Shou Sugi Ban Durability: How Long Does Yakisugi Last?

Shou Sugi Ban lasts 80 years. That’s the number we hear nearly every day as the benchmark for how long shou sugi ban is supposed to last without maintenance.

But how accurate is this popular claim?

Factors In Shou Sugi Ban Life Expectancy

It’s nearly impossible to apply a blanket longevity statistic for charred wood siding, especially with so many variables to consider:

  • Climate
  • UV exposure
  • Pests
  • Installation specs

Since homes are rebuilt every 72 years on average in North America, that seems to be the number to beat.

How To Maximize Shou Sugi Ban Lifespan

Let’s take a closer look at some of the factors that impact wood durability and longevity, and how we can maximize the lifespan of our shou sugi ban siding.

  1. Installation
  2. Maintenance
  3. Re-oiling
  4. Climate
  5. Wall Orientation

How to Install Yakisugi “Shou Sugi Ban”

Let’s start with installation since this is hands-down the most important factor in shou sugi ban durability and longevity. If the siding is not installed correctly (for example not flashed correctly or installed directly over a resin vapor barrier), then it will start to rot immediately. Whether it’s cement board, cedar, or yakisugi cypress, if the siding is not allowed to dry out quickly then it is going to rot. Cement board that stays wet will start to delaminate after about six months. Any kind of softwood will start to rot within a couple of years if it stays wet. So the better the installation, the longer the siding will last. 

Age estimate 40-80 years old; note rot from direct masonry contact, also color difference between high-UV load center of wall and silvering at the bottom from moisture. This is most likely Nakamoto wood. Also note the flat-sawn resaw pattern and the boards are upside-down (see my other post about this here).

Shou Sugi Ban Maintenance

Wood is degraded over time from:

  • UV radiation
  • The freeze-thaw cycle
  • Abrasive coastal weather
  • Not being able to dry out quick enough 

Oil stains or paint slow down the weathering process, so regular re-oiling will slow down wood degradation over time. Shou sugi ban is never painted, whether due to tradition, the species of wood (tannin-rich porous softwood), or because it is more beautiful stained than painted. (Wood is categorized as either stain grade or paint grade depending on quality, application, and species.) Oil stains are hydrophobic. This causes water to bead and roll off, and pigment in the oil acts as a UV blocker. UV radiation breaks down the wood fibers and then wind and rain wash the degraded wood off of the surface.

Shou sugi ban is rarely maintained in Japan, and the planks get progressively thinner over the decades from UV degradation. Nails will get more proud of the surface as the wood surface erodes. Once the boards get too thin, the planks start to split. This takes 80-150 years depending on plank thickness and wall orientation. 

historic yakisugi example 100-150yrs
Age estimate 100-150 years; note wood thickness erosion and checking, masonry contact, also 30-40 year old Suyaki patches
historic yakisugi
Age estimate 30-60 years; note quarter-sawing, uncoated traditional cut nails, ferrous streaking, nails backing out, wood erosion making the nails proud

Re-Oiling Shou Sugi Ban

Oil stains or paint will slow down the weathering process considerably, so regular re-oiling will slow down wood degradation over time and extend its life cycle. Oil stains are hydrophobic. This causes water to bead and roll off, and pigment in the oil acts as a UV blocker. UV radiation breaks down the wood fibers and then wind and rain wash the degraded material off the surface.

If the siding is re-oiled periodically as is standard in North America and Europe, it will simply last longer due to better UV protection. If re-oiled every five to ten years, then it should last the lifetime of the structure. This is where the 80-year guidance breaks down. Also note that our Suyaki has a soot layer that is hydrophobic, blocks UV, and is aseptic. This soot layer seems to last about 40 years before eroding off if it’s the correct species and is heat-treated correctly, and no re-oiling maintenance is done during that time.

Age estimate 80-120 years; note intact soot layer directly under the water table (between stucco above and wooden wainscotting), ferrous streaking, 4 nails per board, Suyaki erodes to a Gendai appearance over time, wall is likely north-facing, knots indicate rootstock down and crown up, flatsawn from young trees

Shou Sugi Ban Weather Resistance

Coastal marine and humid subtropical climates are the most challenging in terms of wood siding longevity. Coastal climates are abrasive with salty air. These wear through wood more quickly, and humid climates encourage the growth of fungi in wood that can cause rot.

Shou sugi ban lasts longer than un-heat-treated wood in wet, abrasive climates because the surface is case-hardened for abrasion resistance. The cellulose/hemicellulose that fungi grow on is also burned off. 

Arid or cold climates cause wood to dimensionally move (cupping especially) and change color, but they do not cause as much abrasion or rot as coastal or humid climates. This is why shou sugi ban is more common along the southern coast in Japan than inland or up north.

Site or Wall Orientation

Finally, the last factor that will impact shou sugi ban durability is specific site or wall orientation. I’ve seen in Japan and North America that wood will weather differently depending on which direction the wall is facing. 

Typical Shou Sugi Ban Siding Discoloring & Aging

  • In general east and north-facing walls will evenly bleach out until they are silver in color, then they will remain an even silver
  • South and west facing walls will weather more unevenly depending on the UV exposure and climate. 
  • The top of the wall is protected from sun and rain by the overhang so they will remain the original color. 
  • The center of the wall will turn yellow-orange wood color from high UV and since it dries out quickly after rain. 
  • The bottom of the wall will silver out similar to the east and north elevations since it remains wet longer. Keep in mind this only happens if the siding is not re-oiled.
historic yakisugi showcasing shou sugi ban durability depending on orientation
Age estimate 5-15 years; note silvering left side from daily exposure to an adjacent river’s morning dew, right side warm wood color from high UV load

Putting it All Together

In conclusion, here is where the 80-year guidance comes from: Japanese standard 10mm thick planks that started out as our Gendai or Pika-Pika surface (i.e. brushed), were installed correctly, were never oiled or re-oiled, were installed on a south or west-facing orientation, and near the coast. Geographic location and wall orientation can’t really be controlled to increase siding longevity. However, if the siding starts out thicker (our standard is 15mm since yield drops off for any thicker than that), is installed correctly (rain screen & headed ring-shank nails), is finished with an oil stain, and re-oiled periodically, it will last even longer. 

How long? Longer than you need to worry about!

historic shou sugi ban
Age estimate 80-120 years; note short, thin, low-grade planks indicating low budget, square butt joints, also whitewashed mud wall with straw reinforcement and bamboo lathe.
historic yakisugi showcasing shou sugi ban durability after a century
Age estimate 80-120 years; note overlap bond line between upper and lower stories, cupping and missing board due to using headless nails, traditional mud wall and horizontal nailers between posts.

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