Nuthatch Bird Pyrography Tutorial wood burning

In this tutorial I’m going to explain how to create this Nuthatch pyrography artwork.  The nuthatch is the second installment of my Backyard Birds tutorial series.  This particular nuthatch is a red breasted nuthatch; in case you were wondering.  What I like about the backyard bird series is that the subject matter isn’t overly complex but the series still provides valuable experience and techniques.  Not to mention the artwork looks great on the wall and it makes a great gift for a bird lover.   

You can watch a YouTube video version of this tutorial by clicking on the image to the left.   
 on the image to the left to watch a time lapse video of the artwork being created.   

There is reader submitted art at the bottom of the blog, so please check it out.

 Now, let’s get to work.




  • Writing tip
  • Shading tip
  • 8 x 10 inch (20.3 x 25.4 cm) piece of wood
  • Pattern (enlarge or shrink as needed)   Nuthatch pattern
  • Ruler & Pencil
  • White Charcoal Pencil


Always prep the wood surface for burning.   Do this by sanding the surface smooth using 220 grit sandpaper.   

Then wet out the wood by misting it with water.  Let it dry and sand it again.







First draw the 1 inch (2.54 cm) frame around the edge of the wood.   Use a ruler to measure 1 inch from the outer edges and then draw a line with a straight edge.

I wanted the suet cage to be right on the edge of the frame.  To do this I cut out enough of the right side of the pattern so I could line up the edge with the frame edge.   I also cut off enough of the blank paper to make it easier to center the work horizontally.







I use the tracing method to transfer all my patterns to my projects.  It’s cheap, easy, and gives me control on what I want to include.  Print off your pattern on lightweight paper (standard copier paper is perfect), coat the back of the pattern with a graphite pencil, position on the wood, and trace over the pattern.  Make sure to check the trace results for accuracy before removing the pattern.   






I do want to point out that I placed a little ‘x’ on each bar of the suet cage.  I find this makes it easier to see to distinguish the bars from the background.         





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. 








I burned in a few squiggly lines on the back bars to help them stand out from the bars in the front.  Again this was just to help me distinguish each bar.

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.   Darkly burned trace lines tend 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.  Keep your trace lines burned as lightly as possible.



Darkly burn the bars on the suet cage.  The sun is located on the upper left side of the subject, so the right side of each bar is darker than the left.  Also the bottom of each bar is darker than the top.








Here’s the reference photo for the cage.  I purposely chose to simplify my cage by ignoring all of the bits and pieces of suet found on it in random places.  The birds love to peck a piece of suet, eat it, and then wipe their bills on the cage.  Ground feeding birds, like doves, hang out below the suet nabbing up the little pieces that fall to the ground.  There can get to be quite the crowd of birds on the ground when the northern flickers are eating.  First of all they tend to stay a while and second they are very messy eaters.   Nuthatches, on the other hand, tend to flit in, grab a quick nibble, and quickly flit back out.

Before we get going, I need to remind you to keep your pen in optimal position to keep the bar edges crisp and clean. 

I think I have mentioned this in almost every tutorial, so I won’t harp on about it here, but if you are unsure what I mean please read my blog:  Using the Shader Pen Tip.   This blog not only explains the terminology I use, but also explains how to create the different types of pen strokes I use and make mention of in this tutorial. 

First darkly burn along the right edge of one bar.






Rotate the wood to keep the pen in optimal position, and burn along the left edge of the bar.  Then fill in the bar, but make sure to keep the left side of the bar slightly paler than the right.







You can burn one bar at a time.








Or do one of the steps on several bars.  In this photo I am darkly burning along the right edge of the 4th bar after I had done this to the previous bars.






Then rotate the wood and finish up the bars.








Below are progress photos of the suet cage being burned in. 



Now let’s burn in the main subject of this project; the nuthatch.  I’m going to breakdown this step into smaller segments: head, mantle & chest, wings, tail & belly, and lastly the foot.   












Here’s the reference photo for the head.





If you’ve read a few of my blogs and/or tutorials, it should come as no surprise that we’re going to work on the eye first.   Begin by using a white charcoal pencil to draw in the light reflection spot on the eye.





Use the shading pen tip and darkly edge around the eye.  If it’s easier, use the writing pen tip for this step.  I used the razor edge and burned 1/4 of the eye at time, turning the wood frequently to get this step done.




Switch to the writing pen tip and fill in the rest of the eye avoiding the reflection spot.   Erase the charcoal after you are done.







Next let’s burn in the dark streaks on his face.






First darkly burn along the top of the head using the shading pen tip.  Remember to keep the pen in optimal position so the edge stays crisp and clean.







Then burn darkly along the upper edge of the streak along the eye.







Fill in the lower streak.








Extend the streak down towards the throat using a tight zigzag stroke.

Again, as I already mentioned refer to this blog if my terminology is unfamiliar to you:  How To Use the Shader




Finish filling in the lower streak









Burn a dark line along the top of the beak.






Then burn a dark band along the top half of the upper beak.







Burn the front half of the upper beak dark and the rest of the upper beak light tan color.





Rotate the wood and burn the lower beak a light tan color.





Then burn a dark line that connects the lower edge of the eye streak with the seam where the upper and lower beaks touch.





Burn a dark thin line that defines the end of the beak (where the feathers start). 





Next use very short pull-away strokes around the white border framing the eye.  Stop just before reaching the eye.





Continued work.  The goal is to ring the eye with a gradient color that starts black and fades out leaving a pale ring right around the eye.






IMPORTANT.  Make sure to turn the heat down on your unit as we are going to burn the feathers on the throat.



Start burning in the feathers on the throat using pale zigzag strokes. 






Continue to burn in the throat feathers and while doing so define the features of the throat.  Refer to the reference photo as a guideline for this.





Continued work on the throat.






Also burn in the white feathers along the white streak. 






Add a few dark lines along the edge where the throat ends and the mantle begins.







Use a writing pen tip to draw a dark line around the tiny white circle below the eye.






Use the pen tip to add some mottling to the white blotches to the right of the eye.






Lastly use the pen tip to add a few darker thin and short lines here and there.  Add a few short lines next to the areas bordering the black streaks.











Here’s the reference photo for this section.









First burn in the mantle a dark tan color using short zigzag strokes.






Continued work.







Almost done. 








Start filling in the breast area with zigzag strokes.






Continued work.








Time for a spot check.  Every so often you stop and critically look at your work and see if any adjustments are needed.  That’s what I’m doing in this photo and I spotted a problem with my contrast.  The reference photo show a very distinct color difference between the mantle and the breast, but my artwork doesn’t reflect that.




In this photo I’m beginning to fix the problem by re-burning the mantle.  When I darkened up this area I used the zigzag stroke again.






After fixing, I do a second spot check.  I like the increased contrast, so I’m ready to move on.






Define the edge of each coverts feather using short dashes to keep the edges a touch jagged.





Next darkly burn the lowest feather; this is the feather next to the breast.





Burn in the tiny alula feathers along the top of the coverts.






Then burn in the coverts a dark tan color but leave the outer edge (the lower edge) slightly paler.






Continued work.












Here’s the reference photo for the wings.       







Start on the lower wing feathers and burn them just like we did with the coverts; burn a dark tan color that fades near the outer edge.






Continued work burning the wing feathers.







When you get to the lower wing feathers, angle the pen tip so that you’re burning mostly with the razor edge as just a narrow band of the feathers are showing.





Continued work.





The feathers at the end of the wing are dark with pale edges, so carefully burn them in.  It might be helpful to draw in the pale edges with a white charcoal pencil.




Burn in the wispy hairs or jagged feather edges along the top of the wing just below the coverts.






Start defining the tiny feathers next to the belly by burning darkly along the outer edges. 







Continued work.






Start filling in the feathers, but make sure to leave a pale edge at the end of each feather.





Continued work.






Rotate the wood and start working on the upper wing.









The feathers are burned in the same as the lower wing in that the outer edge is the palest spot on the feather.







Continued work.





Continued work. 






Remember the last 3-4 feathers are darker and have a pale edge on them.





Continued work.







Almost done with the wing feathers.













Here’s the reference photo for the tail and belly.








Burn in the tail feathers a dark tan color.







Continued work on the tail feathers.







As you finish up the tail feathers, start burning the wispy hairs under the wings near the tail.






Start burning in the feathers/hair along the belly.







Continued work.







Continued work.






After you burn in the belly hair, carefully reverse burn along the cage leaving just a few wispy hairs.   To reverse burn, burn a dark short line that starts on the cage area and finishes a short ways into the belly area. 


The above picture shows the before and after my reverse burn.  










The reference photo for the foot.









Burn the foot and leg a tan color leaving the nodules unburned.   The nodules, as I’m calling them, are the round lumpy things along the bottom of his foot.








Burn in the talons.










Burn the slight shadows along the bottom of the foot and back side of the leg.  Also lightly burn over the nodules.








Burn the top part of the leg a bit darker so it appears to be in shadows. 









Lastly burn some dark blotches along the foot between the back and front toes/claws.

The hardest part is done, so let’s finish up this artwork.








In this step we are going to burn the background behind the nuthatch.









Start filling in the background a light tan color using long uniform strokes.  Make sure to avoid burning the suet cake.








Make the background a little darker next to the pale underside of the bird for contrast.






Continued work.






Note that you can make the background as dark or as pale as you want.  This is your artwork, so own it.   The reference photo shows an extremely dark background and if you like that look, then by all means, replicate it.





Finishing up the background.






Now it’s time to burn in the suet cake.









Here’s the reference photo.









This is another example of how I’ve simplified the subject matter.  All I’m doing is burning some random small patches of color using the circular motion.  I did not try to recreate the corn pieces or any real detail of the actual cake.






My goal was to give a little visual interest to the white mass by adding a little color and texture.








Continued work.  The random patches were burned using a small circular motion.   It’s very similar to how I burned the rocks on the Vista House project, but nowhere near as dark.








While I’m adding little patches of color, I keep it random and varied in tone.  I also leave some white or unburned patches.   

Sometimes I just dot the wood with the shader to leave a tan blobbish spot.






Finishing up.









The very last thing to do is burn the frame around the artwork.









If you haven’t drawn your frame already, now is the time to do so.   Use a ruler to mark 1 inch (2.54 cm) in from the edge of the wood.  Draw lines using a straightedge to connect the marks.   You can make your frame larger, smaller, or non-existent.  

Use a straightedge to draw a line connecting the inner and outer frame corner.





Then burn darkly along the edges of the frame, but only work one section at a time.  There are four sections; top, bottom, and two sides.


Burn dark uniform lines that run the along the length of the frame section.










Finishing up the bottom frame side.









Rotate the wood and work on another frame side.







Finishing up this section.






Almost done with the frame.   Note that I keep a piece of scrap wood next to my artwork to rest my hand on while I’m working along the edges of the wood. 

I also keep a piece of metal polishing cloth to periodically scrape the pen tip on to remove the carbon build up.  I got mine through Colwood directly, but it’s a Gator brand of metal polishing cloth and I’m sure it can be bought in a lot of places.




This tutorial is done.    I hope you liked it and that I was able to explain it in an easy to follow manner.  The nuthatch turned out well, I think, and I like the contrast between the suet cage and the bird.  About the only thing I see that I should have done differently is to darken up his belly a touch more as it isn’t much darker than the throat.  In the grand scheme of things that isn’t a major thing.

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 basswood that measures 8 x 10 inches (20.3 x 25.4 cm).  It took me 12 hours to complete the artwork.   I said this before and I’m going to say it again because it’s important to remember that 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 isn’t the important thing.  What’s important is that you’re creating artwork and gaining valuable experience in the pyrography medium!

Until the next blog,


Oct 20, 2017

This artwork was submitted by Kim Allender.   This is a wonderful piece of artwork!  Kim did a fantastic job with the bird and the suet cake is easily seen.  I love the dark border framing the artwork.   Plus the bars on the suet cage look more rounded than mine do.  Awesome!    Very nice, Kim, and thank you very much for sharing with us!  






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7 thoughts on “Nuthatch Bird Pyrography Tutorial wood burning

  1. Hi Brenda. I have another question. Have you ever used solid Aspen. I am finding it even in color , however it’s really soft. Any suggestions ? We also picked up poplar all at Menards. Is there a better place to get get wood? I know am full of questions. Lol.

    1. Hi Kim,
      I have not had the opportunity to burn on Aspen, but I don’t see a problem using it (heck I’d love to try it). Basswood is technically a soft wood, but it’s great for wall art. I wouldn’t use a soft wood for functional art like cutting boards.

      Purchase wood where it is available. In the small town I live in I don’t have a lot of choices (Lowe’s & Home Depot). Home improvement store are great places to purchase poplar & maple, but they don’t carry basswood. Not surprising since basswood is not used in construction.

      Try searching for “exotic” wood stores for basswood, but be forewarned that the wood will be rough cut. So this means you have to do a LOT more prep work to get it ready for burning. I’ve also found large sheets of very nice birch plywood at an exotic wood store.

      Another option is to look for woodworking stores like Rockler or Wood Craft, but they tend to be very expensive.
      Craft stores like Michaels or Hobby Lobby will most likely have cradle boards (birch plywood that has a frame) and basswood boards.
      Online is another way to purchase wood, but you don’t get to see it and depending on where you’re buying it from, the freight can get very expensive.

      Hope that helps.

      1. Thanks Brenda that helps. I started the using the solid Aspen today. Works great after I got use to it. I have read you shouldn’t use plywood because it’s glue and can be very unhealthy. I also bought basswoid and love it. Then I read it on it and it said California say it causes cancer. I am so confused on what is healthy to use.what do you think.

        1. Hi Kim,
          Good to know about Aspen. It looks like it would be a great wood. My warning with plywood was a caution not to burn really deep as you can get into the glue layer. Same is true when sanding plywood. The top layer of plywood is a very thin veneer (layer) of good wood. Below the veneer is a layer of glue bonding it to support wood under it. Some people burn really dark and with a heavy hand, so they almost carve the wood when they burn. That style of burning I wouldn’t recommend doing on plywood because the veneer layer is so thin.

          As for California’s warning; I’m not sure if that was on the aspen, basswood, or plywood. Not that it really matters as you can always check the toxicity rating on a number of websites like this one: The woods you are using don’t show up on the list. Also the woods that do show up on the list mostly provide warnings about inhaling the dust. Dust is ALWAYS a concern, so when you sand the board to prepare it for burning, you should wear a dust mask.

          To minimize any potential health risk while burning make sure to burn in a well ventilated area. Use an easel (or a gallon of paint) to prop up your board when burning. This way your face is not directly over it and you’re less likely to inhale any fumes if they should get generated. If you are still concerned, then you can always wear a dust mask when burning.

          Hope that clarifies things.

          1. Again thanks for all your great information. Does make since on the plywood. I am using an easel per you suggestion , and it’s working great great for me. Very little shoulder pain since I started using it.
            Happy burning.

    1. Hi Kim,
      I only speak the truth. I’m so glad that you are having fun with pyrography. I’m having so much fun with the medium and it’s exciting to me to discover and meet others who feel the same. I hope you will continue to create pyrography artwork as you have a natural talent with it!


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