In this blog I want to discuss the basics of what you will need for creating pyrography artwork. To begin the journey on becoming a pyrographer there are three essential items: 1) desire, 2) a wood burner, and 3) something to burn on. Hopefully you already have the first covered and that is why you are reading this post. The second, a wood burner, can be found online, in most craft/hobby stores, and in most wood working stores. The last item, something to burn on, can be just about anything like paper, leather, egg shells, gourds, wood, etc. So let’s flesh out items 2 and 3 a little bit more. I’ll mention here that near the end of this post I will cover several items I find to be very beneficial to creating my art.
NOTE – that I wrote a blog on my studio setup and in that blog I explain how to make an inexpensive easel, pen tip holder, and a fan/reference material holder. My Studio Setup
Pyrography is a fancy name for wood burning and means to write or draw with fire. I’ve found that the artist who works with a burning brush tends to be referred to as a pyrographer, the equipment is usually called a wood burner, and the resulting artwork is either called pyrography or wood burning. Pyrography just sounds fancier.
THE WOOD BURNER
You can purchase a very basic wood burner for under fifteen dollars, more commonly called a craft burner, or you can spend upwards of several hundred dollars for a more advanced burner. For ease of reading in this blog I will refer to the basic model as a craft burner and all others as wood burners.
Craft Burners can be found almost anywhere; like a craft store, art store, wood working store, online, etc. While there are several brands out there, your only real options for craft burners are whether or not they come with a temperature control. Basic non-temperature controlled craft burner can be purchased for around $13 dollars and a craft burner with a temperature control is around $40 dollars. (this was as of Nov 2015)
The most distinguishing feature of any burner is the type of tips it uses. Craft burners use solid metal screw-in type of tips.
The sole reason for this is due to the fact that without one you can only control the darkness of the burn by moving the pen tip faster or slower across the wood. There are times when you really need to go slow to get the fine detail, but if you go really slow with a non-temperature control burner you will end up with a very dark charred looking section. Burning without a temperature control is like learning to paint with those cheap black plastic hobby paint brushes…you’re not going to create a masterpiece and it’s doubtful that you’re going to enjoy the experience.
There are even more brands of wood burners than there are craft burners. Some brands of burners are Razortip, Colwood, Optima, Peter Child, Walnut Hollow, Burnmaster, etc., and there are even more than what I listed.
There are also different styles of wood burners. Some burners have a single pen and others have multiple pens. Some use an actual flame, but most have metal pen tips that heat up to burn designs onto the wood similar in process how branding irons work. I think the big difference between craft burners and wood burners boils down to ease of use. Wood burners don’t feel as bulky, tips switch out very quickly, and there are a greater variety of tips available. Plus I think that wood burners are better designed for prolonged burning at one sitting.
Wood burners can have tips that plug into the pen handle, as is the case in the Colwood burner that I am using, or they can be fixed tip and the whole handle is replaced when its time to change tip styles. There are a large assortment of pen tips and since they are not solid metal, they heat up quicker. Plus with the thinner profile of the metal it can be easier to get into smaller places.
Pros & Cons of a Craft Burner
- Inexpensive. Can get one for as little as $13
- Pen tips are inexpensive averaging $3 each
- Can get dial temperature control
- Can get with on/off switch
- Must use pliers to unscrew/screw in tips
- Have solid metal style tips – found the shading tip was difficult to get into small places
- Slow to warm up (can take several minutes)
- Slow to cool down (can take 5-8 minutes)
- Can break tip if try to remove while still warm
- Slow to exchange tips
- Limited tip selection
- Feels a bit bulky in my hand
Pros & Cons of a Wood Burner
- Tips are easy to install – plug in / pull out
- Thin metal tips – can get into smaller places easier
- Heat up very fast (10-30 seconds)
- Cool down very fast (under a minute)
- Can remove tips while warm w/o worry of breaking
- Much larger tip selection
- Smaller and feel more like holding a thick pencil
- More expensive as a basic model starts around $60
- Pen tips cost $8-$20 dollars depending on style and brand
WHERE TO PURCHASE A BURNER?
Where can you find a wood burner? The only place I’ve found them are at stores geared for woodworkers/carvers and online. A woodworking store will probably carry both a craft burner and one or two brands of wood burners, but online you can find just about anything.
Some of the different manufactures like Colwood, Nibsburner, Razortip, and Walnut Hollow, will sell directly. If they don’t, there are numerous website that you can find their products on. A quick search using the key words ‘pyrography tools’ or ‘wood burning tools’ will pull up several websites for you to check into.
I do want to point out that buying directly from the manufacturer isn’t always cheaper. Most manufacturers would prefer to deal with resellers in quantity, and if they are selling to stores they are not going to undercut store prices as the store will quit selling the product. Also, manufacturers very seldom have sales.
I am personally using a Colwood super pro II that has dual pens (or handles) with variable heat. I can only have one pen in use (heated) at a time, but a switch allows me to toggle between them. I did not pick out this system; my husband did years ago when he was planning to incorporate wood burning into wood working projects. He’s never used it and if you read my first blog, tongue drums, you know how I ended up getting started in pyrography. I cannot tell you if this is best burner out there as I haven’t tried any other (except a very, very basic craft burner), but I haven’t had any problems with my Colwood. I would recommend them as I have had great results with mine. The Colwood cub is the least expensive model I found out there to get started with (besides craft burners), but depending on when you read this that could have changed.
Regardless of what type of burner you get, there are two tips I recommend – a shading tip and a writing tip. While I have many other tips, these two tips are my workhorses and I use them in every project. Another tip I find very useful for creating an assortment of textures is a ball tip. You can use the writer tip in lieu of a ball tip, but I find the I get more consistent results with the ball tip.
A final note about burners; it really doesn’t matter how much you spend if you don’t use it. I have seen phenomenal artwork created using both types of burners (craft and wood). Whatever type you have, with practice you will get better.
SOMETHING TO BURN ON
The other essential item is what to burn on. You can burn on just about everything including paper, leather, gourds, and even bone, but wood is the most common item. You can find very suitable materials at almost any craft store. My local craft store sells basswood or birch panels, planks, plaques, and other items like decorative bird houses, craft boxes, frames.
COST. The cost depends on the size, but the most expensive item was around $20 for a 16×20 3/4” thick panel and the cheapest was $0.30 for a die-cut ornament.
As of this posting (Nov 2015) Amazon sold an assortment of wood panels and have the free shipping option if a minimum order is placed. Basswood or birch plywood are wonderful to burn on, but I would avoid pine because of its high resin content. With pine I’ve had the resin bubble up and leave sticky spots on the wood, so I no longer burn on pine.
When doing an online search for wood I’ve found that “unfinished wood plaques” and “unfinished wood blanks” produces useful search results.
Another inexpensive item that is great for practicing on are thin strips of basswood and/or balsa wood used for model airplane making. The strips at the store I was at varied from 2” – 5” wide, were up to 24” long, and cost under $10. I have several close by when I’m burning to test out ideas before I burn on the actual artwork.
Lumber can be purchased at a home improvement stores to burn on. I’ve seen boards from 2 – 10 inches wide by 4 – 20 feet long. Poplar and maple are great woods to burn on, and the boards can easily be cut to length.
PYROGRAPHY CAUTION – – – DO NOT BURN ON ANYTHING MADE OUT OF PLASTIC, RESIN, OR BURN ON FINISHED WOOD (included reclaimed wood – like old fence boards, barn siding, etc). Plastic, synthetic materials, items used in finished wood products (sealants, polyurethane, lacquers, stains), etc., were NEVER meant to be vaporized. When you wood burn the heat from the pen tip will create vapors and depending on the item those resulting fumes can be toxic. Your health is more important than a hobby.
EXTRA EQUIPMENT – BONUS SECTION
Ok, we’ve covered the essentials, so now I will discuss a couple of items I find makes things easier for me. The list is as follows: ultra fine emery cloth (metal polishing cloth)/sandpaper/rough denim, paper, pencil, eraser, X-acto knife, sanding pen, mini fan, and an easel.
The emery cloth (metal polishing cloth), sandpaper (600 grit), or rough denim can be used to clean the pen tips. If using emery cloth or sandpaper use 600 grit or higher (finer) otherwise it may scratch your pen tips. After every session of burning you should clean your tips by allowing the tip to cool and then rubbing them with the rough cloth. This will remove any black carbon build up the pen might have and ensures it glides over the wood. When you are burning real hot/dark, it’s a good idea to periodically rub the tip across the rough cloth to remove build up as you are working. Paper can also be used to remove build up while you’re burning, but I have found that it’s not as good for the end-of-session cleaning.
The pencil is used to sketch out ideas and transfer patterns to the wood. Sometimes I’ll be working on a project and wonder if I should add a shadow, a leaf, etc., so I pencil it in to see what I think. If I don’t like it then I can easily erase it and thus the reason for an eraser.
Plus the eraser is used to remove the pattern transfer lines that didn’t get completely covered or eliminated with burning the outline. NOTICE I DON’T USE A PINK ERASER. Pink (and other colors) eraser had a tendency to leave a pink hue behind that I don’t get with the white artist eraser. This problem is especially noticeable with plywood surfaces since plywood, no matter how well sanded, has little pits or grooves on its surface that fill up with little pieces of the eraser.
A white charcoal pencil can also be helpful. Emphasis on charcoal versus a colored pencil which has wax in it. The charcoal will resist burning, but the waxy colored pencil will melt. I use white charcoal to mark spots I don’t want to burn because the charcoal makes it easier to see the spots versus pencil. If the spot has a heavy enough coating of charcoal, you can burn over the top off it. You won’t end up with a crisp edged spot and depending on the heat of your pen tip it might darken a bit, but you can get some interesting effects. Plus charcoal erases easily from the artwork.
The X-acto knife is used to scratch in highlights and remove boo-boos in small area. If you went a bit outside the line, then gently scrape the spot with the blade to remove. Highlights can be created by scraping with the point of the knife. You can also use an X-acto knife to scratch/scrape in things like white whiskers or wisps of hair.
Another item I use for scraping and scratching is a metal ceramic pick. I purchased mine eons ago when I was into ceramics, but it’s just a piece of metal with pointed ends. The metal needs to be strong enough to be able to gouge, pick, scratch into the wood without bending.
I sparingly use a sanding pen to lighten an area if it ended up too dark. A sanding pen is an eraser made out of fiberglass and is advertised as a rust paint remover for automobiles. It costs around $9 – 25 depending on the brand. You use it just like a regular eraser, but use very light gentle pressure to sweep over the area you want to erase or lighten. I can’t emphasize enough about using light pressure as this pen can quickly gouge the wood if you aren’t careful. I do not recommend using this on really soft woods or plywood as it tends to gouge the wood versus erase. If you decide to purchase a sanding pen do not buy one that is advertised as a watch cleaner (they sell for around $3) because they are too soft. Even on balsa wood (which is super soft) you can scrub away with it and nothing will happen. I have read that some artists use sandpaper to accomplish what I’m doing with a sanding pen and I’m sure that would work great too. I just happened to have a sanding pen in my assorted stuff I use for airbrushing, so that’s what I ended up using for wood burning.
A mini fan is very handy if you are going to burn really dark areas. I turn the fan so it is blowing away from me and this sucks up the smoke, keeping it from my eyes which can be irritating, and, as an added bonus, I don’t end up smelling like a campfire. I found a little clip-on style fan made with Styrofoam blades, so if you accidentally bump into it nothing will get damaged. I found my fan online, it uses 2 AA batteries, is about 7-8″ tall, and was advertised as a baby crib/stroller fan.
Lastly an easel is nice way to get your artwork at an angle that makes it easier to see and work on. My husband made mine out of two wood planks joined with a metal hinges. An essential feature is the wood ledge at the bottom to keep my project from sliding off.
That’s it for this blog. Next blog I will discuss wood in a lot greater detail; the types of I’ve burned on, the good and bad of each, and how to prepare the wood for optimal burning.
Nov 27, 2015