Kenji Tsuji tells us how to build a wooden car

The Toyota Setsuna concept was one of the most eagerly anticipated installations at Milan Design Week, having caused a stir in the automotive and design industries when the first pictures of the concept car were released. We were lucky enough to visit the installation and interview Kenji Tsuji, the engineer who led the Setsuna project. He told us how to build a wooden car that’s a lot more than a toy.

Toyota Setsuna

The installation is situated in Via Tortona 37, a tranquil courtyard area off the main street. The front of the exhibition was made from the same types of wood as the car itself, giving it a classically modern feel to contrast the industrial architecture which surrounds it.

Once inside the installation, the car is displayed in a deliciously simple infinity room with mirrored walls to allow you to view it from every angle. The room seems large and airy, though it is actually a rather small space, and the car takes pride of place in the centre.

build a wooden car

The first pictures of the Setsuna concept made waves in the design and automotive worlds, with its exquisite wooden structure reminiscent of the wooden framed cars of a previous era (think Morgan Motor Company). In the flesh, however, the car is almost impossibly modern. The finish of the wood is smooth and polished, and every detail is perfectly executed. The room is quiet, with every attendee concentrating on the beauty and simplicity of Setsuna.

The similarity the car bears to a wooden, boat-like structure is a coincidence. The design team had little to base their references on as there are no cars which are made entirely from wood. When they were learning how to build a wooden car, they looked back to boat-making and old cars for inspiration, such as the Morgan motors which featured wooden frames.

“When you stay with a car for a long amount of time, the beauty of it and your affection for it increases over time.”

Tsuji felt that wood most aptly embodied the above concept. The team had to ask themselves what the most appropriate material was because, as trees are living, they have properties where they can elongate or shorten in certain conditions, so it was difficult to get a precise fit. There had to be more of an allowance for the wood to grow and shrink.

There are five different types of wood used in the concept, and all the woods used in the concept are native to Japan. The exterior of the car is finished in Japanese cedar, chosen for its softness of texture and appearance. The rigidity of birch wood made it the perfect choice for the car’s frame. Zelkova wood lent its high-strength to the flooring. 

For the seats and panels, castor aralia wood gives strength, but also suppleness and resilience. Japanese cypress  was used for the steering wheel, again providing strength but also selected for its scent.

The scent was something the team wanted to focus on when they started to build a wooden car. It is meant to imprint memories on you, through the scratches and marks that can be made on the wood. Every new scratch or mark reinvigorates the smell, and when the car gets old you can sand it down to create new memories.

Toyota Setsuna build a wooden car

This car was sourced with new wood, but Tsuji and the team spent some time thinking about it being passed down and used for 100 years. Although trees would be cut down for the car, new trees would be replanted in their place. If the cars are treasured for 100 years, when that time has passed there will be new trees.


The passing of time

The car is a witness to the family’s experiences through time. The appearance of the Setsuna develops and matures over the course of time, accumulating physical reminders of the moments spent with the family. The traces of time and events on the colour and texture of the wood then become a unique witness of the family’s history.


With attentiveness, the car becomes an integral part of the family. The Setsuna would play an important role in the family. By carefully looking after the Setsuna through the years, pages of memories are created, as in a treasured photo album.

Family heritage

The car becomes a valuable asset and part of the family’s heritage. The Setsuna is conceivably an heirloom, like old furniture or watches. The Setsuna would know the family through previous generations, having been treated with care and maintained well through the years. The matured beauty through the passage of time could become an intrinsic part of the inheritance value and would be impossible to be replaced by anything else.

build a wooden car

Imagine that the Setsuna has been inherited through three generations, around one hundred years; the memories of driving with your grandfather when you were a child would be reawakened when you drive with your own grandchild. The beautiful imperfections collected on the surface will bring back the memory of that time, the sentimental feeling evoked will naturally make you want to treat it well, maintain its good condition and share stories about your family’s Setsuna with the next generation. By spending time with the Setsuna, caring for it and passing it on through the generations, the Setsuna has the potential to take on a new and immeasurable value.

Read more: Toyota Setsuna – our time machine concept
Read more: Toyota KIKAI concept at the Tokyo motor show
Read more: Do uBox? You will with the Toyota uBox concept


  1. Hi Ian,
    Thank you for your post. Toyota Setsuna was a concept car built for Milan Design Week, and because it was displayed in a country with left hand drive this explains why we made it left hand drive. Many thanks.

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