Wood Types and Prepping Wood for Pyrography wood burning

In this blog I’m going to discuss the pros and cons of different woods that I’ve burned on and how to prep the wood for optimal wood burning.  

This was last updated on Sept, 2018 to include finishing over a fractal burn on plywood.

To date I have burned on Alder, Basswood, Balsa wood, Beech, Birch plywood (both baltic & Russian), Cherry, Hickory, Maple, Oak, Pacific Albus, Pine, Poplar, Redwood, Walnut, and a studio Wood Panel.  I enjoyed burning on them all except Hickory, Oak and Pine, but my favorite is basswood.  The reason is that it’s light in color, has minimal grain, and is softer so I can keep the heat lower.    Before I get into more detail on the different woods I want to say a couple of words about the thickness of the wood you are going to burn on.

Unless you are using plywood, I recommend using wood that is at least 3/8 inch or thicker.   Wood that is 1/4 inch or thinner has a tendency to curl and bow as the wood ages.  The smaller the piece of wood, the more noticeable this will be with the exception of plywood.  Due to plywood’s making process, plywood can remain very thin and seldom curl or bow, but it is also a lot more susceptible to water damage.

Another thing I need to mention is wood grain.  This comes up a lot, so what is it?  Simply put it is the age rings of the tree.  How they appear in the wood or board depends on how the tree was cut up.  For example it can be cut in a plainsawn style where the tree is cut in horizontal slabs, quartersawn where the tree is cut like a pizza, or quarter and rift sawn.

Each style of cut produces a different grain pattern that appears on the board.  Some woods are prized for their heavy grain or figuring, like canary wood, because of the beautiful patterns it produces.  Other woods have little or subtle grain lines, like basswood, and these are the woods that pyrographers tend to prefer to burn on.

Foreword – because each person is different, a variety that isn’t bothersome to me might be to you.  Plus there many woods not fit for burning on because they are too dark or they are an irritant or even toxic (like yew and milky mangrove).    There are many places online to check and see if a wood is a known toxin.   Almost all wood species have several varieties or subspecies and some varieties might be worse than others.   Take cedar for example, all species are listed as an irritant if burned, but western red cedar can cause asthma in some individuals.

Again as mentioned in my last blog – DO NOT BURN ON PLASTIC OR SYNTHETIC MATERIALS.  DO NOT BURN ON FINISHED OR RECLAIMED WOOD.   Wood burning releases fumes from the heat of the pen coming in contact with the item you are burning on.   Depending on what that item is or what it has on it (old finish) those fumes can be toxic.  This includes old fence boards, wood exposed to the weather, etc., as they could be harboring molds and bacteria.   Stains, sealants and other items used to finish wood should be treated like plastic and synthetic materials – they were NEVER meant to be vaporized and the fumes can be very toxic.   Your health isn’t worth the risk associated with burning on such items.

Below are pros/cons for the assorted woods I’ve burned on.   I’ve provided pictures where I can, but keep in mind each type of wood can vary a lot in color and grain pattern depending on where it was grown, the growing conditions, how it was cut, etc. so there will be variances.

 

WOODS I’VE BURNED ON

ALDER

Is hardwood that feels nice to burn on, but is a darker wood.  I personally wouldn’t use it for projects.   Tried this one July 2017.

 

 

Pro – –

  • No resin/sap (that I’ve encountered)
  • Nice to burn on and was easier than poplar even though it’s harder than poplar
  • Cheaper than poplar
  • Can find in home improvement stores

Cons – –

  • Limited widths – I only found 4” wide (10.16 cm)
  • Fairly dark in color especially compared to basswood and maple
  • Very grainy

 

BALSA WOOD

Is a super soft and I would only use for practice.   I know they use it for making model planes as it is a lightweight wood.   I’ve only found it sold a blocks for carving or really thin strips for model plane making.

 

 

Pro – –

  • Very light in color
  • Minimal grain
  • No resin/sap (that I’ve encountered)
  • Extremely soft wood, so very easy to create divots, embossed lines, grooves
  • Very Inexpensive
  • Can be found in stored that have supplies for creating models (planes, buildings, etc) and some wood stores.
  • Exotic Wood store and wood carving supply store will carry blocks of balsa wood for carvers (would need to saw it into planks)
  • I use this to practice / test ideas on as it’s inexpensive

Cons – –

  • Not as readily found
  • Very limited sizes of prepped boards – usually 2-5” wide strips  (5.1 – 12.7 cm)
  • Prepped boards are usually very thin in thickness
  • Tends to curl since it’s not very thick
  • Super easy to gouge when fixing mistakes
  • Would only use as practice pieces
  • When burning dark the tip tends to sink into the wood

 

 

BASSWOOD

Is very nice wood for decorative art and inexpensive.  It is my favorite to burn on. 

I just read an article (Feb 2018) that stated Basswood is called European Lime or Common Linden in Europe.  The wood is not related to the lime fruit tree. 

 

Pro – –

  • Very light to light in color, sometimes with a tint of yellow
  • Minimal grain
  • No resin/sap (that I’ve encountered)
  • Softer wood, so fairly easy to create divots, embossed lines, grooves
  • Inexpensive
  • Can be found in craft store and wood stores

Cons – –

  • Softer wood, so not a great choice for non-decorative items that get a lot of handling
  • Can be easy to gouge when fixing mistakes

 

BEECH

(2/2017) Recently tried this wood and didn’t care for it.  Bought a board to try as it is pale in color, but has lots of little dark dashes in the grain that ooze sap when heated.

 

 

Pro – –

  • Light in color
  • Hardwood that’s not quite as expensive as maple.

Cons – –

  • Harder to burn on that than maple.  I had to turn the heat up a lot higher than normal on my unit
  • Has little dark dashes that oozed resin or sap when I burned over them.
  • Not readily found.  I’ve only found it in a specialty wood store.

 

BIRCH –  (updated 12/14/16) I’ve only found in plywood form.  There are 2 types of birch plywood that I know of, Baltic and Russian, and I burned on both.  The Russian has a smoother surface to it, but also tends to have more grain lines.  Also the Russian plywood is a bit darker than the Baltic, and it costs more.  Lastly, I can’t readily find Russian birch plywood in my area.

 

 

One thing I dislike about plywood is the pitted or slivered surface texture, and it doesn’t completely go away no matter how well you sand it.   This photo shows burning on a piece of baltic birch plywood.  The left side was sanded using 280 grit sandpaper and the right side was left alone.   The burning was smoother and easier to make uniform on the sanded side (left), but it still shows the slivered texture of the wood.

Update (1 16 2017) I’ve burned several projects and both types of birch plywood and my biggest complaint is that the plywood tends to splinter.  By that I mean small slivers of wood tend to chip off depending on what type of texture you’re creating.  Plywood surface is never as smooth as the solid wood surfaces (bass, maple, etc), so I keep my use of plywood to mandala’s and tutorials.  I won’t use it for fine art.  The mandala styled art is an exception because that style has a lot going on, so the lack of a super smooth surface isn’t as noticeable.

Update (Sept 14, 2017) – I’ve been watching how my artwork ages on plywoods and I’m not liking what I see.  The wood continued to darken especially the grain lines and I’m losing contrast on the art.  I’ve provided some examples below the pro/con section.  

Pro – –

  • Very light – light in color
  • Minimal grain
  • No resin/sap (that I’ve encountered)
  • Inexpensive
  • Can purchase large sheets of plywood, so can create larger works of art without gluing up boards
  • Can fix mistakes fairly easily

Cons – –

  • Not as easily found (at least where I’m at)
  • Tends to splinter – small slivers of wood flake off
  • Usually sold as plywood
  • Craft stores tend carry in the form of decorative items like bird houses, boxes, etc
  • Wood stores are only place to find sheets
  • Hard wood, so not as easy to create divots, embossed lines, grooves
  • Use caution not to burn deep and hit the glue layer – vaporized glue is not likely to be good for you.
  • Tends to be pitted or slivered even with lots of sanding, so not the smoothest texture I would prefer.  I use it for the tutorial pieces.
  • The artwork does NOT age well.  Plywood fades a LOT more than any other type of wood I’ve burned on.
  • Avoid using an eraser on it as little tidbits of the eraser gets ground down into the surface.  
Feather aging on plywood
Vista House aging on plywood

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sept, 2019.  I did a burning on plywood that my husband, Todd, did some fractal burning on.  During the process of fractal burning the wood is coated in a solution of water and baking soda.  I noticed a huge difference while burning over the wood.  I had to set the heat on my burner to a much lower temperature than I normally use.   Todd sealed the artwork with lacquer and it turned out terrible.  Areas of the wood seem bleached, so I don’t know if the lacquer and baking soda had a reaction at some level.  Plus, the artwork faded immediately!   For some reason I remembered this artwork today, so wanted to include it.

 

 

 

CHERRY  

Not my favorite because it can be very dark with streaks of pale wood.  Or put another way, it’s not uniform in color.  Plus it can really darken up when a finish is applied.  

 

 

Pro – –

  • Hardwood, great for practical items
  • No resin/sap (that I’ve encountered)
  • Can be found in home improvement and wood stores

Cons – –

  • Medium to very dark in color
  • Doesn’t tend to be uniform in color
  • Medium to expensive in cost, but generally cheaper than maple
  • Can really darken up depending on the finish and the artwork becomes less pronounced.  

 

HICKORY

I hated burning on it.  To me it was almost identical to Oak and I really despise Oak.  It makes great looking furniture, but features that make it great to look at are the same features that interfere with pyrography; grain lines and tonal variations.

 

Pro – –

  • Hardwood, great for practical items
  • No resin/sap (that I’ve encountered)
  • Can be found in home improvement and wood stores

Cons – –

  • Medium to very dark in color
  • Lots of grain and color variations
  • Medium cost – more than basswood, less than maple
  • I hated burning on it. The grain is very pronounced and hard to burn over.  Makes beautiful furniture, but artwork gets lost in the wood grain.  

 

MAPLE

It’s wonderful hardwood, but tends to be expensive.  It is another wood that I do like to burn on.

 

 

Pro – –

  • Light – medium in color
  • Can have minimal grain
  • No resin/sap (that I’ve encountered)
  • Hardwood that can be used in practical items like furniture, utensil holders, etc
  • Generally found at all lumber stores and wood stores
  • Gouge resistant, so easier to fix mistakes on

Cons – –

  • Expensive (generally double the cost of basswood)
  • Usually have to purchase at a wood store or lumber yard
  • Really wide lumber is expensive! To make it more affordable you can to glue boards together.
  • Due to hardness, have to turn up heat on pen.

 

OAK

I absolutely hated burning on oak, and I avoid it like the plague.  It has too many grain lines that are very difficult to work with or around.  It had a tendency to leave a streaky or banded appearance to the artwork.

 

Pro – –

  • Hardwood, great for practical items
  • No resin/sap (that I’ve encountered)
  • Can be found in home improvement and wood stores

Cons – –

  • Medium to very dark in color
  • Lots of grain and some color variations
  • Medium cost – more than basswood, less than maple
  • I hated burning on it. The grain is very predominating and made a cat I burned look like it was part zebra.  (read blog “why I hate wood burning on oak” for a more detailed explanation of why I hate oak)

This is the photo of the cat I burned on Oak.   I spent a lot of time and effort trying to hide or blend the grain lines so the cat wouldn’t look like it had pale bands running through it.  I was not successful!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PACIFIC ALBUS

Is a poplar hybrid, but seemed very similar to balsa wood to me.  Granted the piece I was burning on was thin and not very wide. 

Pro – –

  • Very light in color
  • Minimal grain
  • No resin/sap (that I’ve encountered)
  • Softer wood, so very easy to create divots, embossed lines, grooves
  • Very, very Inexpensive (cheapest of all the woods I’ve burned on)
  • Great for practicing, or in my case, demonstrating a technique

Cons – –

  • Not readily found. I’ve only found it in one exotic wood store.
  • Boards tend to be thinner, so prone to curving
  • Super easy to gouge when fixing mistakes
  • Would only use for practicing
  • When burning dark the tip tends to sink into the wood

 

PINE

very resinous wood, I don’t care for it

Pro – –

  • Light tan in color
  • Softer wood, so easy to create divots, embossed lines, grooves
  • Inexpensive
  • Fairly common. Lots of craft store items use pine

Cons – –

  • Has a high resin/sap content
  • When burning dark/high heat the resin (sap) bubbles up creating sticky spots
  • I avoid burning on pine.  It’s my third most hated wood I’ve burned on (Oak and Hickory being the first and second)

 

PLYWOOD

see Birch or Wood Panel

 

 

 

 

POPLAR

is very similar to maple, but cheaper.  It is one of my prefered woods to burn on.  

 

 

 

Pro – –

  • Can be light in color
  • Can have minimal grain
  • Hardwood that can be used in practical items like furniture, utensil holders, etc
  • Generally found at all lumber stores and wood stores
  • Gouge resistant, so easier to fix mistakes on
  • Much cheaper than Maple

Cons – –

  • Might need to glue boards together to get nice sized planks to burn on
  • Due to hardness, have to turn up heat on pen.
  • Can have color streaks and the color streaks tend to have sap/resin spots. I did a sign and the board had this green streak through it and the green streak oozed sap

 

REDWOOD

I was given a small log or branch to burn a simple message on, but I wouldn’t recommend burning fine art on it.    It was a very oily wood and I didn’t enjoy burning on it.

 

 

Pro – –

  • Was easy to burn on
  • Can use a lower heat setting than normal to get dark results
  • The grain lines didn’t char like others woods do

Cons – –

  • Not readily available
  • The red areas on the wood oozes a LOT of sap and actually seemed oily
  • The wood is highly figured with numerous red streaks and patches

 

WALNUT

Tends to be highly figured, has lots of grain lines, and gets VERY dark when finished.  I would not recommend burning on it as you will have a tough time seeing the artwork.

 

 

Pro – –

  • Was fairly easy to burn on

Cons – –

  • Not readily available
  • Expensive.  It costs more than maple does
  • Even paler areas on the wood get really dark when finished
  • Lose a lot of the fine or subtle detail when the wood is finished

Below is a composite photo of a deer I did to test out walnut.   The top photo is untreated wood, the middle photo shows the wood after it was misted with water, and the bottom photo shows the wood one coat of Tru Oil was applied.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WOOD PANEL

Is a type of plywood that has been sanded and ready for burning.  They intended to be an alternative to canvases, but since it’s made out of wood I tried one.  

The brand I used was made out of birch plywood, and it had a much smoother surface than any plywood produced I’ve used so far.   It’s still plywood, so not as smooth of a surface as a solid board like bass, maple, etc.    I have since tried several brands of wood panels/cradle boards and wrote a blog about them.   Cradleboard

Pro – –

  • light in color
  • minimal grain
  • ready for use
  • found in craft and art supply stores (look in the canvas section)
  • Comes in an assortment of sizes from a small 4″ x 4″ to a large 48″ x 72″   (10.2 x 10.2 – 121.9 x 182.9 cm)
  • Didn’t splinter like the birch plywood does
  • Ages well.   Doesn’t brown up like the birch plywood does.

Cons – –

  • Expensive.  Small board is $3-5 and the largest $200-350.
  • The brand I tried was made out of plywood, so not as smooth of a surface as a solid board like bass or maple.
  • Has a grainy look when I try to burn a uniform color (see picture below).
close-up of grainy texture of the wood panel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I will add to this list if I encounter more woods to burn on.

 

MAJOR WARNING!!!!!

NEVER EVER  burn on finished wood, reclaimed wood (like old fencing or barn siding) or anything made out of plastic or synthetic material.    Yes, I know I already said this, but I’m always amazed at some of the things people will decide to burn on so I’m saying it again.     You cannot wood burn without creating some vaporization and your health is worth more than your hobby.

 

Prepping the wood for optimal burning

All wood needs to be sanded before you burn on it including all items bought at the craft store.  I have a 3 step process:

  • Sand the board down to at least 220 grit.  You may have to start with a rougher paper (60, 80, 100, or 150 grit or all of the then in progression) to get the board in shape for the final sanding.
  • After it’s sanded to 220 grit, wet out the wood.   To wet out, take a very wet sponge and wipe it over the sanded surface of the wood.   The goal is to get the wood wet, but not dripping, it should feel damp to the fingers.   Place the wood someplace to dry for a few hours.
  • After it’s dry, sand again with 220 grit sandpaper.  It should feel very smooth at this point.

 

The board is now ready for use.  The purpose for the wet sanding is to bring up the grain, or nap, so that during the second sanding it gets removed resulting in an ultra-smooth board to burn on.  Smoother surfaces enable the tips to glide across them easier and allow for finer detail in your artwork.  Also, if you plan to seal the work, it will help prevent the nap from raising when you do and thereby avoid it getting ‘fuzzy’ in the process of applying the sealant.

This board is a piece of plywood.  The leftmost section is unsanded.   The middle section has been sanded using 240 grit sandpaper.   The right section was sanded with 240 grit sandpaper, then misted with water, allowed to dry and sanded again with 240 grit sandpaper.   

You can see the difference each step makes on the wood surface.

 

 

 

I think this covers the main items for wood types and prepping the wood.   Next blog I will discuss several different techniques of transferring a pattern to wood.

 

PROJECTS ON DIFFERENT WOODS

Basswood.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

scrolling heart wood burning pyrography bmjBirch Plywood.  Store bought craft box with plywood top and pine sides.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maple.   Trout Lake scene I burned a cribbage board my husband made

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oak.   I hate oak.  It’s so heavily grained (or figured) that it made the cat look like it had vertical stripes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

hand wood burn pyrography bmjPacific Albus.   Practice piece on a board 4 x 6.  The boards were 4 inches wide by several feet and I bought one to see what it was like to burn on.  The boards were very thin and this piece has curled a lot, so I wouldn’t use for anything other than practicing on.

 

 

 

 

 

Poplar  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Russian Birch Plywood – (with a black walnut frame)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

STUDIO WOOD PANEL – this wooden panel measured 6×6″ (15.2 x 15.2 cm).  It was the smoothest plywood I’ve ever burned on, but it wasn’t as smooth as a regular board of solid wood like basswood or maple.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brenda

Originally posted:  Dec 19, 2015

Last updated: July 4, 2018

13 thoughts on “Wood Types and Prepping Wood for Pyrography wood burning

  1. Do you always use store bought wood, or do you go out and cut your own too? And if so, how do you dry it without splitting it or using sealant?
    I cut wood for a living, so I take home slabs for wood working. I try to dry them slowly to reduce the chance of splitting, but it’s very disheartening to see a piece that you really wanted to work on split on you. I’m afraid to use sealants other crafters recommend due to the possible vapors they’d be letting off.

    1. Hello Agnieszka,
      We always buy store bought wood, so we don’t have any experience with that. I did a quick internet search and I found a short youtube video that said you can seal the ends with melted wax. Here’s a link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpD2XZUJ0Ts
      I would think that if your wood is too large to dip like the video shows, you can always pour melted wax onto the exposed wood surface.

      Thank you for your question and I hope that helps.
      Brenda

  2. My friend wants me to burn a cutting board for him and I’m leaning maple. Do you think that’s a good idea? What kind of oil should I finish it with? Thank you!

    1. Hi Geneva,

      Maple is a wonderful choice for cutting boards as maple is a hardwood that can handle the use cutting boards get. Todd always uses food grade mineral oil on the cutting boards he makes. When you oil the board for the first time, it will take several coats of oil before its ready. The board is ready when it quits absorbing the coats of oil.

      Hope that helps and have fun with your project!
      Brenda

    1. Hi.
      Nope. The only difference between the woods from a pen tip aspect is the temperature you need to burn at. Hardwoods require a higher heat and softwood a lower one.
      Brenda

  3. hi Brenda, I have what I think is an old Russian birch carved and burned picture . it is very intricate and quite lovely. Can you give me any help in finding out value, etc. I know nothing about this. there is writing and a signature on the back in what I believe is in Russian. I can send you pictures of it as well as signature if you are interested. Many thanks for any assistance in this matter, Linda Stell

    1. Hi Linda,
      I would love to see it. As for it’s value, my first inclination is to try an internet search on the artist name. You might try googling Russian pyrography artists and see if you can find something on the internet with his signature. Another idea is too look for places that will do art appraisals. Maybe a local art gallery could provide information and/or direct you to a place that could.

      As I said, I’d love to see it. Please send me a picture to: PyrographyMe@gmail.com
      Brenda

  4. Hi Brenda … I love your videos and your blog … I love how honest you are in your descriptions … its very helpful to see one as talented as you are and to know what to do and NOT do …. thank you and I will be continuing to follow you … Nancy

    1. Hi Nancy,
      thank you so much. I really appreciate your comment and I’m glad the site & channel are helpful.

      We all have to start somewhere. My first attempts at pyrography were not; at least I don’t think so. As I’ve continued to practice and push myself I’m learning more and more what I can do in the medium. The best part is that I’m having a lot of fun, encouraging others to try the artform, and meeting some wonderful people. Can’t ask for more than that! Ok, I could ask to win the lottery, but there’s no point in pushing my luck. 🙂
      Brenda

  5. Thank you Brenda for all of this helpful information. My husband is new to woodburning and has burned on a slab of Birch that we purchased at a craft store. Would you seal over the little edge of bark that shows or leave that as it is?

    1. Hi Peggy,
      Welcome to the wonderful world of pyrography! I hope you husband enjoys the artform.

      As for your question, the answer is yes. Any exposed wood surface will dry out and with the bark that means it will fall off. There isn’t a guarantee that the bark won’t fall off in spots over time, but sealing it will help as it acts a bit like a glue. Hope this helps.
      Brenda

  6. Hi. I, personally, am not a fan of balsa wood because it is extremely soft. I can carve or gouge it with my fingernail. I prefer Basswood, followed by maple and then poplar. Basswood is my favorite for wall art as it is the least expensive of the three and tends to be very pale in color.
    brenda

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