Pyrography is the art of burning patterns, designs, words, or pictures into wood. It might sound like etching or whittling, but it is very different. You can whittle with a rug over your knees whilst telling children tall tales of your youth. Pyrography means holding a piece of metal in your hand that is capable of delivering third-degree burns, setting things on fire, and creating beautiful art.
With that in mind: BE SENSIBLE. Always remember to turn your tool OFF when no in use. I gave myself a small burn on the inside of my arm by forgetting this crucial thing. But it could've been a lot worse - my tool could've fallen off my desk onto my wooden bookshelf, or cables, or bottle of turps.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you are literally burning wood - YES, this means you need ventilation. I work in my garage, with the back door and the roller-door open. The fumes from MDF in particular can be extremely unhealthy and I would happily recommend investing in a face mask if you're going to get up close and personal with your designs.
SO. BE. SMART.
Alright, warnings aside pyrography is flipping rad. Take all that artistic power you have and funnel it into the power of heat and destruction that in fact results in creation.
That's enough intro, let's get into it.
Step 1: Gather Your Tools
Pyrography Tool (mine is not adjustable in its heat, thus I've learnt how to vary my tones)
Wood of your choice (its darkness will naturally influence your choice of stain darkness)
Pencils (HB or softer)
A printed or photocopied version of your chosen design
A strong-tipped ballpoint pen
Sandpaper (I used FL492P and FL202P, the finer for finishing of course)
For basic level pyrography or beginners I recommend MDF or any other wood that has no grain. It means you avoid the complications of fighting it to eek out your design. If you are just learning how to use your pyrography tool this can be extremely important.
Whether you choose pre-cut MDF or flat panels that you can cut and route yourself is entirely up to you. At first I chose large panels with the intention of cutting and routing. I ran out of time and tools before I could route, and thus ended up with the burnt edges you can see in the other pictures.
Step 2: Your Design
Once you know your design, and have your MDF cut-out ready you need to transfer your design to the wood itself for easy burning.
There are products available for image transfer, but I use a time-honoured little hack from my days of working at JB Hifi.
Take your printed design and tape one end to your wood so the image is precisely where your final product should be. On the underside of the paper colour completely with a soft pencil from one end of the design to the other. When you fold the design flat to the wood the pencil layer will be pressed face-down onto the MDF.
Now you take your ballpoint pen and draw over the design with a heavy hand. This results in the pencil layer transferring directly onto the wood. Depending on the softness of your pencil this can be hard going. I usually do this part whilst watching TV or listening to podcasts so I don't go insane.
The tape is incredibly important at this stage because you'll need to check your image is transferring visibly. Tiny flicks back and forth will allow your brain to see where the image lacks clarity. Do yourself a big favour now, and ensure the image is as clear and easy to follow as possible so you don't make burning mistakes later down the track.
Step 3: Touch Up Your Design
When you have transferred the image completely, gather your other print out of the design and compare it manually with the naked eye. Colour in areas that'll be shaded if necessary, add finer points that the trace did not cover. Get as finicky as you like. For this design I traced only the outside onto the wood, then filled in the dark patches myself. Since there was no shading this was a simple design to complete.
Step 4: Start Burning
I always start simple at first, keeping things light. It's easy to go back and darken areas as the depth emerges.
For this design I touched a light outline over everything. I made sure to do this with gentle dots rather than attempting lines. Lines tend to give natural things a very forced or sloppy look. The first tiger face I ever did in pyro I had to sand ferociously to rid it of dark black lines - they completely ruined the overall affect.
So, outlining then gently filling in with your designed pattern is the best tactic. I used dots generally. This part is great to do while listening to music (Hamilton for me) or TV (I finished That '70s Show doing my tiger). Since my pattern has one depth of darkness I would finish one layer before adding another until the darkness suited my aesthetic. I cannot recommend walking away for a spell enough. Perspective is hard to get on art you've been staring at for hours on end.
Step 5: Sand It Up and Continue
Once you've reached a certain level of darkness that is approaching completion I recommend doing a rough sand to smooth the surface. This will shed burnt edges that will make the piece look rough and unfinished, but it will also take off any work that is very lightly burnt on.
During my work on this piece the base edge of my tool managed to burn a horrible dent into the wolf's tail. I was thankfully able to sand this out, but I can still note where my lapse in concentration occurred. It's important to remember that the whole of the tool is burning hot.
So sand occasionally is get a nice smooth finish as you darken and add depth to your piece.
When you've achieved a design you're stoked with, it is time to add the finishing touches.
Step 6: Stain and Varnish
Wood stain and/or varnish (I used a combo)
Mineral turpentine (cleaning brush)
Newspaper (for beneath during varnishing)
Dish cloths (for tidying edges/corners before varnish dries, and for wiping brush)
A paintbrush (size and material is for you to decide)
As with most projects that require staining or varnishing you should sand your piece before painting. The stain/varnish I chose isn't particularly dark, which worked well for some of my other projects pictured as they had lighter tonal values throughout that would've been lost with a richer stain.
It's important to follow the instructions on the individual varnish or stain that you have to get the best results. For me this meant putting on a coat, waiting 8 hours, sanding, then repeating this process twice more.
A note on your choice of wood piece. As you can see from my choice, the MDF pre-cut panel has a routed edge that is rougher and trickier to treat that the rest. I would recommend sanding the heck out of any edge like that before you even open your stain. It's not possible to fix it once the stain is on without undoing most of your work.
Step 7: Profit
Enjoy your piece of work and continue practicing! It took me four works before I stopped hating them, but that feeling comes back to any artist with a regular frequency akin to period pain. It reminds you of your potential, but Lord it's irritating.