The Bald Eagle Pyrography Art wood burning

bald eagle wood burning pyrography bmj

My brother-in-law loves bald eagles and years ago had asked me to draw him one.   Since I needed pyrography practice, and was looking for possible Christmas presents, the bald eagle became the perfect subject.

Material used:  Bass Wood

Size:  8 x 17

Time: 20 ½ hours

This particular subject presented technical problems before I even started.   How the heck to handle the background so that the white head popped but the dark body didn’t disappear.   My envisioned solution was to have some faint mountains in the background that would breakup an otherwise boring backdrop for the bird, but they wouldn’t be so dark that you noticed the mountains before the bird.

Like I do with all projects I evaluate where the lightest and darkest values need to be.  This particular project was super easy to determine those values since the eagle’s head had to be the lightest and the body the darkest.    I have several friends who are into eagles and I’ve paid attention to their comments when viewing artwork and it always boils down to the face being right especially the eyes and beak.   They can be more forgiving if it’s a slight body/wing issue, but if the face isn’t good they aren’t interested.  Just like with Zelda’s Link character, I worked on the head area first since it was the most critical spot.

One thing I discovered immediately on this project was how wonderful it was to create pyrography on nice wood.  My husband made the basswood plank for me and compared to the wood I used in my last project this stuff was heaven!  It wasn’t super dry, so the pen tip didn’t have that tendency to sink into the wood and the grain lines were a lot less pronounced.

I had two big challenges with the head 1) the area was small, and 2) I couldn’t get too dark.  I was trying to avoid using colored pencil to make the highlights as for some reason this seems like cheating to me.  I know a lot of people do it and produce some very impressive results, but it’s not for me.  Maybe because color pencil is a medium I’ve never been able to get comfortable with.  My color pencil attempts always ends up looking like you gave a 3 year-old a crayon and set her loose to color on the walls.  You really notice it and not for the right reasons.    Working with my burner on a very low heat (my burner goes up to 10 and I had it on 2) I slowly worked up the tone on the head and especially the eye area.

Eagle Head

An Eagle’s eye color is very a translucent hue of yellow and I wanted to try to keep that aspect of the eye in my project.  What I had to do was burn lightly over the area and the scrape out high lights with my X-acto knife.  I didn’t keep track of how many times I did this, but this method allowed me slowly build up the tone.  The highlights ended up being pretty subdued and I think you probably don’t even notice them unless you look really close, but I was happy with the results.   The beak area went quickly as did the head because there wasn’t much shading to be done.   The head is really not much more than just a few lines of tone to give the impression of feathers.   Just under the beak where it meets the feathers on the neck, I scratched out some wispy hairs with my X-acto knife after I got the wing behind it done.

Eagle in Progress






Wing Close UpThe wings actually turned out fairly decent and I would have to admit that I only re-worked them a couple of times before I decided they were passable; unlike the body.  That area I worked, re-worked, sanded out and did it again.   My problem was that the bird has these light bands at the end of each feather, but when I rendered that on the board it ended up looking like the feathers were lifting up instead of laying down flat.  It is my least liked spot on the whole piece.

I think if you can draw then you can wood burn.  In retrospect I should have drawn out the bird and shaded it on paper.  I would have discovered the problem with the body and maybe come up with a better solution.   As it was, my sanding pen got quite the workout with this piece.


Okay, before I get a million emails asking what a sanding pen is, I’ll explain.  

A sanding pen is a very rigid “pen” made out of fine strands of fiber optics bound together.  Just google ‘sanding pen’ and you’ll see what I’m talking about.  The one I use is advertised as being a rust spot remover for automobiles.  Avoid pens that say they are for cleaning watches because they are too soft to remove burn lines from wood, so are a complete waste of money.  Using them is easy, just keep a light sweeping motion otherwise you will gouge grooves into the wood that create shadows and change the look of your work.  Or so I’ve heard.  🙂

Smooth Body
Textured Body









I settled with the body having some ‘texture’ to it instead of the smooth appearance I had originally burned.  I actually liked the smooth look better, but it wasn’t really representative of how the bird actually looks.   You can decide for yourself which you prefer and I put a close up of both just above.  As stated before the eagle’s body is my least liked spot in this artwork.

Lastly, the bird’s tail was an issue.   I had burned it in very lightly and then did the background.  When I stepped back and looked at the piece as a whole I discovered that the tail disappeared into the background.   Since the tail needed to be very light I could only darken it up so much and still keep it looking like it belonged to a bald eagle.  What I ended up doing was creating a semi-dark outline around each feather to define them, that’s called artistic license, and I created a shadowed valley in the background to provide some contrast.


The Mountains

The mountains did accomplish my goal of not dominating the picture, but they are so faint you almost don’t notice them.  Backgrounds are not my strong suit!  I slowly kept re-working the mountains to increase their darkness and contrast and did this at least two more times after I first burned them.   I could have darkened up the mountains more, but quite truthfully I was tired of working on them. They are the reason this took as long as it did.   I probably spent 10 hours on the bird and another 10 hours on the mountains.







In conclusion I enjoyed burning this project.  It definitely had its challenges, but that’s part of the fun and it’s what helps me improve as an artist.   My husband showed my barely worked on eagle to one of his friends who is really into bald eagles and he said that based on what he saw he’d buy it.  The eagle only had one wing, the head, and a smooth body done on it, but that comment kept me motivated to push on through.  I was disappointed that my project didn’t turn out as grand as my mental vision, but I also realize that I haven’t done this for very long and I’m very much on my learning curve.


What I learned:  

  1. Burning on basswood is nice!  Especially compared to the cheap, old, dry wood plank I used on my last project.
  2. I hate backgrounds. They are almost as bad as doing noses…okay, not as bad, but I still don’t like them.
  3. I probably should have worked out the bird on paper because it’s a lot harder to fix mistakes on wood than it is on paper. My sanding pen got quit the workout on this piece.
  4. Sanding pens are my friend.


Oct 9, 2015

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