I’ve been seeing more and more cradle / panel boards being used lately in pyrography and I’ve even tried burning on one I bought from a local craft store. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I do solid wood, but I kept wondering if it was just because of the particular brand I was using. A search on the internet revealed that there were many brands of cradle boards. I acquired a few boards, 8 different boards to be exact, and decided to try and find out a couple of things. Which board is best to burn on? Does cost make a difference; do you get what you pay for? This blog will discuss my testing methods to determine which board is the best, which is the best value, and whether or not they are worth the cost.
WHAT IS A CRADLE BOARD
A cradle board is piece of plywood sitting on top of a wood frame. It was designed for painters as an alternative to cloth canvas. Some artist need a very strong canvas and will cover a cradle board with cloth canvas. I’m sure it didn’t take long after these were created before pyrographers starting using them.
This photo shows the backside of the board, so you can see the support frame.
First let’s clarify that there are several terms used for the boards like cradle board, panel board, wood panel, wood canvas, and wood art board, to name the most common ones I found. About the only difference I could find was that some companies also sold pieces of plywood without a supporting frame. In those cases the term ‘cradle board’ was never used. Instead it said something like panel board or wood panel. Interestingly, I saw many boards called wood panels that had frames, so I don’t think there is a universal term for the boards. For convenience I will use the term cradle board throughout the rest of the blog.
The purpose of the frame is to keep the plywood from warping, twisting, or curling. This picture shows a close up side view on one of the boards.
Here is the side view again, but I added a red arrow pointing to the seam line between the plywood top and the frame. Also I marked the thickness of the plywood and the frame on this board. The plywood is only 1/8 of an inch thick (0.32cm), so that’s pretty thin.
Most of the manufacturers are using Birch plywood, but only two of them specified it was Baltic birch. I’m going to make a reasonable assumption that, at least in the USA, all of the birch is Baltic birch and not Russian birch. Russian birch is just not that common in the United States. For the record, the Russian birch I’ve burned on tends to have a smoother surface than Baltic and I actually prefer Russian.
There were two companies that used basswood plywood; Ampersand and Blick. Blick even offered a board using maple. I discover the maple version when I started working on the cost comparison section of this article, so I have no idea how good or bad it is. Walnut Hollow had basswood and birch board options, so I ordered one of each.
This is the picture of the basswood board and you can see it’s made out of strips of basswood and they didn’t even color match them. I’m pretty disappointed with the look of the board. I haven’t taken it out of the package yet, so I can’t comment on the texture.
The wood frames were usually made out of pine, but some companies use other woods like poplar or basswood. Pine is generally inexpensive and readily available, so it’s not surprising to me that it was the most common wood on the frames. The frames vary in thickness and, generally speaking, the larger the board the thicker the frame becomes.
Every single one of the boards I used in the comparison was ordered online in the month of August 2018. This way I couldn’t cherry pick the best board available at the store. Instead, I received whatever the company shipped and mostly likely that was the board on the top of the pile.
I ordered the following brands listed alphabetically: American Easel, Ampersand, Art Alternative, Blick Premier, Blick super value, Da Vinci, Trekell, and Walnut Hollow.
Keep in mind that this is not an all-inclusive list. There are other brands out there, but these are the ones that pulled up in searches or were available on popular websites like Amazon.
Each board is 10×10 inches (25.4 x 25.4 cm) except the Ampersand board which is 8×8 inches (20.3 x 20.3 cm). I had purchased the Ampersand board before I thought of this idea, and I didn’t want to order a different size board just for this blog.
There were two major factors in the cost; size and frame depth. Unfortunately I didn’t think about this until after all of the boards were ordered. To create the below chart, I found boards of similar frame depth online and used that for the cost comparison. Cost is listed in US Dollars.
I have Da Vinci listed twice as they didn’t offer a 10×10 in the 7/8” (2.2cm) thickness. 7/8” was the most common thickness I found, so that’s why I chose that one for the comparison. The Blick super value only comes in 3/4” frame thickness, and the Trekell brand starts at 1” (2.54 cm), so I couldn’t price them with a 7/8” thickness.
It seems like one company offered to custom make any size you wanted, but I don’t remember which one. Obviously the larger the board the more it costs. Part of the cost is due to the fact that thicker frames were used to properly support the plywood.
As you can see from the chart, I have a column called Size Range and there is a number in each one. I gave each brand a rating depending on the range of sizes available with 1 being the best score. A score of 1 meant that this brand offered the largest selection of sizes. Some of the brands have the same score and that’s because they offer the same size range.
I wrote the brand on the inside of each cradle board as I took it out of the package. With the exception of the Trekell board as they place a sticker on the back. With the board marked, I could easily keep track of the brands as I did my comparisons.
The first comparison I did with the boards is to compare their color fresh out of the package. I placed all of the boards on the floor and then rearranged them from lightest to darkest. After that I flipped them over to discover the brands.
Looking at the chart, Trekell scored first and Blick premier scored last.
My next comparison was to feel the surface of each board and arrange them from the smoothest to the roughest feeling. I used fingertips and the back of my hand on each board to help me determine this.
Trekell scored first again and American Easel scored last.
I had this “brilliant” idea to brush powdered graphite on the boards so I could compare the smoothness visually.
I dipped a paint brush in the graphite, tapped it on the edge of the bottle and then brushed it on the board. I repeated this process 3 times on each board. What did I discover during this experiment? Powdered graphite is extremely messing and makes you have black snot for the rest of the day. As for the visual smoothness of the boards I discovered absolutely nothing!
The graphite didn’t cling to the brush evenly, so some strokes were MEGA dark and others barely there. Plus the graphite got imbedded into the plywood texture and I had a heck of a time removing it. I DO NOT recommend doing this! I would have to admit that this was a terrible idea.
Next I sanded every board with 220 grit sandpaper. This photo shows a board that is partially sanded and there is a color difference. Note that I hadn’t removed the graphite yet, so that is visible too.
The older a board is, the more it oxidizes and yellows. Sanding will remove this surface oxidation.
I do want to mention that Blick premier puts the manufacture date on their packaging. I bought the Blick board in August 2018 and the package said it was made in January of 2018. I didn’t think to take a picture until I was working on this blog and by then it was too late as the wrapper was long gone.
Trekell scored first again and Blick super value scored last. The Blick premier, which was at 8 when compared straight out of the package, jumped up to number 7 after the first sanding. In fact, the boards only moved around a little after being sanded.
Keep in mind that sanding isn’t done to change the color of the board; it’s done to improve the surface of the board. Only the right side of this board has been sanded, and if you look close you can see that the texture is a lot rougher on the left side of the board than it is on the right side. Improving the board surface brings me to the next testing phase wetting out the board.
Every single board was liberally misted with water. You can see it pooling a little on some of the boards in this photo. I will mention that all of the boards had some pooling before I was done, but I wiped over all of them with a paper towel to remove any pooling.
I always wet out my boards after the first sanding is done, and then I let them dry overnight. The water absorbs into the wood grain and makes it swell. When the board dries, the swelled grains stick up a little from the rest of the wood surface making the board feel fuzzy. This photo is showing a close up of a couple cradle boards after they dried. They were all smooth looking before, but after the wetting process several looked very rough.
The fuzzy grain is removed by sanding the board, but I also have another reason for wetting the boards. That reason is to prevent fuzzing down the road when I test darkness levels.
ALL finishes darken the wood to some degree and the first thing to go in pyrography are the pale tan colors. Preventing this is a matter of making sure the tans are dark enough to still show after being sealed or finished. An easy way to check is by misting the board with water as that will darken the wood close to the same levels lacquer does.
With this project I wanted to check the darkness level of the water next to the duck’s breast.
Here’s the same project after I misted it with water. This particular board is going to turn a golden tan color once it’s finished.
If I hadn’t already done the wetting process when I was getting the board ready to burn, I would have ended up with a fuzzy board after I did this darkness test. At that point I wouldn’t want to sand the board because that could remove some of my artwork.
Back to the cradle boards. Like I said, I wetted them, let them dry overnight, and then compared how fuzzy the boards became by feeling them.
The least fuzzy was Ampersand. Trekell which was the top scorer in the first smoothness test dropped to 7. American Easel remained last in both smoothness tests. For some reason I was a little surprised by the trekell. I guess I expected it to stay in top place.
What does the fuzzy test reveal?
Quite truthfully, I have absolutely no idea. I understand the process that is going on, but is there a correlation between the amount of fuzzing and the quality of the wood or how much glue is used? I do not know and I couldn’t find an answer on the internet. All I could find were numerous woodworking websites advising you to wet out the wood, let it dry thoroughly, and sanding off the fuzziness. When I searched about how plywood is manufactured I still couldn’t find a correlation between wood fuzz and board quality. The only interesting thing I did find out was the smoothness of the board is very dependent on how thick the veneer, or top layer, is.
LAST STEP BEFORE BURNING
Before I started doing any burning, I had Todd write a number on the side of the board and then shuffle them around. This way, I did not know which brand board was with the exception of the Ampersand since it was a different size. I was trying very hard to keep any preconceived ideas out of my head. Let’s face it; most of us tend to think that the cheaper something is the less valuable it is.
Next I drew a border around each board and wrote the number on the corner. This way I could tell each board apart in the photos.
For your information, I only burned on the border on each board. I actually plan to use the boards in a big cat series, but getting all of the artwork done will take me months. I wanted to get the board testing done now, so that’s the reason for burning just in the borders. Plus, I can easily hide my test burns by burning the border dark.
For the remainder of all of my testing I wrote notes referring to the board by its number. It wasn’t until I was completely done with every comparison I could think before I flipped the boards over to see what number corresponded to which brand. To let you know, I didn’t discover what brand each board was until I started writing this blog. Again, the exception being the Ampersand board since it was a different size.
BURN TEST SETUP
I had my burner toggled to the Detail side and the heat set at 3.
Then I let the pen heat up for 20 seconds before I started burning.
I burned a patch of circular motion, uniform strokes, pull-away strokes and zigzags as these are my 4 main burn methods.
And I did my 4 main burn methods again, but this time on the opposite side of the board. This meant that for one session I was burning with the grain and for the other session against the grain.
I burn with and against the grain during the dark burn. My goal was to visually reveal the plywood texture.
In total each board received 3 burn sessions.
Here’s a close up of the plywood texture. The slivering, as I call it, because it looks like there are slivers of missing wood.
Between each session I thoroughly cleaned my pen tip with a cleaning burr.
I restored the pen tip to a very clean state before each burn session. Some of you might be wondering why. The reason is that carbon build up (gunk as I tend to call it) interferes with a smooth burn. Also, gunk interferes with the heat transmission. For example, when my pen is nice and clean it produces a tan color at 3.0 setting, but if there is a lot of carbon buildup then I might have to increase up to 3.3 to get the same burn result that I did with a clean pen.
When I was doing my test burn there were several things I was checking for. How does the pen feel when I burn? Does it glide easily over the board? What shade of tan is being produced? Does the board flake when I burn zigzags? The really important one to me is how much slivering is visible through the burning.
The process by which plywood is made does not produce as smooth of a texture as a solid piece of wood has. There is ALWAYS some level of slivering in plywood. Some of it is so bad that you can easily see the slivering.
Why is this an issue? Because it interferes with the detail I can produce. If I’m burning a dark line, I want the line to be crisp and solid looking. Lots of little sliver lines interferes with that. This photo shows a dragonfly I burned on a cradle board. In the lower left corner I included a zoomed in picture of the dragonfly’s body and the nearby stem. Both the stem and body have a lot of visible slivering and it altered the color I was after and the edges are not as crisp as I prefer.
FIRST BURN SLIVER SCORE RESULTS
I do realize that not everyone is as neurotic as I am about minute detail like this, but I’m just explaining to you why this matters to me. In case this does matter to you, I rated the boards by visually comparing the slivering in the dark burn areas.
1 is the best score and 8 is the worst.
FIRST TEST BURN RESULTS
The test burning was a lot more difficult to rank from best to worst as several of the boards felt pretty identical to me. Plus I did the testing over the course of several days, and I worked on my assorted art projects in between testing. There was no way I would be able to remember how each board felt as I burned on it, let alone how it compared to another board. What I did was use a simple number scale where I rated the boards between 1 and 3.
1 = I liked it. 2 = it was ok. 3 = I didn’t care for it.
My remarks on the boards are based on the notes that I took and in-depth visual inspection as I’m writing up each board.
American Easel. This board looked so rough under the lights around my easel that I sanded it again. I can easily see lots of slivering and some are deep slivers. When I wiped the board off with a paper towel to remove the sawdust, parts of the paper towel stuck to the board. I sanded it again and didn’t have that problem again. In total this board got thoroughly sanded 4 times and even then burning felt rough or gritty instead of smooth. It was difficult to get a dark tan color and zigzagging was semi-difficult to do. I really disliked burning on this board. Score = 3.
Ampersand. Feels smooth and was very easy to burn both with and against the grain. Zigzags were a little tougher going with the grain. Visual inspection after I was done burning revealed micro slivering on the board, or, put another way, very small tiny lines. The board handled zigzagging okay; the wood didn’t feel extra rough or look like it was flaking way. The board left a lot of residue, aka gunk, on my pen tip especially when I did the dark burn. Score = 1
Art Alternative. Feels smooth, but looks a bit slivery, has a fair amount of grain lines, and lots of color streaks. The colors range from almost white to a medium tan color. Zigzags were tough to create and felt very scratchy when I did them. Plus they felt very rough to my finger and looked like small pieces of wood are curling upward. IE – like it’s ready to flake off. There wasn’t much gunk buildup, but what I really disliked was that the gunk would smear around. I haven’t experienced this before. Score = 3.
Blick premier. Feels very smooth and I don’t see a lot of visible slivering. Fair amount of grain lines though. Burned easily and smoothly. Produced a bit of gunk, especially during the dark burn test. Not seeing a lot of slivering in the burn results. Zigzags are decent. Even though it produced a lot of gunk on my pen tip, I liked the board. Score = 1.
BLICK SUPER VALUE
Blick super value. Feels smooth, but can see some short sliver lines. The wood seems a lot darker than the others. Not a lot of gunk buildup on the pen. Burned decently, but there is a lot of slivering. Zigzagging is fine. Score = 2
Da Vinci. Feels smooth, but looks slivery and grainy. Burned blotchy and felt so scratchy that I initially thought I forgot to clean my pen tip. Little gunk buildup on the pen. Can see a lot of slivering in the burns. The zigzags were fine. Score = 3.
Trekell. Looked and felt very smooth. Not a lot of grain lines, but could see a few long slivers; they were fairly shallow. Felt very nice to burn on and there were some sliver lines that show through. The zigzag areas felt pretty smooth. Score = 1
Walnut Hollow. Felt smooth, but looked grainy. Didn’t like the feel when I was burning. The pen felt like I was dragging it across really rough wood; like the wood wasn’t sanded. I could visually see a couple long, fairly deep sliver lines. Dark burning test seemed a little better, but still didn’t like how it felt. Zigzagging burn was ok; the wood didn’t flake or get excessively rough. Score = 3.
Here’s the chart for the first burn test.
Overall, I thought that the burning seemed easier and produced nicer results in the Ampersand, Blick premier, and Trekell boards.
1 = I liked it. 2 = it was ok. 3 = I didn’t care for it.
SECOND BURN TEST
After finishing the first round of testing I kept thinking about the fact that each board has its own ideal heat setting. For lack of a better term I’ll call it the threshold heat. Once the threshold heat is achieved, I get a nice tan burn result. If it’s too low it is hard to burn and I have to re-burn a lot just to get a tan color. The wood can almost feel scratchy or rough. It’s the same feeling I can get if the pen tip is dirty. If the heat setting is too high then the wood darkens too quickly or easily for my style of burning.
So I did another burn test and this time I adjusted the heat setting for each board to reach the threshold heat. What’s interesting to me with this second round of testing is that I only had one board I disliked. That’s a big change from the first round where over half of the boards I didn’t care for. I think this really shows how important it is to get the heat set properly for each piece of wood.
One more thing I should point out. I did not read my notes from the first test burn before I did the second one. I really was trying to remain completely impartial.
American Easel. Threshold heat setting 3.2, and 3.8 for the dark burns. Burns ok, but can see sliver lines and some of them are long. Doesn’t feel awesome or great when I’m burning, but it’s not terrible either. Zigzags felt a little rough, but not terrible. Score = 2.
Ampersand. Threshold heat setting 2.9, and 3.5 for the dark burns. Burns really nice and the pen tip glides easily over the board surface. I can see slivering, but that is present in all of the boards. At least with this board the slivering is very minimal. I really like this board. Score = 1.
Art Alternatives. Threshold heat setting 3.1, and 4.1 for the dark burns. Burned decently, but there were a couple of spots where I thought I saw gunk smearing around, but I have to admit that I’m not 100% sure about this. Slivering is visible, but the lines are fairly short and shallow. Zigzag patches are ok. Score = 2.
Blick premier. Threshold heat setting 2.9, and 3.8 for the dark burns. Burned nicely and can only see fine slivering. Pen did get a fair amount of gunk build up on it. Zigzag patches have a slight rough texture to them, but no signs of flaking. Score = 1
BLICK SUPER VALUE
Trekell. Threshold heat setting 3.0, and 3.9 for the dark burns. Could easily create smooth looking burns with minimal slivering. The zigzags were very acceptable and don’t show any signs of flaking. Good board. Score = 1
Walnut Hollow. Threshold heat setting 3.2, and 4.4 for the dark burns. I had a very hard time getting the threshold temperature set on this board. I could also really tell a difference when I was burning with the grain versus against it. I didn’t really notice this on any of the other boards. I’m not really thrilled with this board. Plus it has a fair amount of slivering. Score = 3.
This chart shows my rating for the second round of testing. The Ampersand, Blick premier, and Trekell were the only boards that I liked during both testing sessions. Walnut Hollow is the only board I disliked on both test burns.
1 = I liked it. 2 = it was ok. 3 = I didn’t care for it.
VISUAL BURN COMPARISON
The very last thing I did was to visually compare the burn results and rank them from best to worse. I was comparing how smooth the burn results were and how much slivering was present. I only compared the second round of testing for this.
Again, 1 is the best score and 8 is the worst.
I plugged all of the comparisons into a chart, below, and totaled up the results. In theory, the lower the overall number, the better the board.
THE BEST BOARD?
To me Ampersand was the best board of the bunch followed by Trekell. Ampersand also received the best overall score.
THE WORST BOARD?
I would not recommend the Walnut Hollow board. I really disliked burning on the board. Even though American Easel scored worse than the Walnut Hollow, that was mostly due to the fact that American Easel cost more.
THE BEST VALUE?
As for the best value, that would go to either Art Alternatives or Blick super value. The boards performed well and were much cheaper than most of the other boards.
DOES COST MATTER?
Does the cost make a difference in the quality of the board? Not that I could tell. Blick premier was the most expensive board I bought, but it wasn’t my favorite to burn on. Ampersand was my favorite board, and there are 4 other boards that cost more than it did. Walnut Hollow was the worst of the group, but it wasn’t the cheapest board.
ARE THEY WORTH IT?
I can’t give you a yes/no answer because it depends on what is available near you.
For me, cradle boards are not worth the money. I prefer the texture of solid wood and I can get solid wood cheaper than any of the cradle boards I liked (Ampersand, Blick Premier, and Trekell).
A local home improvement store offers a solid poplar board that measures 1 inch thick x 4 feet long x 12 inches wide (2.5cm x 1.2m x 30.5cm) for $28.41. I can cut this board into 4 equal pieces and end up with 4 boards that measure 12×12 inches (30.5 x 30.5 cm) costing $7.10 each. This particular board has been surface sanded, so it’s very smooth, and ready to use.
Also, the same store offers a rougher poplar board. This board would require considerable sanding to get it ready to burn on. The rougher poplar would cost $5.87 for a 12×12″ board (30.5 x 30.5 cm). [Note the prices I’m quoting are based on an October 2018 search]
Do you have a home improvement store or lumber yard that offers a similar option? That’s what I can’t answer.
A few more words
I know that the Art Alternatives had issues during the first test burn, but I didn’t notice those issue during the second test burn. The problems could have been a temperature issue or a bad section of board. Not sure.
A word about the Blick super value boards. They come in packs of 5; the first board out of the pack had a couple small spots of some sort of tar looking stuff on it, and the second board had a crack. I can probably remove the tar, but the cracked board went into the garbage.
The below chart shows the exact board I purchased and what I paid for the board.
Below are links to all of the places I purchases the boards from. I should mention that I bought the Ampersand board on Amazon, but the price listed in the chart was from Jerry’s Artarama where it was cheaper and a they had a better selection of sizes.
Ampersand – value: https://www.jerrysartarama.com/ampersand-value-panels-unprimed-basswood
Blick – premier: https://www.dickblick.com/products/blick-premier-wood-panels
Blick – super value: https://www.dickblick.com/products/blick-super-value-wood-panel-packs
Walnut Hollow (this is the link to the basswood board): https://www.unitednow.com/product/11240/basswood-canvas-by-walnut-hollow.aspx?item
Was my testing method perfect? No, but I like to think that I was pretty thorough with my testing. Do I think that I got a good feel for each board? Yes. Have you tried any of the brands in my comparison? What about any other brands? Leave a comment and let us all know about your experience and thoughts on any brands you’ve tried.
By the way, I plan to fill each board with some sort of big cat artwork, so as I finish each board I will update this blog with my final thoughts on the board.
Until the next blog,
Oct 12, 2018
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