Updated: Feb 23, 2019
While living in Japan I became intrigued with these black houses and buildings that I began noticing everywhere. I saw this burnt wood used as decorations in people’s homes, on jewelry, in gardens and as an exterior siding. I loved how in the picture above from my wife's hometown in Fukui, Japan you can see how people are modernizing this ancient tradition. That is when I began exploring this rustic yet elegant material and wanted to see how I could use this in my modern lifestyle.
What Does Yakisugi and Shou Sugi Ban Mean?
Yakisugi (-ita) and Shou Sugi Ban both mean “Charred Cedar Board” in Japanese. The Japanese Kanji characters are the same but you can pronounce it either way. Since we have not decided on a preferred way of saying it I will use it interchangeably because you are bound to see it either way. As I have personally heard just “Yakisugi” used in Japanese more often I tend to use that term more.
The Histori of Yakisugi
Yakisugi is a traditional Japanese means of charring cedar in order to preserve the wood. It dates back to earlier than the 1700’s mainly with residential and commercial exterior siding and fencing. With newer and cheaper siding options coming into Japan in the 1950’s the design style and craftsmen began to fade away. You can still see many examples of these original builds in rural farming communities and older commercial areas of cities. In the 2000’s though both Japan and the rest of the world began to re-embrace this beautiful and practical tradition.
What Are The Benefits of Yakisugi?
One of the main reasons that this tradition began was because they needed a more sustainable option of preserving the exterior of the home. Originally, Japan was using wood that had been naturally weathered by wind and salt water from trees along the coasts. Because of the limited supply and abundance of Japanese red-cedar they moved toward using a different method of treating the wood. Here are some of the main benefits of using yakisugi:
· Fire Resistant
Although it sounds strange, to burn something to make it fire proof, this is what actually happens. Removing all of the moisture and basically creating a charcoal on the outside prevents the house from catching on fire later. Think of how easier it is to use regular dry wood in a fire as opposed to previously burned wood. Is it 100% fireproofing? No, but it is preventive.
· Water Resistant
Similarly, after the charring and hardening of the exterior this creates a water resistant foundation.
· It Repels Termites, Snails, Slugs etc.
The burning of the chemicals and carbohydrates in the wood, which is basically insect food, creates a natural repellant for various insects. This is the key to the longevity of the wood siding.
Yakisugi Houses and Shou Sugi Ban Siding
Traditionally the wood was charred on the outward face and was either a shiplap or plank wall cladding. For a long time it had a “country” image because you would often see it in rural farmhouses in the rice fields. It always surprised that with Japan being such a hot and humid country they would have chosen black as the color of choice for siding. But I think this had more to do with preserving the wood and building something for longevity than it did for temperature.
Nowadays, Japanese architects and designers, along with North American and European, are starting to use this siding option again on contemporary houses. If you are interested in the idea of a black house check out this article on the Pros and Cons of a Modern Black House.
What once was a technique used more for practical use on buildings now has made its way inside the home. You can see many examples of wood done with “tiger” pattern and others with a sleek all black finish. An entire room of all black is definitely a statement that needs to be well thought out. It could work if you have large windows and a lot of natural light coming it. Because of the bold color you could also just highlight a particular wall and let the pattern stand out.
In narrow bathrooms, you could have a wall of shou sugi ban behind the toilet, defining the space. Think of how reclaimed wood is also sometimes used as accent walls, the same can be done with black but still highlight different textures.
We put up yakisugi at our brewpub (Sato Brewpub) in Buffalo, NY at the entrance. The black highlights our signature orang/red color and provides an interesting texture on the wood as well as using different sizes and thicknesses.
· Shou Sugi Ban Décor
The alligator look is difficult because the bubbling tends to be softer and can rub off if constantly touched so it should maybe be used more for a wall decoration than a piece of functional furniture. Picture frames and mirrors lend themselves to having the frame charred to provide a unique look to a space. Shelving can also be nice, especially if it is thick slab wood that you can highlight the edge well.
· Shou Sugi Ban Furniture
If done correctly, the alligator pattern isn’t out of the question though for yakisugi furniture. I have seen a beautiful coffee table that have a beautiful solid black alligator patter that also had a piece of glass place on top of it. This made it functional and practical while preserving the natural beauty underneath.
Yakisugi in the Garden
Although not traditionally used in Japanese gardens it makes for a great piece of modern garden art. Sometimes you see cool pieces of funky shaped driftwood being displayed among the flowers, now imagine that solid black. The black really highlights and complements a natural green color so it can work well as a display piece.
Another idea is to take one of those wine barrel planters and char that as well. Having some ivy overhanging with a black background is going to really make the green pop. You can have a few of them here and there and that will really tie in the garden space.
Although not traditionally used in Japanese gardens this contemporary garden designer used it in a way that represents mountains. Adding these creative elements to a traditional garden really makes the scene come alive. Yes you have ti use your imagination, but that's the fun part of a garden.
Shou sugi ban fencing is also a great way to create a beautiful background for a garden. Even a lone maple tree will look bold and beautiful with a solid background behind it. You could even just have a single piece of fence or an “L” shaped yakisugi fence to create a defined garden scene. Sometimes a whole yard might be more than you want to take care of, especially if you have a lot of grass, so this limited feature area might be a good idea.
If brushed off well and sealed shou sugi ban can also make for a great deck. Charred timber cecking can take on a variety of brown, grey and black coloring giving you a wide range of colors and patterns to choose from. There are also faux shou sugi ban decking materials out there that would probably need less upkeep in the long run.
· Flower Bed
Railroad ties look great as flower beds or low retaining walls but because of the chemicals used in them they aren’t recommended for the soil. You could char 4x4 wood that would add a great look to the garden bed. The charring creates a defense against rotting and decay so this should last a long time.
Shou Sugi Ban DIY
There are a few companies in North America that specialize in this type of charring at their lumber yards, but it is still a fairly new technique and design trend here so your options will be limited and the costs reflect this. Therefore, this might be a great Do-It-Yourself project if you like to get your hands a little dirty, and who doesn’t to burn stuff?
I did all of the charring and my wife helped with our interior installation. It was a fun project and totally manageable, as long as you have the time to burn all the wood that is needed. You might want to play around a start with an interior piece of furniture of art display, or even a shed to begin with. An entire house would take awhile unless you were just going to use it as an accent area.
1) Plan Your Space
The first thing you need to do is to think about the area where you plan on charring the wood. Make sure that it is in a highly vented area or outdoors. You will need a few cinder blocks or short wooden frames to keep the boards off of the ground. Ideally you can do it on concrete or a dirt-covered area, grass will burn and singe and possible catch fire. You should also have access to water, preferably a spray hose and a few buckets of water on standby just in case. Also, don’t forget a pair of gloves and a mask, especially when brushing.
2) Choose the Wood
What is the Best Wood For Shou Sugi Ban? Cedar or cypress is what is traditionally used in Japan, technically a Japanese red-cedar (Cryptomeria Japonica). Japan is famous for it’s Hinoki cypress forests that dominate many mountainsides all throughout Japan. Cedar works the best probably because of its lighter and porous nature. In North America I would recommend a Western Red Cedar or Southern Cypress as you will be hard pressed to find Japanese cedar because it is native to Japan.
Some people say you can use any kind of wood, which is technically true, but some wood species will yield better results than others. In particular, after cedar try using basswood, pine, maple, hemlock or even oak.
3) Decide The Style of Yakisugi You Want
There are a variety of different levels of charring so you need to decide ahead of time because they require different lengths of time burning. Some of that can also be decided when brushing off but an “alligator” look will take longer time.
4) Choose the Method to Burn It
Traditionally 3 boards were tied together with a twine forming a triangle. You light the inside while lying it down, rotate a few times and then hold it upright like a chimney. This traps the heat in more and is a very effective way of charring it. I have done it this way and although this way is the cheapest it is also the most difficult to control because you cannot see if the boards are burning uniformly or not.
I prefer the more modern method of using a torch and propane tank. The torches themselves are fairly inexpensive. You can attach it easily to a BBQ grill propane tank that you can pick up and get refilled at most home centers and some gas stations. This method gives you the most control of evenly charring the board. You control the power of the flame so you have to get used to its power, you can easily burn an area too much if you are not smoothly moving the long torch back and forth slowly.
A third method I have heard of it to get a contained bon fire going and run the board over the fire slowly. Getting the help of a friend might make this a little easier as the boards tend to long. Again, with the burnt side facing down it is a little difficult to see if you are evenly burning the wood.
5) Develop Your Burning Technique
No matter witch techniques you choose realize that you will get better with practice. For that reason you may want to practice a few time with some scrap wood. When using the torch method you need to find the level of power and distance from the wood that you are most comfortable with.
I like to start with a very powerful setting and get close to make the project go a little quicker. Then ease up a bit on the strength and keep it a little farther away from the board. Smoothing over any differences on the board. The board may actually catch on fire and you have to decide if you will let it keep burning, which you can overdo it sometimes and the wood becomes too fragile, or let it develop that alligator look.
6) Rinse Off After Burning
I keep a hose turned on with a squeeze handle just in case the wind takes something and you need to water something down quickly. I also have 2 large watering cans that I sprinkle water on the boards right after I done with the torch. When you decide you have the look you like it’s bets to cool it down immediately. I cool the boards down right away and set them aside, being careful to keep them straight because they can still warp at this time.
7) Brush Off
I start with a broom or a soft bristled brush to get all of the loose pieces off charcoal off. If you are going for a bubbled alligator look then just stay with a soft bristled brush. If you are going for a more smooth surface then you can take a wire brush to the top flakey layer and brush down to any level you like. Only a light brushing will keep the dark Yakisugi look or you can keep going and highlight the wood grain a lot more and get a “tiger” look. This is all preference here.
8) Seal It
If I am going for the “alligator” look then I usually use polyurethane to seal the wood after it is all cleaned off and wet whipped down. With a polyurethane you get the options of deciding if you want a matte finish, satin, semi-glossy or glossy look. I really like the Satin finish because the color is more natural but you can still wipe it clean easier if needed. At our restaurant though, I used a semi-gloss at the host stand near the entrance. There was a chandelier hanging above that broke op the light and looks great shining off the deep black wall. It highlights the texture without overpowering it.
If brushing more off the top and removing the bubbles then a natural oil might be the best choice. You will probably need two coats of it. You can mix a 1:1 ratio of linseed oil and turpentine. This will help the oil sink into the wood deeper.
Is Shou Sugi Ban Waterproof?
No, shou sugi ban isn’t 100% waterproof, it is water resistant. Although some say that charring it does weather proof the wood I would lean more towards thinking of it as weather resistant. After charring the wood you should seal it with either natural oils or polyurethane, which will also help with weatherproofing it. It has been used as an exterior siding for 100’s of years without any problem.
How Long Does Yakisugi (Shou Sugi Ban) Last?
You can see houses in Japan over 100 years old that still show no signs of rot or decay.
We wanted to create a modern rustic lifestyle and found that this ancient Japanese technique of charring wood was the perfect blend or contemporary, natural, and practical. I encourage everyone to experiment with this black beauty of a material either inside or outside your home and garden. If you’d like to see more about how you can create a modern rustic lifestyle check us out at ShizenStyle.