Shou Sugi Ban Siding – Fortified by Fire

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

In the process of designing a house, you are often guided by themes or principles that can help you make decisions. For example, we always envisioned a modern house with simple designs and clean lines. When it’s time to select door handles or towel racks, which we did recently, we can imagine which ones fit the theme and narrow the options quickly.

For the record, we chose this Baldwin model in satin black:

Baldwin model in satin black
Baldwin Estate 5162

This same idea applies to expectations regarding materials and finishes. We want them to look nice, but more than that, we want them to stand the test of time and require very little of our attention.

Windows are a good example. We chose Marvin fiberglass windows that will not rot and never need to be painted. They aren’t the fanciest or most elegant, and that’s fine. Our priority is not having to think about maintaining windows for the next 20 years at least. This isn’t the case with wood.

Few decisions regarding the house have been more pivotal than the choice of siding. It sets the tone of the entire exterior and protects the house from the elements, which can be a challenge living near the ocean.

We always liked the idea of the house having a dark exterior, maybe even black. The idea of a dark, modern home, set in the pacific northwest forest seemed perfect. It’s easy enough to paint a house black, but we started to look into other options.

If you picture a Japanese village in your mind, you’re likely to imagine buildings with a dark brown or black appearance, with a lot of character.

Japanese village

This appearance, comes, in part, from an ancient Japanese method of charring wood to make it more resilient. The final product is called “yakisugi” or “shou sugi ban”. The Japanese found that charring the wood gave it a unique character that made it last longer. Today, people all over the world are using the same method for their homes.

Charring the wood does a few things:

  • It dries the wood and removes the carbohydrates that attract bugs, making it more bug resistant
  • It creates a fire-resistant barrier
  • It strengthens the boards
  • It reduces maintenance because it never needs to be painted. Over time, the wood remains strong even as appearance ages and takes on a patina as the underlying wood shows through.
  • It creates a look that’s both rustic and contemporary

We looked at composite siding like Hardie but felt it looked conventional. It also required painting and repainting over time. The same was true with cedar siding. We asked around and found a company in Oregon called Nakamoto Forestry that specializes in yakisugi siding for a price comparable to Hardie. In talking to them, it became clear we’d found the product and source we needed.

The siding arrived on site and was packaged in what could be described as a Japanese level of care, with each set of boards wrapped in wax paper, all stacked perfectly. The delivery person said it was the best packing they had ever seen.

Japanese level of care
One of Two Pallets

The process we chose was “gendai”, which means that after the wood is charred, it is brushed once at the company. The wood itself is Japanese cypress or “sugi”, which Nakamoto claims is the only species that should be used. We chose the shiplap style board. Once the siding arrived we got our first look and it matched our expectations. It was black, with the character of charred wood.

shiplap style board

Last week, we got to see the first sections of the house clad in the charred siding and it looked amazing. The house started to take on a deep black appearance that consumes any light that touches it.

deep black appearance

I couldn’t help but notice that the siding was being applied as our air quality suffered from wildfires on the mainland. It seemed appropriate to be using a burnt product, as if it had already survived a brush with fire and came out stronger on the other side. It has been fortified with the power of fire and hopefully protected by it. With a metal roof and charred siding, we feel prepared for what may come our way.

Speaking of the roof… The day after the book launched, our skylights were put into place by a crane. They are among the real jewels of the house and something that changed how it feels inside. The big one, pictured below, is 12’ X 8’. Made of tinted glass and aluminum. It, too, will be fire resistant and hopefully last a very long time.

metal roof
Skylight over the outdoor living room
Skylight over the outdoor living room

I Can Recommend…

I loved this video about a couple living in an off-the-grid cabin in Northern Sweden. It’s beautifully shot and a entertaining look at their version of a simple life. Thanks to Jeff Henshaw for the pointer!

We’ve been watching the show “People Just Do Nothing” on Netflix. It’s a comedy series about failed hip-hop artists in the London suburbs. It’s like The Office mixed with Workaholics or Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Speaking of shows, we seem to be living in the golden age of series about English Football, fiction and non-fiction. I find them fascinating. These follow a team through a recent season:

On the fiction side is the show Ted Lasso, starting Jason Sudeikis, who plays an American hired to coach an English football club. It has become one of my favorite shows. (Apple TV+)

Lastly, I’ve been doing a lot of podcast interviews to promote Big Enough. Right now, I have 24 either scheduled or recorded. I think you’d enjoy this interview for the Managing Partners podcast because Sachi agreed to participate. You can find all the published interviews here.

That’s what I have for now! Thanks!


Ready for Rain is  a newsletter that's personal

On most Tuesdays, I share a story from my life on Orcas Island and a recommendation for something I love. I'm interested in how to design work and home for lifestyle, livability, and fluffy dogs. Learn more.

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