Shou-sugi-ban: Charring Wood as a Preservation Method

Shou-sugi-ban 焼き杉 is a Japanese method of charring cedar boards. The method is simple. You char the surface of the wood, scrape it with a metal brush and apply a sealant. The charring creates a protective layer and also, surprisingly, makes the wood more resistant to fire. The technique extended the life of exterior cladding in a country where wood was a precious commodity.

The technique fell out of favor with the advent of modern materials but has seen a revival of late in the contemporary architecture scene. Designers, I think, are drawn to the dark color of the wood as well as the sustainability of the practice. I defy you to find a recent issue of Dwell Magazine without a Shou-sugi-ban wall.

The video above shows a modern method using a propane torch. You can see an alternate method, based on the traditional technique, here. Like most exterior wood projects, it’s a good idea to apply new oil annually. I’ve seen two recommendations: tung oil and Penofin.

I’m pondering the method for some upcoming backyard projects and am wondering if any of you have tried Shou-sugi-ban. If you have leave a comment!

Nanotecture: Tiny Built Things

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Nanotecture: Tiny Built Things is a tiny book of big ideas. It’s 336 pages of objects ranging from bird houses to sheds to temporary art installations. The unifying theme is clever design and a less than house sized scale.

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This is the kind of book to thumb through if you’ve got a creative block, are curious about materials or just looking for inspiration.

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And there’s lots of dog and cat architecture.

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And saunas, like the bike propelled mini sauna above.

I don’t know if I need to own a copy of this book (I’ve got a library copy), but I’ve spent a many evenings leafing through the pages. On a side note, many of the objects in this book are temporary outdoor art installations, something you see a lot of in Northern Europe in the summer. I don’t know why we don’t see more of these types of art and design shows in the U.S. They’re popular and a nice use of public space.

The book has inspired me this morning to cut the blogging short and head to my workshop and build something.

The Root Simple Workshop

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In honor of the national Week of Making, and Adam Savage’s call to share our maker-spaces, I’m giving you a virtual tour of the Root Simple workshop. Take note new homeowners: if I could go back in time I’d have set up the workshop and organized my tools before we began the extensive remodeling we had to do when we moved in back in 1998.

Our house is on a small hill and the garage/workshop is at street level. The garage is a partially buried concrete bunker built in 1920 and sized for two Model-Ts. We had to install a steel girder to stabilize the structure and a pitched roof and siding to waterproof our bunker. You can see the garage at the very beginning of the drone flyover that Steve Rowell shot for us. Our chariot, a Honda Fit, lives in one half of the garage. It’s hard to believe that this tiny subcompact car is 30 inches longer than a Model-T.

In the other half of the garage is my workshop. Being somewhat of an extrovert, the main thing I like about the workshop is that it sits right on the sidewalk so I get to interact with the neighbors while I work.

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For my workbench, I picked up a set of really cheap used cabinets at my local Habitat for Humanity ReStore and painted them with a homemade chalkboard paint. I topped the cabinets with some cheap pine butcher board from the Home Despot. The recipe I used for the chalkboard paint is:

1 cup latex paint
1 tablespoon cool water
2 tablespoons unsanded grout

You can use any color of latex paint that you like. The chalkboard paint allows me to label all the drawers and cabinets in the garage. Naturally, there is pegboard on every spare wall to hang all the random tools I need regular access to. Kelly came up with the striking bright orange/white/black color scheme.

Our friend Lee Conger noticed the labeling on these cabinets that point to our overly eclectic interests:

IMG_1187It’s like our heads need to be KonMaried! And fencing purists will note that the label should be “epee parts” not “swords.”

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Our three bikes and cycling accoutrements are kept locked to a pole. Always lock your bikes, kids, even when they are in the garage!

The one last touch I want to add to the workshop is a small and comfortable “thoughtstyling” chair along with a rolling whiskey cart. Half of “making” is philosophizing, after all.

Video Sundays: Design Line Phones

Am I the only person who has a problem with post WWII consumer objects? When it comes to phones I think they should be black, all the same and weigh 10 pounds. I think the cringe-worthy phones in this film from the fascinating AT&T history channel, prove my point. Some background:

For much of the company’s history, AT&T rented phones to users. But in the 1970s, the company tried a novelty line of phones that customers could actually buy, in stores. For these “Design Line” phones, the users were essentially buying just the housing — the working guts of the phones were still under the Bell System maintenance and ownership contracts.

These phones were not cheap — prices in 1976 for these phones ranged from $39.95 for the basic Exeter to a whopping $109.95 for the rococo Antique Gold model. That’s about $150 to over $400 today. Not that much more than a smartphone, but, of course, no touchscreen. No ringtones.

My mini-rant on the tyranny of choice aside, that “Telstar” model is pretty cool. Add a cat, a swiveling modernist chair and you’re a James Bond villain.

Harry Partch: Woodworker and Composer

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Back in the 1990s, in a cramped out of the way basement deep in the bowels of San Diego State University, I got to hear a pure, mathematically perfect musical interval for the first time. The sound came from a pump organ, modified by musical heretic Harry Partch. The organ was under the care of Danlee Mitchell, who kept Partch’s idiosyncratic legacy alive after Partch died in 1974. Once you hear just intonation you can’t un-hear the compromise that is modern “equal” tempered tuning (for an in depth explanation of the difference between just and equal temperament, this documentary explains it all). Let’s just say that hearing that “perfect” perfect fifth, was one of those moments that caused me to question everything I thought I knew about music.

But Partch pushed beyond just tuning. Why do we have only 12 notes in a scale? Why not 43? Here’s Partch explaining and demonstrating his 43 tone scale:

Since you can’t go down to your local music shop and buy 43 tone musical instruments, Partch had to get crafty. He described himself as “a philosophic music-man seduced into carpentry.” And, over the years, he built many beautiful musical instruments:

The Quadrangularis Reversum.

The Quadrangularis Reversum.

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Gourd Tree and Gongs

Partch was a master of up-cycling, making use of military and industrial surplus. Below, his “cloud chamber bowls” made from the tops and bottoms of 12-gallon Pyrex carboys found in a UC Berkeley radiation lab.

Cloud chamber bowls.

Cloud chamber bowls.

Here’s Partch talking about the cloud chamber bowls and playing them:

You can see all of Partch’s instruments here.

Partch’s music can be jarring at first. Then it grows on you. I think my favorite Partch composition is Daphne of the Dunes. It sounds like an artifact of an ancient culture that never (but should have) existed:

Partch pushed the cultural envelope so far that he’s often labeled (I think, disrespectfully) as an “outsider”. We should instead see him, both as carpenter and composer, as a visionary.

So to the person who suggested we do a music post, this one’s for you!