Introduction: Sunlight Engraver! a Simple Way to Engrave!

Picture of Sunlight Engraver! a Simple Way to Engrave!

Ok, you want to do some engraving on wood, plastic, or on your hand? (no, not really) don't feel like buying one of those expensive wood engraver irons? Want a foolproof way to make nice engravings without worrying about your hand slipping and botching the whole job?

THIS IS FOR YOU! If you like simple, useful, and easy processes, give this a try. this just takes a few simple steps, and is very easy to do. You need NO experience with tools. If you can stick something with tape, and use a knife, you're set. If you can't... well, there's not much I can say about it, but that now is a good time to learn!

Below is a picture of a stickman and a camp fire. That's they type thing you should get when you're finished! The best thing is, it takes very little to master this technique! Once you get the hang of cutting curves on the tape, the rest is simple!

One KEY advantage to this method VS say a spray paint stencil, is that I can make REUSABLE stencils with ISLANDS. That means that I can do letters WITHOUT having to worry about those annoying "legs" that are needed to create blank spaces in the middle of a figure.

*please note* steps 8-12 are on making a stencil for repeated use of a particular design

Step 1: Step One: Get Those Materials!

Picture of Step One: Get Those Materials!

Ok, onto the good stuff. First off, the list of things you need are CHEAP and easily accessible, heck, you've probably got all this in your garage!

-DARK sunglasses- very important! We prefer to keep our eyes intact. if you've got welding goggles, those'll work too.
-Aluminum foil tape- the shiny stuff, you COULD use aluminum foil, but, it's going to be one heck ova lot harder that way.
-Razor blade- Exacto knives are preferred.
-Magnifying glass- one larger then 3" (~10cm) diameter circle, or rectangular equivalent.
-Material to be engraved- dark objects or wood are best
-A sunny day

*a side note, please try to steer clear of carcinogenic materials, However, if you must burn them, wait for a breeze, and stay upwind of the object, and downwind of other people (or a good ways away from them!) I'd prefer if you just take simple precautions to keep others safe. While probably not a problem, it's a good idea nevertheless. HOWEVER, plain 'ol wood is no problem, and you don't need to worry about that!

Step 2: Step Two: Apply Tape

Picture of Step Two: Apply Tape

Very simple, clean off your piece of wood (it should be dry), unroll and cut the tape to the necessary size, adding more strips side by side if necessary. Peel back the white paper that covers the sticky and apply to the part of the object to be engraved. Smooth out by pressing your thumb down and sliding it along the tape.

*it has been asked why I use this reflective tape, for all that are viewing this, I'd just like to clear any confusion. Because we're using light to do the burning, we need a way to keep it from burning portions of wood that we want to remain normal. Because it's light, it has no "radiant" heat (excepting that coming off the burning material) therefore we can get nice precise figures if we just reflect the unwanted light on the portions that we don't want to burn. Nice easy, carefree engraving, no worries about "coloring out of the lines"

Step 3: Step Three: Cut Figures

Picture of Step Three: Cut Figures

Now that the tape has been applied, using your exacto knife (or razor blade) like a pencil, and cut out the characters or figures as you feel like. Make SURE you cut through the tape, and not just dent it, otherwise you'll have one heck of a time trying to finish further steps. Also, I find it's easiest to cut towards the center of the figure, you'll have to experiment for yourself though.

As seen below, a stick figure and a camp fire. You can cut out letters... ECT, it's all up to your imagination. Just remember, everything must be a "bubble figure" unless you cut it so there is some of the material beneath exposed, you can't engrave it.

Step 4: Step Four: Remove Cut Tape

Picture of Step Four: Remove Cut Tape

Remove the portions that you want to engrave. Now it's ready for the next step. Just make sure that the tape over portions you don't want engraved has been pressed down. If the tape is sticking up there, it just won't do.

Also, if you need help lifting the tape off the object, use the point of your knife.

Step 5: Step Five: BURN!

Picture of Step Five: BURN!

Start engraving the exposed material! Remember, you're not here to burn too much, you just want to burn enough to engrave the material! If you do too much, it'll turn out poorly. Try to do it evenly as well. For wood, as soon as it's black, you keep moving.

Also, try to do the edges first, then work your way to the middle!

Step 6: Step Six: Inspect

Picture of Step Six: Inspect

Inspect your piece, make sure it's fully and evenly engraved.

Step 7: Step Seven: You're Done!

Picture of Step Seven: You're Done!

Simply peel off the tape, and you're done! voilÃ! You have created a simple engraving!

You're done! Pat yourself on the back and do another!

Step 8: Making a Stencil for Repeated Use

Picture of Making a Stencil for Repeated Use

Ok, it's been mentioned that it'd be great to have a stencil that could be used over and over and over again. While if the shapes aren't very complex on the piece of tape, you CAN lift the tape off, and re-stick, and re-use, this will won't work too well more then one or two times.

So how do we solve this? We'll build a stencil!

items needed

-sheet of glass or plastic (glass is VERY MUCH preferred)
-foil tape

Panes of glass in small sizes are readily available from scanner tops (on the 4-in-1 printers) and old window panes. If you've got a junkyard local, you might be able to lift some off of them for pretty cheap.

Step 9: Apply Tape

Picture of Apply Tape

Just like with the wood, apply to the sheet of glass and get as smooth as possible, cover as much needed to make your figure.Try to get the pieces side by side to be as close as possible, if you have to, overlap them, whatever you do, keep away from having cracks for the best quality engraving.

*if you can't get the wrinkles out, use your thumbnail to smooth them out.

Step 10: Cut and Remove the Figures

Picture of Cut and Remove the Figures
Once again, as before, cut and remove the figures from the sheet of glass, just like you did with the wood. I just made a random figure to show as an example.

If you'd like to re-use the piece for another shape, just make sure to tape on the side that has already been scratched by the knife during the cutting of the figures. This will keep burning power to a maximum, even if the old scribed lines fall where you want your figures. If you use plastic, you will have to move to another part of the sheet.

  • as a side note, a good suggestion I've received (thanks for your comments all) is; just leave all your cut figures on the sheet of glass. As you can just move the stencil to use different figures, it'll save you a lot of time to just leave them all on the sheet of glass. Besides that, you can build your own "library" of stencils and have all the figures you've made!

Step 11: BURN!

Picture of BURN!

Flip the stencil over (tape side down) wherever you want to burn, and get to it! If done correctly, the finished product should be nice and crisp.

*as a note, if you used plastic, I found that you burn until the engraving turns a black, then a slightly golden color, you'll see why in the next step.

Step 12: Warnings About Plastic

Picture of Warnings About Plastic

I personally used plastic, HOWEVER, the plastic does melt a bit... and as a result becomes a golden color... I don't think this seriously affects, or limits you producing more engravings, but, it does show that the plastic suffers a bit... and will be no where as permanent as glass. It'll last a good while I suspect (I'm preforming tests on it yet) but, the glass will be the preferred medium, as, this should not pose a problem. It may cloud though, and in that case will have to be wiped with a cloth occasionally to clear it for the next engraving.


DurfD made it! (author)2015-12-04

I don't use a stencil, either projection or transfer - lots of 'free-hand'. #KWBurnMan

PyroMaster007 (author)2009-06-15

could you use white paper and tape it to the wood? idk, white reflects all light right?

pucksurfer (author)PyroMaster0072015-06-19

I'm pretty sure the paper would catch fire

vincent7520 (author)2015-04-27

nice little project

Fearce1 (author)2012-02-14

As a note of safety "ALWAYS WEAR EYE PROTECTION".The suns rays can damage your eyes easily when they are focused into such a sharp beam.
With that being said,Happy Solar burning.☺☻

paqrat (author)2011-07-19

The thrift stores here often have frames w/ glass in larger sizes for reasonable prices.

I have an idea to make stencils that might be a little more work and a little more expense but I think the end result would be better. There is a product called Looking Glass. This is a spay "paint" that creates a mirror like finish on glass. By masking off your glass with a paper or vinyl piece in the pattern you wish to burn then spraying the glass with the Looking Glass paint you should end up with a mirror with voids that are in the pattern of the design you wish to engrave. Only experimentation will tell how well it would hold up.

goodwithpaper (author)2008-05-28

can't you just cut through the plastic while cutting the tape then u wont have to worry about it fogging up or melting.plz correct me if im wrong

Mr.Stein (author)goodwithpaper2010-12-31

You could do that but you wouldn't be able to make islands.

JohnJY (author)2010-03-21

 Never thought of this! Nice unique method. 

Chanio (author)2007-08-05

May I add that if instead of this template you do one with cooking foil, or thicker. You can put your picture over the foil and only by passing a pencil over the line the surrounds your image it should leave the foil marked for latter cutting. With a thick foil you should not need any other support to have it last long. There are other techniques to engrave metals: with tar and acid but it deserves it's own proper instructable to show it well...

slimblondie (author)Chanio2009-06-12

The tape allows you to make islands... the areas that would fall out if not for the sticky backing applied to the glass. This way you don't have to follow the "rules" of stencil making!

Chanio (author)slimblondie2009-06-15

You're right. I'm sorry for not reading and understanding all what was explained.

I was just trying to add another idea to this good project.

Now, :) let me add something...

It could be possible to add 3D to the shadows (some less dark shadows) by cutting away some parts of the stencil after half burning the complete silouette...

So, the new cut parts would be half burned while the rest would look as mentioned in this interesting article.

For example, the front log of the first picture, would look less burned, so more close to the observer...

Hurray, I have added something! :)

Bradley1000 (author)2007-08-05

v_v It's not working for me. Then again I'm using a 60 watt light bulb.... Better go get the 120. :D

geekazoid (author)Bradley10002009-06-12

of course it isn't working! your using a 60W light bulb. The sun's just the slightest bit bigger.

greggles14 (author)2008-01-07

you can do it quite easily with a soldering iron

thecheatscalc (author)greggles142008-01-07

I've tried... it just didn't cut it for me. Then again mine is a small 15-20W one...

bombmaker2 (author)thecheatscalc2009-02-16

buy a 185W one from Harbor Freight Tools. They vaporize things...

slimblondie (author)bombmaker22009-06-12

The whole idea is to make your own! I think this is a great way to engrave for people who like to create but are short on cash!

bombmaker2 (author)slimblondie2009-06-12


Sunny124613 (author)2008-08-03

prety cool, my bros and i started burning the plastic on an old toy car with a magnifying glass, and in 2nd grade,me and these 5th grade boys were trying to make a fire with a magnifying glass. It worked but i got scared and kicked sand all over it.(my bro was stupid wen he was little and asked for marshmellows from one of the adults there!)

-bp (author)2007-11-09

Hi: Pressure-treated wood is really 'cyanide-treated,' but they wouldn't sell much of it if they labeled it as such. THAT is the stuff you don't want to burn.

I'm surprised that no one suggested that you cut the stencil on the glass *in reverse* so that you can then lay the glass onto the wood with the cut pattern on the bottom of the glass, nearest to the wood. That way, you retain the sharp edge that you get when your stencil is in direct contact with the wood. I would think that the sticky side of the tape is still reflective enough to do its job in that mode.


Chanio (author)2007-08-05

Nice instructable! I am now planning my future burnings. :) I would rather use cooking foil paper and a glue spray that would easily be unglued after doing the burn. By this way, your template should last longer for other similar burning at other parts of the wood... Thank you!

zikman (author)2007-08-04

I have those same glasses! I got them for two dollars the other day at Old Navy.

Riggertrev (author)2007-08-04 out my buddy Durfsun He lives in Key West some of the time (for the sun, you know) His solar pyrography has been captivating passers by for many years. check the video:

fortgeorge (author)2007-06-07

You can just go to a department/discount stores and buy a picture frame to take the glass out of, pretty cheap and readily available. You can get an 8x10" for about $3-4, larger sizes are $6-12 depending on how big ya get it, provided you don't need like poster size.

Also, many glass shops sell cheap glass if you need an unusual size, to say make a 3' long by 8" high engraving in a piece of wood.

We had made about 20 different ones for Reunions, Yard Sales, etc. using a wood burning tool, this might have saved some time. Now we just use a dremel tool with metal templates, but this is a nice cheap way.

Good intsructable. =)

I picked up an (eminently discardable) 8x10 frame with (thin but usable) glass at the dollar store.

dave spencer (author)2007-05-09

I am going to try to make a template on glass. Then I could repeat the same template over and over again. If it works that is. Ill post either way.

I did it with a piece of glass that I had chemically etched some art work onto. It worked great other than my lens is too small and I need to find a larger one. The light went right through the glass but was diffused by the etching. This is really cool and I will post a photo in the near future. I may have to resort to this if I don't win the laser!

Ah, good, so it worked? GREAT, if you post a picture (with your permission) I'd like to try and add it to the instructable! was there any problem with the glass fogging up? regardless, good too hear! I'll probably be picking up a few window panes from my grandfather's house... he's got a ton of old windows in his basement... like I've mentioned though, perhaps you can get an old overhead projector from the local school, the've got a VERY nice fresnel lens that would make the engraving process go very quickly!

dacker (author)thecheatscalc2007-07-29

Twenty-five years ago, I bought a decent Fresnel lens from Edmunds Scientfic for next to nothing. It was really a lens from an overhead projector -- perhaps a factory reject. My brother used it more than I did, often melting lead ingots my father had around for mating old cast iron waste pipes. He sometimes used it to set-of his homemade black powder. (side note -- he's now a machinist in his 40's and is a Rev. War reenactor who makes his own muskets and cannon, but buys his powder.)

Lo-and-behold, Edmunds is still around and still offers the exact same 11" square Fresnel lens for just $5.95! Shipping starts at $6.75, so you would probably want look around for some other goodies and/or get a friend to go-in with you and get several lenses.

Large Surplus Fresnel

Ok, so I tried the etched glass thing with a Fresnel lens because the magnifying lens I used before was too slow. The Fresnel worked awesome and burned the wood with a dot the size of a dime. Unfortunately the glass did not hold up so well and shattered after about 20 seconds. I guess I'll just have to use the laser when I win it. ;)

You're right, HOWEVER, the magnifying glass is also probably of the same substance, so it's absorbing/reflecting it as well... it'll absorb the UV, and probably the deep IR. If you use plastic, well... that's a whole different issue. BUT, I think it's just from having a concentrated heat source in one spot. Uneven heating. you're literally burning in a small spot under the glass, that's concentrated heating!

odiekokee (author)dave spencer2007-05-19

The glass likely didn't hold up because, along with all the other energy from the sun that is being focused is IR (infrared). MOST soda-lime and Silica glass is opaque to IR (means it's as good as painted black). IR is high energy, basicly it is 'pure heat' and the glass is absorbing all that, and heating just like the wood underneath absorbing all those other frequencies of light that are transmitted through the glass. It's just a fact of life, unless you spend more for IR-transparent glass or some other clear medium that won't absorb energy (i don't know what to suggest that does that though)

Hahaha, I tried the piece of glass from a picture frame. For holding up, worked great! As for the engraving... not as good as expected... the tape peeled off, and, low and behold, that yellow stuff on the plastic wasn't JUST the plastic "carmelizing" it was condensed sap from the wood! Very interesting... I'll soon be trying the paint method, which I tried on the plastic. Seemed to work just fine... But, the Fresnel lens took out the glass? Ahahaha... try again, but try to limit the burning power a bit... I'm sure you don't want to have to clean up too much glass... we'll see about the laser cutter... :P

Charles IV (author)2007-07-03

can u use any other tape besides the shiny stuff? and if u cant can u tell me why?

power (author)2007-06-04

nice paint

artoftexas (author)2007-05-27

Hey! this is a great idea. I own a sifn shop and can use this cheap (thrifty) way to do small signs. I will use my plotter/cutter to cut metallic vinyl in reverse and see if my stencils hold up under the heat. I'll give it a try and post back my results. Thanks!

thecheatscalc (author)artoftexas2007-05-27

Hey! good thinking! I've been thinking that some metal stencils would be the best way. So far my research has shown that the tape method works best, because the sap in the wood can't just condense on the piece of glass, it can escape and react with the oxygen to make smoke.

JoshuaTerrell (author)2007-05-24

Nice. Anything that gets people stenciling!

atomichuman (author)2007-05-22

how lond does it take to burn through the wood? i tryed and it took a long time and did not work

Well, with full sun (when the sun is at it's zenith works best, but, until the sky actually starts darkening, there's no problem) it usually takes me 1-2 minutes to do an engraving. I can probably finish a complete engraving (start to finish) in 5 minutes. BUT, you need a large magnifying glass! unless you have one that's greater then 5 square inches (that's >13 cm squared for you metric users) it's going to take you a LONG time, and, if the magnifying glass is small enough, it may do nothing at all!

bkf11 (author)2007-05-22

Great idea! Here's an enhancement on your technique. I have seen metallic transfer foil that you can buy online ( maybe in art/stationery shops as well) where you print out something using a black laser printer/photocopier, put this foil on top and run it through the laser printer again. The heat bonds the foil onto the toner on the page but does not stick to the paper itself so once you peel the foil off, you end up with silver or gold where you had black toner before. So to get to the point, I wonder if this is possible with overhead projector film? Ie print a negative image (ie print black where you want white) onto some OHP film, bond the silver foil onto it and voila, you have a custom made silvered template for any graphic/text/halftone photo you want to engrave onto wood as described in the instructable. If the film doesn't stand up to the heat next to the wood, put a layer of glass in between. I reckon it'd be great if that worked since you can then engrave anything you can print out. Would love to see someone try it & post the results or write another instructable. Benjamin

thecheatscalc (author)bkf112007-05-22

Interesting idea! I think perhaps the overhead plastic would melt, which would pose a problem... hmm.... you'ld have to do it on glass (which might be a bit harder) Then again, couldn't you take the paper, print white toner of the design, then iron the toner onto the glass. Then soak the paper in water until it's pulpy, and rub it off... like you do for circuit boards. I don't know if the white would be enough or not... it's an interesting thought though, I'll have to try it...

JamesRPatrick (author)2007-05-21

You might want to consider editing the starred tip about carcinogens on step one. You should stay downwind of any other people, and up wind while standing next to it, correct me if I'm wrong.

Thanks for the correction! I'll do it right now. thanks for the heads up! Want to keep everyone safe! :D

Robogeek (author)2007-05-18

1) You can purchase stick-on letters practically anywhere. 2) Apply to glass as appropriate. 3) Spray paint glass with heat -reflective paint, OR stove paint 4) Let dry thoroughly 5) Peel off stickers 6) Put stencil in place 7) BURN, BABY, BURN! :) 8) Share & enjoy! Appropriate shapes can be cut out of just about any kind of paper, and stuck to the glass with a "Post-It" style glue stick, until painting is complete. Before photography, people would have their silhouettes cast onto a piece of paper on a wall, which would then be traced, cut out and mounted. A burned silhouette would be an interesting project

thecheatscalc (author)Robogeek2007-05-19

Well, the biggest thing here is that you NEED heat reflective paint. I've actually thought of that, and may try it when the sun gets a bit higher. Unfortunately, high temp paints tend to be black... and probably wouldn't last very long under the intense blaze of the sun. However, a white or reflective paint may work pretty good. Guess I'll have to go take a look in the ol' spray paint cabinet!

thecheatscalc (author)2007-05-08

I've wanted to get a large Fresnel lens for this very type thing... despite them being very cheap... I'm a very thrifty person... (aren't we all?) maybe if I could find an old overhead projector... Really the bigger the spot size (with good burning abilities!) the better this works. Gives a much nicer, more consistent end product. The beauty of it, is that you can just go ahead and shine over the foil tape, as, it's going to just reflect it, and not affect the wood. I originally tried this with flame... less then desirable results...

scottredd (author)thecheatscalc2007-05-18

A Fresnel lens can general an awful lot of heat. I used to use an 8x10 inch Fresnel on a sunny day to melt zinc pennies. I would focus the sunlight on a penny until the copper skin got wavy. Then I'd smash the penny with a rock and the molten zinc would squirt out. Actually, now that I think about it, that was pretty stupid. I could have seriously burned myself if I had gotten molten zinc on my skin.

thecheatscalc (author)scottredd2007-05-19

Yeah, I'd assume they'd produce a LOT of heat, really they're a magnifying glass... just flat, and don't replicate pictures too well, but, they DO focus light nicely! It's something I'd like to try, it would make the engraving go REALLY quick!

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