While shou sugi ban (焼杉板) originated in Japan in the 18th century primarily as way to treat cedar siding to make it weatherproof, the technique—which involves charring a wood surface to render it a deep charcoal-black—has caught on recently as a treatment for contemporary exteriors and indoor furnishings alike. You can even find variations elevated to fine art, as in the work of the artist Maarten Baas. The gravitas imparted by the process and finished result (called yakisugi) are undeniable, a blackening of the wood that reveals clean, distinct lines and an inherent textural beauty. You might not be the proud owner of a blowtorch (yet), but any intrepid DIYer can absolutely accomplish the technique at home to give an existing piece of wood furniture a new look.
I met with Hugh Shackleton and his father, Charles Shackleton, of Shackleton Thomas furniture makers in Bridgewater, Vermont, to learn how shou sugi ban is done. (Though not Japanese, their company has a 30-year history of making handmade furniture, pottery, and accessories, and they leaped at the chance to learn and apply the technique.) Using a prototype for their Sansu Table, made from white cedar sourced from Koenig Cedar in Vermont and built in their workshop, the Shackletons treated and finished the project using the technique in the space of half a day—and are confident that you could, too.
1) Select the right wood
Hugh explained that cedar works best for shou sugi ban because of its natural chemical properties. “Cedar is a lighter, more porous wood,” he explains, and “there’s a chemical component to it which makes it work better for this technique. In this particular design, the bottom is basswood, which still works, but cedar takes it better.” Don’t fret if your table isn’t cedar or basswood; you can also use shou sugi ban on pine, hemlock, maple, or oak.
2) Burn it
Now the fun part. For large pieces of furniture, you will need a high-intensity flame like an ice melting torch, which you can purchase inexpensively online or rent at a hardware store (and, bonus, will serve you well in any blizzards this winter). “Char the surface enough so that it eats into the wood,” Hugh instructs. “When the wood starts to separate, like you’d see on a log in your fireplace, it’s done. End grain burns slower than face grain, so pay particular attention to the sides of the piece as you go.” Move the torch evenly over the wood, holding it over each area for about five to ten seconds until it goes black and a layer of soot develops. Be sure to torch in a well-ventilated area with no flammable materials around, preferably outside. Any standard propane tank you would find on a gas grill will work with the torch.
3) Wire brush it
Using a standard wire brush, remove all the char created by the blowtorch. “Be sure to go in the direction of the grain,” Hugh says, and work until all the charcoal dust has been brushed off. The process should reveal a rich, dark, brownish-black color. This is the point in the process where the texture of the grain gets revealed. “You need to be prepared for the characteristic change in the wood,” says Hugh. “Once you wire brush it, it opens up the wood. It becomes more porous.”
4) Clean it
Use either an air compressor or a wet cloth to clean the wood. An air compressor saves time in a pinch because you don’t have to wait for it to dry. If you use a wet cloth just wipe down the whole piece and wait for it to dry completely.
5) Oil it
Hugh initially wanted to finish the table with polyurethane for durability’s sake, but his dad Charlie, a traditionalist, convinced him to use boiled linseed oil instead, which contains added drying agents to speed up the process. In a classic family craft business compromise, both men chipped in to help. After the piece is completely dry, apply about a quart of oil liberally and work it into the grain with a rag. Allow it to dry and then apply a second coat to any dry spots. Both Shackletons suggest that you may want to “hit it again with the torch” to seal in the oil once you’ve applied a couple of coats.
The Sansu table, or anything you treat in the shou sugi ban technique, can be used outdoors or indoors and brings a textural depth to a living space. Indoor furniture should require very little maintenance, while outdoor furniture should be re-oiled about every 10 to 15 years. Happy burning!