What Is Shou Sugi Ban?

Gladys T. Black

“Shou sugi ban” (SHO soo gee ban) is a finishing technique in which wooden planks are charred with a blowtorch to provide a weatherproof surface for home exteriors, interior accents, furniture, and more. The result is a gorgeous texture that brings out the natural beauty of the wood. Read on to learn more about it and whether it’s right for your home design.

A not-so-new design

Perhaps you haven’t heard of shou sugi ban, or maybe you have and think it’s just a new trend in design. However, this beautiful Japanese technique actually dates back to the 18th century.

The original term for this method of finishing wood is “yakisugi” (yah ka SOO jhee), or rather “yakisugi-ita” (ee tah). Shou sugi ban is what it’s most often called in the West — though this is incorrect. The short explanation of the misunderstanding is that the original “yakisugi” is written using two Chinese characters although it’s pronounced using Japanese phonetics. Shou sugi ban is the result of this mispronunciation, and it has caught on in the West.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll call it shou sugi ban. But to explain what the term is, let’s go to the original source word, yakisugi-ita:

yaki = a descriptive term meaning burnt, fried, grilled, or some other treatment using heat

suga = cypress, or Japanese cedar

ita = plank or board

Yakisuga-ita can thus be translated anywhere between a heat-treated cypress board to the somewhat inelegant-sounding burnt cedar plank. But the results are indeed elegant and certainly beautiful.

Because shou sugi ban preserves the wood, it makes a great option for siding. It’s also a good alternative for when black paint or stain is the preferred look, as with furniture, doors, walls, or other wooden accents. Shou sugi ban doesn’t always have to be done in black, however; in fact, the technique allows for various textures and tones to make up for some quite unique and eye-catching designs.

The technique

Normally, fire will destroy wood. But in the style of shou sugi ban, the flame of a blow torch can char planks into gorgeous textured wood that is impervious to weather. That’s why it’s a great option for home exteriors. It also works for patio furniture and decks. But shou sugi ban shouldn’t be reserved just for outdoor wood elements; it makes for attractive furniture and wooden accents in the interior of your home as well.

Can you DIY it?

You might be thinking that wood and open flame are a recipe for disaster, but shou sugi ban is an easy DIY project if you’re careful. Much like you would crystallize the sugared surface of creme brulee in the kitchen, you can char the outside of cedar — though we suggest taking this project outdoors for safety.

According to Architectural Digest, here’s how DIYers can make the technique happen:

  1. Use the right wood. Cedar is the plank of choice for shou sugi ban because it’s lightweight and porous, along with having other elements that make it more receptive to this technique. You can also use it on oak, maple, pine, and hemlock, but cedar is traditional.
  2. Torch it. Using an actual torch like one used for melting ice, char the plank evenly along the surface. In about five to ten seconds, it will start to turn black and develop a coating of soot. The wood will start to separate, much like it does when placed in a fireplace. When done correctly, you’re left with a beautifully charred piece of wood that also reveals the lines and grain of the wood.
  3. Brush it. With a wire brush, wipe off the char, moving in the direction of the grain. The result will be a rich brown-black.
  4. Clean it. You can do this with either compressed air or a wet cloth, though you will have to let the planks dry completely before moving to the next step if you use the latter.
  5. Oil it. You might be tempted to coat the beautiful shou sugi ban texture with a varnish, but you’ll love the look of an oiled finish — linseed oil works well. Take a soft rag and be sure to rub the oil into the grain. Let it dry completely before adding a second coat. To seal in the finish, turn the flame on again and heat it up one more time.

Any wood treated in the shou sugi ban style offers a unique texture to your home, whether it’s used indoors or out. If used inside on furniture, there isn’t much required for upkeep, but outdoor furniture and home exteriors will require a re-oil every 10 to 15 years.

The bottom line

Shou sugi ban draws out the natural beauty of wood for an attractive and versatile aesthetic, especially for home exteriors. It might not be the biggest hit with homeowners looking for a traditional brick facade or siding, but it will wow those who want something a bit more out of the ordinary for their home.

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