I love experimenting with different DIY techniques and, as both an avid maker of things and a volunteer firefighter, I feel duty bound to show you this really cool DIY charred wood tutorial – also known as shou sugi ban, a Japanese wood burning technique. Don’t quote me on this, but my research indicates that “shou sugi ban” means “burnt cedar board” and it’s a centuries old Japanese technique for preserving wood with fire. Basically it’s a way to speed up the weathering process and make a wood plank naturally weatherproof. Traditionally used for siding, wood charring techniques like shou sugi ban have seen a resurgence in popularity. Seeing it used in interior applications inspired me to think beyond siding. (Although there was a moment during our “should we/shouldn’t we DIY our own siding?” phase that I actually contemplated charring each and every board myself. You’ll soon see why I’m soooo glad that I didn’t commit to that. I’m already a slow and leisurely DIY-er, livin’ on lake time, so even with a larger blow torch it would have been decades before I completed that task).
Although the art of Japanese wood burning has a rich history, even a beginner DIY-er can have fun with this method of preserving wood by burning it. I’m no pro, but after experimenting with a bunch of shou sugi ban projects, including different wood species of varying newness, I’ve picked up some tips and tricks. I’v outlined my own version of this Japanese wood burning technique in an easy DIY charred wood tutorial – with supply shopping list – below.
Before I delve into how to do shou sugi ban, you might want to know why I was burning my lumber. If you caught yesterday’s patio door makeover, you probably spotted one of my charred wood projects: our new deck step! The design matches the metal and wood step we built last year for the car port entrance. We had intended to let the wood weather to a driftwood grey but it didn’t weather at all! I wasn’t too bothered because with the new, moodier siding choice we made this year I wanted a darker wood on the step and bench we built anyway. I’ve been really drawn toward unusual and earthy textures, so the idea of a charred wood step with a deep, rich hue sounded perfect for our new exterior plan – plus burning wood instead of applying stain sounded like a heck of a lot of fun! (Spoiler: it was!)
If you’re eyeing up a stack of lumber, here’s all the supplies you’ll need to tackle your own shou sugi ban Japanese wood burning project.
- Cedar lumber (I also tried red oak and it worked nicely too)
- Small blow torch (you can buy a kit and then inexpensive replacement propane cans – one can did two steps, a bench and a mystery project)
- Stiff bristle brush (something like this)
- Compressed air (we have this compressor kit but for a small project these cheap cans of compressed air do the trick)
- Spark lighter
- Old broom
- Dust mask
- Heat resistant gloves (optional – but it’s a safety measure I should mention)
- Rubber gloves (optional – to save skin from charred wood dust)
- Garden hose (just in case)
- Non-flammable work surface (like a concrete deck or gravel driveway – not a wood deck)
- Wood sealant (for a step, look for a product intended for decks and foot traffic)
- Car jack stands like these (optional – anything not flammable works to prop up your boards)
Let’s just take a closer look at those supplies, because they might not be what every DIY-er has in their tool box! Luckily, we already owned a small blow torch kit from a previous plumbing project. It came with the torch head, below, a small propane tank, and some plumbing stuff. This is the torch head you’ll need:
Using this blow torch is simple: just turn the dial and light the end with a lighter. You can buy larger cylinders but my tiny hands found this easier to hold for hours on end. One quick tip: it didn’t like being held horizontally and sometimes the flame went out so I kept the lighter nearby to keep re-lighting it. I also learned to prop up my surface so I could hold the tank more vertically.
I used car stands to help prop up my projects because I spent a long time burning and not having to hunch over the project like a crafty gargoyle helped my back immensely. A small (not flammable) stool might help you too! Just get comfy because this will take a few hours but it’s really meditative work so I promise the time will fly by. Once my safety equipment (ahem, pretend I’m wearing fire retardant gloves) was donned, I just wielded my propane blow torch like a spray can of paint. Following the direction of the grain, I used sweeping motions to char the wood, just like if I was spraying paint – but I was spraying flame. Little flare ups were okay and helped the charring process. You can burn it as little or as much as you want, but for this shou sugi ban technique the goal is to really char the wood until you get the crocodile skin forming – almost like you’ve snagged a log from a bonfire that’s just getting going. It lightens up a lot after the excess is scraped off, so if you’re going for a dark finish aim for the level of char you see below. I recommend grabbing a scrap of wood and testing it out a little bit so you can see how much lighter the wood gets when the charred layer is removed. You can go back a re-char an area after scraping to get it darker but I found that a silkier finish emerged if I got it as dark as I wanted the first time.
Now for the sad part. I LOVED how the wood took on that leathery look but that’s a lot of loose stuff so it needed to be scraped away. I read some Japanese wood burning tutorials that recommended a stiff wire brush and that was terrible advice! It gouged the wood. Instead, I picked up a very stiff plastic bristle brush (below) from the cleaning aisle at my local home improvement store and it was perfect – look for something really sturdy with little to no bend. Then, following the grain, vigorously brush the charred wood to remove the loose pieces and reveal the finish below – this is a good time to put on that dust mask.
On the left side, still charred wood, and on the right side, where I had already removed much of the loose particulate with my brush:
When I was satisfied that all loose bits had been removed, I gave the wood a sweep and then used a compressor and air nozzle (you can use a can of compressed air instead) to ensure that the fine dust I created wasn’t hanging around in the wood grain.
The final step was to seal the wood. I have read about many different kinds of oils and natural sealants (like linseed oil) but I wanted to make sure I used something we could walk on so I opted for this wood protector photographed below, from Home Hardware. I recommend heading to your local paint shop and describing your project. For a step like this, ask for a top coat that is designed for decks and foot traffic. If you’re doing this DIY charred wood technique for a different project, tailor the top coat to your needs. This particular product was very thin and milky when applied so I just poured it on, brushed it and hoped it dried clear – and it did. Yay! Two coats helped amp up the sheen and lustre – when the sunlight hits it, it really gleams but in the shade it looks very moody.
I am beyond thrilled with the result! Thanks to this Japanese wood burning technique, the wood has incredible depth and sheen. It shimmers in a way that a wood stain just can’t replicate. I’ll keep you posted on how this weathers and wears – it’s wood, so it will change with exposure and use, but I’m pretty confident that it will stand the test of time.
The ONLY trouble I encountered during my Japanese wood burning project was that I charred my wood when the cedar surface was glued and assembled and the wood glue made charring the seams nearly impossible. If I did this again, I’d char my planks before assembling my project! And, if the wood glue didn’t dry clear, I’d use the char dust and mix with epoxy to create a color-matched caulking of sorts. But aside from this little whoops, this project – and the revamped car port step and bench – were successes! And I have one more really, really fun shou sugi ban project to show you – I just need to take a break from painting the exterior and snap some photos.