When Martha Sturdy discovered a copse of fallen cedars strewn across a horse trail on her farm in Pemberton, British Columbia, she immediately got on her tractor and began dragging them towards her workshop. Outside she lit a bonfire and began to pull the planks through the flames. “You can’t burn them too much”, she says, “or you’ll wreck them.” Then she scraped away the soft, ashen exterior with a wire brush, until she was left with the gleaming, inky-black wood beneath. Attaching them to steel bases, she grouped these eerie sculptures together (below), their gnarled forms resembling figures by Giacometti.
Sturdy was inspired by an ancient Japanese method of wood preservation known as shou sugi ban. Dating back to at least the 18th century, it entails scorching boards of cedar and then dousing them with water. This may sound like a counterintuitive process, and it was probably developed by accident. But as many a camper has found when trying to rekindle a campfire on a cold morning, once logs have burned they cannot burn again. Rural Japanese families used yakisugi, as the blackened wood was called, to make chests to protect their valuables and on the façades of their homes to save them from forest fires.
Now designers in Europe and America are turning to the technique. “The fire burns off a lot of the soft wood but that strong ligament doesn’t go away, it stays strong,” says Sasha Stewart, the founder of Toasted Wood, a company in Northern Ireland that makes bespoke cladding for houses. The hand-burning technique she uses also repels pests by neutralising the cellulose they live on. “It’s a really cost-effective approach to getting something beautiful but environmentally strong,” agrees Anthony Esteves, an architect who fell for shou sugi ban while studying woodworking in Japan. For the flooring and walls of the homes he designs on the coast of Maine, he lashes together three boards into a kind of triangular chimney and then stands them up over an open fire, flipping them over after a few minutes to ensure an even burn.
While Esteves is inheriting both the technique and its purpose from the Japanese, Elliot Adams, a woodturner in London, puts flames to less practical uses. His bowls (above), made of scorched apple, maple and oak, will never hold soup. Rather, he employs flame as a decorative tool to lend a delicate colouration to his pieces and to heighten the wood’s natural grain. The result is closer to art than crockery. Heather Chontos, a Berlin-based American artist, makes sculptures by burning wood bought from woodcrafting shops and charring them to form obsidian spheres. She is drawn to the tones and textures formed when her material cracks and splinters, and to the metaphorical power of the process. “Fire is a natural process of regeneration,” she says. “It’s therapeutic to observe this change in these objects and construct something new from it.”