The Wagon Wheel Pyrography Tutorial wood burning


In this tutorial I’m going to explain to you how to create the wagon wheel pyrography artwork I did.   Depending on your experience and skill level this project might be a little challenging since you have to avoid the ivy and wagon wheel when working on the wall.  But it’s always good to push yourself and see what you can accomplish.  I created this artwork using a writing tip and a shading tip, but if you want to use other tips, by all means do so.  My goal is to explain how I created the look I did and you might discover a different tip works better for you to re-create the effect.  That said, let’s get to work.   

You can watch a timelapse YouTube video of this artwork being created. Just click on the image to the left.




For this project you will need the following:

  • 9 x 12 piece of wood
  • Writing pen tip
  • Shading pen tip
  • White charcoal pencil (NOT a color pencil)
  • Pattern (can reduce or enlarge pattern as needed) Wagon Wheel pattern


STEP 1transfer pattern to the wood.

Checking for a complete transfer

I use the tracing method to transfer a pattern to my projects.  I do this on all my projects regardless of medium.  It’s cheap, easy, and gives me control on what I want to include.  Print off the pattern on light weight paper (standard copier paper is perfect), coat the back of the pattern with a graphite pencil (I use one in the B ranges), place pattern on wood, tape in place, trace over pattern with a sharp pencil, remove pattern, and you’re ready to burn.    You might need to cut the pattern down in size so you can see where to place it on the wood. 


Pattern transferred to the wood

One thing I find helps me keep track of where I’m at when I’m tracing the pattern is to put a small x on the spot I finished.  This works great for scales, feathers, leaves, or in this case boards on the barn and ivy leaves.  If I get interrupted I can easy see where the x’s are and know what I still need to trace.  You might have noticed on the right side there are missing board lines, so I took a ruler and drew them in.  This happened because I copied the pattern off on standard copier paper which was shorter than the wood I was using.  



 STEP 2 – Burn the trace lines

Trace lines burned in

With the writing pen tip on medium low, lightly burn in the trace lines.  After you have burned in the trace lines, rub over the surface with a pencil eraser to remove any residual graphite. 

It is easy to get into the habit of burning your outline or trace lines darkly, but if you want to create realistic art avoid getting into that habit.   Keep your trace lines burned as lightly as possible.  Darkly burned trace lines tends to look more like a color book.   Quite frequently the trace lines are nothing more than guidelines to me on where to add shadows, draw fur, etc. and I don’t want a dark harsh line to interfere with that.    The darker the line, the darker the art has to be to make the line blend in and this is especially true with animals and people.

This particular piece isn’t as critical as others for burning the trace lines lightly, but it’s still a good habit to get into.  As many artists have said, it is much easier to darken artwork up than it is to lighten it back up.

Burning in the trace lines on the barn wall

Here you can see I’m burning in the lines separating the boards.  It’s not necessary to keep them perfectly straight as they are mostly guidelines to keep the wood grain going in a uniform and mostly vertical direction.   I have in other projects tried using a straight edge as a burn guide, but the metal acts as a heat sink so it didn’t work well.

Use caution when burning around the wagon wheel as you don’t want to accidentally burn on it.  




Burning the trace lines on the Wagon Wheat

These pictures show the progress of burning the trace lines.  A word of caution; one area that you really want to avoid burning darkly are the wheel spokes.  The wheel is our lightest object on this project, so dark trace lines mean the spokes must be darker to match and  blend.   The darker you make the spokes and wheel the darker everything else must be to keep the wheel as the lightest object.





Burning the Ivy trace lines



STEP 3 – Burn the Cast Shadows

Dark Cast shadows burned in

In this step we are going to burn in all of the dark cast shadows.  This will help define the artwork and make it easier to differentiate between the wall and the wheel.   I used a shading tip on the wheel and a writing tip on the ivy.







Optimal pen tip position

A very important thing to notice is the pen tip position in this picture.  The end of the pen tip is on the inside edge of the outer cast shadow line.  Positioning the pen tip this way ensures that I am only burning in the cast shadow area.  This pen tip position is what I call the optimal pen tip position.

If you walk away with only one thing from this tutorial, I hope optimal pen tip position is it.    Optimal pen tip position ensures that you are burning where you INTEND to burn and that your borders are crisp/clean.   Crisp clean edges on the wheel and its cast shadows are essential in this artwork.





Back to our artwork.  When I’m working on cast shadows, for me I always keep in mind where the “sun” is.   For this artwork the sun’s position is to the left, so this means all of the cast shadows will be on the right.  

Another thing about the shadows I’d like to point out is that because the shadows are so wide, I found it was easiest to burn a thick dark line along both edges of the shadow and then fill in the center.  By first burning in the edges I created a buffer zone that helped ensure I stayed in the boundaries when filling in the center.

Burning one edge of the cast shadows

When burning in the edges, burn one side,  and then burn the other side.  If need be turn the wood, as I did, to keep the pen tip in optimal position.  

Starting on the opposite edge








Filling in the area between the dark lines

After I burn in both edges, then I fill in the center area of the cast shadow. 









Wagon Wheel’s cast shadows

One thing I want to point out about the wagon wheel’s cast shadows is how they are not uniform.  The shadows near the top are not very thick or wide, but the shadows increase in width the further down the wheel.  This creates the illusion that the wheel is leaning up against the wall.

The top of the wheel touches the wall, so the shadows are small and close.   Since the bottom of the wheel is many inches away from the wall the shadows there are more substantial and angle away from the wheel. 




After burning in the cast shadows for the wagon wheel, burn the cast shadows for the ivy vine and leaves.  Because the area I was working in was so small I used a writing tip to do this step.  One thing to point out is that the ivy is growing upward, so the size of the leaves and thickness of the vine will be smallest at the top.  This means the cast shadows need to also be smaller in width.  Yes, this is probably a very obvious bit of information, but I’m trying to make sure I cover everything.







working on the shadows

When burning the ivy’s cast shadows, the first thing I did was burn a dark line (shadow) on the barn wall along the right side of the vines.  The thickness of the shadow line increased with size as it neared the bottom of the ivy. 





Continued work on the ivy

Next I burned a cast shadow along the right side of each leaf.  Noticed how the shadow starts slightly below the top of each leaf.  The reason for this is to give the illusion that the sun is not only to the left, but also near to being overhead of the ivy leaves.  I tends to do the ivy vine & ivy leaves in sections, so burn both shadows for a small section (3-4 leaves worth) and then move on.



STEP 4 – Burn the Barn Wall

Barn wall burned in

Burning the wall is pretty easy, but use caution around the wheel and ivy as you don’t want to burn them.   While working on the wall I found it easiest to work on a couple boards at a time doing a 3 step process.  Oh, and before I forget, I used the shading pen tip for this step.   I will first explain what I did and then provide a lot of pictures to show the work.

First – Tone (color) the board using a series of short and long broad pen strokes.   To make broad (or thick) strokes, keep the angle of the pen low so that more of the pen tip is in contact with the wood.  My pen strokes were around 1/8-1/4 inch wide and 1/2 – 3” long.  The goal was to brown up the board, but not have it be uniform in color.  We are creating the foundation of the wood grain.

Second – I turned the shading pen tip on edge and drew in lots of fine lines of assorted lengths over the boards.  I did more short strokes than long strokes and make sure they aren’t perfect straight.  Wood grain is never perfectly straight.  Again during this step I wasn’t worried about keeping the lines all the same darkness as variety is the goal with this.   Note, that if it’s easier for you to switch to a writing pen tip to draw lines, by all means do so.

Third – I emphasized a few of the lines by making them thicker and darker.  Again I kept it random and made some of the lines branch and veer.  Or, put another way, they are not straight lines.

Below are progress photos

starting on the wall
Continued work on the wall








WORD OF CAUTION – – When burning around the wheel spokes, I turned the heat of my pen down so I could slow down how fast my hand speed was.  In this area a slower hand speed ensured I was in better control and less likely to burn the spokes or wheel.  This also meant that the pen tip is in contact with the wood longer, so it darkens the wood faster.  That’s why I turned the heat down.   

Working on the wall behind the wheel
Continued work around the wheel















Adding dark “crack” lines
working near the ivy
Continued work near the ivy










Here’s a close up of the wall texture:

Wall texture close up



Cleaning up the edges of the wagon wheel

The very last thing I did in this step was take an X-acto knife and scrape away any oops I made along the wagon wheel.  If you need to do this, keep a light pressure as you don’t want to gouge the wood.   To help ensure you don’t gouge the wood, try to use more than just the point of the X-acto knife or use a different type of blade (like a round one).  I just thought of the rounded blade style, and I really like that idea.  I will have to go get a rounded blade for my knife.






STEP 5 – Burn the Ivy

Ivy burned in

Now we are going to work on the ivy leaves and I’ll show you a wonderful way to get some interesting results using a white charcoal pencil.   Let me emphasize that you MUST USE WHITE CHARCOAL!!!   DO NOT USE COLORED PENCIL.   Colored pencil is waxy, so instead of repelling the heat, it will melt and bond with the wood.  While this might create some interesting effects (not sure as I’ve never tried it) it is not how I created the ivy leaves.  I would be concerned that the wax would burn and create a lovely charred blob that would be difficult, if not impossible, to conceal.  Yes, if it happens you could scrape it off, but why create possible difficulties for yourself.  If you want to use color pencils in your work, use them after you’re done burning.

Because my ivy leaves were so small, I did a demo leaf on a scrap piece of wood.  I made the leaf a lot larger in size so it would be easier to see what I’m doing.




Veins drawn in with White Charcoal

Using a white charcoal pencil, draw in the “vein” lines on the leaf.  Some of the leaves are very small, so you might only get a couple of lines.  Keep your pencil super sharp to get fine lines.








Burn the outline

Using medium low heat I burned the outline of the leaf.  Keep your pen heat the same during the entire process.









Burning the ‘darker’ areas on the leaf

After burning the outline I burned the areas of the leaf that would be darker as they are slightly shadowed (curved away from the sun).  You do not have to avoid the charcoal marks when doing this as they will resist browning/burning.  

Burning the darker areas along the edge










Starting to fill in the leaf

Then I filled in the leaf and I didn’t worry about burning over the “shadowed” areas as it’s okay if they get darker.  Again I burned right over the charcoal lines, but gently.  Don’t press hard on the tip as you’re burning .  In fact you should always keep a light pressure when burning.  The heat is what burns the wood, not the pressure applied with the pen tip.







Below are the pictures showing before and after I erased the charcoal from the ivy leaf. 

Leaf with Charcoal still there
Leaf with the Charcoal erased










In the before picture you can see that there are a couple little spots where the charcoal darkened up, but it not too bad.  After I erased the charcoal I was left with the leaf.  I like how the charcoal made pale fine lines  that provide interesting visual effects.  

Charcoal can be fun to experiment with as it will resist browning up and keep the wood pale underneath it.  The key is to keep the pen heat lower, keep a light pressure, and not to burn over the area too many times.  After a while the charcoal gets rubbed off by the pen tip and eventually the heat will brown it up.

Drawing the veins

I did the leaves in steps, so I first drew the charcoal lines on all of the leaves.  The photo to the left depicts this step. 







Burning the leaves

After I drew the charcoal lines I then burned all of the leaves.  Again, I kept my pen heat on medium low because the leaves were small, so I went nice and slow.  My wood burning goes up to 10 and I consider medium low as between 2-3 on the heat setting.  






Almost done burning the leaves

In this progress photo, I am almost done burning the ivy leaves.  The charcoal is still on the leaves.






Burning the vine

After I burned the leaves, I used the writing pen tip to burn or fill in the ivy vines.






Close up of the leaves

Here’s a close up of the leaves.  They don’t look near as nice as the demo leaf, but the demo leaf was also a lot larger and that made it easier to put in the details.




STEP 6 – Burn the Wagon Wheel

Wagon Wheel burned in

I apologize now if I’m using the wrong terminology for the wagon wheel, but I have to admit that I wasn’t all that I interested in learning the terminology.  







Burning the outer tread

First we will burn the outer ‘tread’ surface of the wheel.  Use the same steps we did for burning the wheel’s cast shadows; burn along both edges of the area and then fill in the center of the area. I show this in the photos captioned “burning the edge of the tread” and “filling in the tread.”








Continued work on the tread

Keep in mind you want the ‘tread’ surface darker than the wall, but nowhere near as dark as the cast shadows that are near them. 









Burning the inside of the wheel

Now we need to burn in the inside wheel where the spokes join on the left side.  Do no burn any of the spokes.  Again, I burned the edges and then filled in the remaining space.








Burning the edge of the center hub

Next burn the outer edge of the wheel’s center hub using the same method as we did for the ‘tread,’ cast shadow’s, etc.








Burn the inside bottom of the collar

The next item we’ll burn is the metal collar.  First I burned the inside bottom portion of the collar and made it as dark as the cast shadows were.  Since the area was so small, I used my curved shading tip on the inside right curve and held it in place for a second to darken the spot.

Afterwards, I rotated the wood to burn any small spots near the left side that needed it.  This left me with a really dark area in the shape of an iris from a cat’s eye.




Starting on the outside of the collar

In the photo to the left, I’ve started on the outside of the collar, but you can see the cat eye iris shape in the photo.

When I burned the outside of the collar, I burned along the edges first.  Creating a buffer zone as I think of it.  The buffer zone means I can fill the center of the object without burning all the way to the edges.  This makes it easier and faster for me to fill in the area.  




Collar so far with the “lip” white

One thing to avoid burning is the collar’s “lip” or top edge as that gives the collar its thickness.  I shaded the outside of the collar a gradient color where the lightest portion on it is the same color as the outer edge / shadowed edge of hub.  The hub is the round wooden disk the collar is attached to.   By gradient color I mean that it is shaded darkest at the bottom and it gradually lightens as it reaches the top.





shading the inside walls of the collar

After burning the outside of the collar I finished burning the inside.  The inside is darker than the outside and was shaded with a gradient color, but this time the top is the darkest since it’s in complete shadows. 






The completed collar

Here’s the completed collar






Starting on the wheel spokes

Now it’s time to work on the wheel spokes.   Like I do for most objects, I first burned along the edge of the object, but the big difference with the spokes is I only burned along shadow edge.  The shadow edge is the opposite side of the spoke from where the sun strikes it.  Since my sun is on the left the shadows are on the right.  






Making the spokes look round

My goal with the spokes is to make them look round.  To accomplish this meant I had to have a dark shadow edge that quickly and smoothly faded as it neared the center of the spoke.   This is also called gradient shading.   There are two ways to accomplish this.  First the method I used was to make two passes with the shading tip along the right edge.  Then I re-positioned the tip a little to the left and burned along the spoke again.   My hand speed increased on this pass through to help ensure the burn was very light.   Some spokes I made a 4th pass and again I moved the pen tip a tiny bit to the left when I did so.  

The other way to get the gradient shading is to do pull away strokes.   With a pull away stroke, place the pen tip on the dark edge of the item and then quickly pull the pen tip away from the edge towards the center of the spoke.  Lift the pen tip when you get to the halfway mark.  

I would recommend practicing on a scrap piece of wood to see which method works best for you.

Adding a cast shadow from the wheel rim onto the spokes

After shade the spokes, it’s time to add a couple of pale ‘cast shadows’ onto them from the wheel rim.   Since the spokes connect to the rim, the left side of the rim shadows a tiny portion of the spokes.   Lightly burn a small uniform band of color on the left spokes to provide that shadow.










Starting work on the collar cast shadow

Here I’m starting to burn the shadow cast by the metal collar onto the wood center.  I burned lightly and slowly built up the color to the desired darkness.

Continued work on the cast shadow








Adding texture to the wheel surface

Lastly, we need to texture and weather the wheel by adding small irregular lines along the wheel’s surface.  I used a writing tip to draw the lines, but make sure to vary their length and darkness.  Also, draw them in the direction of the object.  

Continued work with texturing the wheel













Texturing the wheel hub

Working on the wheel hub.  Notice the lines are short and follow the contour of the hub, so they are slightly rounded versus being straight.  









Collar close up

The only thing left to do at this point is to critically look at your artwork and decide if there are any areas that need a little extra work.   I ended up working on the collar again to darken it a bit more and change how I shaded the outside of it.  With all cylinders and other rounded surfaces, the darkest area is the spot opposite the light source.  I had originally made the darkest spot the bottom, so I fixed that.  This photo is a close up of the change I made.



Going over the wall again to darken it up more

Another thing I did was darken up the wall as I didn’t think there was enough contrast between the wheel and the wall.  

You will have to decide, what if any areas need to be touched up.  Frequently I find it’s easiest to determine problem areas by putting the artwork away for a couple of days.  During the couple of days, do not look at it!  My reason for this is that it enables you to look at the work with fresh eyes.  




ALL DONE – that’s it, we’re done.  Hopefully you found this tutorial easy to understand and informative.   I really hope that you will try to create the pyrography artwork yourself as that is my ultimate goal; inspiring others to create art.  


The reason some of the photos look very pale in color and the final picture is so dark is because of lighting.  When I burn I have a lot of lights on to illuminate the area to ensure the video camera has enough light to record well.    This makes the frames I take from the video seem very pale compared to the final project picture.  Also the final project picture it taken with a digital camera that I can control the shutter speed and the artwork angle is different since since I’m not working on it, so both of those items contribute to the color difference.   

Lastly to answer a few commonly asked questions.   This project was burned on basswood, it measures 9 x 12 inches, and took me 7 ¾ hours to complete.  Most of that time was working on the wall.    That said, this is not a race or contest.  I only put how long a project takes me as I get asked that question a lot.  You may get this done faster or slower, but that doesn’t matter.  What’s important is you’re doing the tutorial, creating pyrography artwork, and hopefully having fun.



Apr 24, 2016

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