Shou-Sugi-Ban. Literally, burnt cedar board.
The term “Shou-Sugi-Ban” is Japanese meaning “burnt cedar board”. The term describes the centuries old Japanese technique of charring “Sugi” (cedar) planks used for residential siding, fencing, and decking projects. The ancient technique of preserving wood by charring it with fire dates from the 1700’s and came about as a result of a shortage of natural driftwood. Japanese carpenters sought artistic and unique finishes that also improved durability. They used driftwood from the coastlines of Japan where the weathering process wood undergoes when subjected to the harsh environment of saltwater, surf, and sun, accounts for its unique appearance and durability. Japanese driftwood was valued for its singular appearance and durability in many different carpentry mediums. With shortage came invention, so they turned to another weathering process to achieve the durability and aesthetic they desired. Fire in this case provided the preservative, and the unique and artistic dimension Japanese homeowners and craftsman were looking for.
The process involves charring the wood, cooling it, cleaning it, and finishing it with natural oil. Today Shou-Sugi-Ban is an environmentally friendly way to preserve timber and (paradoxically) make it fire-resistant. A durable finish naturally hardened by fire, naturally sealed against weather and insects. Chemical preservatives, paints, and retardants are unnecessary. In addition to exterior uses, the popular technique is now found in interior rooms, furniture, and artwork.
Since the early 2000′s, Shou Sugi Ban has been “rediscovered,” in Japan, and quickly gained the attention of architects and designers in Europe and North America. It started showing up in custom designed houses and buildings and furniture in the last few years its use has really exploded, for all the same reasons that it was popular in Japan hundreds of years ago.
In a galaxy of new finishes and textures, Shou Sugi Ban is beautiful, natural, warm, textured with nuanced. I wish I could say it was my “discovery”, but sadly no. It was a request from a client who had been looking at it for some time for accent product and we are happy to help investigate. In doing our research we have discovered an amazing range of colors and textures achievable when using this technique on many different woods so we are really motivated to explore and to try the look on some new products.
While beautiful, it is still an artisan finish in both method and application. Certainly, with current finishing technologies, the finish could be emulated with commercial finishing methods/methods which could give it a wider appeal, but the authenticity and distinction offered by this technique might be lost. I don’t see as a problem having some aspect of the look just beyond ultra-mass reach because then, as a unique finish, it may retain an aura and caché. It doesn’t have to appear in everyone’s living room!