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The Beautiful Japanese Wood-Charring Technique You'll Be Seeing More of

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Have you heard of shou sugi ban (aka yakisugi)? If not, you may already recognize it by sight. It’s a traditional Japanese technique of preserving wood (often cedar) by charring—yes, burning!—it, then scraping it down and treating it with oil to render it fireproof (ironic?) and rot- and moisture-resistant. It creates a gorgeous, dramatic look, with finishes ranging from inky black to more subtle tones of richly hued brown (check out our Shop's own shou sugi ban knife grabber here). We spoke to Jordan Fust, the brother of Food52’s own talented Assistant Buyer Jackson Fust, about his experience treating their family’s ski home siding with a shou sugi ban finish, a technique he first learned about here. Read on for his informative report, and scroll through for the envy-inducing results!

Shou Sugi Ban Knife Grabber
Shou Sugi Ban Knife Grabber

For the last three years, I have been working in Snowshoe, West Virginia, on our family’s custom timber frame home with my father, carpenter, and designer John Fust III. The project began for him in 2005, was interrupted by the housing crisis in 2008, and resumed in 2014, when I was able to join him in the design and construction process. By the summer of 2016, our small crew, consisting of a rotating group of close friends, were ready to begin cladding (part of the insulation process) the house in its finish material. The house is situated on a steep grade and in some areas, the siding would go up around 40 to 50 feet from the ground level, so we wanted to choose a finish for our exterior walls that would not require a large amount of maintenance. Through our research, we decided that our best option would be the process of shou sugi ban.

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Shou sugi ban has been practiced in Japan for centuries. It translates to “burnt cedar board,” as it was originally applied to Japanese cedar. It rose to popularity for its unique and striking aesthetic and was prolific until the Japanese supply of wood dwindled and newer, less costly products came onto the market. The process of charring the surface of the wood makes it rot-, pest-, weather-, UV-, and fire-resistant. These qualities made it the perfect choice for our project.

Our poplar boards for the shou sugi ban siding arrived on site in the heat of July. We organized the boards by their lengths and widths, and began our process by making sure that the boards were straight. If they weren’t, a chalk line was used to make a straight line on the board, then a long straight edge was clamped on to allow us to straighten one edge of the board. That straightened edge was then run against the fence of our table saw to reference a second straight edge on its opposite side. We used a propane torch and burned the top and sides of our 1-inch thick poplar, while the sun beat down on our necks, dropping beads of sweat down onto the wood.

Charring in action!
Charring in action! Photo by Hunter Graham

After the boards were burned, they were scraped with a wire brush, a process which requires a lot of core strength and stamina as you twist from side to side scraping the top layer of char off of the boards. Scraping with a wire brush is necessary because you are removing the soft-grain layer that is more susceptible to rot. In our case, we scraped more of the blackness away for aesthetic reasons (my mom didn't want the house to look solidly black); but I’d likely recommend scraping away less otherwise. The layer that you are scraping off here are the softer growth rings of the tree, and what's left behind are the harder grains produced by the tree in the winter months. The boards are then painted with a coat of linseed oil, and the torch is used again to warm the oil and allow it to soak into the fibers of the board. We applied the boards to the house vertically and placed smaller boards over the seams; this is known as board and batten siding.

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A closer look at the finished product
A closer look at the finished product Photo by Hunter Graham

Once the process was over, we were so taken with the contrast that the siding gave to our honey-colored custom heart pine windows and rafter tails. The scraping process gave the boards a marbled look and made for dynamic changes in the large spans of the board and batten siding. In the winter months, there is a beautiful dichotomy between the dark siding and the white mounds of snow on the mountain. Snowflakes cling to the battens and give the house an ever-changing pinstripe.

A dramatic counterpoint to winter's snowscape
A dramatic counterpoint to winter's snowscape Photo by Jordan Fust

What are your thoughts on shou sugi ban? Would you consider this finish for your home? Share your thoughts with us below!

Tags: architecture, how to, wood, design, carpentry, japanese