Is what you're looking at real shou sugi ban, with all the durability and beauty of the tradition? Or is it fake shou sugi ban made to look the same in order to capitalize on a design trend? What exactly is real shou sugi ban anyway, why are there various options out there, and what do we need to know? Digging objectively is well worth the effort since you want a good siding material fit for your project.
What is Real Shou Sugi Ban?
Shou sugi ban is a visually stunning wood siding made more durable thanks to a centuries-old burning process. The process to make it developed using Japanese cedar species, a lightweight, rigid, and rot-resistant wood. Siding planks are burned until one face becomes charred deeply. You can install shou sugi ban planks on walls as-is, or treat the planks (through either brushing, oiling, or both) to create different looks.
The combination of wood type, careful millwork, and a deep burn are key. The wood remains strong and beautiful, but also becomes more resistant to water, pests, rot, sun, abrasion, and fire. Siding has to be straight and consistent so that walls look good. It is no simple feat to achieve this through a two-thousand degree manufacturing process followed by decades of weather.
Siding needs to tell a story, since it is the public-facing curb appeal and a primary element of every building’s design. So let’s go over all the main ways to tell if what you’re looking at is real shou sugi ban:
Real Shou Sugi Ban...
- Is made from cedar or cypress. This family of wood is lightweight, porous, and mineral-rich. Other species don’t work as well with a fast and hot burning process, or by nature they have less weather and bug resistance. Since cypresses are expensive you'll usually see fake shou sugi ban in the form of a lower-cost species coated with a solid black stain. Sometimes other species are chemically treated to prevent rot, and have a faux burned finish. You should notice this results in a higher price point.
- Has consistent, defined, and straight wood grain. You can only use laser-straight, top grade logs for real shou sugi ban. Pithy or brittle species don't work well due to their inconsistent grain, or propensity to split. You also have to mill the logs all the same, not randomly or automated.
- Lots of bold color variation. The natural beauty of wood comes from color and tone variety. It's important you showcase that. You can spot a fake by the use of monotone, blonde wood. This is visually less interesting, especially as it weathers and the stain wears off.
- Has the wood highlighted by the oil finish, not hidden by it. High-grade and colorful wood is beautiful and an oil finish with a clear base showcases the natural appearance. You'll notice that fake shou sugi ban almost always has a solid stain to hide a lower quality wood.
- Is siding or paneling planks. Furniture or timbers that are burned are just that–burned wood. Shou sugi ban is a type of plank siding. It is not the process to make it or the verb to describe the process. It's the end product. Burned furniture or timbers are not shou sugi ban.
- Is burned to a crisp yet the boards are still straight. The test is to still have straight boards after decades of exterior exposure. This is really hard to do.
- Is very sustainable to make and use. Fake shou sugi ban is kiln dried for 3~5 days, twice if it's chemically treated. This is much more carbon-intensive than a recirculating, flash burning process.
What is Fake Shou Sugi Ban?
That certainly does not mean fake shou sugi ban is bad! On interior projects dimensional stability and weathering matter less than having multiple color, tone, and texture options. So the real vs fake discussion is not so important on interiors. Also to keep it in perspective what really matters is that you choose something that is beautiful and natural, lasts a long time without defect, and is sustainably manufactured. It doesn't matter if it is real this or fake that if it enhances your life.
There are three reasons why fake shou sugi ban is on the market:
- Business strategy. Companies need to adapt to new markets, differentiate themselves from other vendors, and recoup R&D costs.
- To make real shou sugi ban it takes both access to a suitable species of lumber and a lot of know-how. Every other mill or contractor in the world thinks they know what real shou sugi ban is and can make it. But it is actually very rare for you to see correctly made shou sugi ban in the West. It is really challenging to make it without defect.
- Real shou sugi ban is exotic and scary to use. The original shou sugi ban is a delicate, sooty material that blemishes and damages easily. The basic premise of real shou sugi ban is that it is a form-follows-function material. The sootiness and color change are meant for you to embrace since it’s a utilitarian material that's going to last a long time, have good cost performance, and look great. Seems to me that using a material dominant in its home region for centuries is more conservative than scary.
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Nakamoto Forestry Blog