Charred Wood for Home Decor
By Matt Weber
Make Decorative Wood Pieces using Shou Sugi Ban-inspired Charring Techniques
“Shou Sugi Ban” is a centuries-old Japanese method of preserving Japanese cedar siding by charring it. This wood-burning technique is now growing in popularity among homeowners in the U.S. and Canada for its decorative appeal.
The process involves charring the wood surface with exposed flame from a propane torch, then cooling it, cleaning it with a wire brush, rinsing, and then applying a finish coat. Although time-consuming, the final product can have a rich, silvery finish, and the charred wood resists fire, rot, insects, and can last for decades. Depending on the heat and cleaning technique, a wide range of finish appearances can be created with Shou Sugi Ban. This application can be used for wood siding, accent walls, wainscoting, column/beam wraps, outdoor benches, and all sorts of creative applications.
In researching this topic, the EHT staff came across the folks at Inspire Woodcraft of Sacramento, California, who have tweaked their wood-burning techniques to achieve a variety of truly handsome appearances and textures for wood.
With traditional Shou Sugi Ban, which literally translates to “burnt cedar board,” the wood is tied together in bundles of three, forming a triangular chimney, which is placed on-end over a fire, pulling the flame upwards and charring the inside faces of the boards. The boards are then taken off the fire and cooled with water, stopping the burning process and hardening the blackened, charred surface. The cooled, black surface becomes resistant to sun and rain, insects, rot and fire itself.
The craftsmen at Inspire Woodcraft haven’t exactly adhered to Japanese tradition, and in doing so have created some beautiful wood finishes with creative flair.
Jodee Bickell of Inspire Woodcraft explains: “One day while designing a coffee table, we had the idea of lightly burning the edges of the boards we were using, and then staining the boards one color. The theory was that it would give the boards a light-to-dark contrast and give an interesting visual effect. While we were right in theory, it didn’t turn out exactly how we wanted. So we kept developing the process, trying to achieve a look we were satisfied with. What we soon discovered is that by fully scorching a piece of wood and then brushing away the loose char, the wood grain itself would stay intact and blacken, while the soft springwood in between the grain could be removed, leaving a beautiful, contrasting visual element not normally seen. The only logical next step in our minds was to add a colorful stain, wipe it down, and see what happened.
“The results that we achieved in the beginning was just that: the beginning,” Bickell says. “We use different kinds of brushes, machinery, burn techniques, milling and stain methods in our work, because each technique develops completely different results. We now have figured out how to incorporate all these different techniques to create captivating visuals for art/decor pieces and for a unique, one-of-a-kind wall covering.”
To check out the different burned wood finishes Bickell has achieved, EHT readers should check out the Inspire Woodcraft videos on YouTube, where he offers a detailed tutorial on the various phases of the process. Here’s a rundown of the basics.
When selecting wood for charring, look for construction-grade softwood lumber, such as hemlock, pine, spruce and fir, which have a soft grain. This is because after you burn the surface, you’re going to scrape out the soft springwood between the bands of woodgrain. It’s much more difficult to remove that material when working with hardwood. The soft whitewood species are also lighter in color, which essentially serves as a blank canvas for the coloration to follow. Choose wood pieces with the lightest color available.
Grain orientation is also a concern. When selecting wood, check the board’s end-grain for the growth rings. You want to apply the Shou Sugi Ban technique to the outside (bark-side) of the tree for the most interesting grain pattern.
Finally, look for wood labeled “KD,” which stands for kiln-dried. Wood with high moisture content won’t dry out and therefore won’t work well for the charring technique.
Wood Burning Tips
For smaller projects, Bickell uses a Berzomatic torch (propane or MAPP gas) to char the wood surface. For larger projects, he uses a weed torch connected to a propane tank, but beginners should stick with a small handheld Bernzomatic.
It should go without saying that you’ll need a safe place to work with open flame, away from any notably flammable materials. A welding table can be used to provide a non-flammable working surface, or you can use a wood workbench if you don’t mind the likelihood of char marks.
Bickell supports the workpiece on a bench and passes the flame over the wood surface along the same direction as the woodgrain. Move the flame in a consistent pattern with smooth, even strokes to avoid blotchiness as the wood darkens. Keep the flame the same distance from the wood throughout the process. The first pass over the entire face of the board will have some charring effect, but it is essentially heating the wood in preparation for the following passes, which will char the grain and springwood. The soft springwood will burn faster and deeper than the hard grain. Note that if you plan to brush out the softwood for a high-contrast effect, then you don’t need to burn the wood to the point that it looks like firewood. If you plan to remove the springwood, you only need to blacken the entire board surface.
The perfect charred wood or Shou Sugi Ban-inspired finish comes down to the burn technique. This depends largely on the degree to which the surface is burned, or how long the wood is exposed to the flame.
For a more blackened end product, a different surface effect can be achieved by charring the wood until it won’t take any more flame. This technique ultimately makes the board surface more fire-retardant but also distorts the surface with a distinct alligator-like texture. The surface can then be brushed to even out the color and then clear-coated to finish.
Brushing the Surface
A variety of brushes can be used to different effect. Bickell recommends a nylon utility brush for removing loose char. He uses wire brushes with bristles of different stiffness (stainless steel, brass), to vary the tooling effects left on the wood surface. He also uses a few drill-mounted brush attachments to speed up the process (specifically a Nyalox flap brush that can spin in the direction of the wood grain).
The nylon brush alone will achieve a fairly uniform sheen. The more aggressive wire brushes will remove more char, revealing the lighter springwood beneath but leaving the dark rings of the harder grain for a higher contrast.
Stain and Finish
After you’ve brushed and cleaned your charred wood, it can then be clear-coated to preserve its natural color or be enhanced with the use of a stain or dye. The colorants are wiped or brushed onto the wood surface, and then the excess is wiped off to leave the desired tint.
For top coats, Bickell prefers water-based products such as Polycrylic from MinWax and the thicker Enduro-Var urethane from General Finishes (excellent for coating a fully charred wood surface).
Various products and techniques can achieve truly artful effects in a charred wood finish, and Bickell demonstrates these in his Inspire Woodcraft YouTube video series, which EHT urges you to check out. He goes into detail about his personal preferences and methods of application.
From accent walls to outdoor furniture, a charred finish is an interesting design element that can give your next woodcraft project a unique character of its own.
You can learn more about Shou Sugi Ban-inspired wood charring and other woodcraft techniques at www.inspirewoodcraft.com.
Side Note 1
UFP-Edge Colorful Charred Wood Shiplap and Boards
UFP-Edge, a brand of Universal Forest Products, Inc., expands its line of Charred Wood with seven bold and vibrant color additions: Canyon (brown), Ash (gray), Smoke (white), Coastal (teal), Sunrise (yellow), Lava (red) and Deep Sea (blue). The new colors join natural Charred Wood and are available in shiplap and board profiles at building products retailers across the U.S. Charred Wood from UFP-Edge is crafted with high-quality lumber that has been expertly burned to highlight its distinct wood-grain pattern and texture. The 1×6-inch shiplap is easy to install on virtually any interior wall or ceiling. Matching 1×4-in. trim and 1×6 boards are perfect complements for shiplap framing, but can also be used for a multitude of do-it-yourself projects. For more information, visit www.ufpedge.com/charred-wood.
Side Note 2
Ignite Cladding by Thermory USA
Ignite cladding, a new product from Thermory USA, provides the look of Shou Sugi Ban with durability all the way to the core. And unlike charred wood, Ignite has no messy residue. Ignite offers the realistic look of charred wood, without the flames. The cladding is created from thermally-modified wood using a process of heat and steam that enhances the wood’s stability and lessens its weight. Ignite achieves its signature dragon scale pattern by embossing, brushing and tinting thermally modified Scots pine. Unlike modern Shou Sugi Ban, which is often created by hand with a torch, Ignite is created with a deceptively flame-free process. It is also available with only the brushed texture. The thermal modification gives the wood consistent rot resistance throughout the board, a high level of dimensional stability, and a consistent appearance from batch to batch. Learn more at www.thermoryusa.com.