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YAKISUGI : A journey of discovery in an ancient wood preservation method

Dernière mise à jour : 24 oct. 2023

Written by CELL Volunteer, Emilija Venckevičiūtė (2023)

To begin my volunteer experience at Äerdschëff , I reflected on a personal project I wanted to achieve. With all the possibilties, I was certain that I wanted to learn how to build things with my hands, preferably with wood. I had observed a cold looking metal container at Äerdschëff and after discussions with my supervisor, I was inspired to work on a project to make it more aesthetically pleasing.

And if I could build it?

Initially, I was convinced it would be too big of a project on my own since I had no experience in such tasks. Luckily, the other volunteers had the same interests and so we decided to step into cladding together. The purpose of cladding is to protect a building's structure from natural elements like wind and rain but it can have other benefits, such as insulation, noise control and to create the aesthetic appeal of a building. Our desired result was to make the container look more beautiful, and to acquire new building skills.

While looking for information about cladding, we found the concept of Yakisugi/-Shou Sugi Ban. It is a traditional method of using fire to preserve the planks, improve their weather resistance performance, prevent decay, rot, and insect infestation. There are two ways to use the fire for preservation. The first way is to use a gas splitting machine and burn the wood directly until you reach the desired look. The second, traditional method - boards of are bound together to form a triangle/chimney. After binding the boards tight, fire is lit on the very bottom with some paper. We let the fire burn for a few minutes. After we wash the planks with cold water, clean them with the brush and cover it with oil.

Our first look at the metal container generated a discussion on how to attach the wood to the metal panels. We needed to understand different possibilities such as welding, connecting screws with metal and woodwork. We started to watch many videos on the internet to find as many options as possible. We got excited about the idea of learning how to weld. It took few days to decide, longer than expected but in the end, we decided to screw the holes into the metal, as it was a cheaper and more solid option.

Sourcing materials

The next step was to calculate our required materials. How much of the wood do we need versus how much wood do we have? My experience with math was from school and I had forgotten most of it. However, I was lucky in that my teammate had strong math skills. She showed me how to calculate materials, which was challenging for me, but we eventually finalized our required amounts.

At Äerdschëff there was a shed containing unused wood and various materials. This is where we started our search, attempting to use as much reclaimed wood as possible before purchasing new materials. This took some time as it was hard to foresee what was right, what fit and what was usable quality. There was enough fine quality wood in the shed for two of the layers on the wall! The third layer would require us to buy the materials.

The next big challenge was to determine how to cut the wood into rip cuts. Can we use the tools that we already have, or do we need special ones? Using our existing tools seemed dangerous for such long cuts as we had so little experience using the machines. After several discussions with our team, we realized that we can ask for help of the nearby school workshop! This required coordination with other volunteers to carry the wood planks to the school. In the end, there were a few mistakes with communication and cuts, but we had planks that we could actually screw on!

The day came to finalize the shopping list with written quantities of supplies along with approximate prices. This was an exciting part, as we felt so much freedom in deciding what to choose and buy. However, this took much more time than expected. There were many options for types of screws to purchase and it took us the whole day to find the answers. We had to consider length, width, material as well as the color. There were so many options in the world of screws! As well as with drill bits – we needed to know which types and sizes to choose. We had to decide if we should take the cheap ones or very expensive higher quality ones. What brush do we need for Yakisugi? What type of bristles should it have?

We headed to the local store and since we didn't know any French or Luxembourgish we brought along a person to help us with the translation. It was difficult to explain the specifics in English, but we did our best. We did not find everything we expected to find so there were several last-minute changes to the plan. In the end, we were able to find what we needed.

The process was actually quite stressful and there were many emotions around our preparedness, responsibilities and openness for error and experimentation. In the end, we were proud of ourselves for having completed the task.

And it begins...

The next few days were quite exciting as we could see visible progress on the project. We were making all the elements we had seen on the videos we watched. We realized that it is often not as smooth of a process as made to look on tv. We broke some metal drills, made some curved cuts of wood, some unexpected gaps as well as unintentional bends to the wood. But we were getting there!

Finally, we began the Yakisugi part of the project. It was something we had been waiting with much anticipation and curiosity. The traditional method for Yakisugi was particularly interesting and we wanted to try it at least once. We were not expecting to use it as our primary method within our project. We didn`t trust this older method, from what we saw in the videos, it did not create a precise final look. The corners of the planks were sometimes not completely burned. It was also difficult to be sure of how long to burn the plank for the proper look. As well, most of the videos that we saw used the gas machine, so we agreed that modern way is probably a better way. Our first attempt of Yakisugi took some time to get the fire going, but eventually it was lit and then everything started to happen so fast! We had to decide how long to burn the wood depending on what look we wanted as an end result. After three minutes or so we decided it was enough. As we listened to the crackling of the burning coal, we could not believe the result was so successful!

To burn or not to burn

Next, we tried the gas machine method. It was a good stable choice, no stress and doubts about the results. We had more control over the depth of the burns and we could touch every corner of the plank. However, the method was lacking in character and uniqueness. So, we decided to return to the ancient Yakisugi method as the first step for burning planks, and then use the gas machine as a second step of the process in order to correct any mistakes. This felt like a perfect balance between the two ancient and new methods.

After some unsuccessful attempts of burning the planks, such as burning too long/too little or some planks lost their shape, we washed all the wood in cold water, brushed and dried them in the sun and started to clad them on the container wall.

Reep the rewards of a job well done

The final step was to put on the oil so the coal wouldn`t rub off the planks and allow for longer plank preservation. We researched which oil would be best and decided to go with a cheaper, eco-friendly, reliable choice - linseed oil. This was our final task. Once completed, we felt happy and proud of what we had achieved. We felt that we had gained confidence and skills while surmounting a big challenge.

We did it!

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