Decorative Wood Burning (Pyrography)

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About: I enjoy doing graphics projects and wood working as well. Plus problem solving. If I see a problem I try to come up with a solution given my available resources. But don't call me McGyver.

No this isn't about burning wood in atypical sense for fires or fireplaces. (Although that could be an instructableI guess) This is Pyrography: the art or technique of decorating wood or leather by burning a design on the surface with a heated metallic point. Which can be used for gifts, presentations, or promotions.

Below you'll find some of my tips and experiences with doing wood burning. I've never claimed to be a professional in any field, as there is always room for improvement or learn new tricks and techniques. But I have done my fair share and below are just a few of those projects worth sharing.

Step 1: Wood Burning 101 - Tools and Wood Prep or Selection

The great thing about doing wood burning to me (in its raw form) is rewarding in making something from nothing. As with logs and scrap wood which would normally be discarded or actually be used for firewood. It can also be great for promoting or helping distinguish groups or events and of course gifts. My tools are about as simple as you can get. A cheap wood burning kit you can find at almost any craft store. Which it comes with various nibs for styled effects.

My best advice if your new to wood burning, would be grab some scrap wood before beginning with your project and practice with the nibs. I keep a pair of needle nose pliers handy to unscrew the nib so I can leave the iron hot as it were. Be sure to have a safe place to set your hot nib. Like a metal dish. Also be careful when unscrewing the nib. By NO means leave these unattended or let kids play with.

Draw out a series of grid squares. Start (using one nib) in the first square drawing straight lines spaced apart, then each subsequent square closer together. Then do a section of cross hatching (horizontal & vertical lines). You could also do a series of diagonal lines for a different visual effect. Then a row of squares with dots from the tip of the nib and again spacing closer and closer. Do this with each nib. This will give you and idea of which each nib is capable of. Lastly have a row just to doodle with, using the unique edges of some of the nibs. For example try twirling or rolling the nib as you drag across the wood.

You'll quickly learn which nibs your prefer to work with. I'd share my testing scrap but can't find the darn thing. If I have time I'll do a new one. Also pick up any books on pyrography and skim through them. You'll probably see something similar to what I'm suggesting. (Heck probably where I got it from years ago). Also you'll find in the stores, a lot of various other nibs other than the basic ones I've shown you here. I've never really needed special nibs. Have always been able to accomplish what I wanted with what I have.


As for wood selection… anything goes. I personally avoid pine (or woods that have heavy grain or sappy grains) these have proven to be the most annoying projects. The burner when passed over the sappy grain portions will tend to not burn or darken. Obviously darker woods aren't very visually exciting but do work. Lighter woods tend to give you a better finished looking image.

Prep: Sand Sand Sand…. If working with actual logs you'll want to remove bark and then cut any blemishes in the wood down (unless its something that might enhance your intended finished results). Sand an make the surface as smooth as possible to help receive the burning nib.

For the purposes of the this intractable I'll show you several projects I've done. The first one will have more detail referencing the process. The later ones more advice than instruction.

Step 2: Course Log Step 1: LHC-1138 – Log Prep

The one I'm featuring was from my actual Wood Badge course. I've done others but this one I'm showing you as I have more pictures to show you progress.

(For the unfamiliar Wood Badge is the adult leader training program for Scouting. And the symbol for Wood Badge is an Ax in a Log.)

This log I actually found out at our scout camp where we hold our Staff Development meetings. I wanted the log to be non-specific to my course so that it could continue to be used on future course (and it still is).

With this log I had to strip away all of the bark for the look I wanted. I used my double handed draw knife to remove the bark. I then sanded the log down and using a rasp to scale back any small protrusions or blemishes. When I started this project I had plenty of time before the actual course event. I sat the log in my shed allowing it to dry out as much as possible. Which proved to be an issue somewhat later on.

Step 3: Course Log Step 2: Design Art

While the log spent a couple months drying out in the shed. I worked on my artwork design. Our local Lincoln Heritage Council Strip has basically been for years a silhouette of Abe Lincoln holding an ax over his shoulder with a few trees and a log cabin, with a striated sky in the background.

Over the years (depending on the event or need) I've been adding to the silhouette with varying themes or local lore or locations. For example when the council merged with the Shawnee council I incorporated their two Indians and teepee(not represented here). I guess I could break it down for you but honestly it could take a whole instructable separately to chronicle it all. And that's not why your here.

Because of these additions or variations I compiled them together to form one rather long silhouette mural for my log. This artwork was all done in Macromedia Freehand application, which no longer exists (unless you know somebody running and older computer).

Once I had my artwork laid out, I scaled it out on laser printer, piecing it together as I had to tile it out to the length of my log. Now I've found I had to rework rescale this because the length wasn't long enough or that it was too tall when wrapped around the front of the log so it would be visible.

Step 4: Course Log Step 3: Transfer Art to Wood

There are a couple of processes you can use to transfer your design to the surface.

  1. Freehand
  2. Homemade carbon
  3. Carbon paper
  4. Laser paper and acetone

Rather than detailing all of them I'll just share the simplest and easiest in my opinion. Carbon or Graphite paper you can pick up at Hobby Lobby or any graphics art supply house. I cut down and stage the graphite paper to match the back of my design then playing with the positioning on the surface. I use scotch tape to hold it into position.

I typically do any type or wording separately and first as this is key to being able to be readable. When doing letters or working its important to try and make them as level reading as possible. Without detaching your art and carbon paper all the way, flip it up or down (as the case maybe) and step back and look at your positioning.

When happy that the letters done I'll do the remainder of the design tracing along the outline of the design edges and any details that I'll want to burn. For large areas I just use the outline and maybe do a large "X" in that area to reflect solid fill areas. I use a standard no. 2 pencil to trace over the design. Mainly this gives me a visual of what I have and haven't drawn or traced yet.

Invariably you may miss some detail which you can freehand in. I've always found it hard to tape back in place once removed. You can always check your progress but just pulling up the tap off the bottom or top and tape back down. But like I said it can be difficult to get it to line back up.

Step 5: Course Log Step 4: Begin Burning Major Areas

Power up your burner. Be safe have it on a stable flat surface and away from any flammable materials. Before starting your burns always test your burning nib on a separate scrap of wood before beginning.

I totally recommend sitting while burning. But sitting for long periods can be problematic for me. Same goes for standing. So I may alter and change the logs and my position numerous times to completion. I start out with large solid areas. In this case all of the foreground. I used a long metal ruler (propped up and taped on each end to hold it in position) for along the base of the design to give me as straight a line as possible.

Since this area is a lot of burning I use the standard rounded copper looking nib. I will burn around all the perimeter of the base then go back and fill it (doing sections at a time). I will rotate the nib from side to side as I go. This will give it a undulating look which is kinda cool.

Tip: With large areas you'll notice that your nib will start to have carbonize building up with a dark layer of residue. I keep a small piece of heavy grit (say 50) sand paper folded a couple times near by. I'll run the nib along the sanding paper to remove the residue and get you back to a clean nib to get a better burning surface. Keep in mind over time this will wear out your nib. But I'm still using the two I purchased years ago.

Step 6: Course Log Step 5: Detailed Burning

After having the larger solid areas complete, I'll review the work making sure I've done all I can do with the rounded nib before switching to finer detailed line work. I switch to the brass looking pointed stylist nib (sometimes the angled pointed nib is useful). The brass nibs seems to take a bit longer to get up to temperature so be patient. Start with what ever area your comfortable with starting out on. Sometimes certain areas of detail can be intimidating. I will tend to pick the easier parts first where there aren't any protrusions, knots, or cracks (more on those later). Take your time. Hopefully your not under the gun to have this ready for a presentation. If you get frustrated on a part switch to another area. Or take a break and come back the next day. The pictures for this project were taken over the course of three months.

Step 7: Course Log Step 6: Problem Spots

In these pictures I'm showing your close up details and so you can see the areas that have blemishes, cracks, etc.
When you encounter any of these anomalies your burning nibs may have a tendency to roll or skip or move in and unexpected way. Notice the "D" in Wood, for some reason my nib went all squirrelly. Maybe a blemish or maybe I was tired or my dog barked and scared me making me jump. Any ways…. here's the great thing… It's WOOD... take your dremel sanding disk, emery board, or piece sand paper and remove the mistake. Just keep this in mind when your given a list of names to burn and suddenly have to remove one that you already burnt. Note: Be careful using a dremel tool too much pressure and you'll end up with a divot in the wood which could be worst looking than your initial mistake.

Unrelated to burning: You'll notice with this log I mentioned I had left it sitting out in my shed to dry it out as much as possible. Well as you can see that I ended up with many more cracks than anticipated. After the course was over I brought it home for some repairs. The worst crack being towards the top almost the length of the entire log (and quite wide at one end too). For fear that it would continue to split wider I got some caulk and filled the gap as much as I possibly could to help keep it binder together. I then smooth it out and let it dry. Once dry and gave it a coat of copper testors enamel paint to give it a more presentable look. I've been trying to find a picture of this fix but can't seem to locate one. I'll be sure to take one at the next Wood Badge event.

Step 8: Course Log SR-1071

Another Course Log: SR-1071
In this example It had heavy use of type listing all the staffers names. You'll notice a few cracks in this one and it became a challenge to burn the names around or near those cracks. The overall design was simple with mostly solid areas. Just fancy swirls and embellishments incorporated. You will also notice in this case once I was finished with the overall burning and I knew they weren't going to make any more name changes… but they did.

I gave the whole thing a coat of varnish.

Step 9: "LLLL" Large Theme Logs:

These 4 log segments were huge. And other than the obvious size issues of lifting these bad boys up to work on presented other challenges. You should be able to notice the surface on these were rather rough (and by rough they initially had chainsaw marks from where they were originally cut). I did the best I could using my drawn knife and the heavy duty electric hand sander with course grit paper to take down the surface as flat as I could (Maybe someday I'll invest in a electric hand planner). As you can imagine this was very cumbersome on these. But I think the finish work speaks for itself.

These were used on my course.

The 4 points of my course are:

Live (Scouting Ideals)

Love (Woggle: find something you love, my case knot tying)

Learn (Wood Badge symbol: Continue your learning always)

Lead (Beads: Share and train other (beads being the recognition of completing your ticket).

Burning on irregular surfaces are a challenge. My best advice I can give when your tracing your design on the the surface don't be super rigid with the positioning of the art. If a large surface difference occurs, after getting design transferred step back and look at as straight on as possible. You should be able to picture the design despite the unevenness.

When you are burning the potential irregular area do a little bit step back check it, keep doing this. And remember its WOOD… you can correct the mistake if obvious.

A Special shout out of thanks to my friend and fellow scouter Pat H. who procured most of the massive logs in this one segment project.

Step 10: Patrol Plaques

I created these for my course (and future course). These were precut boards I purchase from Hobby Lobby or Michaels. The designs I made again using my computer. Each plaque is unique for each critter of said patrol. Doing these I used my variable temperature tool.

Using the larger rounded brass nib that looks like a chisel point. Setting my temp to half strength. I used this to go around the outer edge of the plaques and using the rounded side angling the nib to fill the contour around the edge. This gave the wood a subtle shaded tone compared to the hard solid areas.

Unfortunately these wood plaques are the pine kind of wood I don't like working with so much. But since they are craft quality not as bad as raw pine wood you would get at a lumber yard or Home Depot. Knots and blemishes still exist.

You can see on the top and bottom areas around the patch, I purposely left areas of unburnt wood to give a mottled effect. Also before finishing the plaques with varnish I used a color sharpie to the left sides of the inner circle.

Note: You have to be careful trying to colorize woods in specific areas. Certain woods will take your medium and bleed just like if you touched a marker to a paper towel it'll fan out.

Step 11: Bonus: Make Your Own Enhanced Burner Tool

After a few years of playing with the wood burning tool as is, (and at the recommendation of a friend) I took it and fashioned it into an adjustable temperature controlled version (sure you can buy adjustable temperature ones now, but where's the fun in that).

Its pretty simple to do. Get you a cheap electrical box. Cut the plug off the wood burner cord. Wire it to a dimmer switch, then adding extra cord out of the box with a plug. You now have controlled temperature burner.

I hope these tips encourage your to do wood burning. I find it to be very relaxing, and the slight fumes or aroma from the wood as you work takes me out to camp. Enjoy and feel free to ask me any question. I'll try to answer.

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    5 Discussions

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    origami99

    8 months ago

    Great instructable, lots of good info. I especially love the patrol plaques

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    GFireorigami99

    Reply 8 months ago

    Thanks, those were created to sit on the tables to identify patrols meeting area. We'd constantly change the location to help break up the view during meeting times.

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    Ninzerbean

    8 months ago on Step 11

    Really cool - I wish there was this type of thing for girls when I was younger. Girl Scouts does not compare.

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    GFireNinzerbean

    Reply 8 months ago

    Thank you and I think the scouting program has gotten better. So much more to do and learn. The inclusion of girls starting this year is long over due. Scouting has been coed all over the world except here.

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    Thorondor95

    Tip 8 months ago

    Really good Instructable! Nice burns!