Introduction: The Shou Sugi Ban Desk
Do you know what the problem with having friends is? The problem with having friends is that they will never tell you the truth.
At this point, I've been building stuff and sharing it online for a few years and I keep getting one consistent piece of feedback from all of my friends. It's that they absolutely love everything I'm doing. And honestly, I just don't see how that could be the case. So I've come to the conclusion that my friends are all lying to me.
I'm not mad about it, it's a perfectly human thing to do. Almost everyone does it to some extent. It's really hard to give people feedback on something that they are obviously deeply invested in. You have to risk genuinely hurting their feelings. But I'm going to let you in on a little secret, there is ONE way to know if someone really likes your work, and that's if they ask you to create something that will then be prominently displayed in their home.
And that's exactly what I did in this build. I built a Shou Sugi Ban desk for my friend at his request.
Before we start this project I should let you know that there is a video version of this post available. All you have to do is click play on the video thumbnail above or you can go directly to you my YouTube Channel and check out this video along with all of my others.
Step 1: Shou Sugi Ban History
If you don't know what Shou Sugi Ban is, don't feel bad. In 2021 there's practically no reason to know about it. Shou Sugi Ban is a traditional Japanese wood preservation technique that dates back to at least the 18th century. Japanese carpenters in search of a wood preservation technique turned to an unlikely ally, fire.
They figured out that by charring, and then cooling wood, (specifically Japanese cedar, Shou Sugi Ban translated to English means roughly "burnt cedar plank") they could make it resistant to water, insects, and fire itself. At the time the technique became widespread across Japan, but eventually, over the course of many years, it fell out of favor. Slowly being replaced by more modern techniques and building materials.
Lucky for us Shou Sugi Ban has recently undergone a bit of a resurrection. The process creates a very striking-looking wood finish that's almost pure black. Over the last couple of decades, its come back into fashion as a unique and interesting way to finish wood. I've been in love with it ever since I saw some photos of it about a year ago.
But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here. Let's start at the beginning of this build.
Step 2: Prepping the Wood
The first thing I did was cut all of my wood to length and then mill it into square. The desk itself would be 60"x24" when it was done so I cut 4 pieces that were ~66"x6"x2". I always make my tabletops a bit bigger than their finished dimensions and then trim them to their exact size closer to the end.
The wood I'm using here is red oak, which immediately disqualifies this build from being considered "real" Shou Sugi Ban. The traditional way of doing it is to use softwood Japanese cedar. But this is going to be a desk and it needs to be able to take a beating so I wanted to use hardwood. If you were to put a piece of paper on a cedar desk and write on it, you'd likely be left with whatever you wrote indented in the wood itself.
Also, the Shou Sugi Ban process tends to amplify the grain pattern of wood, creating big peaks and valleys in its surface. Which again, I thought would be less than ideal for a desk surface. My hypothesis was that a good solid hardwood like oak would be much more resistant to this texturing issue, due to its higher density.
Red oak doesn't break the bank either. It's 30-40% cheaper than white oak (which is already a relatively cheap hardwood) so it's a good entry point into the world of hardwoods for beginners.
Step 3: Cutting Biscuits
Before I could glue all my wood together into a single desk top I wanted to add some biscuits to help with alignment. If you've seen anyofmyotherbuilds, you know that I usually skip the biscuit phase and instead just spend the time flattening the tabletop after the glue-up to correct any alignment issues. But seeing as this glue-up involved so few pieces I figured it would be worth the added step to save me time further down the road.
I marked out lines across all 4 pieces every 6" or so, and then used my biscuit joiner to start cutting pockets.
Also, if you'll indulge me here for a moment, I'd love to go on a quick rant about biscuits. I often say that biscuits add strength and alignment to glue joints. Inevitably, a chorus of internet commenters will say that biscuits don't add any strength to glue joints and they're just for alignment. I think this is one of those things that gets taught in woodworking 101 and no one questions. But I don't see how that could possibly be the case. Not only are you increasing the surface area of your glue joints by adding biscuits but you're also mechanically preventing any transverse movement. So I think what people mean to say is that biscuits don't add MUCH strength to glue joints, but they must add at least a little. /rant
Step 4: The Glue Up
When it came time to do the actual glue-up I didn't spare the glue. I slathered both the glue joints and the biscuits with about half a bottle of wood glue. Glue is cheap, so I tend to overdo it when it comes to glue-ups. Worst case scenario, if you apply too much is that it just squeezes out. If you apply too little though, you might ruin your whole build. so I always err on the side of using too much.
I then clamped the whole thing together and let it sit for 30 minutes or so while I ate lunch. In order to save time during the clamping phase, I set all my clamps to approximately the size I need them before uncorking the glue. Glue-ups are always a bit of a race against time, so I try to front-load as much of that work as I can. Having your clamps out, and already ready to go can save you precious minutes.
Step 5: Sanding Post Glue Up
After the clamps came off I had a little bit of sanding to do. I threw a 60grit sanding pad on my sander and started cleaning up the glue squeeze-out as well as correcting any minor alignment issues between pieces.
I didn't go too crazy with the sanding though. I was cognizant of the fact that I was about to take a flame thrower to this desktop. Once I got things smooth to the touch I put away the sander and moved on to trimming the desk down to its final size and shape.
Step 6: Cutting the Desk Shape
Like I said earlier, I like to make my table tops (and desk tops in this case) a little bigger than they need to be and then cut them to their final size later. And that's just what I did here with my track saw, I cut about 3" off of both ends of the desk and reduced it to its final 60" x 24" x 2" dimension.
Then, I cut a large chamfer the whole way around the perimeter. When you're designing a flat slab desk like this there isn't a whole lot of room for creativity, so this chamfer was my way of injecting a little bit of visual interest to the desk. It's also slightly functional too, the angled bottom edge means you're less likely to accidentally contact the underside of the desk as you slide in on your chair.
You may have noticed that I ditched my track saw for the chamfer cut, and that's because my track saw only bevels in one direction. At the time I thought that meant it couldn't do the chamfer, but in retrospect, I could've flipped the desk over and cut the chamfer from above using the track saw. Whoops. Nonetheless, my cordless circular saw bevels in the opposite direction so I combined that with a straight piece of plywood clamped in position (the poor man's track saw haha) and got the job done.
Step 7: Cutting the Cable Relief
This is a feature that I try to get everyone to do on their desk.
Today's desks are just glorified tables where we put our computers, and where there are computers and computer accessories, there are cables! So, I like to cut cable reliefs at the back of desks in order to give people an easy place to route all of the wires associated with their computer setups. By routing them all to a single place you can help minimize clutter and create a cleaner-looking setup. The cable relief also allows you to push your desk right up against the wall without worrying about crushing your cables.
Oh, and as an added bonus it also gives you a good place to mount a monitor arm if you ever get tired of your factory monitor stand.
To do the straight part of this cut, I used the track saw and did a plunge cut down into the desk. The track saw gives effortless perfectly straight cuts so I use it all the time for stuff like this. I then carefully used my jigsaw to finish off the cuts.
Step 8: Rounding All the Corners
Look, I know I said I wasn't going to do any more sanding on this desk before doing the Shou Sugi Ban process, but hear me out here.
Have you ever noticed how almost all lumber that you buy from the big box stores has rounded corners? That isn't a conspiracy by "big lumber" to cheat you out of a couple of millimeters of wood (Or, well, maybe it is, I can't prove that it's not). It's actually, at least partially, a safety feature. Hard corners are great ignition points for fire, so by rounding off the corners you can actually make a piece of wood much more resistant to fire.
That's exactly what I'm doing here. I'm using my sander to put a slight radius on all of the desk's hard edges so that the wood burns evenly during the Shou Sugi Ban process.
Step 9: Starting the Shou Sugi Ban
I don't know about you, but this was the part of the build that I was most looking forward to doing. It was finally time to start burning the wood.
For safety reasons I set up outside on an old metal table, and I also had a fire extinguisher and bucket of water on standby.
The torch I'm using is sold as a "weed burning and ice melting" torch on Amazon, and was surprisingly inexpensive. I hooked that up to a tank of liquid propane, hit the ignition, and started burning the desk.
During the research phase of this build, I watched quite a few videos about Shou Sugi Ban and people trying to make similar Shou Sugi Ban tables. One common issue I saw was that people had a lot of issues with warping, likely due to the extreme temperatures involved. So my plan going into this was to burn the table slowly and evenly in order to, hopefully, avoid any serious warping.
It didn't really work out that way though...
Step 10: Mastering the Shou Sugi Ban
I quickly realized that the only way to get a deep black char was to burn the wood to the point of ignition. If you gently apply the torch to the wood all you're going to get is a light "tiger stripe" pattern. Which is cool, but it wasn't what I had envisioned for this build.
After a few minutes of burning the top, I could already hear all sorts of cracks and pops coming from the wood so I decided to flip it over and start on the bottom.
It was on the bottom where I really started to get a feel for the torching process and started making progress a lot faster. See the bright orange flames? That's the oak itself burning, which is quite different from the blue flames coming off of the torch. If you want a deep black char, you have to burn the wood to the point where you see orange flames.
Initially, I was hesitant to burn the wood to this point. I was worried that if wood actually ignited it would be hard to put out, but that wasn't the case. Within seconds of removing the torch from the desk all of the flames would extinguish themselves.
Unfortunately, once I started to see the results I was looking for I got a bit carried away and forgot to rotate the desk. So it did start to develop a slight warp which you can see in the last photo. Thankfully, I caught it early enough, flipped it over, and was able to remove 90% of the warp by applying heat to the opposite side.
Step 11: Staining the Wood
Back inside the shop, I gave the desktop some time to cool. I then started cleaning it up and prepping it for a finish. The first thing I did was remove any loose char with a brush and vacuum. I didn't want to remove any char that I didn't have to, but I also wanted to get rid of any loose bits that were about to fall off on their own.
Then, because I wanted this desk to be COMPLETELY black, I applied Minwax's "true black" stain to remove any last hints of color left on the desk. Getting the wood to be completely black is actually pretty challenging. I've worked with a lot of wood stains in the past that say they are "black" but still end up letting a lot of the original wood color show through. Minwax on the other hand is not kidding around when it comes to this "true black" color. It did exactly as the label describes.
Because the stain was oil-based and the finish I wanted to apply was water-based (well technically it's a hybrid), I had to take a 24-hour break at this point to let the stain full dry.
Step 12: Applying the Finish (Round One of Many)
You may remember earlier in this build I said I chose red oak because I thought it would be resistant to the extreme grain raising that you see in softwoods after the Shou Sugi Ban process. And to a large extent, I was right. But there was still some, which left this desk with a very pronounced texture. It looked really cool, but it was definitely not optimal for a desk surface.
So my solution was just to use many layers of a Minwax's hybrid polyurethane finish to even out that texture. I'd apply a few coats, sand it quickly, and then rinse and repeat until I had a nice smooth desk.
I suspected I'd have to do this from the start so I made sure I choose a rapid drying finish. Hybrid polyurethane products are great for this, they dry in 30-40 minutes, and once they are finally set they still have tremendous durability.
I rolled on my first coat and then stashed my tray and roller in a sealed garbage bag to prevent the finish from drying. That fast dry time is a double-edged sword, if you leave your finish out between coats it can start drying on you and you'll end up with a bunch of contaminants in your finish.
Step 13: Finishing the Legs
For this build, I wanted to keep things simple so I ended up using a set of pre-made legs. Legs like these are a great option for DIYers who want to incorporate a little bit of metal into their builds without going to the trouble of buying all the tools necessary to do metalwork. I've been a big proponent of DIY metalworking, it's fun and not nearly as hard as you might think BUT it does require a whole slew of new tools. So if you want so skip buying a bunch of new tools, legs like these are a good option.
Fair warning on these legs specifically: one thing I didn't like about them was that they were sold as "pre-finished" but then they included a little note explaining how if you don't want them to rust you really should paint them.... so ya.... not really pre-finished.
I wanted to keep that raw steel look on these legs so instead of "painting" them, I just hit them with a matte clear coat. I think a gloss or satin clear coat would've made these legs look a bit too finished. Thankfully the clear coat I was using dried really quickly and I was able to get 3 coats on the legs in basically no time at all.
Step 14: Sanding (Very Carefully!)
With the first few coats on the desk finally dry I was ready to ATTEMPT sanding it.
I loaded up some 180 grit sandpaper onto my random orbital sander and very carefully started sanding. If I accidentally sanded too much and revealed any bare wood beneath the char I'd basically have to start over and go all the way back to the torching step.
Lucky for me, I managed to keep it in check. I did a few very light passes and removed all of the high points from the surface of the desk.
Step 15: Filling the Gaps
During the Shou Sugi Ban process, I ran into a rather large problem. A lot of my glue joints started to separate. I couldn't see daylight through them, and they still seemed to be holding well, but they created an eyesore. Thin gaps ran the length of the desk between the individual pieces of oak.
To solve this, I came up with what I think is a pretty clever solution. I filled the gaps using colored CA glue.
I used an ultrafine applicator to inject a black medium thick CA glue right into the gaps. Once I filled the offending gaps I hit the CA glue with a catalyzing activator spray, which instantly hardened the glue.
This both filled the gaps and glued the wood back together, alleviating any concerns I had about long-term durability.
Step 16: More Finishing!
With the gaps filled I resumed my finishing.
I sanded the freshly applied CA glue until it was flush with the surface of the desk and then rolled on a couple of coats of polyurethane. By the time that was done the black CA glue was indistinguishable from the wood itself.
At this point, I had about 6 coats of finish on the top and bottom of the desk and was ready for a change of pace.
Step 17: Attaching the Legs
So I decided to attach the legs.
The bottom of the desk was looking good at this point and I didn't think it needed any more attention.
I broke out my drill and driver combo and started screwing on the legs.
Nothing too exciting here, but I made sure to pre-drill all of my mounting holes. Oak is so hard and dense that you can easily sheer the head off of a screw if you attempt to screw directly into it.
One thing I did like about these legs is that they used slotted screw holes, which gives the wood the freedom to expand and contract a bit without being limited by the legs. I should really start doing this more often on my own homemade legs too.
Step 18: Last Layer of Finish
Once I had the legs attached I flipped the desk over and sat it down on the floor. There it was ready for its last application of finish.
Which you know, I probably didn't HAVE to do, but I'm a glutton for punishment. At this point, I had lost track of how many layers I put on the desk. Somewhere between 7 and 9.
Once the Nth coat had dried I gave the whole desk a final polish with an ultra-fine scouring pad. Scouring pads are a great way to step down the sheen of a finish without removing too much material. They're almost like ultra-fine sandpaper, but softer and more flexible.
Step 19: Taking It Home
Back at home, I mocked up a faux desk set up in my home office. I say faux because this won't be the final home or setup of this desk. I built it for my friend after all, but it's 2021 and still covid times, so I didn't want to hang around in his place for any longer than I had to when dropping it off. Normally I'll spend hours photographing and shooting B-roll at the end of a build, but that's not really an option right now in someone else's home. So I borrowed a bunch of stuff from my own desk. I think it looks pretty good if you ignore the fact that many of the wires are missing.
This build was a ton of fun. Not only did I get to make something cool for a friend, but I got to experiment with a completely new technique and one that I'm pretty sure I'll be using again in the future. I'd love to get a bit more experimental with Shou Sugi Ban in the future.
I absolutely love the texture of this desk. It was a bit hard to capture on camera, but it's amazing in real life. There are tons of small crackles on the surface as well as that deep wood grain texture. It really does look like a solid piece of wood that's been burnt to a crisp.
Step 20: Thanks for Reading!
Alright, that's it for this build every one. Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed it, if you did you might want to check out my Instagram (Instagram.com/ZacBuilds/) and the aforementioned YouTube channel (youtube.com/zacbuilds) to see the rest of my builds.
If you REALLY liked this build and want to get ad-free early access to all of my builds as well as behind-the-scenes content, consider becoming a supporter on my Patreon. I'm trying to get enough patrons together so that I can afford to hire a video editor and create content faster. Hope you all have a wonderful day and I will see you in the next build!
Runner Up in the