Making a Sepia and Grey Value Finder Pyrography tutorial wood burning techniques

It seems like I’ve noticed a lot of pencil artist using grey value finders to help them determine how dark to color in an area on their drawing.  The tool seems like it would be very helpful, so I searched for a sepia value finder to use in pyrography.  I couldn’t find one.  Instead I made my own that incorporated both sepia and grey value tones on it.  In this tutorial I’m going to explain how you can make your own value finder.    

Now, let’s get started.

If you’d like to watch a YouTube video of this tutorial, then click on the image to the left.





Sepia Grey Value PDF (download) In the video I promised that I would provide a scanned image of the value finder I created.   The attached PDF is that scanned image.   Keep in mind that depending on your printer, the value finder may not produce the best results.  My printer tinged the sepia values in squares 3-6 with a very pronounced orange hue.  

Even if you do not plan to create your own value finder, I HIGHLY recommend you do the Tonal Burn Exercise in this tutorial!  The reason is that it will help you discover the large range of tan and brown hues or tones that you can create without adjusting the heat setting on your burner very often.



Materials Needed:

  • Watercolor Paper
  • Graphite Pencils
  • Carbon Pencil (optional)
  • Blending Stumps or Torillions
  • Sealant to keep the graphite from smearing
  • Backing board (optional) – secure the paper to the board to keep it from warping.
  • Artist Tape (optional) – used to secure the paper to the board
  • Ruler/Straight Edge
  • Scissors
  • Paper Glue
  • Hole Punch (optional)
  • Downloadable Value Finder – Sepia Grey Value

Below I listed the actual products I used and I included a link to Amazon for the different items.  Note that I do not receive any compensation from the sale of the products, and I do not search to see if it is the best price on Amazon.  There are often numerous sellers and the prices can vary between them.  Instead I used the first link that I found.  Also note that some items can be found cheaper on art supply websites like Jerry’s Artarama:

Meeden Baohong paper –  100% cotton hot pressed watercolor paper that is 140 lb (300 g.m) in weight.





I bought this set of graphite pencils on amazon because they went up to 12B, and that was the first time I had seen a set of graphite go high up the B scale.






This is a carbon pencil which somewhere between graphite and charcoal.  It produces wonderful dark color, but without the silvery sheen of graphite or the dust of charcoal.

Blending stumps and tortillions are both made out of paper and work the same.  The difference is that stumps are solid paper whereas tortillions are a hollow.  A tortillion is a piece of paper wound into a pointed pencil shape, and you can collapse the tip if you exert too much pressure on it.  The below link will pull up a kit that has an assortment of stump sizes, a kneadable eraser, and a sanding paper pad to clean your stumps with.


Pencil Sealant.  To keep your graphite from smearing, seal it with a high quality finish like Grumbacher’s final sealant.   Keep in mind that my can is old, like me, so the label has changed.






I used Ampersand’s scratchboard as my backing board because I had one on hand.  You can use anything for this like a piece of cheap plywood or thick cardboard.×10&qid=1575574336&sr=8-1






I used is white artist tape to secure the paper to the backer board.



Lastly, I’m using Tombow Mono liquid glue because I like the wider applicator option.  Keep in mind that ANY paper glue, like Elmer’s white glue, will work just fine.  Also, this is another product that the packaging has changed a bit, so the image on amazon doesn’t exactly match the bottle I have.




The first thing to do is create a test burn of tonal values.  









Use the shader pen tip of your choice and create a very, very light tan color.  I have the heat set on my burner just high enough to get a burn result.  I am using uniform strokes for the burning.






Now you have your choice of how you want to proceed.  One way is to repeat the same burn results below your first burn.






Then reburn over the second spot to darken it up.







If desired you can extend the burn result for several spots below you last tonal value and then start reburning over sections to darken them up.






As you reburn over sections you need to make sure each section is uniform in color and slightly darker than the section above it.







Here is my tonal burn exercise after completing 4 sections.








Another method to create your tonal range is to work on each section individually making sure it is a shade or two darker than the last one. 







I want to mention that I relied on reburning to achieve most of my tonal range values.  I did not adjust the temperature on my burner very often.  To give you a better idea of this, I started out near 4 which produced a very light burn results with this large shader.    Once I was done with my tonal range I was close to 5, and my burner goes up to 10.  I think I was able to complete 2-4 squares before I had to increase the heat setting on my burner, but I kept the adjustments very small (0.1-0.2).

In this photo I’m just finishing up my tonal range.








After I was done I assigned a number to the sections with 0 being burn free.









Here’s how my test burn looked once I was done assigning numbers.  This gave me a total of 13 values, or 12 values and a burn free value.  This was an odd number of tonal values, which wouldn’t work with my idea. 








To fix the odd number, I renumbered a couple of the values to get an even number.  Now I had 13 values and a burn free value for a total of 14.  Dividing 14 in half meant I needed a grid with 7 vertical squares on it.








Keep in mind that your tonal value finder can have as many values as you want.  Most of the grey scale value finders I see for sale have 10 tonal values.  Mine has 14, but it is possible to have more than that.



With the Tonal Burn Exercise done, we can create the sepia portion of the value finder.








First off create a grid filled with squares. My squares measure 3/4” or 1.91cm, but you can make yours any size you want.   You will need 4 horizontal squares and half of your tonal values down.  Since my finder would have 14 values in it I needed 7 vertical squares.







My value finder will end up having a front and back, but can create one long value finder.  If you decide to do that, then you’d need 2 horizontal squares and enough vertical squares for all of the tonal values you plan to do.  


After you create your grid, then put a number along the outer row of squares.









I choose to secure the paper to a backer for several reasons:  1) to protect the underlying surface as darker burns get hot enough that discolor the surface below the paper, 2) to prevent the paper from warping, and 3) to make it easy to videotape what I was doing as the backer sat higher than the paper did.







Here’s the backside of a piece of paper I burned on for a different project.  Anywhere the paper is tan means that it got hot enough to also darken up anything the paper was placed on while I was burning on it.  So ALWAYS use some sort of backer under the paper to protect tables and other work surfaces.  The backer can be anything like thick cardboard or a piece of plywood.






I used white artist tape that was 1” wide (2.54 cm) to secure the paper to the backing board.







Here’s my paper grid taped to the backing board ready to go.









Next cut along one side of your tonal value exercise.  


If you are right handed you should cut along the right edge of the values.





I had to rewrite my assigned numbers on the tonal value exercise as I cut them all off.






Place the value exercise on the grid making sure to line up the numbers.  Then burn in the corresponding square on the grid to match the value exercise.

If you are right handed then place the value exercise to the left of the grid.  This will ensure you can see it while you’re working.




After you burn in one square move onto the next square and repeat the process.







I begin each square by burning a small section near the tonal value exercise to ensure I’m matching the color.






Once I feel I have a good match, then I move the tonal value exercise out of the way and fill the square with uniform color that matches the corner I already burned in.






Continued work uning uniform strokes to burning the square.







Finishing up the square.







If you have any dark blotches use an X-acto knife or other sharp edge to gently scrape over the blotch to remove some of the color.  Work slow as you want to remove enough color so it blends in, but you don’t want to remove so much color that you end up with a pale blotch instead.  





If you feel like your square ended up too dark overall, then you can gently remove some of the color using an ink pen eraser.   I really have to emphasize using gentle pressure as you can quickly damage the paper.


I also recommend rotating the grid around to ensure your lower edge is uniform and crisp.  While I was working I discovered that I didn’t burn very well along the lower edge.  I think that was because I was worried about burning past the squares edge.




Here’s how my Sepia Value grid looks so far.









After you finish the last square on one side, then place a piece of paper next to the square and burn a section of the paper to match the color.






Burn in a small section on the square in the new row.  Then place the paper next to the first square on the next row and compare the color on the test with the square.  Make sure the color on the square is 1-2 shades darker.  When the squares are touching it is easy to compare the tonal values, but it’s not so easy when they aren’t touching.   This was a way to work around that issue.




Then resume burning in the squares on this portion of the grid.








Make sure to leave a row of empty squares between the two rows of sepia burned squares as that is where the grey tone values will go.









Now let’s do the grey tone exercise.






As I mentioned in the supply list, I used this brand of pencils.









First just play around with the pencils to get an idea of the color or grey hue each pencil makes.    I’m coloring two columns and using different pressure one them.  The column on the right I’m using a light pressure and the column on the left a medium pressure.   I did this just for comparison purposes.






Then use a blending stump and smooth out the color.  








You do not have to buy the set of pencils I used.  If you have any pencils around house test them out.   In this photo I’m using a pencil by Soho which claimed the one pencil could range from 2H to the darkest B ranges.  In reality I didn’t find that to be so, but I didn’t try very hard either.





Graphite can be layered to get darker results just like we can do in wood burning.   The photo shows all of the grey values I was able to create using a 2H pencil. 





I started out coloring in little squares that were all similar in color.







Then I started applying more graphite over some of the squares to darken them up.





With pencil it often helps to apply the additional layers in a different direction.  The first layer was applied vertically or in an up and down motion.  The second layer was applied horizontally or in an left and right motion.








After that I applied a layer diagonally to darken it up even more.







Always blend out the pencil to smooth it out, remove individual pencil lines, and help push the graphite down into the tooth of the paper.  Tooth of the paper is the texture that the paper has.   Cold pressed paper will have a lot more tooth and hot pressed paper.  Or if you prefer, Cold pressed paper tends to have a rough texture and hot pressed paper a smooth texture.





Once I was done experimenting around with the 2H pencil, I started doing the grey tone exercise using just the 2H pencil.  My goal was to see the tonal range I could create with this one pencil.






Obviously I had to apply several layers of pencil to some of the sections.  I do want to point out how I’m using the side of the pencil.  This will give you smoother results and fill in the area faster.








One thing you can do with pencils that you shouldn’t with your pyrography pen tips, is exert more pressure to get a darker color result.   In this photo I’m using the point of the pencil and exerting a lot more pressure to get a darker results.   I don’t recommend exerting pressure on you pen tip as it doesn’t good results.








When you have your grey tone exercise done, then it’s time to add the greys to the value finder.   I ended up using 8 pencils total.  I probably could have gotten away with fewer pencils, but I was trying to avoid the silver sheen that thick layers of graphite produces.

  • I used the 2H pencil to color in squares 1-3.  My first square which I labeled as 0, didn’t get any graphite applied to it.
  • I used the HB pencils for squares 4-7.   The B pencil was used on square 8.
  • The 3B pencil was used on square 9.
  • The 5B pencil was used on square 10.
  • The 8B pencil was used on square 11.
  • The 12B pencil was used on square 12.
  • The Primo Elite Grande #5000 is a carbon pencil that I used on square 13.  I used the carbon pencil because it produced really dark color without getting a silvery sheen.

Now start coloring in the graphite squares on the grid.  Keep your grey tone exercise close by as you work.  I didn’t tape it next to the grid as I didn’t want to accidently remove any color on one of the sepia tone squares. 





After you color in a square, rub over it with a blend to smooth out the pencil marks.  The sandpaper in the lower right corner is used to clean the blender.   I rubbed the blender over the sandpaper before I started using it.




Continue to work your way down the squares filling in each one with a grey tone that is a shade or two darker than the last one.






Of course always blend each square to get smooth uniform color.







Here’s how my value finder looks so far.  I think the grey tone in square 3 is too dark.






To fix I’m lightly rubbing a kneadable eraser over the area to remove some of the graphite.








This is how it looked after I was done.  Much better.







At this point I’ve switched to a HB pencil as it doesn’t require as much layering or pressure to get darker results.






In this photo I’ve started working on the darker side of the value finder.








You can really see the tooth or texture of the paper in this photo.






After it gets rubbed over with a blending stump, the color is pushed down into the tooth and it looks much smoother.






Here’s how it looked after I was done.







Obviously I needed to darken up the color is it wasn’t darker than the square above it.  So I applied another layer of graphite, and blended that out.  I continued until the color was a shade or two darker than the square above.





Now I’m starting on the last square, and I’m used the carbon pencil for this one.






At this point you need to assess your value finder and fix any uneven areas.  Also now is the time to adjust the colors if needed. 








In the photo I’m using the blending stump to rub over an area I thought was a touch light in the square.








Once you are happy with your value finder, coat it with a layer or two of pencil final sealant and let it dry. Make sure the sealant is a FINAL sealant and not a workable sealant.  Final sealant will keep the graphite from smearing around when you use the finder.  You do not have to use Grumbacher as there are other brands available, but this is what I had on hand.   Reminder that my can is very old, so newer a can will have a different looking label on it.







Let’s assemble the Value Finder.









First, use a sharp knife and a metal safe straight edge and cut out the surplus paper around the value finder.








Then cut the value finder in half.








Once you are done you will have two sections; both have one row each of sepia and grey tones.








Do a quick fit test to make sure the two strips of paper are close in size.  If they don’t match exactly you can trim down the excess now or after they are glued together.








Next apply a thin layer of paper glue to the back of one of the strips of paper. Again a reminder that any paper glue will work.  I just happened to have this bottle on hand.






Place the two strips of paper together with the unburned side facing inward.







The firmly press the two pieces of paper together to ensure the glue spread around to the edges.







Place the value finder on a glue safe surface and put a glue safe weight over it and press down.  This is to make sure the value finder dries flat and there aren’t any air pockets.   Note that you can wrap the value finder in a piece of saran wrap, place it on a flat surface, and set a heavy book on top of it.






My glue safe surfaces are a rubber gluing/cutting mat, and the glue safe weight is just the plastic case that my mini torch sits in.








I decided that the plastic case didn’t have a lot of weight, so I added a tape dispenser that had a weighted bottom on it as it was within reach.  You can use a thick book or anything like that.   Let it sit undisturbed for 20-30 minutes.  This will give plenty of time for the glue to dry.







Here’s the value finder all nice glued up.  The spots where the edges don’t line up perfectly, so I will trim those with scissors or a sharp knife.







Lastly, use a hole punch and punch a half circle along the edge of each square.  You don’t absolutely have to do this step.  The purpose of the cutout is to isolate the value you are examining.






Here’s the darker tone side of my value finder.










Let’s use our newly made Value Finder.   There is a yellow circle on this black and white photo marking the spot that we’ll use the value finder on.  We’ll start with the lighter area on the leaf in the circle.





Use the grey side of the finder and check the values of the photo and the finder.






Shift the finder to the next square and compare those values.







Continue this process of comparison until you find a match or a square that is the closest in grey tone.








Once you have a match, use the sepia side of the finder and place it next to the area you’re going to burn in.  Then burn the area to match the sepia value on the finder.  This is the same process we used in the Tonal Burn Exercise.






You can place the value finder next to the area you burned to isolate the burn for the comparison.  Mine looks a touch darker, but for what I’m working on that’s ok.






Let’s use the finder again, but now on the dark part of the leaf.







Again compare different squares on the finder looking for one that matches or is the closest match.






Then place the sepia side of the finder next to the area you’ll be burning and try to burn in a matching color on the board.







If needed, you can spot check your burn to see how close you are.  This one is a pretty good match.








That’s it for this blog.  I think the value finder can be a very useful tool in pyrography.  I really like being able to find a grey value on a black and white photo and have a corresponding sepia value to use in pyrography.   For those who want to do ultra-realistic artwork, I think the value finder would be extremely helpful.   It would also be a great tool for anyone needing help translating the grey tones of photos to the sepia tones of pyrography.

Until the next blog,


Dec 20, 2019

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4 thoughts on “Making a Sepia and Grey Value Finder Pyrography tutorial wood burning techniques

  1. Really enjoyed this tutorial, however, I cannot find the printable/download of the scan of the grey scale checker on your site.

    1. Hi Steve,
      thank you for the comment and pointing out that I didn’t clearly mark the pdf file. I updated the blog to make it very clear that the link was the PDF file. I also put it at the bottom of the materials list, so hopefully it can be easily found.
      Thank you again for the comment and letting me know about the problem.

  2. Very clear instructions thank you
    Do you have a video on what types of wood to use , I’ve seen lots of people using birch but that’s so expensive where I live , and some used plywood but I wasn’t sure

    1. Hi Marina,
      Right now I just have a blog about the different types of wood I have burned on, but making a video version is on my to-do list. The only birch I’ve burned on has been in plywood form. Where I live solid pieces of birch aren’t available. I also like basswood, maple, and poplar. Pine is popular to burn on because it tends to be inexpensive, but I’m not overly fond of it because it often ooze sticky sap.

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