Lion on Leather Pyrography Artwork wood burning

The summer of 2017 I became interested in creating pyrography art on leather.  What a challenge.  First of all, when I started out I knew little to nothing about leatherworking in general, let alone about how to burn on it.  I have learned a lot since then, but it is still a very challenging surface to burn on.  The lion is one of my better attempts and this blog will discuss the creation of it.

Click on the image to the left to watch a time lapse video on YouTube of the lion being burned onto the leather.




In some aspects leather is like wood in that I can transfer images the same way; coat the back of the image or pattern with graphite and then trace over it.  Where it differs is how I secure the pattern to the leather.  Regular scotch tape is a no-no as it scuffs the leather surface.







Instead I use medical first aid paper tape as it has very low adhesion properties.






In this photo I’m starting to burn in my trace lines.  Since leather is so soft compared to wood I tried to use my shader for most of step.  The shader doesn’t dig in like a writer pen tip does.







Continued work burning in the guidelines I traced onto the leather.









Here’s how it looked after I was done burning in trace lines.  The pencil marks are still there, but, like wood, you can use a pencil eraser to remove them.








After I rubbed over the surface with a pencil eraser I was left with a cleaner image that was also a lot paler. 

On a side note, I use the Magic Rub Eraser brand in white.  It is a soft eraser, so doesn’t mar the leather surface.  Plus it doesn’t leave any color residue like pink and black erasers can.






With the guidelines burned in, I switched to the micro writer to start working on the tiny details like the eyes.  Keep in mind this leather project is very small as it is designed to hold business cards.








Also using the writer to start defining some on of the darker features around the face.








Using the shader to start burning the mane.  Leather has grain to it just like wood does.  Burn with the grain and you get nice flowing lines.  Burn against the grain and it’s like you’re dragging the pen through some sticky substance.  The leather really resists the pen tip. 






A lot of my work depends on using pull-away strokes to create smooth lines that end lighter than they started.  I can also make the line end thinner or smaller than it started with a pull-away.   Needless to say, when I burned against the grain it became very difficult to burn smooth lines.  







Also I quickly discovered that it is best to let the leather cool completely before re-working.  I’m use to wood where I build up the color and contrast levels slowly.  I can re-burn one pen stroke multiple times until the color is where I want it.  That doesn’t work as well with leather.  The warmer it gets the more like soft butter it becomes.  Get it too soft and the surface moves, rips, etc. 





To prevent the leather from getting too warm, I would work briefly in a small area and then move to another area so the leather could cool down.  This meant I was bouncing around the artwork even more than I normally do.   Todd already grumbles about how I bounce around when he creates the time-lapse videos, so I’m not looking forward to when he works on one of my leather projects.  




Leather requires a SUPER LOW heat setting.  The bridge of the nose that I’m currently working on is darker than I really wanted, but I don’t have a way to fix this. 

I have yet to discover a way to fix mistakes in leather and that is frustrating to me.  Generally any attempt to fix a mistake alters the surface texture and makes the mistake worse.

Let’s get back to the low heat setting subject.  My Colwood unit goes up to 10 and 90% of the time I had the setting on 0.5 while I was working on this leather project.  So I was surprised at how dark of a burn that low of a setting could produce on leather, but I’m on my learning curve, so that’s to be expected.    Another thing to consider about heat is heat buildup.    

Heat buildup happens when your unit is on, but you are not burning.  The pen tip is not touching anything and the longer this happens, the hotter the pen tip gets.  When you do finally touch the pen tip to the wood it can cause a dark blotchy patch to appear.   To prevent this I blot (touch) the pen tip on a piece of scrap wood I keep nearby before I start burning.  

A lower heat setting means it takes longer for the heat to build up to dark blotchy levels.  Generally speaking, any setting below 1 means I can study the reference material for a really long time and still not worry about a dark blotch, but not with leather.  I can’t emphasize enough about the need for low heat and blotting the pen tip to remove any heat buildup.

The facial markings on the lion were done with the utmost care.  I really tried my best not to make any mistakes on the face, but, unfortunately, I didn’t accomplish this.  We’ll discuss the mistake later.






Continued work on the facial markings.








With the face mostly roughed in with a layer of “fur” I started working on the mane.








My reference photo showed this large male with a dark ring of fur that edged is ample mane, so I’m working on that.








Now I’m defining the area around the chin.  I want to point out something for you to keep an eye on and that’s the “white” spots in this artwork.  Leather isn’t white, it is tan in color, but through the use of contrast I ended up making some areas look white. 







Compare this photo with the previous photo.  Notice how the muzzle looks whiter in this photo?  That is what high contrast does for you.  Not to mention contrast makes your artwork more interesting to look at.  This picture is more riveting than the previous photo and it’s because of the extremely dark areas I’ve burned in…including re-working around the eyes.






Burning darkly on leather means that it heats up quickly to the “soft butter” state. This required burning briefly in small areas and moving on to another area to work.  This photo shows that I’m back to working on the forehead.







Adding some nice high contrast along the mane by the ear.   While the high contrast makes for great art, when burning on leather – burning dark stinks.  By that I mean it literally has an awful smell.  







Continued work on the ring of dark mane.  In addition to the smell, burning dark gunks up the pen tip.  I kept a piece of rough cloth to frequently clean the pen tip on.







The rough cloth I used was the backside of the metal polishing cloth.  It had a coarser texture, so removes the gunk better than the polishing side.





Continued work.









 I finished up the dark mane ring that was along the top of his head, so I went back to work around the muzzle.   I’m not burning near as dark and my goal is to transition or blend that dark color out into the mane.








I ran into a slight problem and had to work on the dark ring of hair on the lower mane.  The problem was that the muzzle area is dark, but it’s not darker than the mane.  I needed the dark mane ring in place so I could determine how dark the muzzle area could be.  This is one of the biggest reasons I re-work areas; I’m fine tuning the color relationship between the different areas of the artwork. 

Plus, as I’ve said and so many others have said, it’s easier to add darkness than remove it.



With some of the dark mane done I’m back to the muzzle. This also allowed the leather in the dark mane area to cool back down.








And now I’m letting the leather on the muzzle area cool back down, so I’m back to burning the mane.   

Yes, there was a lot of bouncing around, but keeping the leather cool sure did make it easier to burn on.







This is the side of the face that I was trying to burn pull-away strokes, but I was burning against the grain.  The strokes are blotchy or less smooth looking than the left side.








Here I’m adding just a touch of color to the muzzle to give it a bit of shape.









Adding the pupils to the eyes.  If you look closely at the left eye you will see some irregularities.  I had the pen tip a touch to hot and ended up burning into the pupil area.  Fixing that mistake wasn’t too successful and is the reason the left eye doesn’t have the nice rounded shape the right eye does.







Fine-tuning the nose.









In this photo I’m adding the dots where the whiskers start on the muzzle.








Continued work.









Back to the mane. 









Finishing up the ring of dark mane.









Working some more on the mane around the face.








Fine-tuning the facial markings around the eyes.









Contouring the face.









Coloring the iris.









Continued work.







More work on the facial markings.









Continued work.  Sometimes it can be amazing how much time I spend fine-tuning and re-fine-tuning areas.  I have to blame that on the neurotic perfectionist side of me that comes out when I’m creating art.






Continued work.









In this photo I’m burning in the whiskers.  That didn’t go well and I hated how they turned out, but I have no way to fix or remove them.   What I did wrong was to try and burn a dark continuous line.   The micro tip just sank into the leather and I ended up with curved channels instead of whiskers.







Lastly adding the some final touches to the mane.









Here’s the final artwork. 





I will admit that leather is very challenging for me to burn on, but I’m getting much better with each leather burning project.  And, quite truthfully, I think given my lack of experience with leather, this project turned out pretty well.  More importantly, I had fun and learned a lot.  What would be of great interest to me is how the artwork ages on leather.  This is a business card holder, so it’s going to be held and used, unlike wall art that I normally produce.  Will the artwork rub off given enough time?    

How much time will that take?  I have no idea, but I’d love to know.   If you have experience in this realm tell me about it.  Heck, I’d love to hear about your leather burning experiences period, so leave a comment. 

Now to answer a couple of questions I get asked frequently.  This artwork was burned on vegetable tanned leather that measures 3 x 3 7/8 inches (7.6 x 9.8 cm).  It took me 3 hours to complete the artwork.  Of course that time does not include prepping the leather to burn on it or the assembly time afterwards.  


Until the next blog,


Mar 2, 2018

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