Woodburning (Pyrography) With a Soldering Iron




My girlfriend and I recently moved to a tiny apartment. As with many tiny apartments, the hallway is... pretty stark.

I wanted to add a personal touch to my ugly door, and more importantly, I wanted to play with my new toy, a Weller P2K catalytic soldering iron. It comes with a set of tips which includes a hot knife.

Why not find out if the hot knife tip can do some wood-burning, and along the way make a nice plaque for the door? Why not indeed.

Step 1: Work the Kinks Out of Your Calligraphy

Well, let's say I am not really that great at calligraphy. Sure I find reason to write nicely on something once in awhile, but my writing tends to deteriorate to terrible scribbles quite quickly.

So grab up a paper, find some fonts you like and start scribbling. You could print it out and trace the letters, but ultimately you will need the fine motor skills to guide a very hot pen across the wood, so practicing writing is a good thing. Remember, there is no eraser!

The font I ended up going with on this project was "Fontleroy Brown." Several other fonts also got scribbled on this paper.

All those "A"s are from a totally different Uncial font, but I sure drew a lot of them just to get my hand under control. Look at the total lack of consistency. You will have to do better than that, or your sign will be hell of ugly. I drew a whole page of these as well as covered the other page in scribbles.

I also picked that ampersand ("&") from a site that showed the history of the ampersand. I think it looks damn fine, and is actually really fun to write. As you can see on the second page, I drew a lot of them to make sure I had it down.

Step 2: Layout the Script on the Wood

I got this wood plaque for a buck at Wal-mart. Who knows what wood it is... but it cost a buck, so it's good to learn on. Secretly, I did a practice run on the back before trying the front... so I got twice the value!

Very lightly, so you don't dent the wood, draw some layout lines at the height you want the letters. I drew mine 1" from the sides. Straight, curved, whatever you want. Just make sure you have something to follow, or you'll probably draw your letters all different sizes.

Now grab up your pencil again and let's draw in the lettering. Remember, draw LIGHTLY. If you mess up, you still have a chance to erase for now! Unless you dented the wood by pressing hard, then it'll be there forever and you gotta make another one.

Damn, I love that ampersand sign. Why not try drawing one right now, just for fun? The first stroke is the curly E thing, starting from the top, and the second stroke is the "T" cross on the right, starting from the inside curl.

Step 3: Fire Up Your Soldering Iron!

This iron is great! It comes with everything in the little case here. Except the solder. Tips from the top left (on the iron) are hot knife, inert hot air w/deflector shield, soldering iron, and torch.

I would only attempt this with a pencil iron. Trying to do fine work of any sort with a gun is.. well, almost impossible! I also would think it's abuse to a proper soldering iron tip on a nice soldering station - it will be running dry and almost certainly oxidise to the point where it will no longer wet within about a minute.

I would like to see someone try with their rat shack $10 iron though. Unfortunately, I gave mine away the day after I picked up this puppy. You will probably need to use a 50W iron with a dimmer/PWM to bring the heat down a bit.

I believe purpose-built woodburning pencil irons are pretty cheap as well.

Woodburning takes a little more power than soldering, and it takes about a minute to heat the knife up initially, but I still ran it on a very low setting, probably only 35W. The first little notch on the setting dial at the back. Less than that and I found the tip cools too much during a stroke and starts making uneven burns.

I decided I liked it running at a heat where it burns just barely touching the wood. That way it makes nice dark burn lines without too much spill-over from heating the wood to the sides.

Second pic you can see the fat back edge of the knife with the catalyst glowing. Hot exhaust blows out of that hole. Watch your fingers, and don't put it down anywhere other than on the stand facing *upwards*. I usually turn it off when I'm not actively soldering for more than 30 seconds.

Step 4: Now to the Fire Part

Ah yes, the actual burning, the fun part! I did it on my stove with the fan on so as not to set off the alarm. Hold the iron like a pencil, pretty much as if you were soldering.

This was tons of fun. It's like art, but for men! Not that men haven't made plenty of art... but this is more like art for manlier men than the average artist. No "interpretation" required, this just requires good fine motor control and a love for smoke and the smell of charred wood.

There are no erasers, so don't make mistakes! You touch that iron down anywhere you don't want to, you're stuck with it. Well, you can try to cover it up, which is why my A looks so crappy. I hit a hard spot on the wood on the downstroke, wobbled, and had to make the downstroke twice as wide to cover it.

I would recommend warming up with a few practice strokes on the back so that you don't mess up your first letter. I should have.

I also found pulling is MUCH easier than pushing the blade of the knife. Pushing tends to either dig in and burn a spot, or skitter about. If you're careful, you can roll the tip a little in your hand and pull or push it sideways to make a taper (that's how I did the curved bits at the end of the straights, the H came out pretty well I think)

Clean the tip whenever you see char building up on it or if it seems to be burning kind of weak. That char is an insulator and really reduces the heat getting to the wood.

Note that if you are holding the iron for awhile not in contact with the wood it will heat up and try to burn really fast when you first touch it down. I avoided this by gently poking the cleaning sponge after any prolonged delay holding it above the wood to cool the iron down a bit.

The E's were probably the hardest. Straight lines are much easier to burn. Next time I make a sign, it'll be in an Old English kind of font, with lots of straight lines.

Step 5: It's Done

Erase those guide lines and any pencil that you didn't burn over. Stain or varnish would make this cheap wood (pine?) look 10x better, but I don't have any in my apartment here, so that'll have to wait a bit.

For the record, this was my first shot at woodburning of any sort, so you should be able to do at least as well as me!

The sign looks pretty good when you look at it from a few feet away, it's harder to notice some of the wonky lines and blobs.

3 People Made This Project!


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46 Discussions

Here's a random comment: I used to make those soldering irons! I was looking for exactly this – engraving with a soldering iron, came across your post, and was pleasantly surprised to see a pic of the soldering irons I used to make in a factory in Ireland one summer! Glad you like it. :)


11 years ago on Step 3

I tried with a cheap iron, and one one step up from cheap. In fact, most of the irons that I've owned taht were precisely one step up from the bottom rung were the worst, in some cases not even getting hot enough to solder within any kind of human attention span, and then only soldering for a couple of seconds before becoming too cold again. The cheapo iron worked pretty well, but took forever and a day. Not doing that again. My new idea (which I have yet to test) is to use, say, a welding rod and an oxyacetelene or MAPP flame, and heat the rod, begin drawing, and keep the heat on the rod, far enough up from the tip to not burn the wood itself. At the end of the stroke, lift the rod, heat back up red-hot, and repeat. I get a feeling that won't work, but if it does, it will save me a lot of cash.

1 reply

Reply 9 years ago on Step 3

you can get a cheap but good 25 watt 120 volt iron at wal-mart for $10 i bought it and am very pleased at how it works it heats up in 30 secs to a minute no more


Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

Cost me $90 after tax here in Canada. I believe it goes for $70-80 in the states. Worth every penny to me, because it lets me take the iron to the work, instead of the other way around. I've crawled under the desk with it to fix a cord. And it's oh so nice to be rid of the cord on the iron! It is NOT a proper temperature-controlled station though, for "real work" soldering all day. However, I would consider it better from a hobbyist point of view where you are soldering maybe an hour at a stretch. And it is WAY better than a cheap rat shack iron. It gets very hot, too. You have to be careful to clean the tip regularly and make sure it is wet with solder, or it will oxidize really fast and you have to buy another ($14). I cooked most of the tip that came with it on the first job I did, luckily the point and one side still wets so I can still use it.


Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

Wow... $90? I barely have $5 haha. But I have a soldering gun from Weller, it's pretty good, I might buy a soldering iron at Radio Shack for $8, my friend has one, it's pretty good.

i bought the solder kit from radio shack (its the same price for a kit and higher wattage soldering iron, idk y lol) and i do got to say it is Very Nice! Plus when ever i am done soldering the tip allows you to grind it down for a new looking tip each time you solder! :-)! cause the tip is made out of.. umm mabe brass-carbon-somthing alloy idk, but it is great!


Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

cool, im gonna buy that one. I was gonna anyway, but now i have someone i relatively know that says it's a good iron. And 8 dollars! ya can't beat that!


Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

ya its great, iv never had a prob w it. and best of all the tip, when your done you can actually just sand off for a fresh tip ! ! :-) iv done it many times and its still working like a charm


Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

ya, i figured even if I completely screw up the tip, it's only 8 bucks to replace it. cool, though, that will help with cleaning