Introduction: Pyrography, or How to Wood-Burn Art

Picture of Pyrography, or How to Wood-Burn Art

"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." -Wikipedia

In this Instructable I will show you how to take an image and burn it onto a piece of wood by hand. As an example I used the heraldic lion of the House of Lannister from the book/TV series "Game of Thrones." 

Step 1: Supplies

Picture of Supplies

-Wood, cut to size (I prefer to use Pine. It is soft enough to burn, but not too soft like Basswood)
-Sandpaper, 320 grit
-Pyrography Pen
-Graphite Transfer Paper
-Colored Pen
-An Image to wood burn 

Step 2: Preparing the Wood

Picture of Preparing the Wood

Once you have your piece of wood cut to size, inspect it to make sure there are no dents or markings on it. If you do happen to find any relatively shallow nicks or dents, simply take a damp wash cloth, fold it at least once, and place it onto of the defects. Then use a hot clothing iron to press down onto the wash cloth. Continue this process until the dents in the wood have been raised. Let the wood dry.

Now, take your sandpaper and sand the wood to a nice, smooth finish. I would recommend wrapping the sandpaper around a flat wooden block to make sure that you get an even surface.

Step 3: Transferring the Image (for Those of Us Who Can't Draw/freehand)

Picture of Transferring the Image (for Those of Us Who Can't Draw/freehand)

Now that the wood is ready, prepare your image however you like and print it out. I did some basic photo shop just to remove the background and save ink. Cut your graphite paper to size with the image and tape the image on top. Make sure that you put the 'transfer-side' facing down.

Take your brightly colored pen and simply trace over the image (see picture 4). Only go over the parts that you want transferred onto the wood. I would recommend no tracing any areas that you want to do shading.

Step 4: Voila!

Picture of Voila!

Gently lift up you image/graphite paper and see the fruits of your labor. At this point look over your image on the wood and see if there are any unintentional marks (picture 3). Worry not! Take some sandpaper and gently sand away any marks (picture 3).

Step 5: Safety and Technique

Picture of Safety and Technique
Select the proper nib for the pen (picture 2) and let the pen heat up.

A) "Flat" side of the nib is used mostly for thick lines, gently curving lines, and shading (picture 3)
B) "Blade" side of the nib is used for fine details (picture 4). This can lead to very deep burns into the wood if not careful.

Remember that it takes a lot of practice to get the hang of it. I've been at this for almost 2 years and even I still mess up!

Step 6: First Burns

Picture of First Burns

Now that you have the technique, you should start the burn on the simplest part. Using the lion as an example, the back and the tail are mostly just the flat, basic lines (picture 2).

Continue with the rest of the basic lines. It will get easier as it goes, trust me. 

Tunnel Vision
Something I noticed while doing this burn was that it is easy to lose track of where you are in the work. You may find this the case when you get into more complex parts of the work. For example, i had to stop and think when i was working on the part where the mane overlapped the arm (picture 3).

Step 7: The Details

Picture of The Details

When you finish the major lines, it is up to you on how to proceed. Some pictures will require a lot of detail, others not so much. The most important part of doing the details is taking it slow. Focus on certain parts at one time (ex: the mane, an arm). 

Without a video and a time-lapse it is hard to show you how to do detail work, but remember back to the technique of using the "blade" side of the nib for small details (picture 2). 

A word of caution when using Pine wood: On the grain you will notice light and dark parts. The lighter is the softer wood. When you have to burn on a darker part of the grain (picture 1), you will notice that it does not burn as easy. You will have to carefully keep going over the same line until it is dark enough to match the rest of the work.

Step 8: Preparation for Shading

Picture of Preparation for Shading

When you are finished with the basic lines and the details, A) congratulate yourself and B) prepare your work for shading.

You may notice that there are parts on the work where you did not exactly match the graphite trace (picture 2). Worry not! Take your sandpaper (320 grit or higher) and lightly sand the entire piece. This will get rid of any shallow burns and graphite marks. 

Clean all the sawdust off the wood, making sure to get it out of all the lines. You want a nice clean piece for the shading.

Step 9: Shading, Part 1

Picture of Shading, Part 1

If you choose to add shading to your work, it really adds to it and can also help give it depth. But I also must warn you that it is the hardest part and takes some experience.

First, decide where you want to shade (lion's mane). Second, determine how dark you want it to be and if you want to change the shading in different parts (gradient). For the question of how dark, i would say that the darkest should not cover up your basic and detail lines (picture 1).

How to Shade
Use the same nib that you used on for the lines (picture 2). I use the end of this nib which is flat and about 1 mm wide. Hold the pen like you would for a flat line and barely touch it to the top of the wood. While keeping it on the wood, move your hand in a circle, keeping the the nib at the same angle. You should notice the wood to start getting darker. Keep doing this until you get to the desired shade of wood. 

Keep moving the nib, if you let it sit in one spot too long or favor one part of the wood over the other, it will show. If this happens, try to blend the darker parts into the lighter parts. 

Step 10: Shading, Part 2

Picture of Shading, Part 2

Shading is a nice way of adding some depth to your work, it can turn an average work into something astounding.

I'll be using my lion work as an example.

After i finished shading the mane, I felt like the work was still too boring. I noticed that there were 2 other spots that would be prime candidates for extra shading: the plumes on the tail and the fur hanging from the legs and arms. I shaded them to the same darkness as the mane (picture 2). 

For a nice touch, i decided to lightly shade the rest of the lion's body so that it would have definition against the regular wood backdrop.

The important part about this is to blend the darker parts into the rest of the light body. This does not apply to the mane since it is 'separate' from the body, but the tail plumes and arm/leg fur do. Blending is the name of the game.

Hint: If you mess up on shading, or just want to go lighter, don't be afraid to lightly go over the problem areas with sandpaper. 

Step 11: Done!

Picture of Done!

After you finish with the shading, you will be done with your work! Step back and appreciate the hard work you put into it. Don't forget to add your own personal mark on the piece, whether on the front like a painting, or on the back (picture 2).

At this point, you can leave the wood as is, or you can protect it. Polyurethane, oil, varnish, wood stain all work. A word of caution about these methods: If you use a dark stain, for example, the shading might be less pronounced. 

Thank you for reading my Instructable and I wish you luck on your own pyrography projects!


Update: I have put this piece of work up for sale on ETSY, check it out!


57rjb. (author)2016-01-03

Hi... I have had a Pyrography set for a couple of years now, but have not been able to use it as I cannot work holding the pen at the end, I would like to be able to hold the pen nearer the nib, but as you know the rod gets to hot, does anyone have any suggestion as to what gloves would be best to use so as I don't get burnt?. any suggestions would be appriciated..

edrieann123 (author)57rjb.2017-08-25

You can buy a leather finger guard on amazon for couple of dollars. I find this to be less restrictive than wearing a glove.

mhcrane (author)57rjb.2016-03-03

I took leather shoe string and wrapped mine using super glue along the way. I've been using this one for over a year now and it's still holding up. I hope it works for you as well as it has for me. P.S. I can't imagine doing this with welding gloves on. This is something you should enjoy! Great instructable also!

Chele2u (author)57rjb.2016-02-26

A welding glove is easy to work with as they have different sizes and thickness. You can find them at a welding shop. Mechanic gloves at auto part stores may work also.

Jared_Sams (author)2016-07-22

Awesome work. I tried my hand at some pyrography on a pub table and bar stool set. If you or anyone else wants to see them, look here

KobeR2 (author)2016-05-19

What about using a pyrotechnic powder do burn in the design?

rcgriffin1127 (author)2016-03-06

Awesome job! I can't wait to try this! I wondered how people made fancy stuff...carbon paper...mind blown! I have a set, and now I'm about to be all locked up in my house...for. a. long. time! Haha -=80)

JoshuaB24 (author)2015-08-25

I've already stained my wood - is it ill advised to burn the wood after it's been stained?

Chele2u (author)JoshuaB242016-02-26

I read that heating up certain materials like stains and saps are not healthy for you to inhale. I would also think that the heat would also cause that stain to bleed and run thus drying in clumps and ruining your picture.

RameshR10 (author)2015-11-28

Very useful instructions, thanks. Rana

Itzamna made it! (author)2015-08-21

Just wanted to thank you for the inspiration and techniques. Did my first piece today thinking it would turn out badly and it went pretty well. You can definitely see where I have an unsteady hand at times but some of that was learning to use the burner though.

LelandP1 (author)2015-07-04

I'm thinking about woodburning a cutting board. Is it safe to use for cutting or should it just be decorative?

samantha.l.dyer.3 (author)2014-10-16

Also. You don't have to use transfer paper :) I ran out a little while back and just used a heavy leaded pencil and colored the back of the picture. It makes it kind of nice actually and now it's the only way I do it. I noticed with the transfer paper that it can rub off in unwanted places that you don't intend to burn on. And it was very hard to remove if I succeeded at all haha. When you color the back of the picture instead of using transfer paper, just tape it to a window so you can see the image clearly and only color where the lines you want to transfer are. I swear by it. Just a little tip to throw out there.

Good tips. I have read that light sanding will remove the unwanted. Have you tried that technique?

Narbonne (author)2015-05-11

Very good site. Easy to view and understand!

dollarseed (author)2015-03-11

First, in regards to the comment below mine. A soldering iron is not the same thing as a wood burning iron. Most wood burning irons come in kits with all kinds of cool tips to play with, and run at a higher temperature. Now back to you Scott. I prefer to work from the outside of a piece in, so as to not have a sweaty hand smudging the graphite. Also, once a piece has been outlined with the burner, that wood is now sealed off from the rest of the piece. This gives you the opportunity, say on the mane or tail etc, to use regular wood stains without fearing they would bleed into surrounding areas.

kootamaa (author)2015-03-04

Hi, I'm a newbie in pyrography so I'm looking for some tips and... here I am :D
Here is my latest (anf first being honest :P ) pyrography artwork, hope you'll like it ;)

jamier2 made it! (author)2015-03-01

That is brilliant, I`ve done a picture of a lighthouse in a similar way but id like to draw that lion it looks epic! 21 stars out of 10, this may not be possible but its just an awesome lion! well done!

Ellie10832 (author)2014-11-20

Thanks for the help with shading!

TravisP1 (author)2014-08-08

Novice question: Can I still pyrograph if the wood has been stained or should I stain afterwards?

I can see I'm two months late on this one but I would definitely not recommend that haha. I tried it once and it made me absolutely sick not to mention it doesn't burn very easily or beautifully. Even in a well ventilated area, the smoke that came from burning the laquer or whatnot made me vomit and feel sick for days. It made it to where I almost couldn't stand burning on any wood at all because of the lasting effects. What I ended up doing with the finished wood that I very much still wanted to use, was sanding it completely, then burning what I wanted, and then re-finishing the wood. I wouldn't recommend only sanding the part you want to burn, as it will look uneven and less clean when you laquer the parts that have been sanded. Haha I kind of went on but I just thought I'd throw that out there.

woodland sprite (author)2014-07-08

Beautiful! I really like the tree you have up in ETSY too. Yes, you can use colors but I would use them sparingly the idea here is to show off the burning. Thanks for the wonderful tutorial and awesome artwork.

NanoRobotGeek (author)2014-03-16

Amazing 'ible but why Lannister =(

jwagner16 (author)2014-02-20

If your design isn't too detailed, you don't have to transfer it at all. I just tape the design to the wood (just the top like a hinge) with painter's tape and burn straight through the paper. Your work is beautiful.

trainone (author)2014-01-24

Very nice ible and work. Word to the wise with dark stain, I made my little boy a toy box and burned a train on the front, and after using a cherry wood stain I found that the shaded spots accepted less stain and came out brighter. Keep that in mind when choosing a colour or you may have to make your shading darker.

ahead (author)2013-09-24

Inspiring instructable. Need to pick up my pyro pen again now that its Fall season. Thanks for the transfer technique.

KMCopeland (author)2013-07-03

Lots of pictures always make the instructable for beginners, and you did a beautiful job of matching your explanations with your pictures. I loved the tight shots that showed what nib you were using, and what part of the lion you were using it on. Just a great instructable.

EvilSnowMan (author)2013-03-05

Something I picked up in art class when I was in middle school and still use frequently. If you don't have or don't want to buy carbon paper, just flip your print out over and shade in the entire back side with the edge of your pencil tip. You are just putting a layer of graphite all over the back of your print out. Then tape it down and trace like you did. It won't leave real dark lines, but it will give you the entire outline just the same.

This is a great idea. Graphite paper can be expensive or hard to come by. This is a great alternative!

Yandle (author)2013-03-07

Now I have to try this! My wife is going to be so pissed lol

organgrinder (author)2013-03-01

Thanks for this tutorial. I saw some old ladies doing this and was taken by it and my partner got me a soldering iron to give it a try.
I love the look of laser cut works but it bothers me that everyone just designs something and sends it away to be made. I want that look, but I was to design and create the entire piece myself.
Good to see how someone else is doing it and what kinds of techniques and materials they use.
The old ladies were doing an amazing job of it.

pfred2 (author)2013-02-25

Your pyrography looks very nice. I am wondering if you could transfer the pattern using laser toner? Like is done to etch circuit boards. Although the heat of the iron may color the wood too. I also thought it might be easier if you used a different color of carbon paper maybe. In the pictures the transferred pattern, and the burnt design are difficult to distinguish from one and another. Maybe looking at it in person is easier? I've used a torch on wood myself to color in routed letters. So you might want to try a torch for some shading effects. I bet you could heat up all kinds of metal to brand the wood. Stuff like say expanded metal, for a cross hatch effect. Just thinking out loud there.

pocmarck (author)pfred22013-02-28

It's actually really easy to do with toner. While not as textured as the pyrography, it still looks great. I did several last year as Christmas presents. Search "wood print photo" for more info.

@pfred2: Thank you. Unfortunately i don't have a super high-resolution camera, but in person it is fairly easy to distinguish between the graphite transfer lines and the burned lines. It is sort of comparable to a pencil line and a black pen line. I think using different types of metal would be a great way to diversify a pyrography. I have seen people who make a personal branding mark out of a wire hanger.

AdamVanMeter (author)2013-02-28

Oh, this is excellent. I think I'm ready to give my woodburner another go!

Could I use, say, watercolor or thinned transparent oil paint over my burnt in marks? Or would those obscure the lines?

I have actually never tried to do any coloring to my works, but I have seen it done before. Here is an example of another person using watercolors on their pyrography:

pocmarck (author)2013-02-28

Great job! Love the detail.

Tomdf (author)2013-02-28

Wow those turn out looking really clean. Cool stuff!

samalert (author)2013-02-28

Great Ible ! Thanx for giving an insight of the Wood Burn Art

BrittLiv (author)2013-02-28

It turned out really nice! I especially like the shading.

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