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Woodburning, a Dying Art?

Updated on June 8, 2011

Is the Art of Woodburing Dead?

This is about my favorite art, Woodburning. Is this a dying art form or just hidden? How many people know about the craft? I don't know but I once heard someone describe my works as a dying art. The art of woodburning is a very old tradition and has rarely been practiced. Woodburning takes a steady hand, and patience, and can be time consuming. In this lens you will learn a little history of the craft as well as some of my experiences working with the burners and woods. This is my attempt to reintroduce the art of woodburning back into the world of crafters and woodworking. Granted it's not like woodturning with a lathe but you can put some very nice finishing touches on anything that is turned or hand made with wood. And it can be used on gourds as well.

Pyrography

What is it?

Pyrography: According to Wikipedia, Pyrography is the art of decorating wood or other materials with burn marks resulting from the controlled application of a heated object such as a poker. It is also known as pokerwork or wood burning.

Pyrography means "writing with fire" and is the traditional art of using a heated tip or wire to burn or scorch designs onto natural materials such as wood or leather.

A Short History on Woodburning

The word Pyrography, is of Greek origin, "pur" meaning fire and "graphos" meaning writing, which then easily translates to our more common name of "wood burning". It is the process of drawing a picture on a piece of wood, by burning lines into the surface of the wood in various shapes and intensities, with a soldering iron type tool. The longer you hold the wood burning pen on the surface of the wood, the greater the charring, thus the darker the colour and the more depth you add. In the old days they used just a piece of heated metal to add patterns to their furniture.

Woodburning can greatly enhance your carving project. Used to create fine line detailing or sepia tones of shadowing, with just one tool and a few basic strokes this craft will open a new dimension to your finished work.

Once you catch the "burning bug" you will soon discover that the complete design can be created using just this tool. Woodburning is a lot more than just dark brown outline on a piece of wood. From pale golden shading to dark textured areas, there is a wide range of coloring that the burner will make.

Tools and Techniques

About the Tools

There is a nice variety of woodburners available. The basic beginner's tool is a one piece construction with the tip set permanently into the shaft. This tip is a cylinder that has been sliced at an angle on two sides to create a crisp slanted edge, much like a skew chisel. It is an excellent addition to your carving kit.

As you progress into this hobby tools are available with interchangeable tips giving you a wider selection of burning strokes. Beyond the basic tip you can now add large and small cones, shading tips, and even preformed specialty tips for cross hatch work.

The advanced burner will find woodburning tools with built in thermostats to give greater control to the tip temperature. There are great range of interchangeable tips to these tools including pre-sized fish scales, down feather tips, and specialty textures.

Beginners should use a basic beginner's tool for this tutorial on woodburning. Your burner has an electric cord to provide power to heat the burning tip, a shaft, hand shield, and a brass burning tip.

Quick Tips on Woodburning tool Maintenance

Cleaning and Keeping the Nib in Shape

1. The temperature of the burning tip will heat to between 600 and 900 degrees. It will scorch or burn anything that it contacts including your work area and any pattern papers lying near it. Use a heavy glazed tile or plate for resting the tool when it is not in use.

2. As you work on your project a carbon residue will build up on the tip's point. This carbon appears as a blackish covering around the point area. Remove this built up often during burning. Lay fine grit sandpaper on your glazed tile and quickly pull the tip across the paper. This will clean the tip plus keep a nice crisp edge to your tool. Carbon residue is the main cause of problems when woodburning.

3. With continued use the entire brass tip, see the diagram for the gold toned areas, will begin to darken. Again, as with the carbon residue, clean the brass with fine sand paper to return it to it's bright finish. The cleaner your tool is the more control over the darkness and width of the stroke you will have.

4. Although we are working here with a basic beginner's tool, my particular woodburner has interchangeable tips. I have used electrical tape to secure a photo film canister to the mid-section of my burner's power cord. I store my extra tips and a small roll of sand paper in this canister ... so when I go looking for the woodburner all of my tips are with the tool.

5. Basswood is a favorite burning surface in this craft, however, butternut and sugar pine are just a couple of the other excellent woods that can be used. Because of basswood's pale creamy color the different tones of shading work done with the burner are more obvious.

6. Smooth surfaces give you even straight burning strokes. Rough surfaces can push or drag you tool's edge away from your pattern line. Take the time to clean up any rough chisel or gouge strokes and, if necessary, sand your carving before you begin work with the burner.

7. Avoid using an extension cord with your burner, if possible. If it is necessary use one that is heavy-duty not a light weight cord as you would use to plug in a lamp. The power supply pulled by the woodburner is significant and needs the extra heavy cord.

8. Do not change out the tips of your tool until the tip that has been in use is completely cooled. These tips are made from brass, a very soft metal that becomes softer with the high temperatures used in burning. The tips are threaded so that they lock into the shaft area and this threading can become damaged when the tip is hot. Once the threading is bent or warped the tip will not screw down tightly to the shaft causing uneven and uncontrollable lines in your work.

The burning tip has three main areas for creating the burn stroke, the tip's point, the side, and the blade.

The blade, which is the sharp chisel edge of the tip, is the most used section of the tool. This area is used to make lines from extremely fine light colored details to those heavy wide and dark strokes.

The tip's point is fantastic for making dot patterns and textures as wood bark or heavy matted fur as on a Buffalo or Sheep.

The side of the tool is the shading area. Laid over from the blade edge the side can create wonderful graduated tones in the scorching of the wood.

Temprature Controlled Woodburning Tools

The More Expensive Tools

Most burners will tell you on the box, what their temperature range or setting is for that particular tool. The better quality burners will generally have a temperature dial that lets you adjust from 500 to 900 degrees. Lower quality pyrographic tools, typically have a one temperature setting around 600 degrees. Which do you want? Well if you see yourself pursuing this hobby to a rather advanced level, always chose a burner that lets you pick a temperature. This will allow for shading.

Lower temperature ranges and specially designed wood burning pens are used for fine lining and on softwoods like basswood. Higher temperatures are needed to do a good woodburning job of heavy duty burning on harder woods like ash or oak. With a temperature dial, you have full control, in all these situations. If all you want to do is play and not really sure whether this is the hobby for you, buy cheap. You'll upgrade later if you love it.

Two Pen or One:

Again it is a choice based on expected use. Some pyrography tools are built to accept only on cable plug in (ie. one pen, as in the smaller razertip burner pictured on the right). More expensive models accept one cable on each side of the box.

If you intent is to burn for an hour at a time, then the advantage of having two pens attached to one wood burner is that if one gets too hot you can switch.. or have a different bit on each pen and easily and quickly move from one bit to the next, without waiting for the pen to cool.

Cables:

Depending on the manufacture, the cables connecting the pen to the control unit may or maynot be sold independently. ..... and often with a choice between heavy duty and regular.

Heavy duty is necessary if you intend to use any heavy duty pens ie. like shaders, but ...you can use a light duty pen with a heavy duty cable...no problem.

The regular duty cables will be slightly more flexible and lighter then the heavy duty... some people that burn for long periods of time will find this significant. For the casual burner the heavy duty cable is a better choice because it allows you to use regular or heavy duty pens, with the same cable.

Good quality cables will have great flexibility, with a small cord size, and reliable fittings.

Pyrography Pen Types

Solid point or wire?

The pyrography pen design:

The older units were like a soldering iron where the heat coil, pen and tip were all one unit, quite heavy and hard to handle. The newer units have a separate control box, (pyrographic tool), power line (heavy and light duty cables) and wood burning pen... thus the pen is independent and much lighter. Decide which pen is right for you, ..trading off price for ease of use.

If you are going to get truly involved in wood burning it is not inconceivable that you might work for a couple of hours at a time. With that in mind, make sure that the pen is lightweight and easy to hold on to, or with time you'll find hand cramps become a frequent complaint. The finger rests must insulated your from the burners heat and allow you to hold the pen close enough to the tip that you have good control for fine detailing. Check to see if it feels balanced. Does the cord connection allow for easy handling, while you're still plugged in? Does it have enough flex without creating a lot of drag while using the pen?

The Pen Tips:

To change the pen tips, for more design control, tool manufacturers use one of two methods. Either the entire pen + tip separates from the power cable, and thus changed or... just the tip is removed from the pen holder and changed (usually it is held into place with a small screw or friction fit).

Tip Only:

In this style of nib, just the tip removes from the pen holder and a different shaped tip can be inserted. .....Is this a universal fitting so that you can use tips from various manufacturers, or is it a proprietary connection that will only receive its own tips. In the latter case, check out the selection of tips available to make sure, you will be able to buy the ones you want. This is the style I have. I don't use it as often as I do my wire tip pen, because the solid style gets too hot for me to handle. I need a cork or rubber typed grip on my pen to help keep my fingers away from the heat. Bear in mind that although the pens say they have a heat guard that doesn't mean the barrel of the pen won't burn your fingers as well. I haven't found this on the wire tipped pens.

It is also important to analyse the connection - tip to pen. Often these connections can wear rapidly, if you change your tips often, resulting in poor temperature control from power unit to tip. Since this is also the part of the tool that heats up, the temperature change can negatively affect the connection as well, creating frustration in attaching new tips if you are in the middle of a project...... ask a lot of questions and try them out.

Usually you use an interchangeable tip pen when the tip is very specialized and used infrequently or for only light duty jobs. ..ie. buying a special tip for writing your signature on your work, or a calligraphy bit for that odd occasion, when you want to add some lettering. It gives you great flexibility at a reasonable price.... tips are usually less than $5.00 a piece. You can buy them from any arts and craft store for about .99 cents a bag depending on where you buy them. Walnut Hallow has the cheapest nibs on line.

Pen + Tip:

This design is more expensive (mine cost almost $500.00 for power unit, pen and points), since the pen plus the tip come as one unit. The pens are changed at the pen-power cable junction or at the power control unit. Like the "tip only" variety the connection is often propietary, so make sure the unit's manufacturer also has the pen tip designs you want...

Fixed tip pens are more reliable, since you are not connecting and disconnecting the electrical fittings of the fragile pen tips..... the fitting is at the power cable end of the pen. If you like to change your pen tips often this may be a better choice for your "frequently used" tips.

Often you have a choice between a standard pen and a heavy duty one. The standard is usually a little lighter/thinner and thinner tip wire. It will heat up faster and generally be easier on the hands but.... if you are finding that your tips break often, a heavy duty pen may be called for... especially with "shaders". Heavy duty pens have heavier wire tips, thus they break less frequently .. for "heavy" burning or with "heavy handed" artists a HD pen will always outlast a regular duty, particularly in a school.

Fine Point: It looks like a felt tip pen and used for fine details and crosshatching. It uses a lower temperature for good control when creating long fine lines of uniform width.

Round tip: This tip is similar to the "fine point" in overall appearance but is much huskier. It is used in heavier dot shading, and thicker, deeper line work.

Shading Tip: This tip looks more like a small spoon with the end bent up. It is used for shading of large areas, often only available in the heavy duty style.

Many other tips are available, just ask for a demonstration of the more specialized ones. Then make sure that you know how to clean your pen for extended life.

The tips on my Razor woodburner are interchangeble on some of the pens I have. I've bought extra pens so I can change the tips. My unti has a place for two burners at once. When I want to change I just flip the switch, let the pen heat up then start burning with a new pen. The other is cooling down so I can clean it before reusing it.

Technique

Placing the Pattern onto the Wood for Burning

It's really easy to transfer a pattern onto a piece of wood. Once you have your wood picked out you will need to sand it so that it is smooth. I started at 80 grit sandpaper then worked down to 120 grit depending on the look you are going for and the wood you use. Using Carbon Paper

position the pattern on your wood, lift the end and slip carbon paper underneath. Tape both the pattern and the carbon in place and then begin to trace your pattern with a fine ball tipped pen.

Do not press too hard or you will dent softer woods, and tear your pattern along the pen lines. It is recommended that you use a copy of your pattern, since you never know when you'll want to make another.

If you use a colored pen, it will show up better on the pattern and be easier to see what you have done so far.

Don't forget that colored carbon paper (ie. white or yellow) is available for working on woods like walnut and other dark species.

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Woods

Choosing the Right Wood

Wood Selection

Basswood would always be considered the wood of choice for novice wood burners. Its fine and uniform texture allow it to be worked easily. It's light, almost white colour allows for great contrast and shading. It can be easily worked into boxes, and craft items with relatively basic woodworking tools.

Basswood is reasonable in price, with very few knots and very dimensionally stable. You will never see sap pockets in basswood (unlike pine) that can interfere with your finishing process. Basswood "almost" burns equally well across, or with the grain.

Eastern white pine is often used as well. It is soft and burns easily like the basswood but the variation in density between spring and summer wood makes pine a little more difficult to learn on. It is more difficult to "burn in" even lines of consistent width, particularly across the grain. Pine is a nice wood though, if you would like to incorporate the knots into the pattern you are burning, as an added feature of the design. Knotty pine cabinetry and wood burning seem to go together.

Most hardwoods like oak and ash, are similar to pine in that they do not burn evenly across the grain lines. The woods are denser, so require more temperature and more skill to achieve pleasing results. Experiment on wood scraps of different species before you commit a lot of time to tracing on a pattern. Make sure that whatever wood you chose, it will give you the contrast and even burning that your are looking for.

I've tried burning on Purple Heart and Ebony, Don't try it, these woods do not burn well and Ebony won't burn at all from what I've experienced. Purple Heart is a beautiful deep purple wood that darkens the longer it's kept inside. Which lightens to a light purple once it's set in the sun for a couple of days. With woodburners you do have to use some pressure, especially with the solid point pens. And when you burn Purple Heart it does take a LOT of pressure. Oak is hard to burn but it can be burned. I prefer Curly Maple to burn. I've tried many woods and found I like the pine best of all. Although Basswood is good as well. In fact Basswood is the recommended wood for burning.

I have added a picture of a piece of Pine you can find at any hobby and craft store or your local lumber or Home Depot.

I hope you have enjoyed this piece on Woodburning. For books on Woodburning please check out the links I've added.

Woodburning books

Below I have added some books you can read to further your knowledge of the art of woodburning. They are intended for those who wish to begin the craft or to learn more about this wonderful old art form. The books listed I've used and still have. I've heard many people talk about how woodburning is a dying art, my aim is to help keep it alive. And to introduce this art to the next generation of crafters and artists. The books listed below have helped me and are still helping me to this day. They not only hold useful information but also some great patterns you can copy and use for your practice works. I hope you have enjoyed this module as much as I've enjoyed sharing it with you.

YouTube - On Woodburning

Some videos showing you how people do woodburning. Most are using the wire tipped pens. These are faster and easier to use than solid points. Although Solid points are great for beginners. The more experienced or professional woodburners use the wire tip pens.Although the burning doesn't go quite as quickly as shown in some videos. They've been sped up for YouTube. Thanks for watching.

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    • profile image

      innocent mabiza 12 months ago

      IM DOING LASER CUTTING BT BEFORE THAT I WAS DOING WOODBURNING

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Wood burning is an art that I love to do! I too have heard that it is dying, but not many people even knew it existed. I have been adding my own touch to it by using images inspired by pop culture and incorporating carving into my art to create even more depth and dimension. I love adding vibrant paints as well. I would like nothing more than for more people to be exposed to the greatness that pyrography is. Thank you for this posting!

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      Traderski 6 years ago

      Great lens! Really liked seeing some of your own work.