As counterintuitive as it sounds, burning wood not only helps to protect and preserve it, but it also gives it a unique and stunning appearance. Creating a burnt wood finish—also called Shou Sugi Ban or Yakisugi—is a centuries-old Japanese practice with a wide range of interior and exterior applications. Whether you want to transform a single piece of furniture or an entire wall into an aesthetic focal point, adding a burnt wood finish will contribute a level of depth and character that can't be obtained with any other finishing technique.
Before You Begin
The type of wood, torch, and brush you use will impact the appearance of your final product, and the amount of work involved.
Softwoods like cedar, pine, and cypress are the wood of choice for a burnt wood finish. Hardwoods like oak and cherry can also be used, but they won’t achieve the same texture and color contrasts typically associated with a burnt wood finish. Regardless of the wood you use, boards with wide grains and several knots make the most striking appearance when burned.
The propane torch you use can either be a handheld plumber’s torch or a larger weed torch (aka roofer’s torch). A weed torch provides great control and coverage, but it can potentially excessively char the wood. The torch and compatible propane cylinder are also more expensive to purchase. A plumber’s torch is the most affordable option, but it doesn't provide the same level of coverage or control as a weed torch. The best type of torch for you will largely depend on your budget and time constraints.
The two most commonly used brushes are the stiff-bristle nylon brush and wire brush. A wire brush will remove char and soot faster than a nylon brush, but can leave behind large scratches (tool marks) on the wood’s surface. Although that may sound undesirable, these tool marks can add extra character to rustic design projects.
Naturally, applying an open fire to a flammable object like wood carries an inherent risk of starting a fire. Keep the following items nearby for the duration of the burn:
- Spray bottle filled with water for small flare-ups
- Garden hose or 5-gallon bucket filled with water to dowse large flare-ups
- Fire extinguisher
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is also important to prevent burns. Suggested PPE includes:
- Work gloves: Any work gloves will do, just as long as they don’t contain any nitrile that can melt when exposed to high temperatures. Thicker gloves will offer the highest level of protection, but often at the cost of reduced manual dexterity.
- Safety glasses: Knots in the wood can contain sap that may bubble and pop into your eyes when exposed to an open flame.
- Face mask: It’s recommended to use a dust mask or respirator when brushing the wood to keep the ash and char from entering your lungs.
Finally, only perform this process in a well-ventilated area to avoid inhaling any fumes. Working outdoors or in a garage with the garage door open is best.
Equipment / Tools
- Propane torch (weed torch or plumber's torch)
- Brush (stiff-bristle nylon brush or wire brush)
- Spray bottle
- Garden hose or 5-gallon bucket filled with water
- Fire extinguisher
- Work gloves
- Safety glasses
- Face mask
- Propane (1- or 5+-gallon cylinder, depending on the torch)
- Wood finish (optional)
Prepare Your Work Space
Lay the wood onto an inflammable, flat, and level surface. Concrete driveways, garage floors, or metal workshop tables are ideal.
Burn the Wood
Light the torch and apply the flame to the wood. Move the torch's flame in a consistent pattern up and down the wood, in the direction of the wood grain. Continue burning until you achieve the desired level of charring.
A light burn will maintain some of the lighter colors in the denser wood grains and knots, while a deeper burn will create a more consistently colored finish.
A light burn may only require a single pass with the torch, but deeper burns might need multiple. When applying a deeper burn, torch the wood until the entire surface is charred and has crinkled to the point of looking like alligator skin. Spray the wood down with water in between passes to minimize warping and cupping of the wood.
Brush the Wood
Let the wood cool for about 10 minutes, then scrub the wood with your brush to remove ash and soot. Brush in the direction of the wood grain, and continue until you’ve achieved the desired color depth. The more you brush, the more char will be removed and the lighter the wood will become.
Wipe the wood down with a damp rag to remove to remove any residual material.
Apply Finish (Optional)
While not required, applying a coat of wood finish can add an extra layer of protection and aesthetic appeal to your burnt wood project. Popular options include:
- Boiled linseed oil
- Wood sealer
- Wood stain
- Wood dye
Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the proper application process.