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.

Thoughtful Sophistication

beyond the barn pioneer millworks

Be bold, bright, lustrous, subtle, smooth, textured, patterned, or radiant with the other side of reclaimed wood.

Custom Colors, Custom Grey Finish.

Custom Colors, Custom Grey Finish.


We’ve turned to our team of craftsmen, artists, and out-of-the-box types to play and pioneer new salvaged options. The results are remarkable tones and sheens with sleek or intense textures—modern options with a soul.

Painted & Sanded Foundry Maple with "Millennial" Pink

Painted & Sanded Foundry Maple with “Millennial” Pink


Grandma's Attic mixed softwoods, custom color finish.

Grandma’s Attic mixed softwoods, custom color finish.


And the barn wood we know and love? Even it has another side—an inside, an underside, a creative side. It’s time to push the envelope further and get adventurous with colors in the cracks and crevasse.


American Gothic Reclaimed Oak in varying thicknesses.

American Gothic Reclaimed Oak in varying thicknesses.


Thoughtful Sophistication options are available in solid paneling, engineered paneling, solid flooring, engineered flooring, board stock, treads, thresholds, and fixtures—all with the eco-loving and LEED benefits and that make your projects sustainable.

Premium Select Mixed Grain Antique Heart Pine bench paneling.

Premium Select Mixed Grain Antique Heart Pine bench paneling.


These are some of our favorite ideas and we’ll be sharing more iterations in our next few blog posts. We love creating custom colors, textures, and patterns – what are your customization aspirations? Let our team know so we can start idea sharing and swapping samples.

Meet the Team Featuring: Alex

Alex joined our team over ten years ago, beginning in our de-nailing group and moving into acquisitions. He has a broad history here and we asked him to share a bit about life at Pioneer and about himself:  

Alex in the shopYou grew up in upstate NY near our HQ and stuck around. What do you like about living here?

I like living in the landscape that I grew up in. This area has a nice balance of elements and I’m not just talking about the seasons. Within a half hour drive of my home there are urban and rural environments, liberal and conservative neighborhoods, nooks and crannies that I still haven’t explored and old childhood stomping grounds.

Alex (right) and Cal (left)

A somewhat younger version of Alex (right) on lunch break with long-time co-worker, Cal (left).

You’ve been here for over a decade, right? You started de-nailing and learned plenty of other roles – can you step us through your transitions?

I’ve been here for 12 or 13 years – I forget which. I started with the de-nailing crew, worked in the yard for a few years, carried the sample department until Steve arrived and then started custom quoting and doing acquisition/inventory work in the office.

What is your role on our team today?

Officially, I am the “Acquisitions and Product Leader”. My  responsibilities include developing pricing for standard and custom projects, being a sort of liaison between Acquisitions and our Sales team, and supporting Michele’s Acquisitions efforts. On any given day I may be maintaining an inventory database, visiting a local barn, updating a spec sheet, or quoting a custom engineered floor. Each day brings new tasks and challenges.

What’s your favorite story as part of the team at Pioneer Millworks?


The jail in NJ was no longer in use when Alex visited to inspect the wood we’d later reclaim.

Exploring old abandoned buildings and factories is always the best.
I remember an old complex in New Jersey that once was a pharmaceutical factory which had room after room filled with old beakers and chemistry ware. Then there was the abandoned prison in New Jersey where I got to pull the giant lever that opened and closed a dozen cell doors at a time. I also looked at an old barge that was dredged out of the Meadowlands in New Jersey which was filled with rats…yes, there have been lots of memorable New Jersey moments.


Alex (right) is also a Wood ID expert. He hosted a Wood Identification class, complete with his favorite wood ID book, which co-worker Hans (left) won after answering a series of wood questions.

What about wood or reclaimed wood appeals to you?

I love that all of our products are tactile and have personality. Even our most uniform products like C-Select Vertical Grain Douglas Fir have subtle organic variation in tone and grain density that just can’t be duplicated in a synthetic product. No matter how tightly we grade a product for  consistency, each individual board is going to be unique.


Which wood product is your favorite? Why?

black and tan 50/50 oak pioneer millworksBlack and Tan 50/50 is such a cool dynamic product. The random remnants of black paint add some rock and roll to this classic and sturdy oak floor.


What’s your background?

Alex selfie 2006

We mentioned Alex was creative – this is a selfie he took during an acquisition in 2006 (well before selfies were even a ‘thing’).

I have a Bachelors of Fine Arts from the Cooper Union. [We make use of Alex’s creative nature and writing skills from time to time in Marketing efforts.]

What are your hobbies outside of work?

I buy the Sunday New York Times Early Edition every week at a local Barnes & Noble (where they often mistakenly charge me several dollars less than the cover price). It takes me all week to read it and several days to do the crossword puzzle. By Saturday night I Google search the answers to the clues that I’m hopelessly stuck on. I have no shame.

Share something quirky about yourself…

I always carry a quarter in my pocket. If I’m feeling indecisive, it’s either Heads or Tails and I always follow through.

What’s your favorite book?

“Speak, Memory” by Vladimir Nabokov is my favorite. In this book
Nabokov writes about his childhood and beautifully captures how a child sees the world before becoming an adult. Immediately after reading this book I bought a net and spent many spare summer hours chasing butterflies.