Pyrography — derived from the Greek pur (fire) and graphos (writing) — has been around since fire itself. While there isn’t hard evidence, it’s quite likely that cavemen etched the walls of their caves with fire sticks. While today it’s primarily done on wood with a heated pen, it’s been done (and continues to be done) on leather, clay, and even gourds.
Historically, it was used to decorate and brand various tools and musical instruments. Kitchenware or folk guitars were marked with a little bit of art both to convey the owner’s personality, and to distinguish their stuff from other people’s. It wasn’t really until the late Victorian era that the art form was taken up in earnest, and done on blank “canvasses” of wood and other materials rather than being a decorative embellishment.
In the early 20th century, soldering pens were developed, from which today’s woodburning tools were derived. This is a fun project for men, and even kids (under adult supervision, of course). Luckily, the start up costs are cheap, and it’s an easy hobby to learn. If you enjoy it, woodburning can be the source of DIY gifts for the family for years to come!
A woodburning pen is a very simple tool. It’s a pen-like device with a metal end through which heat is transferred to a removable tip. All but the cheapest models are variable temperature tools. With any kit, you’ll get 4-7 different tips for various methods of burning: straight lines, rounded lines, shading, etc. You’ll also get a metal safety stand for the pen so it’s never just sitting on a table or workbench.
The first thing you need to do, before working on any project, is to simply get familiar with the tool. Get a piece of scrap wood, plug in the woodburning tool and let it heat up for about 5 minutes, and test out “drawing” on the wood with the various tips just like you would with a pencil. It’s that simple. (Be sure to let the tool cool down for 5 minutes before changing out tips; it’ll then have to be heated up again for a few minutes.) The key is to go slow and steady. If you’re jerky, it’ll show. If you go too fast, the wood won’t really burn like you want it to. Just like the tortoise, slow and steady wins the race.
Get familiar with the various tips. The one on the left is the rounded tip — it’s the one I use the most, and is pretty all-purpose. On the right is the shading tip; you’ll notice its flat bottom, so that you can burn a larger surface area at one time.
A few other pointers to keep in mind:
For my first project, I chose the above design of a quaint cabin in the mountains. The options are limitless for what you can burn onto a piece of a wood. So far, I’ve worked with basic, black and white designs, but as I get better, I’m sure I’ll get into more advanced shading techniques and whatnot.
To find designs and patterns to work with, just google anything you’re interested in with “black and white illustration” added to the end: “mountains black and white illustration,” “wildlife black and white illustration,” “Minnesota Vikings black and white illustration.” You’ll more than likely get some great results to choose from.
After you’ve picked a design, you want to figure out the size you want to use as well. For this above design, I sized it to fit a piece of wood I already had. The other few I’ve done I just made the size of an 8.5×11″ sheet of paper, since that’s what I can easily print here at home.
You can really use any wood for your pyrography project. Soft woods will burn at lower temps, while harder woods will take a very hot pen. The piece in the picture is pine — very easy to work with. To prep your wood, if it’s a “raw” piece like this, you’ll want to sand it very well, and also decide which way you want the grain. It’s much easier to burn with the grain than against it. With my cabin project, it had more horizontal lines than vertical, so I kept the grain horizontal.
You can also use pre-fab wood projects like boxes or pre-cut shapes that you can find at any hobby store. You’ll see later in the article how I used those. Anything pre-fab you buy at a hobby store will be very easy to work with, and you won’t have to worry about grain as much.
Tape your cut out design (a broad outline is fine as long as it fits on the wood) to the carbon paper, and then to the wood.
Using a pen, firmly trace the outline of your design
After tracing, it should look something like this.
Get started! Using the pen, follow the carbon line you just traced onto the wood. Again, go with the grain as much as you can. This was my first project, so you can sort of see some lines in the burn where I was a little jerky.
The outline is complete. Now all that’s left is the shading
Using the shading tip, carefully fill in the spots that need it, according to your design or creative brain. You can also stain the piece to give a nice sheen and finished look.
I burned this elephant for our nursery. I’m working on a lion right now to go with it. The piece of wood came from a hobby store.
I was inspired by my article about Thor to burn his hammer, Mjolnir, into the lid of this box. As with the above project, the box came from a hobby store.
I can make you a page to display your art if you'd like....I'd love to see some.
I'm wondering if I couldn't use this method to create witches runes.
no problem....just holler when you want one...