Spotlight On: Yakisugi (Shou Sugi Ban) 焼杉

Mastery of fire and wood. Quite simply, that’s what it takes to produce a perfectly charred piece of wood full of character, strength and resilience.

This ancient method of preserving and showcasing wood, alternately known as ‘yakisugi’ or ‘shou sugi ban’ is increasingly fashionable in the West but what are it’s origins in Japan? Here’s our Q & A:

What is Yakisugi?

Yakisugi originated in the 18th century in Japan as a form of protecting wood from the elements. ‘Yaki‘ means to heat with fire, and ‘sugi‘ is cypress. Wood is burned until the surface is charred, then it’s coated with a natural oil. The resulting look is a deep charcoal black scorched finish where the beauty of the wood is exaggerated. The surface can take on a crackled look depending on the wood species and depth of burn.

What are the origins of this technique?

Traditionally, ‘yakisugi’ was used with Japanese cypress and more recently, cedar, in order to weatherproof it.

The charred surface not only creates a powerful visual effect but it’s also pest, rot and fire resistant as well as being a natural water repellent and sun shield. When charring the wood, it gets wrapped up in a layer of carbon that’s highly resistant to mould, insects, water and even fire.

What is the traditional technique?

Nowadays you’ll see mainly blow torches in use to achieve that charred look with efficiency and precision. However, here at the JWA it’s our mission to uncover the ancient Japanese techniques and help preserve them.

We’ve uncovered a rare video on YouTube of Japanese architect, Terunobu Fujimori, re-creating the traditional method of ‘yakisugi’ using a triangular wooden chimney.

Who is an expert?

Terunobu Fujimori is one of Japan’s most influential architects and has charmed the world with his playful tree houses and tea huts. Terunobu uses ‘yakisugi’ prominently on his own buildings, which riff on Japanese historical precedents.

A longtime resident of Tokyo, he cherishes the city’s traditional neighbourhoods, which remind him of village life in the countryside where he grew up. 

Where can I find out more?

Keep checking back here! On our Research Visit to Japan this Summer we’re trying to organise a meeting with Terunobu Fujimori to find out more. We also hope to see the traditional ‘triangular chimney’ method in action and plan to video the process in it’s entirety.

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