Mustang Island Leather Chart Pyrography Art wood burning

This last summer I was commissioned to create a leather nautical chart for Mustang Island.  Mustang Island is part of a large chain of islands located off the coast of Texas.  The customer had done some leather charts on his own and he was curious to see how I would create one. Since I haven’t done anything like this before I thought it would be a lot of fun.   

Click on the image to the left to watch a time lapse video of the artwork being created.




The customer sent me a package containing the nautical chart he had purchased, and several copies of the chart.   Plus he had done a basic pattern on a piece of posterboard that was sized to fit a frame he intended place the artwork in.  I was very appreciative of his work as it made my job a lot easier.  I used the chart and pattern to work up the design pictured in the photo. 






The design had the islands, major shipping lanes, and a few landmarks on it.






All of the geographical feature names were printed on paper and taped them to the design.  In addition, I taped little images in a few places on the design that I thought would add a nice artistic touch to the chart.  






I sent photos of the design to the customer and thus began the fine-tuning stage.  

During the fine-tuning stage, I consult with the customer and get the little details worked out.   With the chart, the landmasses could not be moved around, but artistic images, island names, etc., could.  By taping them on the pattern, I could easily move them to other locations if need be.



There were only a couple of changes required from the original design.   For example, the customer had suggested a cargo ship be placed in the Corpus Christi shipping channel, but it didn’t look that great so a dolphin was placed there instead. 








Once the chart design was approved, I transferred it to the leather.  I had bought a piece of thick shoulder leather (7-9 oz / 2.8-3.6 mm) that would be perfect for this project. 






Here’s how the chart looked after I transferred the pattern.  The leather wasn’t cut down to size yet because I needed the extra leather to secure the leather to my easel. This prevented any accidental damage to the chart from the clips I used.   Also, the extra leather was a great place to check the pen tip heat and test out burning ideas.







I started out using a micro writer pen tip to burn along the outlines of the land masses and the tiny islands that weren’t much more than large dots. 






Then I used a polished shader pen tip to burn in the land masses. 

Colwood has an option to add polishing to their pen tips for an additional fee.  The polishing enables the pen tip to glide across the material easier, be it leather or wood. 

Honestly, I have to say that I prefer unpolished tips for burning on wood and polished for leather.  Unpolished tips are more prone to sticking and gunk build up when burning on leather.  Both of which negatively impact the burn and it’s especially bad if you’re burning dark.  Polished tips are so much better in this regard that I have a set of polished tips that I only use on leather. 


I worked my way along the land masses switching between a shader for the large areas, micro writer for tiny islands, and a standard writer for the in-between land masses. 






I got tired of switching out pen tips, so I ended up using the standard writer pen tip to burn along the edges of the large land masses and to burn in all of the islands.





For all of the lettering I had to use a micro writer pen tip because it has a much smaller tip than the standard writer.  The smaller tip allows me to get more precise.






I also used the micro writer to burn in all of the dots and dashes that presented the boundaries of shipping channels, marshes, and grasses or maybe they were sandy areas.  Plus, each feature had its own style of border to help identify it. 





For example, landmasses had solid line borders, cuts and shipping lanes had short dashes, and the marshes had tiny dots along the borders.





Another thing I did was give each feature its own color and/or fill-in style.  Landmasses were dark tan in color, marshes were tan, and the shipping channels were light tan.  As the picture shows, the sandy/grassy spots were filled with lots of parallel line burned in with a knife tip.    





I really liked the compass, but my only regret is that I wasn’t able to burn the lines perfectly straight.  I used the knife tip on the lines.






The curved lines and little nodules around the outer ring were created using the writer pen tip.






The compass spokes or needles were finished up with a tiny shader pen tip.






I burned the little spokes a solid dark color.  Very short pull-away strokes were burned along both edges of the longer spokes.






Here’s how the compass looked when I was done.   








When I’m working on a commissioned project, I keep the customer updated on the progress of the project by sending periodic photos like this one.






Now I’m back to working on the large landmass.  I was trying out one of my larger pen tips to see if this would make the process go faster.   I had tried to get the burns very uniform in color, but I had a lot of problems trying to do this.  Despite re-burning over the area numerous times to even out the burn, the leather just refused to burn to a solid uniform color.   I gave up and decided I would have to consider it as texture.



The majority of the chart was filled with assorted islands, marshes, and grassy spots, so I worked my way from the bottom of the chart up towards the top burning them in.




Continued work.







Each word on the chart was burned in 3-4 times.  The first time was a light burn to mark the letters and allow me to erase the pencil marks.  The 2nd time darkened up the letters a little.  The 3rd and 4th times were done to give them the dark brown/black color. 

Wondering why I didn’t burn them dark the first time?  The micro writer pen tip I was using for the lettering has a very small tip and at higher heats it is more prone to sinking into the leather instead of burning the surface of it.  I didn’t want engraved letters, so I took my time and built up the color slowly.


In this photo I’m using a kneadable eraser to remove the pencil marks.  I do recommend using kneadable erasers with leather as the eraser is softer and won’t damage the surface.





Adding the dashes below the shipping channel name.  The major shipping channel had three rows of dashes which made it easy to distinguish between the major and minor channels.





Working on the islands, marshes, etc., in the South Bay.





Back to working on the features found on Mustang Island.






The chart is oval shaped and Mustang Island runs along most of the right edge of the chart.   This created a large negative space between the right edge of the island and the edge of the chart.     I absolutely hated how it looked, so it was an ideal spot to add a decorative accent.








The customer wanted a swordfish somewhere on the chart, and it fit in the negative space perfectly.





After burning in the trace lines, I used a shader to start adding the color along the fish’s back.  I was careful to avoid the white stripes that extended into the area I was working.








I like to burn in the darker features first, so the next thing I did was work on the long dorsal fin that ran along the back.








I had to switch to a micro writer to burn in the fin detail and to work in the really small areas.








Here’s how the fish looked when I was completely done.









In some of the previous photos you might have noticed some white areas that appeared around some of the islands as I burned them.  I had no idea what it was, but if I rubbed over it with an eraser it went away.  Plus it didn’t impact my burning, so I didn’t worry about it.   Until I hit a large patch of the stuff.

Then I had problems getting the area to darken up.  It felt very waxy and it altered the color of the burn making it a lighter shade of tan than I wanted.   Now I had to stop and search the internet to see what might be going on.

The only thing I could find was that I might have I encountered leather bloom or spew (also called spue). 

What is leather bloom or spew?   It is nothing more than fats and oils in the skin rising to the surface of the leather.  It can appear when exposed to large humidity and/or temperature changes.  It will look like white spots on the leather.   Often the white spots of spew are mistaken for mold, but mold is generally green or grey in color.  

This sounded like it could be my issue, but now I had to find out how to get rid of it.  One site said that using a blow dryer on low heat can warm the leather, melt the fat, and cause it to absorb back down into the leather.  The site warned that this might not fix the problem forever.   I found several site advertising a product that they claim would remove spew and prevent it from returning. 

There were three problems with the spew remover.  1) I don’t know for sure if that’s what I was experiencing.  2) None of the local stores carried the product.  3) Nowhere could I find what the ingredients of the product are!   The last one really concerns me. 

I sure as heck didn’t want to apply something that might be toxic to burn over!  Plus the product was advertised for leather furniture like sofas and car seats, so the leather is dyed and sealed.   My project would not have either and I have no idea if it would negatively impact the pyrography work.    I would need to do a lot of testing before I would feel comfortable using this product on artwork.

Instead, what I did was thoroughly rub over the area with a white rubber eraser.  When I burned back over the area I didn’t experience the problem again.  Or if I did, I repeated the eraser treatment until the wax didn’t return.


Fortunately there were only a couple of areas that I encountered the wax problem on, but, the areas were in the larger landmasses.





Another oddity with this waxy stuff, was the fact that only the shader pen tip brought it out.   I could burn over an area that was waxy feeling with a writer pen tip and have no problem getting a nice dark burn.   




This photo shows that I’m using a knife tip to burn thin vertical lines along a grassy area.





Burning in the many marshes around the Lighthouse lakes area on the chart.







Continued work.







After the outlines of the marshes are burned in, I went over the area with a shader and burned them to a light tan color.   Eventually I would add little symbols into the marshes but I’ll talk more about that a little later.





Working on the islands along the edges of the Lighthouse lakes area.






On this island there was an actual lighthouse that was requested to be on the chart, so I’m burning the outline with a micro writer.






The Lighthouse lakes area was mostly comprised of pale marshes, so it was another good spot to place a decorative accent.  I wanted something a little darker to help balance this area of the chart. 

In the lower right corner of the picture you can see that I didn’t get far on the lighthouse.  I was having issues because of the small size, so I decided to work on this anchor instead.



 Continued work on the anchor.







Here’s how the anchor looked once I was done.  In this photo it almost seems like it was a large accent, but it was only 1 1/2 inches tall (3.8 cm).  In fact, most of the decorative accents were pretty small.  







All of the marshes had several little symbol burned into the area.  The symbol looked like a little plant or tuft of grass. 






I must have forgotten to hit the record button, because I don’t have video of the lighthouse getting finished up.  Here’s the final photo.  I left the area above the lighthouse a little paler to help show the small detail.






In this photo I’m starting to work on the porpoise or dolphin.







I wanted to convey the impression of the dolphin’s body being under water, so I used zigzag strokes to give it a jagged appearance.  My hope was the tiny gaps between the lines would get interpreted as light reflection on the surface of the water.




I used a micro writer to do the really small details like the eye and mouth.







Finishing up the dolphin. 







Here’s how it looked once I was done.






The last thing I had to work on was the leaping trout.   I’ve used this image in numerous pieces of artwork; in fact, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve burned this image.   







Adding the little dots along the fish’s back.








Finishing up the water.





Here’s how the trout looked after I was done.







Here’s a photo showing the upper portion of the finalized chart.








And here is the lower portion of the finalized chart. 









I had a lot of fun working on this project.  It presented me with new challenges and that’s always a good thing.  While I underestimated the number of hours this project would take in my quote to the customer, I don’t mind as I really enjoyed working on the project.  Plus, the customer was a very nice gentleman to work with.  In fact, he told me in one of the emails that he was had a lot of fun with the design process.  So did I.

Now to answer a couple of questions I get asked frequently.  This artwork was burned on vegetable tanned leather that measures 25 x 13 inches (63.5 x 33.0 cm).  It took me 12 3/4 hours to burn in the design.

Until the next blog,


Oct 26, 2018 

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