Original pyrography artwork made by the author
The most common question that I receive when being asked about pyrography is, “what is that?” As suggested by the ‘pyro’ prefix, pyrography is an art that uses the power of fire as a means to create. Pyrography, more commonly known as “woodburning”, is an art that began to spread during the Victorian era, with the invention of pyrography machines, but it has been a segment of human history since the time of the ancient Egyptians.
Ever since my brother gifted me my first pyrography kit 3 years ago, I have been using pyrography as a hobby, as well as a source of income. Whether you want to get into pyrography for recreation or as a side hustle, it is a great way to express oneself and grow as an artist.
Fortunately, investing in the equipment to start your own pyrography journey is relatively inexpensive, and many great pieces for wood-burning projects can be found at your local thrift or hobby stores. I highly recommend shopping for projects at thrift shops, where you can occasionally find a golden nugget of a project at great prices as well as experience the satisfaction of taking something old and bringing it back to life.
Tools of the Trade
- Wood-burning pen. A great beginner wood-burning pen as well as a pen for more advanced pyrographists is the Walnut Hollow Versa-Tool, which I use. This model as well as cheaper models can be found at your local hobby store or online. These pens typically include a few pyrography pen tips and a safety stand to rest your pen while it is in use.
- Sandpaper. All wood that you burn should be properly sanded beforehand. This will prevent mistakes, provide an even surface to burn on, and remove any previous treatment the wood has received. Smoke created from the burning of chemical treatments on wood is very toxic and must be sanded off the surface before burning.
- Respirator. It is important to not inhale the smoke produced when wood-burning. Burn in well ventilated areas and wear a respirator to protect your health. You can find respirators for under $20 at your local hardware store.
- Measuring tools. A basic ruler will get you by, however, I advise purchasing a speed square as well as a compass for more precise measurements.
- Pencil, Eraser, Exacto Knife. These tools are essentials for drawing and correcting mistakes.
- Tape and Toolbox. Tape is useful for securing anything you need to when working. I always use tape to secure my safety stand in order to prevent accidents. The toolbox is optional and used to hold your pyrography kit. Plus, you can put cool stickers on your toolbox!
- Wire Brush and/or Wet Paper Towel. These two items are used to clean residue that builds up on the tip on your pen. You can also use the unsharpened edge of your Exacto blade to scrape off residue from your pen tips.
The author’s pyrography kit
How to Use a Pyrography Pen
The pyrography pen should be held in your hand the same way you would hold a pen or pencil. It is important to practice burning lines, shading, dot-work, texturing, and trying out patterns before you start on a project. Once you burn the wood, mistakes, especially larger ones, can be extremely difficult to correct or even permanent. However, if you are to make a permanent mistake, you may be able to find a creative way to bring it into the piece and conceal the error.
Get yourself a piece of wood, it doesn’t matter what size or shape the wood is, this is just a practice piece for developing your pyrography technique. Remember to sand your piece of scrap wood before you start burning it.
When using this piece of wood experiment with the temperature your pen is at, the pressure you apply with the pen against the wood, the time of contact your pen has against the wood, as well as the direction in which you move your pen tip.
The four most commonly used pyrography pen tips
Using your ruler, mark several 1×1 inch boxes along your piece of wood. In each box you will practice a different burning technique with various pen tips. With all tips, remember to experiment with temperature, time of contact, pressure, and direction.
- The universal point is used for burning lines. In some of your squares practice burning straight lines, curved lines, zig-zags, and basic shapes. Experiment with using different lengths of the universal point blade. The point can be useful for small detail and changing direction quickly and the entire length of the blade is useful for making deep straight lines.
- The shading point’s purpose goes without saying. In some of your squares practice dark to light shading using 5-6 squares that are side by side so that you can easily see the contrast in tone. When shading large areas it is important to move your shading point in a constant direction either clockwise or counter-clockwise in a circular manner to prevent blotchy and uneven shading.
- The flow point is used for detail, curves, and textural work. The flow point is also often used for calligraphy. Practice writing, drawing curved lines, and creating texture with this point.
- The cone point is used for detail, dot-work, textural work, as well as curves and fine lines. Practice burning small objects, and creating tone with dots similar to you how you created tone with the shading point in 5-6 boxes on your wood. Using dot-work to create tone and texture can be time-consuming, but your effort will be rewarded with the stunning effects that using dots can have.
The Pyrography Process
Always sand the piece of wood you are burning before you start working on it. Although sanding doesn’t sound too exciting, giving your wood a good polish with some sandpaper is a must do. Also the intimacy of sanding will familiarize yourself with the wood and let you know what to expect when you start burning.
Next, pencil in some measurements. Knowing where the centerlines are located, along with other measurements depending on the geometry of what you are working with, will assist you as you pencil on your design, which is the next step.
Pyrography done with universal point on the left and shading point on the right
When you are penciling on your design, turn on your pyrography pen and set it at the proper temperature so that it is ready to go when you have finished drawing your design. Be careful when using your pencil on the wood; don’t pencil too deep. Graphite and lead can sometimes prove to be difficult to remove from the wood or can smear. Save yourself the extra work and pencil with a light hand.
Once you are satisfied with your design, start burning! Now, before you start, consider the most effective way to start your work, and choose a pen point accordingly. Personally, I often kick things off with the universal tip. After burning in all my lines, I then start shading and later I finish off with dot-work, using a cone point.
Close-up of dot-work in photograph on the left. Finished pyrography on the right.
Work in layers, get everything done with each point as you use it in order to save time. Pyrography is time-consuming, however, as you grow with experience you will perfect your methods and cut down on the time it takes to finish a piece.
As you can see in the photographs, I worked in layers until I finished my pyrography and then added paint to the piece. Using acrylic and spray-paint, along with stencils is a definite game-changer. Color will pop and compliment your pyrography, and who doesn’t love color?
Lastly, give your piece a finish! Whether it be a stain or protectant, give your piece a nice finish. If I don’t intend to give a piece a stain, I will still apply a water-protectant seal to the wood. This will add extra flare to your work and protect it from damage, as well as prolong the life of your pyrography.
Finished art-piece by the author
Promoting Your Pyrography
In this day and age, it has never been easier to promote yourself as an artist. With the internet at our fingertips, we are able to connect to millions of people around the globe whenever we please. Use this to your advantage. I highly recommend using Instagram, which is free, and can be used as a tool to expose your work to an enormous audience that you would otherwise not have the opportunity to reach out to.
About 80% of the commissioned artwork I have done was secured through Instagram. Potential customers can browse your artwork and easily contact you through the app, and with the proper use of hashtags you can lead the right viewer traffic directly to your Instagram page. Creating a social media page for your pyrography is like having a personal advertiser working for you around the clock. All you have to do is work with the customers as your social media page reels them in.
Tips and Tricks
- “Erasing”- Use your Exacto knife, razor blade, or sandpaper to lightly scrape off any light mistakes you make. For larger mistakes that cannot be “erased” without being noticed, you can attempt to integrate the mistake into the piece so that it becomes part of your work. This can also be done with imperfections in the wood. I used a knot in the wood on my piece to look like a mole on the sun’s face, and covered larger knots with paint.
- Cool-down phases- A cool-down phase is the time you give your pen to rest and cool before switching tips. Never remove a tip when it is still hot, not only to prevent injury to yourself but also to prevent injury to your machine. Metal expands when hot, and removing the tip while it’s still hot can strip the threads that screw the pyrography tips into place.
- Ventilate- Work in a well ventilated area. Inhaling the fumes produced by pyrography is not good for your health or for the health of others. Work outside if possible, and if not, work inside with a fan on and open up the windows.
- Double-Dipping- If you end a line stroke short of its mark, restart from inside of the already existing line. Often trying to continue your stroke right where the last one ended off can result in blotchy or crooked lines.
Remember that even Picasso started somewhere and to enjoy the process. You will probably make mistakes and even sometimes make pieces that you aren’t all too proud of, but know that skill is sharpened through practice and we are all human. Well… most of us are.