Paige’s Cat Drum wood burning

sleeping cat pyrography
Paige’s sleeping cat

You might have noticed that there was a big date gap between my last blog project finish date (the heart box) and this one.  Another thing you might have noticed is I’m writing these blogs about projects done almost a year ago.    When I took up pyrography I never thought I’d be creating a blog about it, but here I’m writing about my latest hobby that I’ve come to love.  Since you have to start somewhere, writing about past projects as I work my way to the present time seemed apropos.    Back to the reason for the date gap between projects.  That date gap was filled working on Christmas orders Todd, my husband, received for tongue drums.

Material used:  Poplar

Size:  11 ¾ x 5 1/4

Time: 11 hours


Top view of wooden tongue drum
Tongue Drum top view

Tongue Drums are based on an ancient Aztec style of drum and so named because of the ‘tongues’ cut into the top.  Strike one of the tongues with a drumstick and the resulting sound reminds me of  the sound that xylophones make.    The drums are rectangular in shape, made out of hardwoods, and measure 11 ¾” long x 6” wide x 5 ¼” tall.  Each board used is ½” thick so they are very sturdy, but for me they are awkward to burn on.   They won’t fit on my little easel that puts my project at the perfect angle for burning on, so I had to burn straight on or stand over it and burn straight down.   I lost track of how many drums we ended up doing and all the different ways I tried to make burning on them easier, but I never did find a comfortable way to accomplish this.


Todd and I worked out a system where he made the drums and passed them to me for wood burning.  Most of the drums were burned with nothing more than the name of the child and occasionally a simple image (like a flower or butterfly), so I didn’t feel they were blog worthy.  Lettering is a tedious thing that doesn’t feel very artistic to me and I didn’t even take pictures of the finished projects.  I hated lettering in my high school art/craft class and that hasn’t changed much over the years.   The only thing that prevented the name burning from being hideous chore is the assortment of alphabet stencils I bought.

In the midst of working on Christmas orders we did get a couple of orders that broke up the monotony.  This project is one of them.   A friend wanted to give her granddaughter a keepsake gift, so ordered a drum with an image of her granddaughter’s cat on it.

Getting good photos of the cat ended up being challenging for my friend. Apparently Paige’s cat was a bit camera-shy and wanted to test out the phone’s ability to capture action shots in low lighting situations.  The results were lots of blurry pictures with something that might have been the back-end of a cat running out of the frame.   Over the course of several days my friend continued to take photos and we ended up with several that were usable.


I chose the best two of what I was given, though I had hoped for a bit better.  Given the fact that the photos were taken with a cell phone in flash mode I’m impressed they were usable at all.  What I didn’t like was how the flash altered the natural shadows and coloring of the cat in some areas.  







A perfect example of this is the right side of sleeping cat’s face.  Under normal lighting this area would be dark since it isn’t getting direct lighting and the head is angled in slightly towards the stomach.  Instead it looks like a spot light is illuminating that side of the face, eliminating all of the natural shadows and making the fur look very light grey in color.   The flash also made the white underbelly area indistinct, so while I could tell that one of his back paws was there, it was hard to tell where the paw ended and the stomach began.  Obviously I was able to get the project done, but it would have been a little easier if the pictures were better or I was less neurotic about trying to render every tiny detail.

Armed with the pictures I went to work deciding the placement on the drums.   It didn’t take me long to decide the layout I wanted.    The front of the drum would have the image of the cat looking out the window with Paige’s name near it. Since the cat was looking out the window so intently I added a butterfly to the last letter of Paige’s name.  I thought this made it seem as though the cat was staring at the butterfly instead of out a window like the cat in the picture was doing.



The back of the drum would feature the sleeping cat.   

Size wise the front cat ended up being 3 ½ x 4 ½ inches and the back cat was 7 3/8 x 3 ½ inches.




I tend to do all my projects with the same basic steps:  1) outline, 2) tone / contour, and 4) detail.  When outlining the art, keep the lines light because it’s much easier to darken up then to lighten up.  Both pictures in the layout paragraph have been outlined and the outline is very light.  Toning is the simple process of applying color to the object to give it shape.   Detail is to add the shadows and, in this piece, darker fur streaks to make the art pop more.

The pictures to the left show a little of the progression of the front cat.   I take the outline and start toning and adding a bit of contouring to allow the shape of the cat to emerge.  Example of this is the closest ear where the left picture shows a bit darker outline that shapes the back edge of the ear.  Also I defined the nose and eye area and the dark stripes I didn’t worry about as they can be burned in at any time.  




I did put a couple in right away and the remaining stripes were put in towards the end.   Inside ear fur is easily rendered by turning the heat down to a low setting and drawing in a few wisps of hair and reverse shading along the edges.   Reverse shading is where you start from the outside edge and drag the tip inward with the tone getting lighter as it goes.

In all I spent around 3 hours working on the front cat.



This picture is a close up shot of the front cat.  It shows how the dark stripes are not solid, the edges are not perfect, and you don’t want them to be.  This is exactly what gives the impress of fur.





The sleeping cat on the back of the drum is where the bulk of my time was spent.  Not surprising since it was considerably larger than the front.  Creating the fur texture I used a zigzag burn pattern that resulted in light and dark looking lines versus a uniform solid color.  Next I went over the zigzag section applying additional tone to contour or give 3-D shape to the cat.  Lastly I put a few darker strands of hair here and there to complete my overall impression of fur.  You can tone/contour  first and then do the zigzagging, but I think the darker strands would still need to come last.  Bottom line, this method was pretty fast and it didn’t require me to draw in every strand of hair.

The below pictures show the progression of the sleeping cat.  From the pictures you can see that as I go along creating the fur foundation, I also do some contouring to give the cat shape as I work.  I am using my source photos a LOT during this process.


In this picture you can see that I started reworking the fur to make it darker since I decided it was too light in color.  I wanted it to pop more from the wood background.  Or put another way, I wanted a lot more contrast between the background wood tones and the cat.   Notice that I haven’t added the dark stripes to the cat since they can be added at any time.  Also notice that I’m being very careful to keep the white stripes and spots alone – no wood burning or very minimal wood burning was done in those areas.

A few words about the zigzag pattern I use.   First of all I’m using my shading tip, so the lines are not super thin like they would be if I was using the writing tip.   Secondly I place emphasis on the downward stroke, the upward stroke is lighter and between the zigzags is the lightest area.  It really doesn’t matter on the stroke emphasis as your goal is to make sure it’s not uniform.  Lastly I keep the zigzag fairly tight or close between each zig, so it wasn’t super obvious and I didn’t worry about overlap.

One of the most challenging aspects on this piece, and all pyrography, is the grain of the wood.  I try to keep the bands or grain pattern hidden or camouflaged as best as I can, but it’s tough.  I have found that depending on the angle the art is viewed, even the best hidden grain line will show.  

cat wood burning pyrography bmj
Paige cat drum back (1 2015)

The example photo to the left shows the band of darker grain wood that runs through the top back area of the cat.  






sleeping cat pyrography
Paige’s sleeping cat

Where as this picture the banded area wasn’t as noticeable.  

The type of wood will also affect this unwanted phenomenon.   Well, unwanted in my eye.  It’s is so different from drawing on paper, and it is one of the things that makes wood so interesting to look at.  I tend to aim for an art that looks like it was done on paper look, so I get frustrated by this.  Did I mention I’m a little neurotic with details?


Another new and very challenging I encountered on this project was the white whiskers on the cat.   I was partway into the cat before I realized I needed to figure out how I was going to handle them.  My previous cat project had black whiskers, so I was able to easily add them at the very end; something I couldn’t do here.  

Now most people would probably test out ideas on a scrap piece of wood.  Not me.  I really should get in that habit as things always work out better when I do, but as history has frequently proven I tend to come up with an idea and run with it.   Thus the reason numerous pieces end up decorating the inside of my garbage can and eventually decorate the local landfill.

While my whisker experiment didn’t turn out absolutely horrible it left a lot of room for improvement.   I ended up sketching the whiskers with a pencil and then used my handy-dandy x-acto knife to scratch them into existence.   

After that I used a ceramic pick along knife marks to create deep channels I could burn over.  A ceramic pick is a sturdy piece of metal with pointed ends that are used to clean (pick) out the ceramic blobs in corners of figurines before you paint them.    This method for creating whiskers worked, but I wasn’t able to control the pick well as it wanted to follow the wood grain.  So my whiskers are not very curved.   Plus when I intersected another whisker, both the knife and the pick wanted to follow the existing whisker groove.    Bottom line, I ended up with grooves that shader tip glided over and the grooves gave the impression of whiskers.  I have since thought of other ways to try to do whiskers, but that’s for another project and discussion.

After I completed the sleeping cat I decided the front cat needed whiskers too.  Those I lightly scratched in with the ceramic pick and I think they turned out better than the whiskers on the sleeping cat.   They are very faint though and not real noticeable unless the light is just right.

In conclusion, I think the cats turned out well and I am discovering that I really like this medium.  I’m not an expert by any means, but I feel like I’m getting the hang of pyrography.   Future project involving whiskers will require some experimenting on practice wood to get down the best technique for rendering them.   I am happy to report that I finally learn my lesson about light areas need darker contrast to make them appear as I darkened up along the bottom of the cat so the chin and belly would show up.  I even colored a little background area by the right ear so the hair would show up.    Another first on this project was burning on poplar wood and I would have to say it is very nice to burn on.  It’s a hardwood so a great choice for making practical items (wine box, bread box, etc) that will get handled a lot and it’s a lot cheaper than maple.  I’m looking forward to my next project.

What I learned:  

  1. Grain lines can be very challenging to keep them dominating the artwork
  2. Practice whiskers on a scrap piece of wood and create them right away if you are going to use the scratching method like I did.
  3. Use good reference photos.  While I was able to compensate for the washed out flash areas, it would have been nicer not to need to.
  4. Poplar wood is a wonderful wood to burn on.


Nov 14, 2015

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