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Shou sugi ban

Shou sugi ban

The technique of shou sugi ban is an ancient Japanese practice of charring wooden surfaces, which was in the early 2000’s rediscovered in the West thanks to the list of its benefits and its unique aspect. Counterintuitively, the charring wood gives the material fire and water resistant properties, as well as makes it protected from termites and other kinds of insect. When oiled periodically, the treatment extend the life-cycle of the wood up to 80 or 100 years.

This method has been used in japanese rural areas since the beginning of 18th century mostly for fencing and facades of homes and storehouses, which stored rice and other essential goods for survival. The technique was present in the process of building temples as well. Five-stories high pagoda of Hōryū-ji Temple in Japan proves the durability of the material. After the structure collapsed in fire in 711 AD, the temple was rebuilt by using this technique, which lasts in the lighter shade until today.

Various use and textures of shou sugi ban on facade, cladding and floor
Hōryū-ji Temple near Nara in Japan, image: www.timetravelturtle.com

Traditionally in Japan, shou sugi ban was performed by bounding three cedar boards together to form a long triangle and a fire was started within the resulting tunnel to char the wood. The term shou sugi ban originally comes from the term yakisugi ban that means ‘burnt cedar’. Traditionally, only cypress and cedar was common for such treatment due to their characteristic properties and accessibility in the area. However, the charring experiments can be possibly put into effect with other woods such as larch, chestnut, pine, hemlock, maple or oak.

If maintained periodically, resulting durability and recyclability of the product makes the technique sustainable, however importing the right wood to the site of intervention and time-consuming manufacture that requires an amount of fossil fuels in the modern common process increases the cost of this technique. Consequently the level of sustainability of the technique is dependent to the local resources in wood and to the process used to burn.

Traditional use of shou sugi ban (with guarantee of lung cancer)

As an alternative to the traditional method, a brick oven with gas burners or even rocket mass heaters (see video below) can be used to accommodate more wood boards at a time. The set of tools and ingredients needed for DIY shou sugi ban consists of a hand held propane blowtorch, lighter, brush, natural wood-finishing oil with a cloth to apply it, the oil and, of course, the planks of wood.

Thanks to its harsh weather resistant qualities, most common use of technique is on maintenance-free facades. The most famous among contemporary architects, who rediscovers the technique is Peter Zumthor, described by Juhani Pallasmaa as a practitioner of phenomenology in architecture. He emphasis the authentic experience of architecture and ‘aura’ recalling back to M.Heidegger and W.Benjamin’s ideas. He designs ‘new’ based on memories of ‘old’ and experiments with different perceptions of natural materials, light and bodies. The wooden tepee made out of 112 tree trunks formed a cast for his Brudel Klaus Chapel in Germany. The structure was covered by thick layer of concrete. The wood, burnt afterwards, left an indexical mark on the concrete walls, evoking a prehistoric cave charred by a bonfire.

The technique, adding another dimension to an ordinary house, is rendered extraordinarily in the works of japanese architects such as Terunobu Fujimori, who keeps the tradition of the process. In his small treehouse inspired by insect he used charred pine trees, which also enters inside the house as a wall decoration. The home was designed to host an english version of the traditional japanese tea ceremony at V&A museum in London.

Interior of Bruder Klaus Chapel (2007), www.afasiaarchzine.com
Interier of the Beetle's house by Terunobu Fujimori (2010), images: www.londonist.com
Yakisugi house (2007), image: www.dezeen.com

Spiritual meaning of burning wood associated with myth, rituals and community interests the artists and sculptors, as well. Japanese sculptor Toshikatsu Endo influenced by minimalism and Mono-ha movements of 1960s and 1970s in Japan reassert the narrative quality to his ships, tubs, and coffins with allusions to ancient culture and mythology. Monumental objects of his work sets into fire to call attention to water and fire as primitive elements of origins of human being.

Toshikatsu Endo´s “Fountain” (1991), image: www.palazzobembo.org,
Toshikatsu Endo´s ‘’Void-Blackening’’ (2005), www.scaithebathhouse.com

Critical Concrete experimented with the technique on social refurbishment of a house during the Summer schools in 2016 and 2017. Charred pine boards were attached to the facade as cladding. The collective sauna developed with Jan Körbes (Refunc) in 2015 was Critical Concrete’s first experience with the wood charring process.

Summer school 2017
Charred planks are ready to use for cladding
Blowtorch charring wood
Using blowtorch to char the wood

We were constantly working and experimenting with Shou Sugi Ban techniques. Check out this video and find out about our charring station, a method using rocket stove principles to char wood effectively and save!


[1] ArchDaily (2016). “Villa Meijendel/ VVKH architecten”. [Online] available at: www.archdaily.com/802147/villa-meijendel-vvkh-architecten.

[2] Houzz (2012). Yakisugi-itaIs Setting the Siding World on Fire”. [Online] available at: www.houzz.com/ideabooks/2323908/list/yakisugi-ita-is-setting-the-siding-world-on-fire.

[3] Fortini, A. (2017).The Latest Design Trend: Black and Burned Wood”. The New York Tymes Style Magazine. [Online] available at: www.nytimes.com/2017/09/19/t-magazine/shou-sugi-ban.html.

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