In Austin, the Look of Charred Wood

General / Places / Products / February 5, 2015

An ancient method of charring wood to preserve it – while rendering it insect-free and fire-resistant – now proudly calls its Texas home.

Shou Sugi Ban has been used for centuries as exterior siding in Japan, where cedar or pine is burned, then cleaned and finished with a natural oil.

But in Austin, Delta Millworks prefers cypress harvested from the wild and wooly swamps of Louisiana and Texas.

“It takes a burn really well,” says James Berault, manager of what may be the world’s leading producer of Shou Sugi Ban. “We finish it in different directions, and brush it – it’s a really great wood for getting different looks and finishes.’

The idea at Delta is to aim for what the company calls the prime ‘gator effect, whether half or full. That’s a reference to a finish that calls to mind the rugged hide of the well-known reptile, carefully achieved through successive burns.

“With a heavy burn you get a really deep ‘gator scale, and the carbon solidifies like it doesn’t with other woods,” he says. “We burn it to a full ‘gator and then brush it by hand and do a half ‘gator that follows the pattern of the grain.”

Delta is a second-generation mill, established to turn out long leaf pine lumber back in 1985. Five or six years ago Robbie Davis, son of the original owner, began to experiment with charred wood, eventually perfecting the Asian process. The firm may work with pine and other materials, but finds the local cypress ideal.

“It’s just a great wood for external applications,” Berault says. “It grows in the swamp in a very humid environment and it has a protective oil that rises to the surface when we treat it, to make it moisture-resistant.”

Indeed. Where ordinary cedar fences might last five years, those treated in the Shou Sugi Ban method are known to stand easily for 30 to 40. It’s popular enough now that Delta’s expanded into flooring, beams and interior siding too.

And the price is as right, depending on square footage and species. Under 1,000 square feet, it’s about $14 -$20; over a thousand, it ranges from $8-$12.

For its cost, its durability and Delta’s careful perfection of its ‘gator scale, this is a wood with immortality surely burned into it.


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Michael Welton
I write about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. I am the author of "Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand" (Routledge, 2015), and the former architecture critic for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.




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