Shou-Sugi-Ban

The flame provided by a propane torch is just the first step in the shou sugi ban process. 

It’s the “trend” that’s been around for millennia.

It’s a process that, counterintuitively, uses fire to make wood more fire-resistant.

And it’s a technique that preserves wood by, in a sense, destroying its surface.

Welcome to shou sugi ban.

A ‘hot’ trend

At its core, shou sugi ban — also called yakisugi in Japan — is a process of treating wood with intense heat, then quickly cooling it. It aids in preserving wood by helping it resist rot, insects, fire and damage from sun and water.

Using fire “changes the cellular structure of wood,” explains Doug Engle of Redemption Designs LLC in Lancaster city. A former certified arborist, Engle has started using shou sugi ban in his collaborations with Mark Springer, the owner/artist behind Lancaster-based Untitled Mark.

Together, in a workshop off Hazel Street in Lancaster city, Springer and Engle are using the process in many of the items they’re creating, from commissioned courtyard fences to wine racks, shelving and planters.

“I learned about it in art school and became interested in the process,” Springer says. He started out with small projects such as furniture before beginning to branch out with Engle on larger designs.

Between Engle’s knowledge of wood, Springer’s art sensibilities and the commitment they share to reusing old materials, this centuries-old process is irresistible.

“It’s probably the first way people treated wood” to preserve it, Engle says. “It’s more eco-friendly (than chemicals), and it lasts longer. It doesn’t wear off.”

How much longer? According to Nakamoto Forestry, the world’s largest mill producer of shou sugi ban, you won’t have to treat, or otherwise refinish, the wood for nearly a century.

That’s for starters. According to a 2017 New York Times article, public municipal buildings in Kurashiki, in southern Japan, are built with shou sugi ban wood and are nearly a century old.

And Japan’s Buddhist Horyuji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site, still towers its full five stories after being built in 711 using shou sugi ban.

Four steps

At the same time the technique is being used less frequently in Japan (it’s often considered “countrified,” landscape architect and author Marc Keane tells The New York Times), it’s started becoming more common in the West. The dark hue and enhanced grain that result from the process work well with both modern and industrial designs.

Engle’s knowledge of wood comes in handy for the joint projects undertaken by Redemption Designs and Untitled Mark. Shou sugi ban “works best with soft woods,” such as the cedar, or Japanese cypress, that’s been traditionally used — the name of the process translates literally to “burnt cedar board.” Pine and hemlock are other locally obtainable woods that fit that category, but Springer and Engle also have experimented with oak, a much harder wood.

It is, Engle says, a four-step process: char, cool, wire brush and oil-coat.

The original source of the char — burning with a controlled fire — has been replaced with a blow torch or flamethrower. That also involves a garden hose at the ready, Springer says, as a crucial safety precaution.

“You really have to watch how deep you’re going with the char,” Springer adds. If the wood isn’t burned deeply enough, the char will rub off, taking its protective qualities with it; too deep, and you’ll destroy the wood.

The steps of cooling, brushing and oiling, the pair say, all can combine to affect the wood’s final hue and graining.

Engle and Springer recently completed a cedar courtyard fence, using shou sugi ban, for a Lancaster city property.

They’d completed part of it, Engle says, when the owner came home, looked it over and declared they preferred a darker char with a blacker end result.

“So we just were able to go back over it,” Engle says. The end result: a strikingly dark fence with bold, lighter graining.