“Shou-Sugi-Ban” the art of Japanese burnt wood finishing

Shou-Sugi-Ban is for me, one of the fascinating wood finishing techniques and one of my favorites for the feel of the wood when complete. I love running my hand over the rough yet smooth texture it creates. 

Close-up of bowl

Close up of the exterior

The term “Shou-Sugi-Ban” is Japanese (焼杉板), it translates to “burnt cedar board”.  Historically it’s used in the description of a very old Japanese technique of charring Japanese Cedar or “Sugi”  boards used in building and decking. It works for a lot of different wood types, so don’t panic. 

Japanese craftsmen always looking for a finish that would also increase durability and beauty made use of recovered driftwood. If you have ever looked and touched driftwood you can easily see the attraction. The harsh treatment by sea, salt, surf, and the sun creates a prized material that was also more durable than plain wood. Being humans and artisans, they quickly found that beaches were not a place for a ready supply of this material.

So the Japanese craftsman looked to other weathering processes to achieve that atheistic and durability. Man’s old friend, fire came to the rescue and provided what they needed. The heat provides a natural preservative, at the same time giving a  unique, artistic dimension. Not the same as driftwood, but close and just as unique.

The practice had fallen out of favor in the last 100 years or so. But it has a long history going back to before the 1700’s.  The use of modern material caused the technique to fall out of use. An additional factor for its fall from usage was a lack of material in Japan and the requirement to import wood. Historically, only Japanese cedar called  Sugi (Cryptomeria japonica) was used. It became to the Japanese one of the “lost arts”. Though I suspect no art is ever truly lost.

Of course, it was rediscovered. Anything this beautiful will be found again and again. In the early 2000’s Japan started to see a reemergence of the technique, followed by a quick jump around the world. Exploding into building design. Guess what? For the same reason as originally created; preserving, finishing, color and beauty.

In the US, we are using Western Red Cedar and Southern Cypress for stunning exteriors. Some of us are using other materials indoor and for decorative objects.

Tools you’ll need

  1. Torch or fire. I use a ….link here
  2. Wire brush( I use both steel and brass)
  3. Stiff bristle brush
  4. Water
  5. Sponge
  6. Rags
  7. Tung Oil or other finish: I’ve used oil, and Polyurethane and wax.

The process

It’s technically a very simple process. The historical process creates a fully blacked wood that has preservative qualities. Some of the newer techniques focus on the beauty, contrast, and texture of the varied colors of the wood. But burning timber creates a protective layer over the wood and can preserve it for up to eighty years. Better than paint any day.

So here is what you do:

  1. Burn the wood: Historically, a controlled fire is used. The more modern method is to use a torch or …. Try not to scorch the wood too much. You will char some of the softer woods bits which helps create the texture. If you are using larger wood pieces for yourself a fire is a better choice.
  2. Brush wood: Using your wire brush scrub the wood with the grain to remove the most charred bits of softer wood. 
  3. Clean wood: Use water, rags, and the bristle brush to get the wood dust out of the pores and ridges of the wood you now have exposed. Then let dry.
  4. Finish wood. The easiest is tung oil. For interior use, you can use mineral oil, poly or even beeswax. Recall that the wood is already protected. All you are doing is adding that soft luster that enhances the final product.

Using for interior things

I have used this technique since before I knew it’s name for a number of things. My first was a knife block I was remaking. It’s current owne loves it. I almost hated to part with it.  Many more have followed and practice makes perfect. Plus, FIRE!  

Fire and wood do mix

It’s on fire baby!

I love it for the look and the feel.  

Shou-Sugi-Ban Bowl Exterior

 I love it for the look and the feel of the finished product. You just have to touch it. I find that one of the most wonderful aspects of wood in general. 

Writing about this made me think of Siosidesign. They have done some very interesting work recently with tactile woodworking designs and you should really take a look. Generally, I love their work in general. I’ve never met them, but someday maybe. Their concept with tactile surfaces is pretty cool.

A few links to other Shou-Sugi-Ban articles you will enjoy.

How to make a Shou Sugi Ban wall.

And, Shou-Sugi-Ban: Japanese Wood Burning Technique, if only for the writer’s wonderful way with words.

Thanks for stopping by and reading.



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