Tips for Shou Sugi Ban (2020)

Whether you are looking to create a beautiful black char or a zebra striped burn pattern these tips will help you become successful in your venture.
There isn’t a whole of information out there on how to get into this type of woodworking. It is a very simple process and can be a riot of fun.
Shou Sugi Ban was created in Japan during the 1700s. It was a way to preserve their cedar siding from weather. Traditionally using the local cedar. Coincidentally by scorching the wood the Japanese were able to waterproof their wood as well as bugproof and fireproof it.
The Original Process
A cedar board was placed side down upon a fire until charred, then removed to cool. After which a wire brush was scraped against the char to remove any loose carbon. Boiled linseed was poured upon the burnt wood to strengthen the char and add an extra level of water resistance.
New & Improved Process
You can utilize any type of butane or propane torch to acquire the look you are seeking.
There are two burning methods to start with for achieving different looks and qualities. The rest of the steps there after are the same for both.
First off: wood choice!!
This is very important, depending on the look you are going for. If your goal is for a full black burn without the original wood grain showing through then you will need to use a hard wood. The dense properties of the wood create a beautiful full spectrum black, but if you are going for a more zebra look then the hardwood will create issues. It may allow a bit of color variance to show, but it won’t be much and will require a lot of wire brushing on the back end to achieve this.
If your goal is for the favored zebra look of bright grain and dark burnt grain then softwood is your answer. The “zebra look” the softwood provides is due to the ease of char removal from your less dense wood fibers between your growth lines. When you burn the wood, the dense fibers retain the burn due to the fiber's fortitude against the abrasive wire brush. Whereas the soft fibers in between the growth lines can easily be removed with a single pass of a wire wheel.
Side Note: If you are simply looking to run a torch lightly over your wood for the zebra look then either hard or soft wood will work. I still Suggest the soft wood in this case, because it will be easier to clean up and unwanted inconsistencies with the torch.
Step 1 Fire:
You can use any fire source you like. Many utilize a hand blow torch and is very common. This tool allows a more delicate burn and attention to detail when looking to simply scorch the growth grains and move onto clean up.
I only using a "weed torch" connected to a 20lb propane tank. For two reasons, I love owning a flame thrower and the process I use requires a deep burn to the wood and a literal flame thrower allows me to accomplish this in quick time.
Hand Torch
If you are looking to simply burn the growth grains for an easy plug and play zebra look then lightly carry your torch across the grain and uniform manner to bring the growth lines out. Then move to Step 2!
Weed Torch
If your goal is a full black beauty wood or to achieve the zebra grain, I prefer then burn the wood until you have an alligator skin look to the wood. The goal is to see the wood glow red under your torch.
Step 2 Clean Up:
Three methods come to mind; a wire brush, angle grinder with wire wheel, and a sander. Whichever method you use to prepare your wood for step three use an air compressor to blow out any carbon then follow up with a lint free cloth and mineral spirits.
Wire Brush
A wire brush is labor some and will not remove nearly as much char as the other two options. Which is why the wire brush is perfect for a light burn method. It will remove the light dusty carbon from the top without damaging your growth line burn. Make sure to brush with the grain. This will accentuate the wood grain and prevent a perpendicular line gauge of ugliness to your project.
Angle Grinder
My personal favorite! if you want to get down quick and dirty, this is your tool! It will clean up any amount of char and carbon in a fraction of the time for a wire brush. Don't be afraid of its power either. it will quickly remove all black from your soft fibers, but your black growth lines will still stay intact. The wire wheel is an opposite approach from the brush. You want your wheel to brush perpendicular to the grain. The wheel is so quick that if performed with the grain you will be left with deep inconsistent gauges. With the wheel perpendicular to the grain you will be left with a smooth finish and a uniform look. Make sure you wire wheel from both sides of your board to provide the most dramatic variance in your zebra look.
A sander will remove the top layer of carbon but will not provide a whole lot of dramatic variance in tones. I prefer this method before I am ready to apply finish or if I need my piece to be a full black.
STOP!!! If you want the most dramatic version of Shou Sugi Ban then repeat steps 1 & 2 for three full revolutions.
Step 3 Finishing:
Any finish will do and depends on the look and use of the piece. The most common finish for Shou Sugi is an oil or wax. I have found great success in the use of poly. It strengthens and hardens the surface and gives me the glossy shine. I have also found cutting poly 50/50 with mineral spirits to be a great option for a matte finish.
Cautionary Tips:
· Burn both sides of your piece to prevent cupping or spray down with water immediately after burning.
· It is best to burn your wood prior to glue up to prevent shrinking and too much heat will weaken your glue
· Have a set of clothing (preferably coveralls) dedicated to removing char
· Always burn your wood outside!
· Heat resistant gloves are a must
· Make mistakes and have fun!!!