Pyrography From A - Z
Everything you always wanted to know about pyrography but were afraid to ask!
Pyrography from A-Z will help you get started woodburning with tips on selecting pens, transferring patterns, preparing the wood right up to the point of applying finish & everything in between.
This tutorial contains something for everyone from beginners up to more advanced burners.
This tutorial is really all the basics, or Pyrography 101© basics. I started out with all the information I put in my book, Pyrography 101 & have been continually adding to it as I learn about new techniques, products, etc.
This page was last updated 8/1/15
The first question you need to ask yourself before you start!
What kind of burning do I want to do?
If you are just planning on doing simple signs, craft projects & perhaps just outlining probably a single temperature burner is all you need.
If you plan on doing art work such as landscapes, portraits & other pictures which will include shading & some detail burning then you want a variable temperature detail burner.
Understanding what is involved with woodburning/pyrography
Some very important things you need to consider before investing in this art form:
- This is NOT a fast art form. If you are looking for instant gratification find another hobby such as drawing or painting.
- Unlike speed skating, burning is not something you want to get into if you are looking to get from point A to point Z in record time. It is a slow process & when you rush, you loose something in the process. In my classes I stress over & over again to slow down, it's not a race. This is about stopping & smelling the roses & enjoying the journey, not rushing to get it done.
- If you are a Type A personality & you need that instant gratification either find another hobby or learn to exercise some patience & learn to enjoy the process. Take a deep breath & relax. This is a fabulous hobby but you must understand that if you want to produce nice art work you need to take the time to do it. So take a deep breath, turn on the burner & enjoy the ride....
- Also, unlike drawing or painting you are restricted by the heat. The burner tips loose heat as they glide over the wood (or other surface) & you must lift the tip off the surface briefly (seconds with a variable temperature detail burner) to allow it to reheat. This is normal so don't think there is something wrong with your burner.
- You will also notice that burning with the grain & against the grain is different. When burning across the grain you should slow the speed down so the tip has a chance to burn the wood & when you burn with the grain you can speed it up a bit because the wood will burn faster when you are burning with the grain. It just takes practice to get the hang of it.
- Start with something simple. Don't expect to buy a burner & be able to do a portrait right off the bat. Take baby steps & learn the techniques before you dive into something more complex than you are capable of doing as a beginner.
- If all you want to do is simple crafts & signs you probably can get away with getting a craft style burner that does not have variable temperature.
- If you are interested in doing art that requires detail I highly recommend investing in a variable temperature detail burner.
- BEFORE YOU BUY WOOD & START BURNING...read my tutorial on safety! Safety is #1 in this art form & you do not want to risk your health & that of everyone in your household so be sure you read the safety tutorial & please take it seriously!
So, if you understand this art form a little more now & think that pyrography is for you it's time to think about what type of burner you need.
Things to Consider When Buying Pyrography Tools
I do not have a tutorial on this subject for a reason but I have enough information on this site to help you make your decision. This is a complicated decision-making process & everyone has an opinion. I did, however, include a helpful woodburning tool comparison guide to help you get started. Read that page & then move on to the chart to look at some of the choices.
What I have found over the years is that most burning units (the power) are basically the same, they use a transformer. Some have a bit more power than others. What I have found is that the burners with more power (3 volt system) use heavier gauge wire which can take more heat BUT you loose some of the fine detail that you can get with finer tip wires made to work with 2 volt systems such as Razertip & Optima. So I tell people to forget the power & wattage claims of the companies & buy based on what you need. Generally speaking as a pyrographer you will probably use mostly the mid range on the burner anyway. The best burning is done in layers rather than scorching it using a poker hot tip. Using the lowest setting on the burner to accomplish the task is the best & building on the tones to get the deep rich tones when you need it.
If you like fine detail you probably want to look at a 2 volt system. If fine detail work is not important than either one is fine. If you are working on small projects you definitely want to consider a 2 volt burner so you can do the fine work needed for small projects.
Whether you decide on a 2 or 3 volt they will both work basically the same. When you are looking to buy I suggest you think about some of these things before making your decision:
- Do you plan on doing art or craft type burning
- Do you have a heavy hand
- Are you looking for something on a budget or is money not a big factor
- Are you looking for something to do fine detail work or just general burning
Important things you need to really consider when buying pyrography tools are:
- The company's (manufacturer & dealer) reputation, customer service, reliability, price, & does the company make the pens that will meet your needs. Most of these things will come from talking to other pyrographers. Many will say their burner is best but how does it compare with others.
- How does the company handle problems or complaints. How do the pens perform...do they get hot or remain warm. My chief concern when I consider a burner whether for personal use or for sale is the "after sale service". Since problems with woodburners/pens are typically handled by the manufacturer I want to know: If I have a problem is the manufacturer going to bend over backwards to resolve my problem or am I going to get lip service. Is the problem going to be handled quickly or is it going to take weeks waiting or unanswered emails or phone messages. Some companies put disclaimers on the warranty such as "manufacturing defects". Well, what is a manufacturing defect? I guess that depends on the company & whether they really want to stand by their product & take care of the customer or whether they just want to sell products & don't care about what happens after. Dealers are just that, they sell the product but the manufacturer is the one responsible for taking care of problems with the tools after sale. If they don't do that or are slow then you want to stay away from them. How do you find out, well that's another story. You have to ask others who have the product or the company you bought it from & hope that they will be honest with you. As a dealer who has been selling woodburners for over 14 years & has dealt with most of the major manufacturers in North America I dropped some because of poor service. Why, because I want my customers to be taken care of after the sale should there be a problem. If a manufacturer provides me with poor service what are they going to do to the customer...probably about the same thing.
- Don't get talked into buying more than you need. One of the biggest problems with dealers is talking customers into buying more pens/tips than you need. Believe me I've been there & I swore that I would never do that to anyone. I have talked people out of buying things more than I like to admit. Bad sales person but someone with a conscience.
- Overall you can accomplish just about anything with no more than 3 or 4 tips. So, don't get talked into buying more UNLESS you really need them. To get started get the basics (an all purpose shader, writer & my recommendation of a round-heeled knife). I always recommend the most versatile ones in each category & I strongly recommend buying only POLISHED TIPS. You don't need 2 shaders so buy the one that will do the most. The same goes for the others.
- In addition to the burner & pens you MUST also have some thing to clean the tips. I recommend a single-edged razor to clean off the excess gunk & then a strop & aluminum oxide to polish the tips. If you do this your tips can last a lifetime. I have my original bent spear shader that I have used constantly for almost 10 years & it looks & performs like one that is brand new.
Over the last 15 years I have used & sold 3 other brands besides Razertip & most I stopped selling for a reason...poor customer service or quality control both. I figure if they don't give me good service what are they going to do for my customers so as Donald Trump would say..."you're fired!". I have consistently had great service & support from Razertip which is why I have been selling it for over 12 years. The burners perform well & while I have never had a problem with them, those customers who occasionally have had problems have had them taken care of immediately, not 3 weeks or 3 months. Yes, it has to ship to Canada & back but based on my experience with some other manufacturers in the USA, Razertip is still faster because they usually have a 1 day in-house turn around, not weeks....or months!
Even though they are in Canada I have found that in most cases I get product from Razertip faster than I have experienced with 2 other US manufacturers that I have dealt with. It still amazes me that I can get product from them in 10-14 days & it takes others much longer or they run out of materials such as cords or burner boxes & can't ship for weeks.
So, I urge you to do some homework when shopping for pyrography tools & don't just buy because you got the best deal.
If you have questions after reading this, the pyrography tools review pages and the Razertip tutorial which will answer a lot of questions about burners, pens & maintenance, please don't hesitate to contact me
What wood burning pens do I need?
This is the most frequently asked question & the most important one when you are getting started. I'm of the opinion that less is better. I don't recommend people invest a lot of money buying a lot of pens when all you really need to get started is three pens.
Recommendations to help you get started. The pens listed here are the basics & will help you do just about anything you need to do. Unless you have specific projects that require a specialized tip such as a calligraphy pen or cutting gourds you don't need much else. If you have questions about what pens you need, please contact me. The ones listed below in bold are my personal favorites.
Shader - I use & recommend a bent spear shader because it is the most versatile. I use it for about 95% of my work. I can do everything from the finest detail to general shading, fur, feather, etc. & because of it's shape it gets into tight corners that you can't do with round or square shaders. I find the round & square shaders cannot accomplish what this tip can. They cannot get into tight spots, they cannot do detail work & they are not nearly as versatile.
Razertip - HD5MP (this comes with all of the Razertip burners I sell) or for smaller areas the HD5MSP which I designed with Razertip when I was burning my golden eagle. It is thinner & smaller.
Writer - I prefer a small ball or something similar. I like versatility in a pen so you don't need to have too many pens that do the same things. For writing & flowing lines I prefer one that glides on the wood rather than dragging or digging into the wood.
Razertip - F99.008 or F9S but I lean more toward the F99.008 because it does not drag on the wood. If you are working on gourds I recommend the F99.015.
Skew or Knife - here I definitely prefer a round-heeled knife over a flat skew. Again for the versatility. You can do flat lines as well as curved lines which is something you can't do with a flat skew.
Razertip - #14 is the pick here. My favorite is the #HD14SM. It has a blunt heel so it's more maneuverable than the other sizes. My second favorite is the #14D which was made to my specs.
Preparation of the wood
Proper preparation of the wood is critical in creating a good wood burning. If you do not take the time to sand the wood properly it can make the difference between a mediocre burning & a great burning. Once you have selected the wood you are going to use for the project, preparation for burning is probably the most important part of the project.
When I prepare my wood I do all the sanding by hand. Yes, it's time consuming, but it's worth it. I start with 220-grit sandpaper then go to 400-grit, then 600-grit & finally finish off with 800-grit paper. Sand with the grain of the wood & be sure to remove all sawdust before you start burning.
The wood should feel as soft as a baby's skin when you are finished.
Transferring the pattern to the wood
As I have mentioned in my book & in every class I teach, DO NOT use carbon paper. It contains paraffin wax, which can be toxic when burned & the lines cannot be removed so remaining black lines will look really "tacky" when they show through the brown burning.
Graphite transfer paper is the best & safest method for putting the pattern on the wood. Yes, it takes longer but believe me cutting corners is not worth it. Graphite is easy to remove if you make a mistake or marks are that left on the burning can easily be removed. It is safe & non-toxic.
Other methods people have used:
Chaco paper which can be removed with water. The main problem with this is that water can leave marks on the wood, especially basswood.
Pyrography paper is one of the new things that people are using. I have not tried this method but I do recommend caution when burning through any paper unless it is untreated paper. Also you print the pattern on this paper & the ink in the paper can be toxic if burned. I suggest if you want to try this method that you contact the manufacturer & get the MSDS (material safety data sheets) sheet on it before attempting to use this method. Also please be sure to read my Gourd Pyrography & Safety Tutorial.
Press & Seal is something people have been using for gourds. I started hearing people recommend using press & seal (a plastic wrap) to transfer patterns. I thought this was an interesting idea & helpful because it adheres to the round surface but when I heard that people are actually burning through it I almost fell off my chair. Let me mention again that Press & Seal is PLASTIC. This is made from chemicals & is NOT intended for burning & it is NOT safe.
Many years ago when a well known instructor started teaching her students to burn on acrylic (PLASTIC) mirrors. I contacted a manufacturer of plastic mirrors to discuss the safety of burning on plastics. His first response was "what are you crazy". Those words still ring in my ear. I have reported all of his remarks regarding this issue on many forums over the years & to this day this lady is still teaching her students to burn on acrylic (now she refers to them as Lucite & claiming it's safe even though Lucite is PLASTIC) mirrors. What that man said was that if plastic in any shape, form or name is burned it will emit toxic fumes. So my question to you is this...is the ease of transferring a pattern that important that you risk killing yourself?
Masking tape is another aid to transferring patterns I have heard about among gourd artists. Well I have been using masking tape for years to attach my pattern but never considered burning through it. When I heard that people were using it I had to check this out too. Sure enough when I called 3M they basically gave me the same response & said that it is safe when used as suggested by the manufacturer only as a means of adhesive. So, again I ask people why would you want to burn through tape which has glue on it & can cause health problems?
Heat transfer tool is another quick method but there are several problems with this method. First, it is very difficult to remove any lines remaining after you have finished burning. Since you can't remove those lines that are left after you finish you get to look at those nasty "black" lines showing through your "brown" burning tacky, tacky, tacky! Most important, it is not safe. The ink in your toner cartridge can be toxic. You are burning on top of ink from a printer or copy machine that has toxic chemicals that could be released when burning on it. This method may seem quicker & easier but I strongly suggest you look at the MSDS of the printer or toner that you are using before you consider this method. If you do use this method, you must use a laser printer or a photocopy machine. You will not be able to transfer your pattern if you use an inkjet printer. But I still do caution you burning through ink without checking out the safety of it first.
How to transfer the pattern
The process of applying the pattern & graphite to the wood must be very precise. Proper placement of the graphite paper is crucial. If you place it on the wood with the wrong side facing up, you will transfer the design back onto the pattern instead of the wood. Place the graphite with the white side up then draw a small line to test & make sure it goes through onto the wood.
You must ensure that the pattern is fastened securely so it does not move. I recommend something like masking or painters tape that lifts easily without leaving adhesive film on the wood. DO NOT lift the pattern to check your work. Chances are pretty good that you will not put the pattern down in exactly the same place when you replace it & your lines will not match.
I recommend using a red pencil so you can see where you have already drawn the lines & not have to lift the pattern risking moving it.
Another technique I used when chip carving is to use waxed paper to transfer my pattern. Place the pattern on the wood & put the waxed paper on top attaching securely with tape. Using a stylus start tracing & you will be able to see where you have already traced. The problem with this method is that you may lose some of the detail seeing through the waxed paper so be sure you have a good quality pattern with good contrast if you want to try this technique.
With either method, be sure you are pressing firmly with the pen. or stylus & I suggest you test your pressure in the corner & make sure the line shows up when you lift the pattern & transfer paper. Also try not rub your palm over the wood too much or you will get graphite smudges on the wood that you will have to erase later.
When you have finished tracing your pattern on the wood (or other material), check to ensure that you have traced all the lines, holding your fingers firmly so that the paper does not move. If you missed a few lines you can draw them in with your pencil later. If you have gotten all the lines in, you are now ready to start burning.
How to transfer the pattern & avoid smudging the graphite
Occasionally I get asked the question of how do I keep from smuding the graphite when I am transferring a pattern & when I'm burning.
Here are some suggestions that I have taught in my classes that will help when you are transferring the pattern & also when you start burning the design.
Transferring the pattern:
- attach the pattern securely (preferably at the top) in place with masking or painters tape.
- slip a piece of graphite transfer paper underneath the pattern so that it covers the surface of the wood (or other material).
- if you are right handed work from left to right transferring the pattern. This way you can see where you are working & what you have already transferred because your hand is not in the way. It also helps keep from rubbing your hand or pinky over the area that has the graphite. Move in the opposite direction if you are left handed.
- using a red pencil (easier to see where you have already traced the patter) draw a line in a corner to make sure you are pressing hard enough (but not too hard) for the line to show up on the wood.
- begin to trace the pattern on the wood surface.
- From time to time check to make sure the design is showing up but make sure you hold the pattern firmly so it does not shift when you lift a small section to take a peek.
- when you have finished tracing the entire design carefully lift the pattern & graphite & remove the tape from the wood & you are now ready to burn.
How to avoid smudging the graphie pattern when you start burning:
- put a piece of plain paper under your hand so your hand is not rubbing on the wood. This also keeps the oils that are on your hand from getting into the wood. Do not use paper with print or anything on it that could rub off on the surface.
- as you move from one area to the other lift the paper & move it, do not drag it over the wood.
- rest your hand on your pinky rather than resting your entire hand on the surface. Your pinky will keep your hand steady but keep the pressure of your hand from smuding the graphite.
- if you are right handed work from work from right to left as you burn so there is less chance of smudging the pattern as you are working. Move in the opposite direction if you are left handed.
There are probably more tricks others have used but I have found that the pressure & oils from your hand are what smudges the graphite. The best way to avoid that is to find a way to keep your hand off the surface while you are transferring the pattern & burning the design.
Safety & transferring patterns to gourds
Since I have gotten back into gourds & participate in a couple of online gourd forums I hear all kinds of things. Some great tips are given but others leave me shuddering in disbelief.
A couple of those tips I feel it necessary to discuss here. Since I started teaching wood burning I have always stressed the importance of safety & when it comes to burning on gourds it's no different.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the toxic fumes emitted when burning on some of these materials lingers long after you have stopped burning. So, for the safety of yourself & others who might come into the room where you have burned on these materials please use good judgment.
For more information on this please go to my Gourd Pyrography Tutorial.
Very helpful tips for newcomers & those who are still struggling to find solutions to problems
- Be sure that your hands are always clean before you begin working. You can also put a piece of paper under your hand to prevent oils from penetrating the wood.
- If you are right-handed, I recommend working from right to left & if you are left handed, work from left to right. This will avoid smudging your lines or removing them completely.
- I always suggest keeping a practice board at your side & use it when burning to test the temperature of your burner, & your pen strokes & to experiment with techniques. Better to mess up a cheap practice board than your project.
- One thing newcomers to burning may not realize is that as your pen glides over the surface of the wood or whatever material you are burning, the pen loses heat. You can see it in shading...the burn starts out dark & then fades as the pen loses heat. You must raise the pen off the material briefly (how long depends on the pen you are using) to allow the pen to reheat before resuming. If using a detail pen this should not take more than a few seconds. It is normal & it is not a problem with your burner.
- Do not turn the temperature on your detail burner up higher than you actually need. It is far better to burn in layers than to burn fast & dark which merely burns the surface. Burning at lower temperatures will also preserve the life of your pens especially if you are using a detail pen which should not be used "poker hot" or red. Please be sure to read the tutorial on Razertip pens for more information on how to use them, FAQ's, etc. All the information contained in the tutorial can apply to any brand of detail pen.
- One of the most common problems I see in wood burning is that people burn too light or do not have varying tonal values. It's best to be sure that when you burn, you burn darker than what you would think you want when it's finished. This is for several reasons. One is that you want it to stand out from the wood rather than fade into it. All too often I see people take the time to do a great burn & it just loses something because it is so light it just doesn't stand out & seems to fade into the sunset as the old saying goes. Keep in mind that your burn, like any art, can fade over time unless you take preventive action. If there isn't much there to fade to begin with just think of what it will look like when it does start to fade. While it might look ok now, how will it look 3-5 years down the road? If you sell your work how will your clients feel if your burning has faded in a few years. Even with a finish applied, it can still fade, especially if you have not burned dark. Don't be shy & layer your shading!!!!
- Another common problem is learning how to control the tonal values when working on varying surfaces such as grain & mold spots. Wood has grain & gourds have mold so you will soon discover that when you go over a hard area such as cross grain that your tone will be lighter if you burn at the same speed as burning on soft spots such as with the grain or on moldy spots on gourds. So, practice on scraps so you can get a feel for burning under varying conditions.
- I also recommend you burn in layers to achieve the darker values. If you try to scorch the wood with a very high temperature you will do several things: reduce the life of the tip, surface scorch only & your burning will fade faster, you will loose control & therefore loose the fine quality detail you can only achieve by taking your time.
- A common question people ask is how do I best
control the dark & light tones? There are a
- crank up the temperature (not recommended)
- turn the temperature down
- go faster for a lighter burn
- go slower for a darker burn
- burn in layers (recommended)
- The bottom line is that it should be your technique, not cranking up the temperature to achieve darker burns. You will get better quality burns & it will retain the color if you learn to burn in layers to achieve darker tonal values.
- I find it best to work from black & white photographs rather than patterns because I can see the tonal values (lights, mediums, darks) & translate that into my burning. All too often I see burnings done with everything in medium tones & there is no variation of tones. It ends up looking like it all blends in together. Look closely at a black & white photo & you will see lights, mediums & darks. Make sure your lights are LIGHT & your darks are DARK. It will make your burning pop out & look so much more lifelike. You will have depth rather than a burning that looks flat.
- One of the best ways to prevent fading is to burn dark, burning in layers gradually getting darker rather than superficially scorching the wood. This will not only achieve the darkness you desire but it will also greatly add to the light fastness of your work.
Preventing the "dreaded blobs" on the burning surface
This is where the touchdown, landing & take off is important when burning. The burning pen tip should be in motion as it lands on the wood, continues to glide & then takes off again.
The analogy I have used since I started teaching back in 2000 is the plane coming in for a landing...if the plane wasn't moving it would crash & definitely would leave a blob. Yes, that is & has always been my way of teaching people how to avoid that run down feeling.
Use this technique for the both the landing & the take off & you will never suffer from the "dreaded blob" again. The bottom line...as long as your pen tip is moving as it enters & leaves the "airport landing field" or the burning surface you will avoid that run down feeling AKA "the dreaded blob". Practice this & soon it will become second nature & you don't even think about it, you just do it automatically. All it takes is practice just as the airplane pilot had to practice his touch down & landings to avoid crashing that plane.
My analogy seems to work pretty well because there are a lot of people using it now!
Another technique you can use is to lightly blow on the tip before touching down which will help cool the tip.
Cooling the tip
Sometimes it seems that your pen is too hot when you start burning, especially using a single temperature burner. Remember that each time you lift your pen off the wood it reheats so it will seem to be hotter than when you stopped & then start again.
When you are trying to create subtle shading tones it's very hard to control the temperature especially when you are just learning. Here are some things you can try before putting the tip on down on your project:
- You can blow on the tip just before you place the tip on the wood
- Glide the pen across a piece of practice wood before you place the tip on the wood
- Be sure your tip is moving as it touches down on the wood...I call this the touch down & landing like a plane coming in for a landing.
What to do with Interchangeable tips while they cool down
Everybody who uses interchangeable tips (including the single temperature burners) has wondered what do you do with them when you remove them & they are still hot.
Well, first, you should not remove the brass screw-in tips from the craft-style burners until they are cool otherwise you will strip the threads.
For interchangeable tips on the variable temperature burners here's some ideas:
- A Pyrex custard cup
- The flat lid from a used canning jar
- The metal lid from a glass jar such as baby food jar or apple sauce
- A trivet
- A baking sheet
- Make sure where ever you put it that it is out of the way so nobody will get burned
How to clean polished wood burning tips:
Since I recommend everyone get tips that are polished & most manufacturers polish their tips or offer it as an option at an extra cost I am only offering guidance on cleaning polished tips.
I'm always asked how to clean the tips & it's a great question. I will address the proper procedure for cleaning wood burning pen tips that are polished. For pen tips that are not polished please be sure to check with the manufacturer for their recommended methods of cleaning the tips.
If your tips are heavily caked with carbon, leather or gourd "gunk" I recommend you start with a single-edged razor or the Razertip's tip cleaner & gently scrape off excess carbon. You can do this while the pen is hot or after it has cooled.
For the next step be sure your tip is cool. Once you have cleaned off any excess carbon use a strop (leather or composite) with aluminum oxide powder. Never use sandpaper or anything more abrasive than aluminum oxide.
I tend to burn mostly on clean woods that are free of oil so regular cleaning with the strop & aluminum oxide is all I need to keep my tips clean & carbon free. When burning on gourds or leather I start with a single-edged razor & then use the strop & aluminum oxide powder.
Using the strop & aluminum oxide:
When burning on gourds, leather & certain woods you will probably have to clean the tips more frequently than if you are burning on wood such as basswood or Italian Poplar.
Make sure your tip is cool. Directions for using the strop & aluminum oxide: Add just a TINY pinch of aluminum oxide to one edge of the strop & run the tip across the powder just a few times, then on a clean area of the strop run the tip over the clean area to remove the remaining powder & gently polish the tip. You need to do this only a few strokes. I then wipe it on my denim jeans (you may want to get a patch of denim to keep on your work area) to clean off excess polish. Remember you're really just polishing, so you don't need to try to remove all the discoloration. These tips stay cleaner than many other brands so if you are burning at a moderate temperature on wood you can probably burn longer between cleanings. If you are burning on gourds or leather you will need to clean more frequently.
Remember that proper cleaning maintains the life of the tips, makes burning easier & your finished burning cleaner & keeps them in factory-new condition. If you clean the tips regularly you will not have much difficulty maintaining them.
"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"
This is a common problem of people using certain types of wood such as cedar & pine. Also working on leather & gourds may cause problems for some people as well.
Some precautions must be taken to prevent breathing in the fumes. Using a small fan such as one from a computer tower & having the fan blow the smoke away from you will help with some of the smoke.
If you are burning on wood with oils, pitch, sap you must take extra care to protect others in the household as well. If you can burn in a separate room, close the door & vent the fumes out a door or window would be ideal but even with those safety precautions you might not get all the fumes out of the room. Some people have noticed that even doing this & waiting several days there have still been toxic fumes in the air so I usually don't even recommend burning on woods like this at all.
It is also VERY important to burn in layers, the underneath layers first - just the way you put your clothes on. This will give your work depth & make it look more alive. Although you might be working from right to left, bottom to top, or left to right, you should also be very conscious of the layers as you work.
The Mother's Day Rose shown at left was done from a photograph. This is a great example of layering. There are many, many layers in this piece; if you study it closely you will begin to understand the concept & feel more comfortable when you start your project.
As you study the burning notice the various layers. I am right-handed, so I started burning from the right. Notice the three sepals under the flower on the right side, that are the first layer (two of the sepals also have parts overlapping so burn the underneath part first). Then look at the lower petal which is above the top leaf on the top right. The next layer I worked on are the two leaves on the left & followed with the petal on top of those leaves. Continue to look at the rose & study it. See if you can figure out which layers come next as you burn. If you were to do this burning without layering, it would lose its depth & look flat.
By doing your layering correctly, your finished piece will look lifelike, almost like a relief carving. I can't tell you the number of people who look at my works & insist that they must have been carved. Looking at my work when I began wood burning & comparing it to what I am doing now, you will instantly notice the difference. The original pieces were flat and lifeless & now they come alive! This is what you want to capture in your work.
Now that you have mastered layering you need to create depth. One technique that helps to make the wood burning go from a flat burning to one that pops off the wood & looks as though it's carved is a technique called undercutting. As I describe in my books, using the side of the shader or the round-heeled knife carve behind the top layer so that you are "lifting & separating" it from the layer below. It brings the top layer forward & pushes the bottom layer back. I suggest experimenting with the two styles of pen to decide which you prefer & often you will use a different one depending on the amount of undercutting you want to add.
If you look at something on a table, notice the shadow created below it. That shadow is what you are creating between the two layers. It will help to make your burning come alive.
Keep in mind that you only undercut between two layers, not behind a section of burning where nothing is behind it.
Hair & fur
Shade in the color (lay in the tone) & then add the individual hairs (the texture). This will give you the foundation for the hair & you won 't have to add quite so many strands of hair to make it look full & natural. Be sure that the strokes follow the natural shape of the head/body & vary the shade of the strokes, so that the hair/fur will have a more natural appearance. The strokes should start at the root & work out, just as hair grows. The root is where the hair/fur is the darkest & this is also where the color is the darkest when you burn. Also be sure to do the hair or fur in layers, burning the underneath layers of hair/fur first. I start at the bottom with my first layer of hair, then layered over it, just as it grows. This will give the hair/fur the most natural look. I use the edge of the shader to do fur & hair because I like the softer look. Using the knife will give you a sharper, crisper look.
The eyes are the "windows of the soul" & in my opinion the most important part of any face you draw, burn or paint. If the eyes don't look right, you might as well throw out your piece & start over. With that said, when you are doing a face, my suggestion is to start with the eyes. If you get those right, the rest is a piece of cake!
When you do eyes, remember the layering. Do the pupils/iris first, then the lids. This will create a more natural-looking eye. For more detail on doing a face or eyes, please refer to my first book, "Lifelike Pyrography from Photographs". This book includes a step-by-step portrait project.
The "Magic Eraser"
No, this is not the product made by Mr. Clean. It is a phrase I coined when I started teaching & wrote my books....before Mr. Clean invented his "Magic Eraser".
Okay, you ask, can you erase a mistake? Well, sort of! I tell everyone in class that the best way to correct mistakes is to use the …magic eraser , this is a very special tool called a - single-edge razor blade. As long as you haven 't burned too dark & deep, you can use the edge of the single-edge razor blade to GENTLY scrape off some of the color. Notice the angle of the blade in the photo Fig 3.3. Holding it upright & just slightly moving over the area, back & forth, I can remove some color. Be sure to do it very gently so you do not cut the wood. You can also try sandpaper, but sometimes this ends up smudging the burning. Be sure when you finish with the razor that you remove all dust from your wood before starting to burn again. I do this with a clean paintbrush. You will see more uses for the "magic eraser" later in this book.
Adding color to your work
The decision to add color to your burning is strictly a personal choice. Many people like myself are purists & prefer to keep their woodturnings just that. I do on occasion use color but usually just for an accent. For a tutorial on how to use color in your wood burning please go to my tutorial Using color with pyrography.
I don't usually color my burnings but for those who do intend to add color, you might want to add 1 coat of finish to your wood before adding color depending on the type of color you are using. Once you have colored your piece you should NOT go back & burn over it.
Just when you think you're finished....
When you think you have completed your work it's time to step back & take a look. Working so closely on your burning you tend to get lost in the details. So.....stand your project up & step back & look at your burning. It's a good idea to do this from time to time to give you a different perspective on what you are doing. You will often find things that you didn't see before & you can see many subtleties that you can't see when you are working so closely...such as tonal values that need adjusting, etc.
Knowing when to stop
Another common problem with artists is knowing when to stop & say the piece is finished. All too often people tend to over work a piece only to find they have ruined it.
If you look at your piece & find that something is not just right but your not sure what it is try holding it up in front of a mirror & look at it in the mirror. You should find the "something" in the mirror image.
When you think you are finished with your burning, put it aside for a few days & don 't look at it. hen set it up as if you were putting it on display, stand back & just look at it from time to time. This is when you will find things that might pop out that need to be changed, fixed, etc. But the critical thing here is to not overwork it. You need to know when to stop & say it's done & you can't improve on it anymore. That's when it's time to sign your piece.
Finishing your work
Once you have finished your burning it's a good idea to go over the wood with a crumbled up piece of brown paper bag. Be sure to use the inside where there is no print otherwise you might end up with ink on your beautiful burning.
This is a great way to remove the excess carbon burrs from the wood, moisture from your hands or water-based finish, etc.
I also recommend you do this between coats of finish to restore that smooth as silk finish when you first prepped the wood for burning.
Signing your work
There is much debate over signing artwork but the bottom line is your signature is what tells the world who did it. Using fancy initials, while it might stand out, doesn't tell anyone who you are. If they can't read it then it's just as bad. Be proud of your work & let people know who you are. Perhaps some day you will be famous.
Several years ago I received an email from someone asking if I painted a piece that she bought. I knew it wasn't me because I always signed my paintings with my full name, even when I started painting at the age of 13. Her painting was just signed "Nedra" & she searched online for painters named Nedra. She sent me a copy of it & I had not done it. It's a shame that this artist merely signed her first name but perhaps when she did it she thought she was the only artist named Nedra in the world. It's unfortunate for her because this lady wanted to buy more of her work & now she can't because she can't find the artist.
Your signature is important because it tells people who did the work & just putting your initials in a fancy style might look "artsy" but nobody knows who did it. Decide how you want to sign your work & do it in an un-obscure place so it does not draw the eye away from the focus. I usually sign my first name on front with the year (i.e.: '06) & then on back I sign my full name with the year (i.e.: 2006) & title of the piece. Date is just as important as the name, both for you & for someone who might buy the artwork. It's a great way for you to see how you have progressed & when you did it. I have paintings that I did when I was 11 years old...I look at them now over 45 years later & cannot believe the date when I look at it & I say to myself, "I did that over 30 years ago...wow I've come a long way since then!"
Your signature is just as important as the art work itself. So many people think it's cute to have fancy initials or signature that look great but nobody can read who the artist is. If you don't care if anyone knows who the artist is that's fine but if you are proud of your work be sure that you sign your name so everyone knows who you are. Did Michelangelo, Picasso or Degas use their initials...the answer to that is no. Even though everyone knows who they are now, that was not the case when they were budding artists. Be proud of your work & be sure everyone knows you did it.
You can use a variety of pens or tips to sign your name depending on whether you want to print or do cursive writing. Razertip makes a writing tip (I recommend the F9S) that works great for printing & for script writing I suggest using the F99.008 ball tip which flows across the wood. If you have a solid point burner try the mini flow or flow point depending on the brand. Colwood makes two writing tips that are good for signatures. The C is a small writing tip good for printing or cursive & the MC is a micro writer that is like a fine tipped pen. I do suggest that you use a practice board to practice signing before doing it on your project.
I don't usually color my burnings but for those who do intend to add color, you might want to add 1 coat of finish to your wood before adding color depending on the type of color you are using. Once you have colored your piece you should NOT go back & burn over it.
Applying the final finish
Before applying the final finish use a clean natural bristle toothbrush, nailbrush or a crumbled up piece of brown paper bag (no print) to wipe away any excess carbon burs. Once you are satisfied that your burning is complete, it 's time to apply the finish.
I highly recommend a satin or matte finish so you do not get a glare which will detract from your artwork.
When you are completely satisfied that your work is complete it's time to apply the final finish. There are lots of choices but I suggest you avoid such as Verathane outdoor spar varnish with UV protection as it has a tendency to turn a mottled yellow. Having tried this myself & having ruined several pieces I spoke with the company & was informed that it was not intended for indoor use & that it actually has to be outdoors in the sun for it to activate. If not activated it will turn yellow....VERY yellow!
Some people like the convenience of spray-on finish & use Deft Semi-gloss with good success but be very cautious using this & use only in a well ventilated area...preferably not inside the house. It can cause serious health problems.
I have been using a few different products but one of my favorites has been a brush-on polyacrylic finish made by General Finish which is available in many woodcraft stores. I use the brush-on satin finish & I use 3 coats...lightly sanding lightly between coats. It might take longer than Spray-on finish but I prefer the brush-on because you have more control, it does not have the fumes that you get with spray on & it gives you such a professional looking finish that is smooth with no streaks. It is water based & cleans up with soap & water. This finish will really enhance the burning & make it stand out more without changing the appearance or detracting from the texture & depth of your burning. This particular finish comes out best when applied with a clean, dry sponge-type brush. It is available in many wood craft supply stores such as Woodcraft Stores. You can find a dealer by going to the General Finishes Website & click on the dealer locator button. I prefer this brand over the commercial brands found in hardware stores. I have found that two coats is not quite enough to protect it & any more than three is overkill. It seems that three thin coats is the perfect balance. Be sure that you cover everything - top, bottom & sides. (If you are entering your piece in competition & the entire piece isn't finished, you may lose points.) Once you have applied the final finish to your project, DO NOT go back & burn on it - you will be breathing in toxic fumes!
I also recommend the above method of going over the surface between layers of finish with the inside of a brown bag that is crumbled up to remove any roughness.
Some other wonderful finishes I have found that are made in the USA & proven to be great quality. Jo Sonja Finishes makes a wonderful brush on polyurethane varnish that do not yellow & provide great coverage. If you prefer the convenience of a spray varnish I highly recommend Americana spray matte varnish. It provides a very nice natural finish.
My biggest recommendation is not to use a gloss finish which will detract from the art work & create glare. I recommend either a matte or satin finish which are more natural.
Creating your own style
Some people might think that Picasso's art was junk, others think they were masterpieces. His style was very different from artists such as Andrew Wyeth or Georgia O 'Keefe or even Michelangelo. Were their ways of painting wrong? No, each artist had their own personal style. The same goes for woodburning.
Don't try to be someone else...just be yourself! I've had students come in & sit through a class & want to have their burning look just like mine. I tell them, if it looks just like mine it won't be yours, it will be a copy of mine.
The best thing I can tell you is to learn from me, but don't try to be me!
There is no right or wrong way of burning & every instructor will have his/her own personal techniques or preferences, but that does not mean it 's the only way to do things. The techniques & style for burning I teach in my classes are different from other instructors' & that is how it should be. I don 't copy other peoples' styles & I don 't want my students to copy mine. I want them to learn the techniques & go off & experiment on their own to discover what works best for them & creating pieces that are "theirs" & not exact copies of mine or anyone else.
Nothing worse than having a teacher try to get you to copy their work & style exactly. That's not teaching & it's not art. Use your imagination. Even if you are working from a photo, make some "artistic" changes to make it yours.
You need to learn the basic techniques, how to work with the pens & materials & practice. Then with time & practice you will develop confidence to go on & discover your own personal style...that is what art is all about. It 's not about copying a pattern or photograph; it 's about how you see things with your own eyes, how you make it come alive, develop a personality...how you give it life!
The bottom line is, if the piece turns out the way YOU want it to, that 's all that matters & don't be disappointed if after a few woodburnings your work is not up to the level you expected. It takes practice, lots of practice so be patient & don't try to rush going from novice to expert overnight. There's not many people who are natural born artists so just enjoy what you're doing & don't push yourself too fast.
Burning on leather
If you want to burn on leather the most important thing to remember is that it must be vegetable tanned leather. Other tanning methods can be toxic if you burn on them.
One thing you will notice that is different than burning on wood is the smell....arg, does it stink. You will also have to clean your pen tips a lot more often to get off that gunk!
Burning on leather also requires a slightly cooler pen...so if you use a temp of "6" on your wood burning when burning on Italian poplar for a medium/dark burn as an example, you will probably need to set your burning at "4-5" for a medium burn on leather.
Be sure to keep a room purifier, air cleaner or fan (blowing away from you) in the room while burning.
For a more natural, lifelike burning do not outline. There are no lines in nature so create the natural "edge" with the shading.
Always have a scrap piece of wood (preferably of the same kind used in the burning) at hand to check heat settings & practice your burning strokes before you attempt any burning or texturing application to the carving! I tend to use small pieces of Italian poplar for most everything but if you are just starting out it's best to use the same wood you are using for the burning.
Hold the pen at a sufficient angle as you burn to keep the rising heat from going directly to the fingers. This gets uncomfortable very quickly. I also suggest burning on a slanted surface such as a drafting table. It helps relieve stress on your wrist while keeping your pen at a perfect angle to keep the heat from going to your fingers.
Be sure your work table is at the right height so you are not straining your neck or back while working. If you are uncomfortable while burning you are doing something wrong.
Work smart! Turn the wood, not your hand to prevent cramping & straining on your wrist & hand.
I burn with a moderate temperature on my burner so I have more control over the burning. Most burning can be done at lower temperatures ¦there is no reason for a lot of smoke (or fire!) to come off your work! About 700 degrees F will give a nice …toast to your work. In some cases, if you burn too hot, paint adhesion can be a problem, as the pores in the wood are sealed shut. Burning at a lower cooler temperature will also tend to avoid residue & build-up on your tips.
Layer your shading rather than trying to create the darks all in one shot. It will look better & it will create more deep, long lasting burns.
The temperature setting, the size of the tip (such as the 5 sizes of ball stylus), whether your tip is clean, the material you are burning, breezes in the room all affect the settings on your burner. For example the smaller the ball tip the faster it heats up.
To clean tips, use factory recommended methods, & stay away from coarse emery cloth or sandpaper, unless you wish to buy new tips often!
One method used to clean & restore tips is the edge of a straight-edged razor to gently scrape off any build up of carbon. Raze tip's "tip cleaner" uses a similar method. This method can be done while the pen is still hot.
Another method is a strop to sharpen & buff out an edge. The strop can be treated with a bit of Neat's foot oil, a very small amount of polishing paste, or extremely fine honing compound such as aluminum oxide. You can find the strop & aluminum oxide powder on my supplies page. Use care, too little is better than too much when it comes to burning tips. Work the tip cold, use gentle draw strokes with a finger lying over the upper side of the tip to support it.
After burning for a while stand back from your work to get a different perspective on how it looks. You will often find things you missed working so closely to the project.
If you think there is something not quite right with your burning but can't put your finger on it....hold it up in front of a mirror & look at it in the mirror. You can see things you didn't see looking at it straight on.
When you think your project is done stop & put it up against a wall & leave it for a few days. Go back & look at it from time to time to see if you find anything your not happy with. When you feel confident it's done sign your name & apply finish.
DO NOT over work your project. Know when to stop BEFORE you mess it up!
Copyright & Fair Use Information
I have now devoted a separate page to this very important subject. Please go to the "Copyright for Crafters & Hobbyist's" page for more information.
My best advice
Don't try to be just like someone else, copy their work or try to compete with others to be the best. Just be the best you can be. The only one you need to please is yourself & don't try to do artwork based on what you think a judge will be looking for...some don't even know what they are looking for! Just let your heart & your eyes guide you & look, really look at what you are doing. It's amazing what you will see if you really open your eyes & look at what's around you.
To me the meaning of art is that it is work that comes from your heart & soul. It is an extension of you...it can be a release of the pain you feel (emotional & physical) & the pouring out of your soul onto a canvas. Perhaps that's why so many troubled people are such talented artists.
When you start competing with others to be the best & let professional jealousy get the best of you, it will show in your work. Let your mind go, let the ideas flow & just see what happens & don't worry about what other people think. If you are happy with yourself & what you are doing, that is the most important thing. You are the own best/worst critic.
When you stop trying to compete with or be someone else, you can grow, blossom & achieve so much more than you can ever imagine. Let your mind go & be free to test the waters of your ability.
Most of all, don't be afraid to step outside your comfort zone & try something, you don't know what you can achieve until you try. Soar like an eagle!
Happy Burning ©
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