Dutch magazine Libelle had an interview with our founder and 'master of fire' Pieter Weijnen. Read the story here in Dutch and see below for the English translation.
MASTER OF FIRE
Thanks to architect Pieter Weijnen, charred wood has been used worldwide. You can find gems of houses, barns, houseboats and kitchens. Even shower cabins - you name it. Pieter: "This wood is alive, the imperfection only makes it more beautiful”.
Pieter started experimenting with charred wood after becoming acquainted with the traditional shou sugi ban technique in Japan.
"I GET TO BURN WOOD ALL DAY LONG. THAT'S GREAT, ISN'T IT?
When he saw the traditional Japanese charred wood for the first time when visiting the Venice Biennale fourteen years ago, architect Pieter Weijnen was immediately enthusiastic. Amazed by the beauty and sustainability of the wood, he travelled to Japan to learn more about this special treatment of wood. He applied the technique to planks and used it for his own house. Soon it became clear that there was a lot of interest for the wood, so he decided to build an oven in order to burn on a larger scale: "The first prototype was nothing more than a box of steel, which melted because of the excessive amount of heat. I soon switched to industrial materials; though, it still took a while to build the reliable construction which we use now."
Nevertheless, it was not Pieters intention to create a new job with shou sugi ban. He used to be co-owner of a successful architectural company and burning wood was just his hobby. But after a serious accident - he fell off a scaffold at one of his projects - he could no longer carry on doing his work in the way he wanted. Pieter therefore decided to make a career switch and founded Zwarthout in 2012: "Now I get to burn wood all day long. That's great, isn't it?”. When asked what the carbonised wood means to him he answers, "You immediately see that fire is used in the process and that means something to you. From the moment people could make fire, they started developing themselves. After all, people like stories when sitting around a campfire."This material really contains that history. You see and feel that it is real." The imperfections and coincidences in the wood make it even more beautiful according to Pieter: "The Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi (wabi represents simplicity and tranquillity whereas sabi means beauty created over the years) teaches us that imperfection has its beauty. This wood is alive, and over time it gets a patina, a weathering, which you will never be able to imitate. The time is visible in this material."
THE ADVANTAGE OF BURNING
Shou sugi ban (burned cypress) is a Japanese technique in which wood is burned on one side. This strengthens the structure of the wood and makes it pest repellent and fungistatic. In addition, the charcoal layer makes the wood fire retardant. Try to light a campfire again with charred wood...
WOOD WITH A CHARACTER
Despite the fact that a black painted plank from a construction market is indeed cheaper than the wood he fabricates, which Pieter acknowledges himself, the interest for the crafted wood remains big. “Of course you could just paint a plank black, but people do not only choose this wood because of the colour. They choose it because of the story – the identity of the material.” Nowadays, ten employees work at Zwarthout and the company gets orders from all over Europe, but also outside of the continent: “Even someone from Japan came to see the wood here. He was amazed, because in Japan, manufacturing shou sugi ban is an artisan passed on from father to son. We are not restricted that much by tradition; we even made a shower cabin from the burned wood.” Although Pieter is the founder of the company, he does not see himself as the boss. “Everyone who works here, wants to create something beautiful and we all help each other in the process. It does not matter whether we are the largest, but we do want to be the best. We want to have the best quality, the most beautiful wood, and also ecologically, we want to take the lead.” Since Zwarthout pursues the goal to not emit any carbon dioxide in their productions, once a year, they invite their customers to plant trees as a compensation for the wood they bought. For every square meter of wood used for production, five trees are planted in return. “It feels good when people say: ‘in that forest, we can see the new trees for our house’.”
“Of course you could just paint a plank black, but people do not only choose this wood because of the colour. They choose it because of the story – the identity of the material.”
Next to burning wood and optimise the production process, Pieter is busy discovering new applications. “I always feel the urge to explore new possibilities. Often it does not reward, but we still try, also because it’s fun. A few years ago, I met the French artist François Calvat, who has been working with the carbonised wood for forty years. My gut tells me this will lead to something. It is always useful to keep an eye open, then new ideas will always flow.”
EASY TO MAINTAIN
In Japan, Cypress wood is originally used to fabricate burned facade planks. This original version almost doesn’t need any maintenance, though the top-layer of coal will eventually weather – a concept that fits the Japanese wabi sabi philosophy. In the Western world, people sometimes choose sorts of wood like fraké or accoya, of which the weathering of the coal layer takes longer. After the burning process, the wood is fixed with resin on a natural base, so moist will not have any influence and it’s especially maintainable. Over the years, the coal layer does get a patina. There are also varieties of which, after the burning, the coal layer is brushed off. Secondly, the wood is treated with wood-oil or stain, in order to make it not give off any colour and make it suitable for interior-use.
The sustainable wood is also appropriate for smaller projects, such as summer houses, fences or little birdhouses.