Small Business: how one Kiwi perfected the Japanese art of charred wood cladding

A deep-sea diving accident on an oil and gas rig, and a holiday in Japan caused John Webster to rethink his future. Now he owns The Blackwood Project, producing charred timber cladding for housing in the style of the ancient Japanese art of Yakisugi.

What led you to launching The Blackwood Project?

I joined an old school friend of mine at his timber mill in Putaruru. Maybe three years ago a gentleman called Shane Nicholls purchased a very large volume of our top-quality timber and to all intents and purposes set fire to them. What he was doing was the Yakisugi process. He used the charred timber on his beautiful $4 million home in Whitford, which ended up on Grand Designs New Zealand.

By coincidence I had a holiday booked in Japan in two months’ time. That had piqued my interest so I toured around on a motorbike looking at different examples of Yakisugi and getting a better understand of what it did.

How did you develop the Yakisugi process in New Zealand?

Since getting back from Japan, a large part of the last two-and-a-half years has been spent trying to develop a technique on a commercial scale. We started out with blow torches. In the early stages we were experimenting in a carport in my back yard.

I experimented to the point where it put me in the intensive care unit last year for three days. I just didn’t appreciate the level (of smoke) that I was exposing myself to even in the open air. I apparently had a massive asthma attack but I think it was triggered by months and months of experimentation. Now we have proper extraction systems and everyone has to wear breathing apparatus.

How did you move on from charring the timber with a blow torch?

We designed what is essentially something like a five-metre-long grill. We use infrared technology for our charring process which has given us a very precise char. Some timber requires a much longer exposure to the charring process.

We now have a capacity of 2500 metres per day in our premises in Rotorua. In six months we’ve already outgrown this place so we’re in the process of finding larger premises. We hope to put a second charring unit online within the next three months to cope with current demand.

What are the advantages of charred wood?

Beyond the aesthetics of it, it’s very low maintenance. If you do a full char board the char it remains as a hydrophobic material so it repels the water, it’s 100 per cent UV proof and the heat process itself removes carbohydrates. Those carbohydrates are sugars and that’s what attracts bugs and fungi, they’re a food source. The process deters any bugs or fungi interfering with the timber.

It also increases the dimensional stability of the timber so it’s less prone to cupping and movement.

What timbers do you use for Yakisugi?

My favourite is Japanese cedar or sugi. It’s a fine-grained timber that’s visually pleasingand it’s the authentic timber for the process. My second favourite is thermally modified pine radiata board. It stabilises the board and makes it naturally durable. My third preference is New Zealand-grown California redwood. It’s a very stable timber and comes out beautifully.

Where do you see your market?

Homeowners and architects. Architects are coming to me via the homeowners’ request for charred timber. They want a high-end product like Yakisugi to use as a feature. It can also be used inside. We’ve recently supplied timber for a feature wall in a new restaurant in Auckland.

If you brush against the wall, will you get covered in soot?

Great question. The answer is yes, and no. We do a four-sided exterior oil coat for all of our timber before it leaves here. That envelopes the entire board in oil which locks the char in. I take a white rag and rub it across the face of the char and you get very little if any at all. But if you were to lean into it, yes you are more than likely to come away with some char on you.

Is the char carcinogenic?

No, it’s activated carbon, which a lot of people use to filter their water with. We’ve got bags and bags of it in a shipping container. I just haven’t found a home for it. It’s too good to throw away. If we produce enough we might have to find a charcoal briquette manufacturer.

What did you do before The Blackwood Project?

For about 12 years I was a commercial diver in the oil and gas game, predominantly working in the Middle East and South-east Asia. I progressed to being a saturation diver where you stay locked up in compressed tank with nine other men for 30 days at a time, and work on the seabed for eight hours a shift. All talking like chipmunks through breathing helium gas.

Why did you give up that career?

I had an incident where the scrubber, which is what removes carbon dioxide, failed and sent bad gas to me at 220 metres and caused a CO2 toxicity incident. I decided to come home again and find a job where the biggest danger was a paper cup. I actually ended up with PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome) as a result of it. I didn’t even know until I got home and put a motorcycle helmet on and my heart started racing.

What kept you going during the months of trying to perfect the Yakisugi technique?

A true love and passion for the product. That’s what kept me going in those dark hours where machinery failed, blowing $100 gaskets every 20 minutes. I put everything on the line for this business and I haven’t regretted it. It’s a great fun challenge to be on. I’m probably the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.

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