Introduction: Wood Burning 101 - Techniques and Tricks

Picture of Wood Burning 101 - Techniques and Tricks

Hello everyone!

This tutorial will give you a nice compilation of techniques and tricks for wood burning in any level of detail. As someone who loves drawing, I was fascinated by how easily I could transfer those skills into woodburning and finally make 3D art. Since now I have some experience in the subject, it's time to teach whatever I can!

In addition to teaching you about wood burning, I'll also tell you what tools and equipment you need and give you some helpful tricks and tips.

This instructable was made for the Burn It! contest, since it will talk about burning 100% of the time. Let's get started!

Step 1: Wood Burners

Picture of Wood Burners

Tools for wood burning can come in many prices and control levels.

My first one was very cheap (US$10 at Walmart) and did a good job. It comes with five different tips and I still like to use it for background filling. I would recommend this one if you want to have the feel for it, and find out whether you like the burning art. However, as you start burning for hours and hours, this little guy will literally start slow-cooking your fingers. You also hold the burner far away from the tip, so you lose some precision.

It all led me to buy a professional Colwood burner. Having the heat regulation option was really handy when it came to burning different types of wood (we will talk about that) and doing some careful shading. Instead of changing the tips, you switch the whole "pen" for new effects; the big advantage here is not having to wait until the tip has cooled down to switch it.

Just so nobody can say I am praising Colwood, I must say their costumer service is terrible. It was impossible to order another pen from Brazil when mine broke, they simply would not answer.

My starter kit it the one on the picture, and to be honest I still don't feel in need for anything else!

For way more information on burners, I suggest this excellent review by Nedra Denison:

Step 2: Woods to Burn

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I am not an expert on wood types, so I will limit this step to a review to the ones I had the pleasure (or displeasure) of burning. Edit: Regardless of the wood, Always use a fan close to the piece, drawing air out of your work (don't throw air on it, as it will cause your woodburner to loose too much heat)

MDF: Not the most beautiful, but it was the one I had available most of the time. When I was working in Brazil, MDF boxes and chests were the only option in every craft shop. It is a hard wood, so it demands more heat, but you have the advantage of not worrying about the grain (since it doesn't have any). When making gradients, most surfaces would display a nice golden shine; however, a few times it would just become grayish and lifeless.

Edit: Please keep in mind that MDF is composed of wood dust mixed with nasty toxic substances such as formaldehyde based resin (there are some recent options without formaldehyde though). At any rate, only give this one a shot for lack of a better option, and take extra exhaustion efforts such as fans drawing air from your work and out the window.

Pinewood: Cheap and broadly available (now that I am back in the US, at least) in all shapes, this one is soft and easy to burn. The grains are a trouble, because they are harder and demand more heat, so you must balance the pressure you are applying. The resin inside will give a varnish effect to your work.

Cedar wood: Another soft substrate, and grains are not a big worry. Line art will pop out beautifully, but gradient shadings will barely be noticed.

Cherry wood: Smells wonderful while you work! I only tried this one once, and seemed very good.

Never burn wood that has some kind of finishing. Burning varnish is not good for your health, and (trust me) might even make the wood burst into small flames.

Step 3: Drawing Guidelines

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Before we start with the burning itself, let me spare a thought about drawing your guidelines.

On my first projects, I put a lot of effort on drawing everything by free-hand. I felt I would be cheating if I did any kind of effortless transfer to the wood. Turns out I was wasting time.

As I began to receive more orders with lots of different themes, I realized people really don't care about it. What really matters is the burning itself, the final result. So now I constantly use BLACK carbon paper (using blue is a disaster, trust me) to make the transfer, and some free-hand if I need to. Of course, once in a while it's still nice to do a whole project in the old style...

Trick: Some people print the drawings and transfer the toner from paper to wood with heat, using a common iron or even a heat press. Make sure your drawing looks exactly how you want it to be in the wood, since you will not have control over which lines will be transferred. Personally, I prefer to have a finer control over my guidelines. Also it can warp the wood if you're not careful!

Step 4: Basic Outlines

Picture of Basic Outlines

At last, let's burn it!

If you ever did some line art with pen, this part will be very familiar. My favorite burning tip for this process is the Colwood spear-shaped one, mostly set on 7/10 heat intensity for MDF, or 5/10 for softer surfaces like pine wood.

Trick: Use sure traces and try to do it in one stroke, but do it slowly. If you are making large curves, try moving both your hand and the piece of wood for a softer movement (see Species Plantarum). Don't hush, or you might scratch the wood instead of burning it.

This tip leaves little walls flanking each line, for being enough sharp to lift the wood around the trace. I really like this texture, and confess I just went for something softer when my pen broke. Out of options, I used my calligraphy tip for many projects and ended up enjoying the result (see Stark crest). With a round tip that does not sink into the wood, you have more freedom of movements and can easily change the direction of your traces.

Step 5: Technique: Filling Silhouettes

Picture of Technique: Filling Silhouettes

Filling in black is always easier than making gradients, and can be just as beautiful. For large surfaces, I recommend a flat gradient tip in medium to high heat (see Targaryen crest). For small areas, the calligraphy pen is really great (see Owl).

Trick: Do not try to fill your drawing using as much heat as possible, unless you want to leave ugly stroke marks all around. Work on medium heat with soft circular movements, and slowly darken each area at a time.

Golden trick: Gently blow on your tip as you touch the wood for the first time, and let it heat naturally as you move in a short circular pattern. This will guarantee a smooth start!

The more heat you apply, the more opaque your result will be. Work with this idea to create contrasts against shiny gradients.

Step 6: Technique: Gradient Effect

Picture of Technique: Gradient Effect

Making gradients is harder than filling in black, because you need less heat, more patience and finer control.

I always use a flat tip for this job, and rather use a wood burner with temperature selection. For most woods, a 4 to 5/10 temperature level is what you need.

In this case, start slowly with circular movements and heat up one little area at a time. At first you will not notice any change, but slowly the shading will show up. It is always easier to move along adjacent areas, because they are already warm, than move back and forth among distant places of the surface.

Important: Be careful with the wood grains, because you will not be able to burn as effectively in these regions. If you have large grains, they will make gradients much harder to see. You can always try to apply more heat in these areas.

Step 7: Technique: Hatching

Picture of Technique: Hatching

Hatching and cross-hatching can give you a beautiful effect of shading and texture without the trouble of making gradients, and may work even better when your wood is too grainy.

For this technique, use a tracing tip (like the spear-shaped one) as if you were drawing any other line. Start by hatching in one direction, always starting by the edges; this way the stroke will burn stronger in the outline, and gradually get weaker in the inside of the drawing.

To make your shading really stand out, try some cross-hatching by adding another set of lines perpendicular to the first.

Step 8: Technique: Textures

Picture of Technique: Textures

There are infinite textures you can mimic by burning, so I will give some tricks for a few ones:

Hair: For crazy hairs like the 80's style (see Kiss) or just a little messy (see AC/DC), use the flat shading tip with higher heat intensity. This time you do not need to be smooth, because you actually want to leave direction marks all around. By controlling the pressure you apply, you can vary between dark black strokes and softer shades. To make it easier, you can start by outlining the hair volume and delimiting blank spaces for the lighting.

Fur: A tracing tip, either sharp or round, can create an awesome effect of short and soft fur and account for the shading. The golden rule is to apply more heat and closer strokes in areas you want to look darker, and less and faster strokes where you want to be light. If you think the overall look is too sharp, smooth your lines with a flat shading tip.

Scales or leathery skin: Time to use sharp and broken lines, to create the effect of a cracking skin. Use a flat tip for shading, making the edges really dark to create volume. Do not use hatching in this case, unless you want to end up with a furry dragon.

Step 9: Background Techniques

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When you are finally done with your main burning, it's time to think about the background. It can make a great difference in the overall looks of your project, specially when using a cheap-looking piece of wood. The following techniques are suitable for all levels of effort and time you plan to invest in this rather monotonous stage.

Rust: By far the easiest technique, when you really don't have any time to lose. I used to take a few rusted screws and bolts, and remove some of the rust with sandpaper. To apply this on the wood, simply pick some of the dust with your fingers and spread in the surface as you would do with chalk or charcoal. If you don't want to get reddish fingers, use a cotton ball instead.

All the times I used this technique I was working on MDF, and the rust covering was smooth and opaque. It is very interesting to make your background opaque when the main burning has a shiny gradient, for it will really stand out.

Heat blower: Often my best call, a heat blower can be used for a great vignette effect. Turn on the blower and move along the edges, NEVER blowing the same spot for more than a second. Move along the whole area and heat it all evenly. It will take a while for you to start seeing some shading, but once it begins the process is quite exponential (meaning it will get darker and darker in the blink of an eye).

Be extra careful with the metal tip of the heat blower, so it won't touch the wood or your skin. Seriously, I have a pretty scar on my wrist due to an accident.

Shading or filling: If you are patient enough or you really don't have big areas to fill, you can try some gradient filling or even take a full black approach. Sometimes the full black background is a requirement for the art (see Queen box), but this is honestly an awful lot of work. My advice would be: only do it if you're confident that the final result will be worth it, otherwise the background will give you more trouble than the actual work.

Dotting: This is a very old technique, and can be found in some medieval art pieces; by that time, it was done by heating metal bolts and "branding" the wood multiple times with them. Now even the cheapest wood burner will come with a large round tip for this kind of work. Wait until the burner is really hot and fill the background one dot at a time, stopping to clean the tip whenever it accumulates too much matter. When you do this in a soft wood, you create a real bevel edge plus the shiny/opaque contrast.

Step 10: Enjoy!

Picture of Enjoy!

Now it's your turn! If you liked the techniques and tricks you saw here, go buy yourself a wood burner and dive into the awesome art of pyrography!


mayurm50 (author)2017-09-17

This is insanely cool work- LOVED IT!!. Thanks a ton for sharing your gift of art....

rainingfiction (author)2017-04-02

Oh my gosh that's amazing!

SanthuN1 (author)2017-04-01

This Wood Techniques and Tricks are Really Awesome.For more

MarcusB49 made it! (author)2016-08-10

This was my first endeavor into wood burning

Where do find instructions for the coat hanger/ hidden compartment? ?

Caitlinsawr (author)2016-10-12

I am looking to get into a new creative art and release some positive energy and have turned my eye to woodburning. I have not drawn seriously since middle school ( I am 22). Do you all often buy your wood? I didn't know if finding wood cuts on trails and such of a hard, dry wood would not do well with burning? I wanted an inexpensive hobby to start out with and grow.

christopher cramer (author)2016-09-18

What would be the best way to avoid cooling the tip so quickly. I have a rather cheap wood burner and as I burn the lines get too light within 5 - 10 seconds. Would this be because of the quality of the tool or would this most likely happen with any burner?

christopher cramer (author)2016-09-18

What would be the best way to avoid cooling the tip so quickly. I have a rather cheap wood burner and as I burn the lines get too light within 5 - 10 seconds. Would this be because of the quality of the tool or would this most likely happen with any burner?

anne.moody.142 (author)2016-06-04

Thank you.New to woodburning and this was very informative.

strangemodegirl (author)2016-02-20

This is great, thank you. Just did my first project and I definitely need a better tool and wood. Hopefully my future projects will look much better!

I'll love to see it! Thank you :)

Here it is, and thankfully the recipient loved it.

It looks awesome! Great job!

Lord of the Rings projects are so fun to make :D

Issy2202 made it! (author)2016-04-12

Thank you for the great tutorial! I didn't know how to fill in black or do gradients yet. One question: What is a flat gradient tip exactly? Do you maybe have a picture?
I've done some wood burning myself and I think beech is very well-suited. It's the right degree of hardness to allow for fine lines - I have used both pine and beech up till now (pine: slytherin logo and beech: owls and tree). I had a lot of problems with the grain of the pine wood - though some sanding might have helped there.

mimaki cg60 (author)Issy22022016-04-17

Hello and thank you! Here is the link for the shading tip I use, although they may come in many different shapes:

You did some great pieces! Your line work is amazing. I'm assuming you are used to drawing, since your burned art seems so natural :D

I still haven't tried beech, although I recently fell in love with mahogany for the same reasons you stated. I was never able to put so much detail into a piece before! As for pine, I'll admit the grain is a nuisance; sadly, sanding might not help much in this case. My latest work on pine had very hard areas, so I had to work very slowly.

On the bright side, a drawing using mostly lines, even for shading, will not show much of the difference you feel between soft and hard areas. A gradient shading will be harder to make uniform.

(I can't believe I'm helping a Slytherin... what will my fellow Ravenclaws say?)

Issy2202 (author)mimaki cg602016-04-19

Thank you - yes I'm more used to drawing, but I found that doing woodburning's a lot of fun. I'll try to get a shading tool like yours - some things just can't be done with only linework.

Mahogany sounds nice, too! Though I expect that beech is more on the cheap side. Maybe I'll try it out next time.

Hard and soft areas made it difficult for me to draw a good line before, so I'm probably just going to avoid pine in the future.

(Thankfully I'm also a Ravenclaw - I did that logo for a friend - so all's well)

AndreaO12 (author)2016-04-12

You do beautiful work and your tips were very informative. I do have a couple suggestions though. One, I have no clue what hatching is or how its done, that segment of your post was a little vague, II would be interested in learning more about it. Two, I noticed that your instruction was based mainly on the use of the more expensive wood burner, an item most beginners do not own, would be nice to have you share more tips based on the use of the less expensive tool. Something that may be helpful, I to have a cheap burner that gets mighty hot down by the tipped end. I used some silicone tape and wrapped it around the area behind the tip so that I am able to hold the burner closer to the tip without getting burned.

mimaki cg60 (author)AndreaO122016-04-17

Hi there! Thank you for the suggestions. You have a good point.

Hatching is a technique of shading by drawing parallel lines in a determined area. You may cross many layers in different directions to create more depth. It's often used in comic books.
On your second point, I might not have a wide range of suggestions on the cheaper burner. I made the jump from the Walmart-bought one to the professional tool after a few weeks of woodburning. But my main advice is to keep the tips clean with a high grit sandpaper or a wire brush, even as you work, as their tips tend to accumulate more residues than finer ones. Also, give the burner time to re-heat between strokes, since it tends to lose heat rather quickly. The drawing and shading techniques don't really change from a hobby to a professional tool, the process just becomes faster.

The idea of silicone tape is great! I sometimes use band-aids on my fingers when I need to burn for longer periods with the hobby burner, even though I'm holding it at the "right" place. It really cooks your hand! Does the grip feel clumsy because of the weight of the burner, when you hold it close to the tip?

Thanks again and let me know if you have more questions or suggestions :)

AndreaO12 (author)mimaki cg602016-04-18

Thank you for the swift response. I find I have a lot more control over my burner when I am able to hold it more like a pen. I am left handed though so my grip may be different from a right handed persons. Since the majority of the weight is in the front of the burner to begin with, adding the tape and extra weight at the front doesn't change the way it handled to begin with. Thank you for the tips, I will be sure to use them on my next project!

Corbin_Hacks_Stuff made it! (author)2016-03-19

Thanks! I used a normal soldering iron to do my burning. This is my first burn ever

It looks great for a first attempt! If you'd like to try some different techniques with the soldering iron, take a look at some dotted shading techniques. I think it would add some cool complexity to your work in a beginner-friendly way :)

daunrene (author)2016-04-12

This is a wonderful ible. Thanks so much for sharing this. I now I have a bunch of ideas for gifts. I will post once I make something.

mimaki cg60 (author)daunrene2016-04-17

Thank you! I'll love to see it :)

mimaki cg60 (author)2016-02-10

It certainly saves a lot of pain if you need to transfer something like a poem or song lyrics in a small font size :)

SemM3 (author)2016-02-09

might use this idea on cross cuts of oak to wright gests names so they know wear to site at wedding party for me and my other half

mimaki cg60 (author)SemM32016-02-10

That idea will sure look gorgeous. And congratulations for the wedding!

OxfordDon (author)2015-12-31

I do a fair amount of woodburning and really appreciate this information and these tips and photos. Thanks for taking the time to post this. You have done some gorgeous work.

mimaki cg60 (author)OxfordDon2016-01-05

Thank you so much! Glad to be helpful :)

Coffeinated (author)2015-02-10

Fantastic work! But please really avoid all artificial / pressed wood boards like MDF and chipboard. They are made with glue, epoxy or other stuff that most likely is not that nice to breathe in a slightly roasted state.

ChuckieBob58 made it! (author)Coffeinated2015-12-23

Do you mean like in California? (roasted state- pun intended) good tip tho!

This whole instructable has got my creative juices flowing again, I used to carve goose eggs with a high speed drill (like a dentist drill) but my hands are a little wobbly now. Working with heat like that may not be the best choice, but I am creative, so I will keep my ear to the grindstone, or my nose, I forget... Really nice work, do you varnish or treat the wood after burning to seal it?

The egg isn't my best work, the best ones were given away before I got to photograph them (my dumb mistake) they were also broken as people did not believe they were real eggs!

mimaki cg60 (author)ChuckieBob582016-01-05

Beautiful work! Thanks for sharing and hope you keep on with such a nice work.
As for the varnish, I usually do not treat the wood afterwards. I think none of the pieces used on this Instructable were varnished, as the wood gets quite sealed with the heat alone (specially when it has some resin inside).

OxfordDon (author)ChuckieBob582015-12-31

Beautiful job on the egg. You are indeed creative - thanks for sharing.

MicheleG26 (author)ChuckieBob582015-12-25

That egg is gorgeous!

ChuckieBob58 (author)MicheleG262015-12-25

Thank you very MicheleG26, this isn't even representative of my better work. I called them "Legendary Lace Eggs!"

mimaki cg60 (author)Coffeinated2015-02-10

Thank you so much! You are totally right about MDF fumes, burning resin/glue and formaldehyde is definitely bad for you. I did so many projects with it because it was my only option of ready made boxes/chests blanks, but always used some kind of exhaustion to avoid breathing fumes.

Coffeinated (author)mimaki cg602015-02-11

Did you mention that precaution in your 'ible? If not, you might still add it so nobody tries without exhaustion.

To everyone who really cannot have an exhaustion, think about getting one of these or similar, they can filter out gas and particles and are cheap for what they do. I am always wearing one of these when spraypainting.

mimaki cg60 (author)Coffeinated2015-02-14

Updated =)

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.

Georgiafan (author)2015-08-07

Bass wood is the best to wood burn

MarleneC1 (author)2015-06-01

The Green Gentleman (author)2015-03-30

Damn. Now I got another hobby to learn. You should send the KISS thing to Ace or Gene - you'll be in the Army for life. Seriously, this stuff rocks.

paqrat (author)2015-03-10

Again something I haven't tried but something I thought about. Could you copy the image you wish to transfer to a type of paper thin enough (tracing paper, maybe) that would allow you to place the image face down on the wood then use your woodburner with perhaps a shading tip to transfer the individual lines? If this works if there was part of the image you didn't want to transfer you simply don't transfer those lines.

mimaki cg60 (author)paqrat2015-03-10

That could potentially work, but it seems like twice the work. What I do in most of the pieces is printing the scaled artwork on a regular paper and use black carbon paper to transfer the outlines.Granted, sometimes it is a lot of work, specially for more intricate drawings. I have tried experimenting more methods in order to reduce the transferring effort, but they all have their limitations. Toner transfer, for example, is relatively easy with a flat-solid-circle shaped tip, but if you put toner on the wood and burn over it the toner will melt, gunk up on the burner tip and potentially smudge your work.

paqrat (author)2015-03-10

I have found pyrography fascinating for some time but I have more hobbies now than I am able to keep up with. One thing I was thinking about doing though was to purchase a powerstrip. You know, the ones that let you plug in 4 or 5 different device. I was then going to purchase 4 or 5 cheap woodburners, mount each with a different head and then plug them all into the powerstrip. Then you have whichever tip you need when you want it without the wait. You'll be using more electricity but I doubt it will be that much and you have the conveniency.

mimaki cg60 (author)paqrat2015-03-10

I've never though of that idea. Assembling it so that the workstation does not get crowded with wires and woodburners could result in a nice setup. Each woodburner draws between 10W to 30W depending on the model, so I guess it wouldn't be too stressful for the power strip.

spylock (author)2015-02-24

There is money in that for you,really nice work.

remy.choon (author)2015-02-19

Wood Tatooing :D Awesome...

Katusha made it! (author)2015-02-16

You are so inspiring! I got a decent woodburner for Christmas and love how much easier it is than the cheap craft-store ones. I've stuck to just outlining things so far, but your Instructable makes me want to try more ambitious projects. Thanks!

mimaki cg60 (author)Katusha2015-02-16

Hey thanks for sharing your pictures too, seems like you put up a good effort on the tree, looking neat =)

Katusha (author)mimaki cg602015-02-16

The tree was a way to test all of the tips, on the cheapest craft store wood I had. I can't wait to try out cherry wood and all of your techniques!

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