Woodworking enthusiasts are always seeking new techniques to expand their already-considerable skill sets, and one such technique that utilizes natural wood is shou sugi ban. A shooting star in interior design circles circa 2021, this Japanese wood preservation technique brings out the beauty of individual wood pieces and confers the practical benefits of resistance to water and fire. So just what is shou sugi ban, why should you use it in your DIY projects, which woods do you use and how do you do it? We demystify the particulars of this woodworking technique below plus teach you how to seal your shou sugi ban with Pure Tung Oil.
The Art of Shou Sugi Ban
The term shou sugi ban translates to charred cedar board, and that concisely describes this woodworking technique. Also known as yakisugi, shou sugi ban consists of charring cedar boards, burnishing the burnt results with sandpaper and wire brushes and then sealing the charred surface with natural oils such as Pure Tung Oil. While this method of preserving wood has become a trendy alternative for indoor home decor, the Japanese have used shou sugi ban on Japanese cedar tree planks since at least the 18th century. When used as wood siding, their final shou sugi ban results protected their homes’ exteriors due to the waterproof, fire-resistant properties.
Benefits of Shou Sugi Ban
Aside from mitigating damage from water and fire, shou sugi ban offers other benefits for DIY woodworking projects. This technique preserves wood so the pieces retain durability over the years, and it provides an attractive finish that fits well with a variety of decorative styles. Deeper charring results in a deep black look with an alligator skin texture that meshes with numerous color schemes, and lighter charring brings wood grain to the surface for an attractive rustic effect that fits well with farmhouse and lodge-style furnishings. Additionally, shou sugi ban works well for both small and large projects, making it equally suited to making tabletop candleholders, decorating wood frames and enhancing wood siding.
Woods Used for Shou Sugi Ban
Traditional shou sugi ban utilizes cryptomeria japonica (Japanese red cedar) wood due to its porous structure. Obviously, this wood isn’t common in the United States, so woodworking enthusiasts usually use high-quality North American softwood alternatives like Southern cypress, Western red cedar or basswood. If you can’t get your hands on any of these woods or just want to experiment with what you have on hand, however, common hardwoods such as pine, maple, oak and hemlock also work reasonably well for DIY shou sugi ban, though you may not want to use your results for decking, siding or cladding projects.
The Shou Sugi Ban Process
Since you’re going to be dealing with immense heat, you need a safe space to work through the shou sugi ban process — preferably outdoors. Working outdoors ensures exceptional ventilation and reduces the risk of smoke inhalation. If you’re working indoors in a well-ventilated space, be sure to move anything out of the way that has the potential to catch fire while you’re charring your wood. Whether working indoors or out, make sure to have a fire extinguisher handy just in case sparks fly and you need to quickly put out flames. When you’ve prepared your work area, gather essential supplies so you have everything close at hand. You need the following for this DIY woodworking project:
- Heat source
- Wire brush
- Coarse sandpaper
- Finishing oil
- Brush for oil application
Burning the Wood
Using the traditional Japanese technique of shou sugi ban requires high heat intensity and extreme flame control. For these reasons, modern propane torches and blowtorches work great for creating a charred wood surface via yakisugi woodworking. Set up your equipment, arrange the wood for the coverage you desire and start burning the wood with your heat source. Additionally, take extra precautions with work clothing and wear safety glasses or a welder’s mask as you work.
It typically takes 5 to 10 seconds of exposure for the wood to blacken and soot to develop once you apply concentrated heat evenly over the surface. Watch the wood carefully as you work, and stop the burn when you see the surface split like logs in a fireplace. Keep in mind that the end grains usually burn slower than the face grains, so you may need to apply more heat to those areas to ensure an even burn pattern.
Brushing the Wood
The next step in the shou sugi ban process is removing the charred wood from the very top layer of your project. Most yakisugi woodworking enthusiasts do this by way of wire brushing, though some prefer using coarse sandpaper to remove the char. If you’re using a wire brush, work in the direction of the grain, removing enough of the top layer to reveal the brownish-black wood color characteristic of this wood-burning technique. If you want an alligator skin effect, keep the wire brushing or sanding to a minimum, but continue on to the wood-grain if you don’t want the ridges and bumps to remain apparent on the charred wood surface.
Cleaning the Wood
Before you apply a finishing oil such as Pure Tung Oil by the Real Milk Paint Co. to your shou sugi ban project, you need to clean away any dust and debris leftover from the brushing step. To do this, simply spray all the ash and dust away by using an air compressor or wipe the charred surface down with a wet cloth. If you clean the charred wood with a wet cloth, be sure to let the surface dry before moving on to the shou sugi ban tung oil process.
Pure Tung Oil and Shou Sugi Ban
Using Pure Tung Oil on shou sugi ban projects seals the surface of the wood for further preservation against the elements. Before you begin, consider where you’ll be using or displaying your yakisugi woodworking pieces. For example, if you’re building a coffee table, Pure Tung Oil on its own gets the job done, but if you’re planning on using the cedar planks you char as wood siding or in outdoor furnishings, consider using our Outdoor Defense Oil. This option combines our Pure Tung Oil with pine oil and zinc for improved weather resistance. You can use any of our finishing oils, including Hemp Oil to seal your charred wood.
To complete the shou sugi ban tung oil process, apply liberal amounts of Pure Tung Oil or Outdoor Defense Oil to the charred surface and then allow it to soak in and dry. Once you see how it covered the charred wood, apply a second coat, focusing your attention on dryer areas that may not have absorbed as much tung oil during the first coat. At this point, your yakisugi project is finished, though some woodworking experts suggest hitting the finished surface with your propane torch or blowtorch again to better seal in the oil finish.
Shou sugi ban offers a unique alternative to traditional shiplapping when you want to create a feature wall and helps you craft rustic woodworking projects that grab attention. To keep your DIY yakisugi projects looking their best with frequent use and the passage of time, use our shou sugi ban tung oil process to improve wood preservation and impart an attractive matte look to your finished results.
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