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From oil diver to exotic timber craftsman

Updated: Mar 26

Black timber houses are in vogue at the moment, says timber craftsman John Webster, but staining the wood can be harsh on the timber itself.

He gets the same aesthetic effect with Yakisugi - a 500-year-old Japanese method of charring timber that produces a hard-wearing, low-maintenance finish.

Charring timber actually improves the wood's performance on a building, John tells Jesse Mulligan.

"It became more bug-proof, the char acts as an actual UV-protectant and it's also hydrophobic so it repels water from the timber for the duration that it's on the boards."

Yakisugi - which means 'burnt cedar' in Japanese - is also known in the West as 'Sugi Ban',but that term is based on a misinterpretation of the Japanese characters, John says.

"I'm trying to help Japan out by correcting the terms as I go."

The 'secret sauce' of the Japanese technique took John a bit of time to discover - he spent about two and half years in his garage experimenting with char and at one point ended up Intensive Care with smoke inhalation.

Now John has installed a smoke extractor system and figured out how to char wood with precision and in commercial volumes.

Traditionally Japanese cedar is used in yakisugi, John says, but thermally modified radiata pine from NZ company Abodo Wood also works well and it's from a local, renewable source.

Before moving into the timber industry, John worked for 12 years as a commercial oil and gas diver "locked up in a container with nine other guys for 30 days at a time talking like chipmunks."

An accident at 220 metres below left John with PTSD symptoms he only discovered when chucking on his motorcycle helmet triggered a panic attack. He can now scuba dive and ride his motorbike.

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