The Japanese craft of Yakisugi is—due to a botched translation—mistakenly called Shou Sugi Ban in the West. This technique has been used for centuries in Japan and is growing in popularity around the world—here's what to know.
Shou Sugi Ban, also known as Yakisugi, is a decorative and architectural wood-burning technique that has been used for centuries in Japan. This traditional Japanese wood preservation method involves voluntarily charring wood to create a textural surface that is beautiful to look at—and that offers practical advantages when executed correctly. It can be used as a treatment on outdoor architectural elements such as siding, as well as indoors on walls and furniture. The aesthetic qualities of Shou Sugi Ban have inspired a revived interest in the wood-charring technique in recent years, which has become a prominent trend in architecture and interior design around the world.
The Origins of Shou Sugi Ban (Yakisugi)
Shou Sugi Ban (or Yakisugi, as it is known in Japan) means “burned cedar.” It is an ingenious 18th-century Japanese wood burning technique that creates an intriguing charred appearance that highlights natural wood veining, creates textural interest, and varies in appearance according to how much fire is applied and which type of wood is used. (Japanese Cypress is considered the gold standard for purists, although other wood types can be used to varying degrees of success.) While it might seem counterintuitive, the act of charring wood doesn’t make it structurally weaker, but magically has the opposite effect. Burning the surface of the wood under controlled conditions fortifies and protects the wood against future damage, making it an excellent preservation technique.
The use of Shou Sugi Ban in traditional Japanese architecture predates the practice of using chemicals to protect wood siding. Achieving Shou Sugi Ban involves a process that includes carefully selecting virgin wood that is cut into planks, dried in the sun or open air, burned on the surface to create a thin layer of char, then brushed and sealed with oil. This process can be done manually by everyone from master craftsmen to DIY enthusiasts, or by using machine automation.
This centuries-old technique lends a fresh and contemporary edge to modern architecture. The distinctive look of deeply saturated charcoal black wood has an understated but powerful presence that creates instant drama and interest on even the most minimalist structures and applications.
In recent years, the look of Shou Sugi Ban has become so on-trend that it has inspired designers to experiment with charred wood in surprising ways. Internationally renowned Dutch designer Maarten Baas is known for his Smoke series for luxury brand Moooi that includes a charred armchair and a blackened wood chandelier that is sealed with transparent epoxy resin. Inspired by Shou Sugi Ban, Baas and Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek designed Burnt Wood Wallpaper for NLXL that offers an accessible trompe l'oeil way to incorporate the look. And you can now find faux Shou Sugi Ban panels made from treated (but not charred), reclaimed (rather than new) wood on the market, as well.
Uses of Shou Sugi Ban (Yakisugi)
- Siding, fencing, decking, and door or window frames on the exterior homes or other buildings
- Interior wall and ceiling cladding
- Outdoor furniture, such as tables and chairs
- Indoor furniture, such as chairs, tables, dressers, and cabinetry
- Designer creations such as chandeliers and even jewelry
- Interior and exterior accent walls and panels
Advantages of Shou Sugi Ban (Yakisugi)
- No- to low-maintenance material
- Wood can be left to develop a patina over time or re-oiled periodically to maintain its color
- Provides weatherproofing and waterproofing
- Prevents mold and wood rot, increasing durability and longevity
- Protects against termites and other insect infestations
- Has fire-retarding properties
- Increases stability of wood planks
- Doesn’t require use of chemicals
- Promotes sustainability through use of natural materials, although the effects of burning wood and creating ash has environmental implications
- Creates a textural surface that adds interest to even the most minimalist or modest structures
Challenges of Shou Sugi Ban (Yakisugi)
- While anyone can try their hand at it, the wood charring process requires patience and care to execute
- Technique must be used on clean wood, such as Japanese Cypress
- Not all woods work as successfully to achieve desired effects
- Safety issues and proper use of materials such as a blow torch is a factor for DIYers
Interested in trying it out for yourself? Check out our DIY Shou Sugi Ban tutorial.
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Yakisugi: Origins. Japan Woodcraft Association.
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Kerdiati, Ni Luh Kadek Resi. Understanding Wood Finishing Using the Japanese Wood Burning Technique (Shou Sugi Ban) in Architecture. Journal of Aesthetics, Design, and Art Management, vol. 1, no. 1, 2021.
Environmental and Health Impacts of Open Burning. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Torch Safety. Southwest Center for Agricultural Health.