The Feng Shui Of Shou Sugi Ban

Feng Shui is a Chinese term for a tradition followed across Northeast Asia, including China, Korea, and Japan.  In Japanese it is pronounced “fu-sui”, but the Chinese “feng shui” is generally used in the West.  The word literally means “wind and water”, and represents a holistic view of our surroundings and activities in relation to the flow of life and laws of nature.  For something to have good feng-shui means that it is pure, organized, wholesome, and oriented in line with the will of G-d (or “The G-ds”) and the flow of all natural cycles.  Many westerners consider feng-shui to be an animistic, superstitious construct, and in Japan it is confusingly intertwined with Shinto.  To most NE Asians, however, it is a foundational part of their culture.

Yakisugi, colloquially called “shou sugi ban” in the west, is traditionally an exterior cladding ubiquitous throughout Japan.  It is a holistically manufactured product specifically for exterior cladding.  Therefore all of the feng shui associated with it that we are familiar with has to do with the outdoors and the structure shell.  Standard feng shui protocols for construction and wood in general apply as well.  Many westerners may laugh at some of these rules, but they are considered critical to a structure’s inhabitants’ health and structure longevity in our Japanese home market.

Just about the most important guideline is that materials used in the construction of a building should be used in similar orientation and preparation as they grew or were formed before being harvested.  For wood this means several things, some more easily achieved than others.  With siding, ideally each facade orientation would be clad with wood from trees that grew on a slope of the same orientation, or that wood used in a structure would be from the same specific location (not just region). This is not easily tracked but what can easily be achieved and one fast rule in Japanese construction tradition is that every stick of wood installed vertically in a structure should have the root end down and crown end up.  The average carpenter in Japan is 64 years old and it is second nature for them to check every piece of wood for grain pattern in order to follow this rule.

There are a few simple indicators to judge which end is up.  First is that the grain will be wider at the bottom and narrow towards the top of the board, somewhat like a long, skinny, triangle grain pattern.  The second main indicator is that the grain around knots will generally be tighter above the knot than below it.  Third is the angle of the knots—which will be up or down depending on how old the tree was when that knot developed.  Sounds crazy and labored of course to western carpenters, but installing a piece of wood upside down on the job is actually grounds for permanent dismissal with traditional builders in Japan.

Believe it or not, logs at our mills are fed into the resaw root stock right crown left as a rule, no exceptions.  Every board we ship has root stock right, crown left, and it is therefore important in vertical orientation of shiplap to install overlapping from the left to the right to keep the rootstock down.  We are not sure if this tradition in Japan is from superstition or whether vertically installed cladding will actually last longer due to direction of the xylem and phloem.

It is also important for the outside of each log to face the outside of the cladding, the same direction that weather interacted with the tree while living.  This may also be superstitious but we believe that if installed backwards exterior cladding will wick water, move more, need to be re-oiled more often, and rot prematurely.  We believe that a random grain resaw pattern is one of the main reasons wood cladding in the West does not last as long as in Japan.

Also note that most western carpenters we have discussed the subject with think it is better to install exterior horizontal boards (such as deck boards) with the inside of the log facing up.  This is because due to wood grain shrinking radially the board will become convex and shed water instead of becoming concave and causing water to puddle.  Japanese carpenters believe as a rule that the outside of the log must be facing up, and even though the boards will cup concave the puddling water will still be able to weep down with gravity via the early wood (spring soft) growth rings.  More porous species and looser growth rings are also considered better for exterior since they will dry out more quickly that tight grain lumber.

Since shou sugi ban is used traditionally in exterior applications feng shui guidance says that the wood should be processed within similar temperature and humidity ranges to get the best outcome.  We dry our planks outside atmospherically, instead of kiln or warehouse drying.  Feng shui or not, in our experience natural drying outside before heat treatment produces a much more dimensionally stable cladding over the long-term.

We are also very careful never to step directly on lumber that is going to be used as part of a structure (as opposed to dunnage), and definitely try not to leave footprints.  It is not only a matter of civility and respect, it has to do with ritual purity.  We therefore highly recommend that lumber stored on job sites during construction is kept in tall, stickered stacks, and not in a corridor area.

Last but not least is the array of talismans at each of our facilities.  We not only have miniature Shinto shrines housing special charms in each office, we trade in the wooden and paper charms every New Years at a few different shrines and temples in Japan and the US.  We also keep saucers of salt to the outside of our door openings to keep bad spirits out, and for good measure a chunk of obsidian at each corner of our warehouse in Oregon (not sure what it does aside from mollify our Payroll Manager which we take seriously).  Just in case–and why not?

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