Shou Sugi Ban: Ben’s Wooden Surfboard Workshop Experience

14 . 01 . 17

​When a person says that they intend to take a blowtorch to their freshly finished wooden surfboard before it goes off to be laminated, you could forgive us for raising our eyebrows somewhat.  But it’s happened more than once, and on this latest (second) occasion it was more than a cursory tickle. 

Ben had talked to James about his intentions to char the surface of the surfboard that he was making with us right from the get-go; it’s a traditional Japanese process called Shou Sugi Ban and is an incredible, if somewhat counter-intuitive, method of improving the durability and aesthetic appearance of timber.

Shou Sugi Ban translates as “burnt Cedar board” and is a process that was used by Japanese carpenters to finish exterior cladding and fencing that dates back to at least the 1700s.  It developed from the practice of using driftwood collected from beaches because it was found that the weathering process of being exposed to saltwater and sun improved the wood’s durability whilst offering a unique appearance.  As the practice became increasingly popular, demand outpaced the supply of naturally occurring driftwood and so Japanese carpenters looked for other techniques to weather timber.  They came up with a process of charring the upper 3-5mm of a plank of Sugi (Cryptomeria japonica, also known as Japanese Cedar), cooling it, cleaning it and then finishing the blackened timber with a natural oil.  The result is a blackened plank that is virtually maintenance free and is said to be resistant to rot, pests and (paradoxically) fire.

Shino and Ken Mori’s home in Southern California with shou sugi ban cladding and decking, designed by architect Sebastian Mariscal, via Dwell.

Through the late nineteenth and twentieth century, the use of shou sugi ban declined in Japan due to the twin effects of the introduction of modern cladding materials and the short supply of timber.  Since the beginning of this century it has been rediscovered, and has grown in popularity with Western Red Cedar and Southern Cypress being used most commonly.

A fire station in rural Oregon, USA, featuring shou sugi ban clad crew quarters designed by Hennebery Eddy Architects, via DeZeen.

Ben wanted to fade the charred effect on the deck and bottom skins of his 7’2” Coaster, from incredibly black and deep at the tail through to clean timber in the front third of the board.  Because the denser winter growth didn’t char as readily as the summer growth, his board has a beautifully contrasting grain pattern.  The whole process took an hour or so, outside the workshop doors on the (thankfully sunny) Friday afternoon of his December workshop week.  With damp tea towels and a fire extinguisher on-hand just in case, he carefully moved a blowtorch across the surface of his newly completed surfboard, never pausing over one spot and on the odd occasion that an orange flame licked across the board, being quick to blow it out.  We all spent some time watching, holding his surfboard steady, and rubbing our fingers over the charred surface in curiosity.

Ben’s surfboard is now being laminated, a process that will further enhance the depth and richness of the charred surface. He’ll be collecting an incredibly unique surfboard, and we’re really excited that he’ll be surfing it at some of our favourite breaks near the workshop.  We can’t wait to share a few waves with Ben and his special shou sugi ban surfboard.

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