Mar 042016

IMG_7591Expert carvers don’t need to sand. They are skilled enough to tool finish their work. I’m not that good and find I do need to sand most of the stuff I’ve carved to make it look decent.

Recently, I saw a photo on the spoon carving FB site where the carver used the Japanese technique of Shou-sugi-ban to finish his piece. I knew something about this method as our nephew charred the siding on the house he is currently building. The idea behind scorching the wood is to create a long lasting and low maintenance finish. It can also be quite beautiful.

This video demonstrates the technique used on siding.

I recently carved a bowl from birch. It had some hidden knots and imperfections that made finishing the concave part of bowl difficult. Then, I dried it too quickly and it developed a big check (split). I decided this was a candidate for Shou-sugi-ban. Subsequently, I carved a spoon out of a left over piece of cypress and wasn’t happy with some of the detail. The cypress spoon became a second candidate for “The Art of Charred Cedar”. A running mate, if you will.

I made an executive decision that it didn’t have to be cedar for me to put it to the torch. Holding a hissing propane burner to wood takes a bit of bravery when you don’t know what you are doing. It went pretty well, however. Only a few flames which I was able to stamp out with my foot without doing more damage to the piece. I didn’t char the inside of the bowl, just the outer edge and the bottom.









I am happy with the result. There is also linseed oil on the bowl and spoon but I would like to give both more of a glossy aspect so will keep working on finishes. The trick, I discovered, is keeping the torch moving so the piece doesn’t burst into flames. I got a bit carried away and did some serious charring of a couple of edges.

I expect I will experiment with this on other pieces. Here’s a business that specializes on shou-sugi-ban.


  3 Responses to “Shou-sugi-ban (The Art of Charred Cedar)”

  1. Very nice bowl & spoon, Randy. The charring makes the detail pop out.

    re: “expert carvers don’t have to sand” Do you know David Esterly’s work? Definitely a master carver, in the tradition of very detailed & ornate work by 17th century Grinley Gibbons (for photos of Esterly’s carvings, see He’s pretty much of the same opinion — or was, until he went to Hampton Court to restore some Gibbons work that was damaged/partly destoyed in a fire and discovered how those incredibly lustrous surfaces were achieve. For the full story — a good read on the heart, soul, hands & work of carving — I highly recommend Esterly’s book “The Lost Carving: A journey into the heart of making”, 2012. I’ve read it twice, even liked it enough to buy a copy. WCLS has a copy, but if you can’t get hold of it you can borrow mine.

  2. I have read Esterly’s book. He’s in another league! Toured Hampton Court years before the fire. Wish I had been more tuned into carving then. The only critique I had of Esterly’s book was that he was trying to be too literary and didn’t detail process enough to satisfy me. But, then, that might have been interesting to a lot of readers.

  3. Easterly’s a multi-dimensional man with PhD (I think) in English lit and deep interest in the philosophy of making — as well as being an astonishingly fine wood carver. The balance of the book, including the challenges of trying to arrange a Gibbons exhibit in light of The Establishment’s crustiness, worked for me. I love books like this, whether art of various kinds or gardening. Lots of how-to books on my shelves (and youtube etc videos under favorites) but I really appreciate people like Easterly who take the . . . road less traveled, I guess.

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