Meet the Designer: Rory Conway

The artisan carries a torch for the magic of charred wood.
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Planks of “torch-kissed” northern pine line Conway’s studio.

To fine-tune the art of shou sugi ban, an ancient Japanese wood-charring technique, Hamptons-based painter Rory Conway took two months off to “bring the process to another place.” Although he is known principally for restoring and refinishing floors and cabinetry, Conway is not one to shy away from a new challenge to his skill set. “I enjoy taking on interesting, complicated jobs,” he says. “I have no problem painting the outside of a three-story building by myself.”

Born in Howth, a fishing village outside Dublin, Conway started his journey as a custom painter and refinisher nearly 25 years ago. “I was just a guy who loved to paint,” he recalls, “and was working for East Hampton builder Ben Krupinski when he handed me a set of drawings of the floor of Tory Burch’s retail shop. He said, ‘You can do this.’” The opportunity led to other custom work, such as painting and refinishing floors and cabinetry in Ralph Lauren boutiques throughout the U.S. 

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Conway takes down notes and formulas.

Conway had an epiphany of sorts when a client asked him to work his magic on some distressed boards. “I wanted to accentuate their natural beauty and texture by removing the pulp—the softer parts of the wood,” says Conway, who began experimenting on northern pine with a blowtorch and a dry-wire brush. In his Springs studio, he takes extensive notes on as many as 50 different finishes, tracking what happens “when you apply too much heat, not enough heat, too much air or propane. The wood has its own language and starts to talk to you.”

To highlight the crackle effect typical of burnt wood, Conway applies wax to bring out the grain beneath the char. “Burning is better than just applying wood stains,” he explains. “It creates a more permanent, hard finish. The silvery char reminds me of anthracite, the coal that people in Ireland used to heat their homes with years ago. Removing the soot and dust with brushes, then polishing it, gives me the effect I’m looking for.” 

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He applies a wax finish to accentuate the texture of brushed and burnt wood.

Stacked throughout Conway’s studio, distressed tongue-and-groove boards in various “torch-kissed” shades are displayed along walls, now just as sought after as Conway’s custom painting skills. “When I started this venture,” he says, “I wasn’t particularly interested in what it was for or what the end result would be. It was more about pushing the envelope with the material, and pushing myself.”

The print version of this article appears with the headline: Made in Springs.
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