The Tradition of Burnt Wood
Old House Journal|January - February 2021
An ancient Japanese method for finishing woodwork was adapted by bungalow builders, and it’s back in style.
Gordon H. Bock

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.

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 retardance—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.

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