed and reused over and over again. The bright colours prevent them being lost.
  • Sandpaper of different grades.
  • A simple whittling guidebook is really useful for inspiration, for learning key terms so that you can talk like a whittler, and for the top tips that the well-practised are happy to pass on (all for under a tenner).
  • A simple tree ID book to distinguish your ash from your hazel.



General guidance for helping children with tool use:
1.Work in a safe space with plenty of room.
2. Kneel on the ground or sit on a steady seat.
3. Help children one-to-one.
4. Give clear instructions with good eye contact.
5. Wear a glove on the bracing hand and vet bandage on thumbs.
6. Touch the handle and never the blade.
7. Cut away from the body and to one side.
8. Check tools are clean and in good working order before put safely away when you have finished.


9. Keep shaves of wood to dry for perfect tinder and kindling for the campfire.


So what’ll you whittle? Try these out to practice your skills.


  • A forest friend – a few shaves of bark reveal a smooth ‘face’ ready to draw on eyes and mouth to bring your forest friend to life. Great for story-telling and play activities.
  • A cooking stick – peeling the bark of willow sticks presents a clean surface for spiralling bread dough around and baking over the scorching embers of the campfire.
  • Chop sticks – one of my favourites!  The perfect complement to a big bowl of campfire noodles.
  • Name block and name beads  – revealing the inner bark where a permanent pen can be used to inscribe a name or inspirational message.


When you are happy with the basics its time for a butter knife. A thin branch of hazel or ash can be crafted into shape with a little patience, and some sanding to smooth off the blade. Individuality abounds with each branch giving its own knife shape. Perfect for campfire toast.



The possibilities of longer projects for experts of all ages are endless and can include spoons, more detailed animals with feather stick tails, bows, totems and indeed any piece of kit that creative and resourceful minds can think of while out enjoying the joys and challenges of the woodland. There are many expert books to inspire your projects once you’ve got the bug … and you will!