Blackened Wood: Designing with Fire

make wood black by burning

A black edge makes a dramatic frame.

Black and grays are the stars of today’s architecture and furniture design. Most of the black in today’s wood furniture and cabinetry is painted or produced by means of stains and dyes, but another way to turn a piece black is by charring. Charring involves no solvents and requires no drying time. When topped with a low-luster finish such as Osmo Polyx oil, it produces a velvety appearance that highlights subtle variations in wood’s texture.

A blackened edge makes a crisp frame for a central field of natural wood. Of course you can also use this technique to blacken an entire piece.

The obvious caveat is that because charring involves fire, you need to plan ahead and maintain careful control of the process – not only to safeguard your shop (and your person) but to avoid damaging your workpiece. The last thing we need is to be writing funny stories about conflagrations in the workshop.

make wood black by burning

If you look carefully, you can make out the charmingly outdated words “Hey Mister.”

Equipment you’ll need:

  • matches or a lighter
  • a hardware-store torch
  • fire extinguisher (keep one handy, just in case)
  • 320-grit sandpaper
  • shop cloths
  • Osmo Polyx oil (Alternatively, you can use an oil-based wiping polyurethane.)

Start by removing flammable debris from your work area. It’s a good idea to set your workpiece on a metal or other non-flammable surface.

1. Char the edge

Burn, baby, burn!

make wood black by burning

After the initial charring

2. Sand the edge

Using 320-grit paper and a light touch, sand gently to blend the charred edge.

3. Remove superficial dust with a slightly moistened cloth.

4. Apply the first coat of finish.


(Full disclosure: This video shows exactly what I do when applying the first coat, but it was made when I applied the second coat, since the first video was a dud.)

– Nancy Hiller

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