Everything You Wanted to Know (but didn’t dare ask) about Shou Sugi Ban

flaming wood

Intentionally charring wood? Though it may seem a bit unorthodox, the benefits and history of this technique show it to be a very useful surface treatment. We’ve taken the time-honored practice and modified it, wire brushing away layers, adding color tones, experimenting with species.

shou sugi ban pioneer millworks

The history: The term “Shou-Sugi-Ban” is Japanese (焼杉板) and translates to “burnt cedar board”. While the exact origins of Shou Sugi Ban are unknown, it is estimated to have been in use in Japan since the 1700’s. Driftwood weathered, salted, and sun dried served as the original wood source. Charring the outermost layer left blackened lignin which is insect, rot, and fire resistant (if you’ve ever tried to reignite a piece of firewood that has already been exposed to flame, you can imagine the same difficulty with trying to burn Shou Sugi Ban wood).

Below are common questions, and a few we’ve asked ourselves as we’ve developed our Shou Sugi Ban options.

Why would I use this technique?
Today most folks use it for decorative purposes. Our Shou Sugi Ban finish is a dynamic surface treatment, which depending on the length of the burn, can either gently highlight the natural grain pattern in the wood to toasted tones, or carbonize the entire wood face to an even jet black hue. This potential for a range of effects suits contemporary design trends towards natural materials with rich and vivid surfaces. While traditional Japanese Shou Sugi Ban was a primarily a preservative treatment, we consider any gained insect or rot resistance just an added bonus.

sweetgreen shou sugi ban

If I touch it will my hands/clothing turn black? Our standard oil top coat will encapsulate most of the char, but some residue may still transfer upon contact. For applications which require complete encapsulation, we can treat the finish with a custom top coat so that the product will pass the “white sweater test”.

Does it smell like burnt wood? Slightly, but the oil top coat minimizes this.

A mixture of Shou Sugi Ban Shallow Char and Color Char clad the exterior of NY State's First Complete CLT Building at New Energy Works Timberframers.

A mixture of Shou Sugi Ban Shallow Char and Shou Sugi Ban Color Char clad the exterior of NY State’s First Complete CLT Building at New Energy Works Timberframers.

Is it a harmful finish to me or the environment?
The burnt wood itself is perfectly harmless. We apply a Zero VOC oil as a top coat so that the finished product is as eco-friendly as all of our other product lines.

burned bleachers w Carl

Does it work on all types/species of wood? Any wood can be burned but some char better than others. Harder woods like hickory take longer to burn than softer species like Douglas fir. We’ve chosen Larch as an ideal species because it is a native North American Softwood tree which has relatively good rot-resistance, clear grain, and is not being aggressively harvested—in fact, it is often an unused by-product of wood harvesting.

A shallower char applied to Douglas fir Bleacher Boards.

A shallower char applied to Douglas fir Bleacher Boards.

How do you char the wood?
We’ve explored many methods, from the traditional to more modern and mechanized. What we’ve found works best is to torch it in a custom built chamber which focuses the heat onto the wood and maximizes the burn. This allows us to efficiently burn more wood in less time.

charring wood

Justin demonstrates the charring process in our McMinnville, Oregon shop.

What about the edges? Do they stay uncharred?
 Where edges may be visible, with a shiplap profile, for example, we will char edges or even apply a dark tint as the milling dictates to ensure a consistent look.

edge char

Does charring weaken the wood? The charring only affects the outer surface of the wood, penetrating no more than 1/16” into the material. Our Shou Sugi Ban products are structurally sound.

Will the surface last/how does it wear over time? Shou Sugi Ban is a dynamic finish which means that it is guaranteed to change over time. Even on traditional Japanese Shou Sugi Ban siding the black char will eventually erode away depending on its exposure to the elements. The evolving look suggests the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi – a reminder of the transience and imperfection of all things.

shallow and colorchar pioneer planter

Color Char combined with Shallow Char highlight the exterior of a planter at our Portland, OR studio.

Can I apply this technique myself?
 Though you could, great caution should be taken when working with fire and we don’t recommend doing this at home or without the help of a professional.

Our Shou Sugi Ban Shallow Char takes a practiced touch with flame and brush.

Achieving our Shou Sugi Ban Shallow Char takes a practiced touch with flame and brush.

What maintenance is required?
Traditional Shou Sugi Ban was left to age naturally, which means the black hues faded over time to the wood’s natural patina or turned grey (just as cedar or other woods do when left in the elements). We recommend re-oiling the surface regularly per the finish manufacturer’s recommendation. If the intent is to maintain a stable opaque black color, we recommend combining Shou Sugi Ban with a black tinted oil. This will also require regular maintenance.

Does the non-charred side need to be maintained/protected? Typically no, but it is dependent on usage. For example, if the non-charred side will be exposed to the elements, we would recommend protecting it with a finish.

I’ve heard it helps against fire. Is that true? This may have been the case with traditional Japanese Shou Sugi Ban which burned deeper into the wood, but our Shou Sugi Ban does not add any guaranteed fire resistance to the wood. We can add a fire retardant to the top coat upon request.

Will bugs eat it? Our Shou Sugi Ban product is not treated with any insecticide so there is no guarantee that it will be free of future insect damage. Larch is naturally unappetizing to most insects, but there is no evidence that the burn makes it more or less likely to attract wood damaging bugs like termites, ants, and carpenter bees.

Can it be used as flooring? Would the installation be any different from standard products? While our Shou Sugi Ban product was designed to be primarily a siding or paneling product, it certainly can be applied in some variation as flooring. Because foot traffic is likely to wear off any deep char, we recommend a light char on a harder species like oak. If a deep char look is preferred, we can always provide a close simulation and proven durability with our Custom Black finish.

For high traffic a 'black' look, as seen in this bake shop sign, can be achieved with other eco-friendly finishes.

For high traffic areas, a simulated Shou Sugi Ban Deep Char look, as seen in this bake shop sign, can be achieved with our eco-friendly oil/wax finish.


Have more questions on Shou Sugi Ban or want to talk specifics on any of our wood products? Send us a note or give us a call at 800.951.9663. If you’re in the Portland, OR or Rochester, NY area—stop by our studios to check out samples in person.

Sparkling Sawdust—HiLo Hotel in Portland

InviteBlog post by Deborah Roe

Thursday night (7/13) was the opening for HiLo in downtown Portland, Oregon. A few of us from Pioneer Millworks attended the event where we ate, were painted gold, and silently discoed the night away. The 120-room boutique style hotel resides in the Oregon Pioneer Building (a National Register of Historic Places). We have a few ties—turns out back in 2008-10 our own Elise Payne worked in the building.


The party started as soon as we walked in the door. There were specialty drinks and intricate food of various varieties scattered throughout the hotel.

Piano PlayerThe lobby designed by Jessica Helgerson Interior Design, speaks to the Oregon mood—greens and greys with contemporary and natural finishes throughout.  HiLo created an “Exchange Box” where guests could donate to Piano Push Play and pick a bag with prizes worth $20 – $500. The organization rescues pianos and puts them on the street for everyone to enjoy. There was a line-up of skilled piano players tickling the keys in the lobby throughout the event.

Exhange Box

After the lobby, the tour prompted us to visit the sixth floor—where we were excited to see one many installs of our American Gothic Mixed Oak.


The wood was finished with a custom stain and a Vermont natural coating water based poly, giving it a rich dark look and feel. One guest we spoke too said, “the rooms feel so high end and the wood creates a feeling of warmth.”

LogoThat was nice to hear, and the wood was great to see in its final form. We especially loved finding our logo, which is etched onto a piece of wood in every room.

Opera SingerOkay…back to the party. In the suite, HiLo featured an opera singer in the bathroom to show off the acoustics. We were floored with the surprise and performance. (As you can see even Jonathan couldn’t help but take a video.)

Elevator Area

After experiencing the rooms (with locally based Maak Lab‘s special plant-based fragrance of Port Orford cedar being pumped through the vents) we got on the elevator and went to the lower-level to experience more of the opener.

Face Painting

Make-up and hair artists were on location to put gold accents on guests. Once we received our sparkle it was off to the silent disco.


After a bit of boogieing, we headed up to the main level for a nosh. It was there we had a moment to speak with the General Manager, Eric Paul, who shared that our reclaimed wood has become a conversation piece that everyone loves. We couldn’t have been more flattered and proud to be part of such a great project with great people. Our thanks for the invite, HiLo team—cheers.

Saving the Hilton Barn


FullSizeRender (14)There tend to be four reasons why barns are torn down.

  1. They are damaged or have not been properly maintained, leaving them structurally unsound.
  2. The owner is no longer able or willing to pay the upkeep costs (repair, taxes, insurance, etc.).
  3. To make way for future land development.
  4. The owner is looking to “cash in” on an asset.

We do our best to discourage those who fall into the last category. Pioneer Millworks was born eons ago as an offshoot of our sister company New Energy Works Timberframers (a leader in the timber frame industry). Working in close proximity with these talented craftsmen, engineers, and architects for all these years has given us a unique appreciation for timber frame construction and its historical roots in the architecture of American barns.


New Energy Works built barn.


Interior of New Energy Works barn.








While salvaging barn wood is integral to our business, we consider it an ethical obligation to discourage unnecessary barn demolition and encourage the preserve these historic structures.

Situations that fall into the third category cause us a bit more ethical grief because perfectly good barns are often torn down to make way for land development. Unfortunately, the fate of these barns is usually sealed by the time we get involved and whether or not we purchase the wood is unlikely to motivate the developer to change their plans.

In the summer of 2015 I was asked to visit a barn in Voorheesville, NY which was going to be torn down to make room for a country club’s expansion. The local community’s efforts to secure public funding to preserve the structure had met a dead end. At the time I was heading home with my family from a vacation in New Hampshire so I made a quick detour to assess the structure.

Charley taking some measurements with his Fatmax tape measure.
The barn far exceeded my expectations. It was huge; far larger than anything I had ever seen in New York. The structure was entirely built out of circle sawn Eastern White Pine timbers and joists. My two-year-old son and I spent an hour or so taking measurements and snapping photographs.

IMG_6050Our preference was to see the barn preserved, but since this was unlikely to happen we could at least honor the barn’s legacy by giving the wood new life and sharing its story. This is what Pioneer Millworks does best.

We later sent the owner a proposal to purchase the material, which totaled nearly 40,000 board feet – an exceptional amount of material for a single barn, but we never heard back. Our assumption was that someone else had outbid us for the material. Then, recently, purely by chance, I stumbled upon this Facebook page.

Turns out the barn had been saved! A generous donation of land, coupled with an epic community fundraising effort and secured government grants allowed the barn to be relocated to a newly created park located across the street from the barn’s original location.


920x920These stories of successful barn preservation efforts are a real inspiration to us as they are often initiated by just a handful of individuals, but end up involving the dedicated efforts of a whole community and more! We at Pioneer Millworks are thrilled that the Hilton barn, whose impressive size left a lasting impression on me, is still standing and now public property. Kudos to all involved!

If you’d like to get involved with barn preservation, here are a few groups we’re fans of:



Smooth Sailing in Seattle

Cruising into a new space with views of the Sound and reclaimed wood! We couldn’t think of a better fit for a major cruise line’s new headquarters than our Reclaimed Smooth Teak flooring.

reclaimed teak by pioneer millworks holland america seattle wa

Designed by SkB Architects, the new corporate office will allow the Holland America Group to consolidate their 900+ employees in a modernized work environment. Located on Pudget Sound in Seattle, the headquarters interior pays homage to traditional boat decking with Reclaimed Teak, a classic boat-building material, throughout the offices and common areas.

port hole with reclaimed teak flooring by pioneer millworks seattle

IMG_3847The layout for ‘work’ levels has cubicles flowing around the perimeter of each floor with offices, conference rooms, and flex space occupying the center. On the second level, an emergency response center, training & conference rooms, and eatery are all shod with Reclaimed Teak. The Teak also flows from floor to stairs and benches in several areas.

dining tables on reclaimed teak from pioneer millworks seattle wa

Over 14,000 square feet of the salvaged Teak, with an all natural oil/wax finish, found new life throughout all six levels of Holland America’s new building. The wood unifies each level, offering incredible durability and warm tones to the various work areas.

reclaimed teak with quote in seattle wa pioneer millworks salvage reclaimed teak pioneer millworks seattle wa cruise

reclaimed teak holland by pioneer

About Teak:
Our Teak is reclaimed from retired structures — office buildings, homes, boats, and factories in Indonesia. Teak maintains the authentic beauty of 18th and 19th-century planks. With an extremely hardwearing surface, it’s the ultimate specification for lasting value. It is milled from certified FSC® Recycled 100% Teak to exacting industry standards for nail down installation and finishing.

One percent of all of our Reclaimed Teak sales are donated to conservation causes in Indonesia and Malaysia. Currently, we’re supporting the Borneo Project in their fight to end the loss of habitat for the indigenous peoples of Indonesia.

Various finishes and surfaces, fit for every design style, are available on our Surface Selector.