Shou Sugi Ban: Creating A Gorgeous Burnt Wood Finish

A burnt wood finish is a unique way to decorate wood. The official term for burning wood is shou sugi ban as the technique is Japanese. Both terms are correct and refer to the same process of burning wood.

Burnt Wood Finish

This technique is quite rare but it can be done the DIY way and has seen some amazing transformations. Let’s learn more about this beautiful way to create art from wood with nothing but a fire to support us. 

What Is A Burnt Wood Finish? Shou Sugi Ban

Quite simply, a burnt wood finish is a finish applied to wood by burning the surface of it. There are many different ways to do this, usually with a torch, and it both darkens and texturizes the wood. 

The end result is a gorgeous contrasting look to wood that can be stained, sealed, or painted with transparent colored paint. But to know more about a burned wood finish, you need to know about its origins. 

History Of Shou Sugi Ban

Shou Sugi BanView in gallery
Images from instructables.

Shou sugi ban is the term used for what is called yakisugi in Japan. The ancient Japanese technique for preserving wood has been used for thousands of years. The literal translation of shou sugi ban is “burnt cedar board” in English.

The wood was originally burnt with a wooden torch or flame, but today it is more common to use a blow torch. The final result is an obsidian-like layer on the wood that has a lot of benefits which we will go over later.

The earliest use of this technique was seen before 1000 A.D, but specific examples aren’t widespread until 18th-century Japan. It was used then to weatherproof houses by using shou sugi ban on wood siding. 

Original shou sugi ban was used to create a burnt wood finish on cedar. The translation proves that. Today, many kinds of wood are used, but it’s important to use the right kind of wood to prevent burning the entire board or causing an accident. 

Benefits Of Shou Sugi Ban

There are many benefits to shou sugi ban, or a burned wood finish. Some of these are practical and others are all about aesthetics. Here are the best things about shou sugi ban wood and how it can benefit you. 

  • Moisture-Resistant – when you burn the wood, you leave behind a shield of char that protects the wood from moisture. Add another shield of sealer and you have a well-protected moisture barrier.
  • Insect-Repellant – let’s face it, insects are attracted to wood, especially wet wood. Shou sugi ban is actually a natural way to add fungicide and pesticide to anything made of wood. The fire kills the nutrients that insects are attracted to. 
  • Fire-Resistant – it sounds kind of funny since you are burning the wood, but the process of shou sugi ban vaporizes the cellulose layer of wood. Then you are left with the less-flammable layers that can resist fire.
  • Gorgeous Contrast –  shou sugi ban adds gorgeous contrast to your wooden surface. You can get the most out of the tones of your wood and add new tones that aren’t there naturally. Without any chemicals at all too! 
  • More Texture – adding a layer of burned wood finish adds more texture. You can customize this texture by adding more or less char, but it always adds a bit of texture which can be further customized with sanding. 

Colored Shou Sugi Ban

Colored Burned Wood FinishView in gallery

In order to carry out this gorgeous look, you need a propane torch, or something similar. Any fire will work but a good propane torch is the quickest way to get an even and well-controlled burn on your wood. 

Step 1: Torching The Wood

Shou Sugi BanView in gallery

Honestly, there isn’t much prep work to be done. The wood should be natural so get yourself to a safe place to torch and make sure no one is near. Wear gloves and goggles and you are ready to torch.

Then, you need to start about a foot or so away from the wood and work your way closer to find the right distance for your look. Do this all slowly and brush the flame onto the wood, working in a zigzag pattern. 

Step 2: Brush The Wood

Shou Sugi BanView in gallery

Take a wire brush and gently scrape the top surface of the wood. You just want to break up the ash that you just created. You don’t want to scrape the wood itself, so be gentle with this process and take it slow.

If you do happen to have a thick layer of char and want a dark finish, you can brush a little more roughly. After you brush, you want to wipe it down with a paper towel or microfiber cloth to get rid of the remaining ash.

Step 3: Staining

Shou Sugi BanView in gallery

Now it’s time for the fun part that isn’t seen very often. You need a water-based clear tint stain that you mix in with a clear base. This way you can customize the color and transparency of the stain you use.

Brush on a coat of stain, and then wipe it off after a few seconds. Play with this until you find out how much to apply, but always wipe it off. You want a very thin layer to make sure that the burnt wood shines through.

Step 4: Sanding

Sanding the wood burnt finishView in gallery

Now it’s time to sand using 220 grit sandpaper. This will get the best natural wood look without removing the stain. Be gentle and sand the spots that you want the natural look of the wood to shine through the most.

You want to create a good contrast for your wood with colored areas that are darker, black areas, and natural wood areas. This part is not a science, it’s all about figuring out what you want by creating a work of art. 

Shou Sugi Ban Tips And Tricks

shou sugi ban tipsView in gallery

When it comes to burning wood, it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into. These tips and tricks can prevent accidents and help you get started in the right direction with your project.

Test First

This is true for almost anything done in construction or anything DIY really. Before you begin your project do a test run on a piece that you aren’t going to use. This can be a sample or a scrap. Just anything that it’s okay if you mess up. 

In this case, you will burn a small piece of wood and then sand it. Do the stain or whatever it is you are planning on doing for the whole project. Make sure everything turns out well before beginning. 

Pick A Good Grain

Wide grains will end up with thicker lines and less contrast because the grains will be thicker and blacker. When you finish burning the wood, you might find that the wood is darker if the wide grains are raised. 

For a more traditional look, medium grain is used. If they are too close together they will run together and not give a definite contrast either. You want a fairly equal amount of both raised and sunken grain. 

Species Matters

The type of tree or wood that you use is important. Cedar is the original shou sugi ban wood because it is soft and the top burns easily and quickly. It is often used to create burned wood designs as well as stamped wood.

It works for this reason but it’s not the only option. Other options include pine and spruce, with more exotic species being great too. Check with the exact species you use in order to find out if it is a good option. 

Brush The Wood

Brush the wood with the torch when you burn it. Pretend that the torch has an invisible bristle brush that you need to use on the wood. Pretend like you are lightly painting it. This can help you get the right pattern.

Only Sand After

You may sand the wood lightly after you “brush” it with the flame, but you don’t want to do so before. This will eliminate the texture and the uneven grain that makes the burned wood what it should be. 

Instead, actually, look for wood that is texture and not sanded. Unfinished wood is perfect and the more imperfect it is, the better it usually is for shou sugi ban. 

Keep Flames Short

Even if you are a foot away from the wood, you want to keep the flame short. The short flame will give a more even and easier to control burn. Long flames are difficult to control and could leave you with accidents. 

Add Oil

If you want a rough, rustic look then go ahead and leave the wood as it is after you burn it. But if you want a softer look that is even better protected, then apply a drying oil such as linseed or tung oil.

This will be great for the wood, it will be shiner, and it will be better protected. You have to reapply the oil but only after every decade or so. It should last about that long before the oil starts to fade again.