Cratered Moon Pyrography Tutorial wood burning

In this tutorial I’m going to discuss how to create this Cratered Moon scene pyrography art.  Once you understand how to give the craters their shape via shading and shadows you can use that knowledge in other applications.  Gopher holes, valleys, canyons, etc., as the basic shading and shadow principals apply. 

Before I get started on the tutorial I want to comment about the wood I was using.  This project I used Russian birch plywood, a first, and this particular piece has a lot of grain lines in it.   I decided from the beginning that I wasn’t going to try and hide them in any way, shape, or form.    

This view of the north polar region of the Moon was obtained by NASA’s Galileo’s camera during the spacecraft’s flyby of the Earth-Moon system on December 7 and 8, 1992.

Another thing I want to mention is that my reference photo from NASA was guideline to help me create craters and what I based this project on.  That said my project has some similarities to the photo, but obviously isn’t identical.  I added craters, removed craters, added more texture, etc., and I hope you will do the same.  Use the photo and my instructions as guidelines, but let your creativity come through.  Don’t be afraid to add more craters, alter the shape of ‘dark’ areas on the moon, etc.  It’s your artwork, own it.  

And to keep myself legal with NASA the photo is number PIA00126.   Thank you NASA.






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

Now, let’s get to work.




  • Writing tip
  • Shading tip
  • Ball tip (optional)
  • Large shading tip (optional)
  • 10×10 (25.4 x 25.4 cm) piece of wood
  • Pattern (enlarge or shrink as needed) Cratered Moon pattern
  • Small Fan – to direct smoke away from you (optional)



I use the tracing method to transfer all my patterns to my projects.  It’s cheap, easy, and gives me control on what I decide to include.   Anything I don’t want to include I just don’t trace it onto the wood, paper, etc.







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).  Notice how I’m using the side edge of the pencil.  This gives me more surface area to coat the paper with which cuts down on time.







Place the pattern on wood, tape in place, trace over pattern with a sharp pencil or pen, 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. 

One thing I want to point out here is that I enlarged the pattern and it didn’t fit on a standard piece of copier paper.   Since the only thing that was missing was the top edge of the moon, I decided I could hand draw that line in.





With the writing pen tip on medium low, lightly burn in the trace lines.  On the pattern there are some dotted lines that indicate a lighter area in the artwork.  I traced them as a solid line because that was easier, but I burned them as little dots.  The reason I didn’t burn the line as a solid line is I wanted a rough or varied border between those areas. 






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 don’t get into that habit.   Keep your trace lines burned as lightly as possible.  Darkly burned trace lines tends to look more like a color book style of artwork; not the look I’m after.   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 is a super easy step as all we are doing is burning the background a very dark color.  








First, with the heat turned up on your shading pen tip and burn a thick dark line or band along the outside of the moon’s edge.    The purpose of this thick band is to provide a buffer zone, as I call it, which makes it easier when you fill in the background because you don’t have to be as careful when you get near the edges of the moon.













I burned the buffer zone in ½ inch long (1.27 cm) segments vs trying to complete it in one long continuous line.

Now start burning the space background.   When burning real dark, like I am in this step, it can be very useful to have a small fan in use. 

Direct the fan AWAY from you so that wind it generates is not blowing on you.  Positioning the fan this way pulls the smoke away from you, so your eyes (and lungs) won’t get irritated. 






The small fan I use runs on batteries, clips onto edges, and the blades are made out of foam.  I like that because if I accidentally bump it, nothing gets hurt or damaged.   I found it on ebay under a listing for a baby stroller fan and it cost around 10-15 dollars.








The piece of brown fabric you see is metal polishing cloth that I keep close by to rub the pen tip on.  This removes the carbon build up that causes the tip to drag on the wood.





Using slow straight strokes, fill in the space background behind the moon.  While doing this step I was using the side of my shading pen tip vs the front edge.  This gave me more surface area to make broader or wider strokes.  I should have switched to a larger shading pen tip, and if you have one I recommend doing so as it will cut down on how much time it takes you to do this step.  






IMPORTANT – – Another thing I need to mention is that I had the heat just high enough to burn darkly, but not so high that it gouged the wood.  Really high heat will burn channels (or gouges) the wood, but a lower heat and slower hand speed prevents this; I wanted my black space background to be smooth.     The photo example is from artwork I did sometime back and it was one of my first attempts at a dark background.  The background is very gouged and channeled instead of smooth.  






Burn the far right side of the moon a very dark brown-black color.  This part of the moon is in shadows, so it needs to be very, very dark.

Using pull away strokes go along the right edge of the moon, pull towards the center of the artwork for ½ – 1 inch or so (1.27 – 2.54 cm) and lift the pen tip up and away from the wood at the end of the stroke.  






After you fill the right edge of the moon with the pull away strokes, make a dotted line or band along the back edge of the ridges and craters.  The dotted band forms the foundation for the crater’s mound edge.






The pen tip is on the starting point just behind the dots.







Then start pulling the pen tip away from the dots and towards the bottom edge of the board.








The lift the pen tip up and away from the wood once the color fades.  In this photo I’m just getting ready to pull the pen tip away from the board.







Finish filling in the dark right side by burning another series of pull away strokes, but this time they start at the back edge of the dotted band and head towards the right edge of the wooden board.  








During this step I continued to darken the smoother area of the moon.  Since I’m trying to create the illusion of the moon being 3D spherical (as opposed to flat circle), the shading was done so the further north you went, the darker it became.  This is also why the right side of the moon is the darkest and it lightens up as you progress towards the left.






I used slow long curved strokes that followed the contour of the moon.  







To make sure I was keeping my lines curved properly, I burned a couple of guidelines in the area I was working on. 




Below are a couple of progress photos:









Again, I made a band of dots along the border lines because in this segment of the art, it will become the transition zone between the smooth dark and rough cratered areas on the moon.








When I was done with the first pass through, I had a lot of streaks because my strokes weren’t consistent.  Obviously I sped up on some, slowed down on others and that accounts for the lighter and darker strokes.   To fix this I ended up burning over the entire area to even it out.   The below pictures show the before and after of this.




There’s a lot going on in this last step, but I think that once I explain how I created the look you’ll discover that it’s pretty easy to do.   The end goal is to create a lot of different textures to give the moon it’s cratered, rough look.

Before I get going I should apologize.   I tend to work in small sections at a time because I don’t have a plan.  Yes, that’s the ugly truth.   I’m hoping like heck that whatever pops into my head actually works out.   This creative style seems to work for me (mostly), but can make it more difficult to explain and take pictures.  I know it would be much easier for you to follow along if you could see a before / after picture with just one step at a time being done.    I will do my best to provide photos of that sort, but in some of the pictures you might see that more stuff  has happened that just what I’m trying to explain.  Sorry.    

Let’s get back to work.

Part 1 – – Apply Tiny Dots

The first thing I did was apply a layer of random tiny dots with the writing pen tip.   If you have a ball tip feel free to use that instead of the writing tip.   Keep the dots a light to medium light color as they are providing subtle texture for the cratered section of the moon.






Continuing to add the tiny dots to the surface






Now I applied a lot of dots in this step; especially by the transition zone.   I wanted to smooth the transition between the cratered.   The transition zone is the band of dot originally created in step 5 when the dark area of the moon was burned. 

While applying the random dots, occasionally hold the pen tip on the wood for a second or two to create a much darker dot.   Or you can do all of the lighter dots first, then turn up the pen heat a notch or two and burn in a few random darker dots. 




Part 2 – Creating the Craters

After applying a layer of dots I started working on the craters. Shaping the craters requires applying shadows in such a way as to give the illusion of depth.   One of the considerations for the creating shadows is determining where the light source is.

I find it helpful to put a little stick-em or draw an “x” with white charcoal on the artwork to indicate where the sun was shining brightest.  This helps me visualize where the shadows should fall across the surface.  






In the below picture I “painted” yellow over my stick-em sun and added yellow rays to indicate the direction the light moved. 

 Notice how the rays radiate outward in all directions from the sun.  I drew the ‘horizon,’ as I’m calling it, as a double yellow line that indicates the spot where the sun is on the same level as the moon.   Since the sun is to the west of the moon, craters along the horizon line will have shadows cast to the east of the crater.   Craters above, or north, of the horizon will have cast shadows to the NE of the crater.   And, of course, craters below, or south, of the horizon will have cast shadows to the SE of the crater.





Crater close-up There are three items that determine the perceived size of a crater; 1) the darkness of the impact area, 2) the darkness of the cast shadow, and 3) the darkness of the crater edge.






 The below pictures point out the crater characteristics

  • IMPACT AREA. The impact is the inside or well that is created during impact.  A dark area creates the impression of a deep crater.  Darker = Deeper.  Lighter = Shallower.






  • CAST SHADOW. The darker the cast shadow is, the taller the mound is going to seem.   A black shadow conveys a taller mound than a pale shadow.  







  • CRATER EDGE. As for the edge, the greater the contrast between the edge and the surrounding area will give the impression of a taller mound.  Obviously the edge needs to be lighter than the impact area otherwise it will look like it is part of the impact and not the edge. 


Now that we have a few common terms to describe the crater I’ll explain how the light affects the shadows.   The lightest spot on a crater is the outside edge where the sun first strikes; I’m going to call this the front edge.  The darkest spot is in the same area, but on the inside of the crater edge or the backside of the front edge and is actually part of the impact area.    

The back edge, the opposite edge of the crater where the sun first strikes, is the next area that has the lightest & darkest spots on it.    Let’s burn a couple of craters and see if that will visually explain my instructions.

  • First I define the outer edge of the impact area. Use the writing tip if that’s easier or the crater is too small for the shading tip.  







  • Then I shade the impact area making the backside of the front edge the darkest spot.  (note the board as been rotated so I could access the area easier)







  • Darken the mound so the crater edge is lighter than the mound.            Some craters don’t have much of a mound around them, so you just need to make sure the crater edge is lighter than the immediate surrounding moon surface.  





Below are some more pictures showing another crater being created. 

continued work shading the impact crater









Impact crater almost filled in
applying lots of dots along the crater mound to shade it









If needed use an X-acto knife to add highlights on the crater edge












Defining the crater edges






Shading the crater

Giving this crater a little bit of a cast shadow









Continued work on shading the impact crater









Using the writing top to add some texture to the mound and help define the crater edge







Working on some of the smaller impact craters that are in the mound of the large impact crater








Working on a close by crater








Part 3 – Apply Larger Dots

Apply a few larger dots with the shading pen tip or a large ball tip.

I used my shading pen tip and applied some random large medium tan colored dots (or blobs) to the surface.   Many, if not most of them, ended up looking like very shallow small craters. 

 More importantly they add another subtle layer to the mottled rough texture of this area.




Left side of the textured part of the moon is done









Now it’s just a matter of doing the same thing on the right side of the moon.  Below are some progress photos of me doing that.
























Part 4 – Tone down the Brightness or Contrast

Using the shading tip on low to medium low heat, go over the surface of the cratered section to tone down the brightness of this area.  It will also reduce the contrast with the dark area of the moon and I think that’s a good thing as it’s too glaring right now.   At least in my artwork it is.   

I will point out that I left most of the crater edges as they were, so this step made them stand out a little more.




While I’m doing this I am leaving a few spots here and there color free for variety and extra texture. Notice how the crater edges are standing out more. 

Looking at my work now, I would have to admit it really could use some more toning down of the brightness/contrast.






After I was done reducing the contrast, I lost most of my dotted texture.   In this photo I’m adding it back in.







Part 5 – Create Worm Tunnel texture 

Using the shading tip creates a subtle ‘worm tunnel’ texture over the cratered area of the moon.    

This is very similar to the previous step and it actually came about accidentally as a by-product of that step.  In one small area I was making squiggly lines with the shading tip and a weird texture started to emerge.  I ended up with these raised lines that reminded me how burrowing animals push the ground up as they tunnel. 




I liked the look, so I put the texture on the entire cratered surface.   An added benefit was that it also helped reduce the contrast between the light and dark parts of the moon.







Part 6 – Lighten super dark craters (if needed)

Using an ‘eraser’ lighten any super dark craters if they look off to you.   There were a couple of my craters that I felt needed this treatment, so I gently rubbed over them with a fiberglass eraser to lighten them up.   The fiberglass eraser I got on e-bay and it was listed as an item used to remove rust from automobiles.  

If you see a fiberglass eraser that is intended for watches, don’t buy it because it is too soft to work on wood.

 You may or may not need to do this step, but figured I should mention how I fixed some problem areas.  




In this last step, it is time to critically look at your artwork and decide if it needs any fine tuning.    I often find that if I put the artwork in a drawer for a few days without looking at it, when I retrieve it from the drawer I can look at it with fresh and more critical eyes.

What I ended up doing was adding a bit more shading to smooth the transition from the dark to the light side of the moon.  This was done to help created the illusion of a round object on a flat surface.  I also decided my work needed more dots to enhance the mottled rough texture.   Another thing I did was slightly darken up a few of the crater edges to “reduce” their height and contrast with the surrounding area.   What, if anything, you may need to do, I’m not sure.  The only important thing is that you like your artwork.  If you do, then don’t do anything more.   


Even though I created this artwork by working in small sections at a time, you can do the steps however you want.  You might prefer to create all of the craters and then work on the ground between all of the craters or vice versa.   That’s the beauty of how flexible pyrography is, you can do the steps in any order that you choose.

Once you’re happy with your artwork, sign it and hang it proudly on the wall. 


We’re done.    Hopefully I was able to explain things well enough so you could follow along.  Remember, when you are creating your artwork, let your creativity through.  My goal is to give you projects to follow along with as you gain skills and confidence to venture out on your own.

Having said that please note that I welcome feedback as that is the only way I will discover how I’m doing and what improvements I can/should make.

Now to answer a couple of questions I get asked frequently.  This artwork was burned on Russian Birch plywood that measures 10 x 10 inches (25.4 x 25.4 cm).  It took me 14 hours to complete the artwork.   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 learning to create pyrography artwork, and hopefully having fun while doing so.

Till next time,


Oct 9, 2016

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