by Seth Gould
Fire might not be the first finishing technique that most woodworkers gravitate toward; then again, I am not most woodworkers.
As a blacksmith and toolmaker, I am around fire every day, and when I began burning my hammer handles, I found it to be a simple way to obtain an alluring surface that set my work apart. It is unlike any other finish I have seen, and it really stands out on its own.
I don’t claim any ownership over this application, because I am sure at some point I saw another blacksmith’s handle done this way. But by now I have done it enough to feel comfortable sharing this technique.
Beyond the charred oak barrels used in distilling spirits and some use of fire finishing in Japanese architecture, I have been hard-pressed to find mainstream examples of burnt wood used as a finishing technique.
In my experience, open-grained hardwoods such as hickory, oak, walnut and mahogany produce the best results for this technique. With these, the softer earlywood tends to burn away faster, leaving a varied surface texture that looks and feels great after charring.
Woods with a more closed grain, such as maple and cherry, keep their smoother surface and don’t turn out nearly as compelling. Softer woods such as pine and cypress tend to burn too quickly and have a ragged appearance.
Beyond the species, two factors to keep in mind are moisture content and thickness. If the wood is too wet or too thin, it is prone to warping or cracking. Any well-dried wood should be fine, but stay away from anything green.
Web: Visit the author’s web site for a look at his metalsmithing.
Web: See more of Tom Shields’ work here
To buy: If you like playing with fire, check out Peter Ross’ blacksmithing videos
Web: Discover another technique to ebonize wood to a beautiful black finish in this free article
From the April 2015 issue, #217