This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Cottage Life magazine.
Mike Argue wants to burn your lumber before he sells it to you. No, really. “Burning the wood effectively bakes the soft, susceptible fibres,” explains the charring specialist and the owner of Kindl, a timber mill based in Parry Sound, Ont. The centuries-old Japanese technique is called shou sugi ban, a method of charring the face of wood siding on buildings to preserve them against weathering, rot, and insect attack.
Today’s charring technicians burn each plank individually, then, depending on the desired finish, scrape it with a stiff brush and seal it. The process is messy and time-consuming, but the result is rich texture and luscious dark hues. “You choose the timber, the char, and the finish,” says Argue, which means your scorched wood can range from slightly toasted with a pronounced woodgrain to a pitch-black “gator skin.” Your finish options: matte or gloss.
And charred wood isn’t just for siding. “We’ve built dining tables, kitchen island tops, stair- cases, and even a timber-framed screened porch using charred wood,” says wood- burning expert Chris Dobbins, the owner of CDH Carpentry in Haliburton, Ont. “The charring locks in the desired colour, meaning you don’t get the colour change that happens to untreated cedar and pine over time.”
Scorched wood is easy to work with—nails and screws will bite into it just fine. At $15 to $25 per sq. ft., cladding your cabin in the stuff is pricey, but “the result is tough and beautiful,” says Argue, and is said to last well beyond 50 years.
How to char
Don’t leave all the fun to the pros; find a simple project like a cottage sign and give it a go. (Must we say it? Be careful not to, you know, burn the forest to the ground.)
1. Select your wood; cedar and Douglas fir are great because their softer wood burns more easily, lifting the grain. Next, cut the pieces you plan to char.
2. Fire a blowtorch over the wood’s surface until it’s burned to your desired colour. A small 14 oz torch works well for small projects. For larger ones (a tabletop, say), you could use a heavy-duty torch attached to a 20 lb propane tank, but we recommend you call the pros.
3. Unless you’re burning wood completely black, use a wire brush to scrub off excess charring. If any light spots remain, burn and brush again.
4. Finally, coat your charred piece to stop it from shedding soot. A water-based, eco-friendly treatment gives a matte finish (go with LifeTime Wood Treatment from Rona). High-gloss epoxy resin sealer will accentuate the grain (try Envirotex Alkyd Finish from Home Hardware).