Should you be attracted to the textured timber look, part of the current craze for weathered barn wood, you need to get on board with burnt wood. A century and more ago, the Arts & Crafts movement reinvented this ancient method for highlighting the natural beauty of wood. With an appeal both chic and sustainable, the concept is back again.
Burnt woodwork in the Craig House, Pasadena, Calif., from the book American Bungalow Style by Robert Winter.
Treating wood with fire has a timeless history for enhancing performance or appearance. Early on, primitive peoples learned to heat wood spear and arrow tips to harden their points. In construction, the surfaces of boards or pilings have long been charred to incineration to impart insect and weather resistance, dimensional stability—and, ironically, even fire retar-dance—all without resorting to chemicals.
On the decorative side, accentuating the grain in wood paneling and siding goes just as far back. Of course, there’s pyrography—using wood-burning tools to brand in attractive designs and images. But removing the soft springwood to reveal and bring up the natural patterns of the harder summerwood cell structure produces a different aesthetic, by use of different methods. It can be as simple as wetting down the springwood to raise and soften it, then abrading away the cells by scrubbing with sand or minerals like emery. Skillfully scorching the wood with fire, however, dramatically enhances the process and has added benefits.
A good example of how effective and beautiful fire methods can be is the ancient Japanese technique of Shou-sugi-ban, also known as Yakisugi. Traditionally, Shou-sugi-ban is used to make exterior siding, and sometimes wall and ceiling cladding, by binding three boards into a triangular “cone,” setting the interior on fire, then quenching with water. Critical to the process is using the correct wood. In Japan, the only suitable material is cedar (sugi) because it has the thick, dense growth rings and chemical constituents that maximize the heat treatment. Once fired, boards may be left in a charred and blackened state, or brushed once or twice to remove carbon and reveal the underlying wood, then oiled.
Gustav Stickley published articles on the beauty of—and techniques for— torching woodwork to bring out the grain.
Fast forward to the early 20th century, when the Arts & Crafts movement—ever adept at reclaiming forgotten ideas, whether glazed tile or inglenooks—deftly appropriated Shou-sugi-ban for its own progressive architecture, especially in West Coast iterations. No less a design maven than Gustav Stickley wrote in his magazine The Craftsman that “natural wood when used as a basis for interior decoration first took root in the West . . . where the delightful atmosphere of rooms that were wainscoted, ceiled and beamed with California redwood gave rise to a new departure in the finishing of our homes.” Stickley, promoter of quarter-sawn oak, even gave his blessing to Western softwoods: “In buildings where it seems desirable to show in the woodwork the bold, strikingly artistic effect such as we associate with Japanese woods, we can heartily recommend cypress.”
No surprise, then, when an Americanized version of Shou-sugi-ban found its way into The Craftsman in the how-to article “A California Bungalow Treated in Japanese Style.” In sharing how he built his house, author Arnold L. Gesell explains, “Not a board in the house was painted, varnished or stained; but every piece was literally charred and brushed on each exposed face and edge before it became a part either of the structure or the furniture.” While Gesell doesn’t specify what wood he used (he mentions both eucalyptus and redwood), his method was to place boards on an easel and hit them with a large plumbers’ torch. “Merely scorching the wood to a cloudy brown is an easy matter; it is the charring to a crisp black which takes patience—and brings the reward.”
The author tries his hand at creating the burnt-wood aesthetic popular for woodwork in California bungalows. The wood is torched to the desired degree of burn. A wire brush removes some of the carbon and further enhances the grain. The final effect is a corrugated texture that leaves the wood grain in relief.
Courtesy Gordon Bock Archives
Since Shou-sugi-ban seems to be popping up again everywhere from born-again bungalows to “green building” projects (and in media from YouTube to Architectural Digest), I was curious if it’s as simple and successful as it sounds. Here’s what I learned.
Woods vary. Beyond durability, cedar (Western red or Eastern white) does indeed yield nice visual results because the springwood is very soft and the summerwood grain is hard and bold. Pine, Douglas fir, and hemlock are common alternate softwood choices; some commercial Shou-sugi-ban producers use larch, a durable conifer popular in boatbuilding. Of course, if it’s intriguing character you’re after, start with boards with an evident grain (typically flat-sawn), such as the “flame pattern.”
Burn as you go. Degree of charring is a matter of taste. A light browning comes quickly and is trendy for a contemporary look, but a deep black burn takes only seconds more with softwoods and can be halted by using a spray bottle of water.
Equipment is simple. A common DIY propane torch (perhaps with a flame spreader) is plenty for the average project. For large-scale charring, you’ll see used the big propane torches made for melting ice or killing weeds. Wire-brushing by hand is usually all that’s required; light sanding by hand or machine brings up the contrast. Don’t forget to wear protective gloves and eyewear, and have a fire extinguisher and bucket of water nearby.
Finish, or don’t. Colorful stains (blue, green) are popular today, but the traditional look is oil, a clear finish, or au naturel. What’s more, Arnold Gesell got it right. As he noted, even the least interesting wood takes on a beautiful, soft-brown, corrugated sheen.