Cheetah Pyrography Tutorial wood burning techniques

In this tutorial I’m going to explain how to create the Cheetah pyrography artwork.  This artwork is the first installment of my Big Cat series.   I am extremely fond of big cats, so the series allows me to create artwork about a subject I really like.  I started the series to complete my testing of cradleboards.   

To watch a youtube video tutorial of this project, just click on the image to the left.




Cradle boards are artist grade plywood attached to a wooden frame for stability.  This picture shows the back side of a cradle board, so you can see the wooden frame.   I found my first cradle board at a craft store, and it was ok to burn on, but not great.  







That got me to wondering if all cradle boards were the same, so I bought a number of boards from different manufacturers.  I did a preliminary test of the board, and wrote a blog about my findings.   After I finish the final round of testing I will update the blog to indicate how they performed.   I chose cats for the final round of testing because I use zigzags to create the fur and that burn stroke can be a bit destructive to plywood; especially cheap plywood.  

Here’s a link to the blog I wrote on cradle boards.  With the cheetah I’m using the board that was marked number 7.  I do not know which brand that corresponds to, but if you read the blog you’ll discover it.  Please do not tell me as I’m trying to remain completely unbiased during this final round of testing.

Click on the image to the left to watch a time lapse version of the artwork being created.   I do plan to create a tutorial version video when time allows.  I’m currently working on the next portrait tutorial, but I plan to work on the Cheetah video after that.  If all goes according to plan, it will be mid to late February and the video will be ready.  



That said, a lot of the techniques I use on the Cheetah the same or extremely similar as the bobcat tutorial.  If you need more help than what this written tutorial provides, I would recommend watching that bobcat video. Click on the image to the left to watch the Bobcat tutorial on YouTube.

One more thing before I start the tutorial.  I will not be providing the pattern or reference photo for this artwork, but they can be purchased on my Etsy page:  Cheetah Pattern.  

Now, let’s start burning.



  • Writing tip
  • Shading tip
  • 10 x 10 inch (25.4 x 25.4 cm) piece of wood
  • Pattern (for sale on Etsy): Cheetah Pattern


Smooth the wood surface by sanding it with sandpaper that is at least 220 in grit. 







Then thoroughly wet the board by misting it with water or run it quickly under the sink faucet.  Let the board dry and then sand again.

This will produce a super smooth surface, and the smoother the surface is the better the burn results will be. 




I will be using the zigzag method to create fur.  This method uses the razor edge of the pen tip which has a tendency to snag on imperfections and to dig into the surface of the wood.  An ultra-smooth board will help prevent this as will using a light hand pressure!     



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 draw the lines in the same direction as they are found on the pattern.  The lines indicate the fur growth direction, and they are direction the fur should be burned in.


Make sure to check the trace results for accuracy before removing the pattern.  It is almost impossible to replace a pattern in the exact position it was before.   




Equip a shader tip and start burning in the trace lines. 







Make sure you burn the lines in the direction they were drawn on the pattern.  Again the lines indication the direction the fur is growing.  I am using a combination of single lines and zigzags to burn in the pattern lines.  If you are unfamiliar with what I mean by zigzags, I have a tutorial that explains my terminology:  Using the shader.  





It’s not important to burn the lines to their final darkness level and they will get reburned over a number of times.  The re-burning gives the fur a much richer color and tonal depth.




You can burn in some of the shadows around the eye as you’re working.  Make sure to keep the upper edge of the shadows jagged as there are numerous wispy hairs hanging over the eyes. 






Notice how I’m burning the lines all to the same color with the exception of the dark streaks along the nose.  Again, don’t worry about getting the lines to their final darkness.  Our goal right now is to get the lines burned in so the pencil marks can be erased.





This photo shows the how jagged I burned along the lower jaw.  Most of the time I’m using zigzag strokes to burn in the lines, but in areas where I need the edge to be very jagged I burn individual lines.  The reason for the jaggedness is that some of those longer white or burned lines will become wispy hairs.




The spots were all burned in using zigzags.  Please keep in mind that while I didn’t burn them in very dark, you can burn them in much darker if you prefer.   I explain how I did things, but that doesn’t mean it is the best or only way to do things.

Now is probably a good time to explain zigzags in greater detail.



What is a zigzag?

A zigzag is literally a line burned in a back and forth or zigzag motion.

Zigzag Burst

I refer to each zigzag as a zigzag burst.  This picture has 9 (or maybe 10) zigzag bursts in it.






Each burst has between 3-7 lines in it.  It’s important to vary the number of lines and how long the lines are.  Also vary the distance between the lines.






Zigzag Patch

A zigzag patch is a grouping of zigzag bursts (circled in red).








It is important to vary where you start each burst in the patch.







Seriously, it is really important to vary where you start each zigzag burst.  This rule remains in place even when re-burning over a zigzag patch!

Zigzag Bands

DO NOT burn bands or rows of zigzags!







Bands of zigzags do not even remotely resemble the look of fur. 








No zigzag bands allowed.

Flat vs Edge

In this photo I’m using the flat of the shader to burn zigzag bursts.  Notice how thick or wide each line in the burst is.







To me this does not look like fur texture either as the lines are just too thick.







In this photo I have angled the pen tip so that I’m using the razor edge tip of it.  Notice how much thinner the lines are.  This is what you’re after.






Here’s the comparison showing how different the patches look.   The patch on the left was using the flat of the pen, and the one on the right used the razor edge.






In this photo I’m just finishing up a patch of zigzags using a heavy hand pressure as I burned.  The patch to the right was created using light pressure.  They don’t look a lot difference except the left one is darker.






I found the process of burning another layer of zigzags over the patch easy to do on the light pressure side.  For the record, the second layer was applied using the same light pressure.






With the heavy pressure side, I found it very difficult to burn another layer.  The pen tip wanted to get down in the deep lines from the first burn.  I think all I really accomplished was to deepen the lines even more.





Here’s a comparison of the two burns.  The patch on the left was created using heavy pressure and the one on the right was done with a light hand pressure.  The left side looks deeply rutted.







I angled the board a little to try and show just how deep the lines went on the left patch.  I wouldn’t be surprised at all if some of the wood where to start flaking off if I tried to add another layer of zigzags.






Layer It Up

Here is a photo of a zigzag patch with one layer of zigzags.








Now I’m burning a second layer of zigzags onto the patch. 







The second layer darkens up the patch a little and fills in some of the unburned gaps.  It also adds texture and tonal depth to the patch.  Each layer continues to add to the texture and depth of the burn and this really helps provide realism to the fur.



Growth Direction

The last thing I want to demo is the fur growth direction.








It is extremely important to burn the zigzag bursts in the same direction that the fur grows.   In this photo I’m working on the area that would be above the nose.  This area tends to have vertically aligned fur.






As I start burning towards the eye, the fur direction changes, so in this photo I’m started to change the angle I’m burning the zigzags in.







Now I’m burning directly above the eye and the angle of the burn has become almost horizontal.






As I fill in the area or expand the patch, I keep the zigzags in the same horizontal direction.






In this photo I’m starting to change the angle of the burn along the lower corner of the eye.







Continued work.








With this photo you can see the gradual angle change as I work my way from right to left below the eye.






The burn strokes along the left side of the eye are horizontal.







To contour or give shape to the fur, you re-burn as needed.  In this photo I’m re-burning along the right side of the eye.  This darkens the area and makes it look recessed or sunken down from the fur on the nose area. 






Here’s the final results for the fur growth direction demo.








Final Tips for Better Burn Results

  • Thoroughly sand the board before burning. The smoother the wood surface is, the better results you will get.  (see step 1 of this tutorial).
  • Use a light hand pressure.
  • Keep the heat just high enough to get a medium tan burn result. What the exact setting is to accomplish this depends on the wood, the pen tip being using, pen tip usage, and the brand of burner.    Let me explain those a little bit.

Wood Type.  Softwoods require less heat than hardwoods.  Plywood, which is what I’m burning on, tends to be somewhere between the soft and hard woods.

Pen Tip Size.  Generally speaking, the smaller the pen tip the less heat is required.  I say generally as I have a micro writer pen tip that requires more heat than the standard writer pen tip does.

Pen Tip Usage.  Another thing that factors into the heat setting is how much usage or burn hours the pen tip has received.  Brand new or little used pen tips will require a higher heat setting than a similar tip that has many hours of burn time on it.   

Burners.  Different brands of burners will give different results even if they are set at the same heat dial setting.  For example I might get a tan burn result at dial setting number 3 on my Colwood, but I might require a setting of 4 on a Razor tip to get the same burn result.   Or it could be the opposite.   If I should mention a number in one of my tutorials and you aren’t getting good results at that number that is ok.  Adjust your setting until you get the result you desire.     


Let’s take care of the right eye.  It is mostly in shadows, but the edges of the shadows are not hard or crisp lines.  Use gradient shading and burn some single dark lines over the eye to give the impression of cast shadows from the brow hairs.






Now apply a layer of zigzags (fur) along the right cheek.  Reburn as needed to get the dark fur and shadowed area near the outer corner of the eye.






If needed, rotate the board as you burn zigzags along the outer edge of the face. 







Start filling the bridge of nose with zigzags, but make sure to keep the strokes very short in length.







As you fill in the bridge of the nose area with zigzags make sure to burn them in the fur growth direction.  I am working my way around the nose burning in the areas that have different directions first.  






Also darken up the spots above the eye.  Like with all of the markings, keep the edges a bit jagged and burn the lines in the fur growth direction.







Then finish filling the nose with a layer of zigzags.  If you look closely you’ll see that the fur was burned in different directions near the bridge of the nose between the eyes.





Burn in the dark area on the nose, and burn the lighter area to a pale tan color.







Then use a medium ball pen tip or a writer pen tip and apply a layer of small dots all over the surface of the nose.  This will give the nose wonderful texture.






Afterward start burning in the fur on the forehead.  The fur gets slightly longer as you transition from the bridge of the nose to the top of the head.  As you work also reburn over the dark markings.






Again be mindful of the direction you are burning in the zigzags.  For the most part no one will notice this type of detail, but they will if you burn in an odd direction.  The fur on the forehead is growing mostly in a vertical or up/down direction, so if you burned the fur in a horizontal or left/right direction, that would look off and people would notice.





Lightly reburn over the dark tan markings under the eyes.








Next burn in the dark markings on the body.  Use zigzags for this and burn them in the fur growth direction.  Also leave the edges of the spots slightly jagged.

Yes, I did bounce around a lot while creating this artwork.  I always debate with myself if it is better to explain the art in the same order I created it, or would it be better to group everything together.  Let me know what you think.



I like to work in sections as a time, so after a few spots where darkened up then a layer of fur was added. 






Continued work.







Next finishing burning in the dark streak along the jaw.  I tried to avoid burning over the whiskers, but in retrospect that was a waste of time as I used an X-acto knife to scrape them into existence later.






Re-burn along the area under the brow to dark it up and make the area recessed or in slight shadows.







Then burn in the left eye.  This eye is also mostly in shadows, but make sure to keep the shadows on the eye a bit jagged.  This will give the impression of individual hairs casting shadows onto the eye.  Also I gave the eye a hint of a pupil in the center of the eye.  The pupil just barely peaks or shows from the shadowed area.





Then darken up the right edge of the face.   Make sure to burn a few longer wispy dark hairs along the edge.






Fill the top of the head with a layer of fur and darken up any black spots you encounter.  Notice how my spots do not have smooth edges on them.  This gives the impression of fur.  I burn in the spots using the same zigzag motion on do on all of the fur.





Then start burning along the left side of the face.  Since the face is angled, the left side of the face shows a lot of the white area on the jaw and throat. The fur on this side isn’t as dark as the top of the head or the body.






Some of the dark spots along the side of the face aren’t as dark either, so check with the reference photo.






Take your time, consult the reference photo often, and slowly fill the left side of the face with a layer of fur.






Now I like to bounce around as I do pyrography.  This method of burning lets me build up several different areas so I can compare the color levels.  The fur on the body is darker than the side of the face and the jaw, so getting the body burned in makes the white or paler areas seem that much paler.



I created a 1” (2.54 cm) border around the wood and I placed the cheetah so it’s body overlapped onto the border.  In this photo I’m burning the border next to the white fur on the throat.  Notice how I make sure the edges of the fur are jagged.  This is accomplished by a two-step process. First I burn a row of zigzags along the fur / border edge.  Then I burn back over the seam or line were the two meet burning single lines that start on the black border and finish or end on the fur.



Add some tan colored lines on the chin.  Also burn in the tan colored shadow along the edges of the chin.






Now resume working on the body.  When working on the body, make sure to burn the zigzags in the fur growth direction.  Since the cheetah is laying down and has his legs bent in front of him, the fur changed directions to match how the body is positioned.  A reminder that the lines on the pattern indicate the fur direction.




As you transition from the dark fur on the body to the white fur along the chest and throat, burn fewer lines.  Try not to re-burn over the area a lot as each reburn will darken up the fur.





Burn in the fur on the left ear.  The right edge is filled with short darker fur followed by longer white wispy hairs that curl into the center of the ear.  I try to burn around the edges of the pencil marks that represent the white hairs.  You can also draw over the hairs with a white charcoal pencil and then burn around the charcoal. 





In the areas that aren’t as dark, burn in few hairs or lines.







The right ear is angled so we don’t see into it like the left ear.  The basic process remains the same in that I burn around the edges of the white hairs.






Then start burning in single lines to build up the texture of the white wispy hair.






Add another layer of fur to the top of the head.   Generally speaking I will apply or burn a minimum of 3 layers of fur, and in some areas that number can reach 6 or 7 layers.





Afterward get a layer of fur over the body.






Again make sure to pay attention to the growth direction of the fur. 






Then work along the edge where the dark fur ends and the white fur begins.  This is just like burn the white fur along the black edges (border and ear), but we aren’t burning as dark.





Continued work.






In this photo I’m still working along the transition zone where the fur becomes white in color, but the photo isn’t zoomed in, so you can see the most of the board. 







Working on the leg.






Now it is a matter of burning additional layers of zigzags to give the fur more depth and color.   How many layers should you burn in?  That is up to you.  Once you get to the point you are happy, then quit.





Look over your artwork and compare it to the reference photo.  Fix any areas that don’t look right.  In this photo I’m reburning over a couple of the dark spots on the side of the face.






Continued work.






Then I added another layer along the edges of the nose bridge to give the bridge a curved appearance.






Adding more color to the top of the head area.







Fine-tuning the ears. 








Another thing I did was use the point of a sharp knife to scrape some slight highlights along the lower black eyelid.  This technique is much easier than trying to avoid burning over such a thin area.






Fine-tuning the left ear a bit more.  It often takes me 3-4 rounds of re-burning before I get the ears looking decent. 






Make sure to burn some tan lines along the rows where the whiskers emerge from the upper jaw.






Lastly use the sharp point of a knife to scrape in the whiskers.







The whiskers on the right side aren’t as noticeable in the reference photo, but I added a couple anyway.






One last thing I want to point out is the partial background I put in.  I didn’t want to burn in the entire thing, so I burned just enough to give contrast to the white fur on the throat.   The pencil line is the upper limit of where I planned to burn and allow the color to fade out.







Here’s how the artwork ended up looking.  I rather like how it looked with placing the board on the diagonal.








Since I was burning on a cradleboard, it as a 1 ½ inch thick wooden frame around the sides.  The frame was made out of pine, which doesn’t burn well.  To get the sides nice and dark I used black acrylic paint.   The dark sides and border give the artwork a very polished look.








The last thing I want to talk about is the cradle board.  I did not care for this particular board.  It had a lot of slivering, so it was tough to get solid colors.

Slivering is what I refer to as the thin lines or slivers of missing wood.  Every piece of plywood I’ve ever burned on has this feature, but some boards are worse than others. 

Another thing I disliked about the board was how difficult it was to burn zigzags on it.  Burning with the grain direction was ok, but against it the board just fought me.  Plus the more layers of zigzags I applied the rougher the board became and the more difficult it was to burn on.  These are problems I’ve never experienced with solid wood.   



I also found it difficult to achieve smooth burn results in areas that I didn’t use zigzags, like the background.   If you look closely you’ll see how blotchy the background is.

As I said before I don’t know who manufactured this board.  To keep the final round of testing as unbiased as possible I only refer to it by the number Todd wrote on the boards during my initial testing.  This board is number 7, so you can look that up in my blog about the cradle boards.






We’re done.    I hope you found the information useful.  As for the board, I do not recommend it; especially if you are a beginner.  I’ve got a few years of experience in pyrography, and I really struggled to get good results on this board.   I have 7 other boards to test, so hopefully there will be one that is a good choice to burn on.

Despite the difficulties I had with the board, I will admit that I ended up liking the final artwork.  I felt that turning the board diagonally really added to the visual interest of the artwork.  Plus the dark border gave it a polished or finished look.  Similar to how matting and framing artwork can do.  

Now to answer a couple of questions I get asked frequently.  This artwork was burned onto a cradle board that measures 10 x 10 inches (25.4 x 25.4 cm).  It took me 11 1/4 hours to complete the artwork.   That said, 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 doesn’t matter.  What’s important is you’re learning to create pyrography artwork, and hopefully having fun while doing so.

Until the next blog,


Jan 24, 2020

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2 thoughts on “Cheetah Pyrography Tutorial wood burning techniques

  1. my pyrography kit from Peter Childs is due today I can’t wait to get practicing.
    Your work has so inspired me to give it a go

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