The Art & Craft of Pyrography

"What is pyrography?" and "How do you do that?"

These are two questions people often ask me. Though many folks are familiar with a hobbyist's woodburning pen, few think of its use for much more than simple coloring book style drawings.

Pyrography, also called "woodburning", is the art of drawing or writing (graphy) with fire (pyro). Any type of wood can be burned upon. However, the grain and texture of the wood determine the quality of the burn, so the choice of wood depends on the pyrographer's preferences. I have used pine, oak, poplar, birch, aspen, walnut, cherry, and American basswood. I've also worked some with leather. Basswood is preferred by many pyrographers because of its light color and fine, even grain.
Sanding a basswood plate in preparation for woodburning.
To prepare the wood for burning, I sand it first. My goal is to make the wood as smooth as possible. Most of the wood I use, whether premade plaques, panels, or unfinished furniture, is fairly smooth to begin with, so I start with 600 grit sandpaper. I work my way down to and finish with 1500 grit.
Transferring the image onto the wood.
The next step is transferring the picture to the wood. Sometimes I trace an outline of my subject onto the wood. But usually I xerox the picture, rub the back of it with a pencil (giving it a carbon coating), and then outline the picture onto the wood. Details and shading will be added later with the woodburning pen.

I only draw on the wood when I can't trace what I want on it, such as the three soldiers on the gun stock, as it is hard to trace onto a rounded shape such as the stock of a gun. I drew that outline freehand from the picture. Either way, I try to keep the pencil marks to a minimum, because I don't like a lot of extra marks on the wood.
The darkest shading is burned first.
Woodburning pens come in several styles. I have two pens: a hobbyists' model (shown here) and a Detail Master. The hobbyists' pen uses a variety of brass tips and temperatures of 950° F. The Detail Master uses a heat regulator with settings up to 2000° F. It has a wide variety of wire tipped pens.

Each tip has its own shape and function: flat for side shading, pointed for fine details and lines, rounded for dot shading, and calligraphy tips. I have about 15 wire tips for my professional system, though I usually use only five of them.Photographs provide realistic detail.

I usually begin by burning the darkest areas first. I gauge the lighter shading from this. I change pen tips depending on the effect I'm trying to achieve.

As I work, I step back from time to time to compare my progress to the photograph. I like to do this from a distance to keep the details of the subject in the correct perspective.
Applying the finish.
Finishing is the last step. I've tried a variety of products, such as varnish, shellac, wax, beeswax, and polyurethane. However, I prefer to use a fast drying lacquer. After applying the desired number of coats, I buff each piece with 0000 steel wool and wax.

The pyrographic is complete.Click on image to enlarge