Pyrography Techniques – The Skull Mask wood burning tutorial

In this tutorial I’m going to explain how to create the skull mask artwork.  I was attracted to this image because of the raised designs on the mask.  Those designs might make this artwork seem a bit intimidating, but don’t fear.  Like all things, if the image is broken down into smaller components, it becomes a lot easier to do.  Hopefully by the end of the tutorial you’ll agree with me.   

Now, let’s get burning. 

Click on the image to the left to watch the video version of this tutorial. 





To watch the time lapse version of the artwork being created click on the image to the left.






  • Writing tip
  • Shading tip
  • 8 x 10 inch (20.3 x 25.4 cm) piece of wood
  • Pattern (enlarge or shrink as needed)  Skull Mask pattern

Reference Material

I found this image on Pixabay, and really liked all of the textures and details on the skeleton outfit.  The image was uploaded by LunarSeaart and here’s a link to the original photo:




I cropped the photo so that just the area I was interested remained.









For those who prefer to use a black and white image I’ve included this one.


Wood burning is much easier if you take the time to prepare the wood surface.  Always smooth the wood surface by sanding it with at least 220 grit sandpaper. 







Then thoroughly wet the board by misting it with water or running it quickly under the sink faucet.  You want the board to be damp, but not soaking wet.  Let the board dry and then sand again.





This piece of plywood board is broken up into three sections.  The far left section is how the board looks without any prep work.  The board has a rough texture.   The middle section of the board shows how it looks after it was sanded, and the surface is a lot smoother.   The right section of the board shows it after it was lightly misted with water and allowed to dry.  Notice how rough the board looks, but a quick sanding will remove that and leave an ultra-smooth board.

Doing the 4-step process (sand, mist, dry, sand) produces a super smooth surface, and the smoother the surface is the better the burn results will be. 




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 check the trace results for accuracy before removing the pattern.   

You are correct that this image is not of the skull mask.  I didn’t take one, but the process remains the same regardless of the subject.




Let’s begin by burning the openings on the mask.  The eye openings are not finished in this photo because I wasn’t sure at this point how I wanted to handle them.








With the writing pen tip on set to produce a medium to dark brown burn result, burn around the edges of the mask openings.  This is the eyes, nose, and mouth.








Then use the shader of your choice and burn in the nose opening to a dark brown or black color.








Do the same with the mouth opening.  Work carefully around the teeth.









Rotate the board so your pen tip is in optimal position when burning along the lower edge of the mouth.








With the eyes, just burn darkly along the edges.









I’m using pull-away strokes as my burn method for this.  Start the stroke on the edge and pull it towards the center of the eye opening.  The stroke does not need to fade much if at all.

Eye style 1:

Burn around the sliver of the white of the eye that is showing through the opening.  Use gradient shading to transition from the pupil to the dark edges of the opening.






Do the same with the left eye.







Here’s how the eyes turned out.

Eye style 2:

I wasn’t sure I liked having the suggestion of real eyes behind the mask.  So I’m erasing the gradient shading to alter the eyes.  I’m using an electric eraser equipped with an ink pen eraser.  I wrote about this in the following blog:





Then I used a pencil to drawing pupils.  As an fyi, I’m using a mechanical pencil, but any graphite pencil will work.  I took be a couple of tries before I found a configuration I liked, but that’s the reason for using graphite; it can be erased until you’re happy with the results.






Once I was happy I burned in the pupils to a dark brown or black color.








Then I burned some gradient shading around the pupils to give the suggestion of an eyeball.






Continued work.






Things were a touch darker than I intended, so I’m removing just a little color.



Here’s a comparison of the two eye styles.  I have mixed feelings about them and I’m not sure which I prefer.   Leave a comment and let me know what you think.


Here’s close up of the face.  The skull is not smooth looking and the subtle bumpy texture it has adds to the weathered or old look it conveys.  Also the area around the raised details tends to be darker to help the designs stand out.







Anytime you start a project you should always have a focal point.  The focal point is the main feature or predominate area on the artwork.  For us the focal point will be the central face, so the eyes, nose and mouth area.    This means that this should be the overall lightest area on the artwork.







Use a writer pen tip and start burning around the designs on the forehead.  Work with care as there are scrolling designs and a spider web that intersects the scrolling designs.  The spider web sits on top of the scrolling design, so you don’t want to burn over the lines for the spider web.




Another thing to pay attention to are the dashed lines on the pattern.  The dashed lines indicate where shadows begin.  I would recommend burning them as dashes or dots, but burn them light in color.





Rotate the board and burn darkly along the upper edge of each design.  The board is rotated so the pen tip will be in optimal position.  This will keep the edges of the designs crisp and clean.






Rub a pencil eraser over the area to remove any residual graphite.  I’m using a tombow eraser, but any eraser will work.





Rotate the board back and use a shader to burn the mask under the hat to a medium brown color.  The color should be lighter than the mask openings and the underside of the hat.  The hat will be covered later.







I’m using circular motion as my main burn method for the mask.  I want the texture that circular motion can make. 







As get closer to the eyes the color should be getting lighter in value.








Work carefully as you do not want to burn over the designs on the mask as this point. 







Lightly burn over the area inside the shape formed by the dashed lines above the right eye.  I think this shape is supposed to give the impression of an eyebrow.








Continue to work your way around the burned in trace lines adding around the dashed lines.






Switch back to a writer pen tip and burn in the remaining trace lines.  Yes, this could have been done in the first step, but for some reason I didn’t do that.







I’m not burning the trace lines around the teeth as dark I as I did the designs.  Not that it matters as eventually the lines do get darkened up a lot.








Once all of the lines are burned in, then rub over the area with a standard pencil eraser to remove any residual graphite.







Use a shader and resume burning the mask while avoiding the designs.









Make sure you keep your burn strokes in the tan range.   Under the hat the burn strokes can be darker as it creates the impression of being in shadows.







Everywhere else the color should be much lighter so that the face will seem white or pale in color.  In this photo I’m burning a cast shadow under the spider webbing that is draped across the nose.





To create the illusion of 3d you need contrast between a highlight and shadows.  The center or top of the nose is the highlight or palest areas on the nose.   The shadows are located along the sides of the nose.  To prevent the area from looking like bands of color, you need to use gradient shading to transition between the highlight and the shadows.





Look at the nose in this photo.  The right side looks 3D, but the left side looks fairly flat.  The reason is that the left side is uniform in color.  We’ll discuss this concept again and I’ll provide another example to help illustrate it.








Work your way around the face burning the face to a tan color.  Make sure that the shadowed areas are a shade or two darker.








Again I’m using circular motion as my main burn stroke.  The mask has this subtle mottled texture on it and I find that circular motion replicates that well.








Here’s a progress photo.  The face has a light layer of color over it and the shadows are a touch darker.








Now’s it time to start the re-burning process.  One of the main goals is to increase the darkness of the shadows.  This will help give the face shape and provide contrast with the designs.







The areas that need to be darken on my artwork are the edges of the face, under the cheek bones, and the teeth.  Given how I work that means that most if not all of the face will get another layer of color applied.







As some of the shadows get darkened up, the face becomes more dramatic looking.








As you work avoid burning over the scrolling designs and spider webbing.









In this photo I’m darkening up the shadow under the left cheek bone, and it’s really helping this area look 3d.








Switch to a writer pen tip and start burning a dark line on the face adjacent to the scrolling designs.  I’ve rotated the board because for me this is position makes it easier to see and burn around the designs.








Continued work.









Burn along the base of the teeth.









Continued work.







Here’s another progress photo.









Now use a shader and burn along the edges of each tooth.








Then darken up the shadows on the bone above the upper teeth.








Re-burn around the nose to ensure the lower portion is a couple of shades darker than the top of the nose.  This will help the top of the nose look more elevated from the surface.








Next burn along the edges of the lower teeth.








Darken up the shadows below the teeth.






Make sure all areas of the face have a little color.  We do not want any unburned wood; especially along the sides of the face.   The sides of the face should be shadowed to help keep the focus on the eye, nose, and mouth area.








If needed switch to a writer pen tip and burn really dark lines on the face adjacent to the scrolling designs.







I burned the lines darker to help the designs stand out more.









Then lightly burn over the designs as they stand out too much.  My eye is drawn to the high contrast in the upper right corner, and the right temple is not a focal point.







Burning over the designs will reduce the contrast, so they won’t stand out so much.






Most of the designs have been burned over.  Now they are an accent that compliments the mask instead of dominates it.







Here’s another progress photo.      









The last thing I did was use the sharp edge of a knife to scrape a couple of highlights here and there.







Continued work.







Here’s a comparison photo showing the before and after of the adding highlights process.  I did not add many highlights






For some reason I decided that I didn’t like how dark the shadows were on the upper jaw, so I erased them.  Also I darkened up the shadow under the nose.  In retrospect I think I should have left things as they were and just darkened up the shadow under the nose. 






Making it look 3D

The green arrow is pointing to the right cheek bone.  Notice how flat it appears even though the shadows have been burned in above and below it.  The stark contrast make the area look like it has bands or stripes of color.





Let’s compare the cheekbones in this photo.  The red arrow is pointing to the left cheekbone that is look 3d, but the right cheekbone (green arrow) is still looking flat.    Gradient shading was applied to transition between the shadows and the highlight on the left cheekbone (red arrow).   





Gradient shading was applied to the right cheekbone (green arrow), so it now looks 3d.  In fact, the right cheekbone looks so good that the left one (red arrow) is looking a bit flat in comparison.





Here’s how the cheekbones looked after the shadows were darkened up and gradient shading applied.  The gradient shading is used to transition between the shadows and the highlight in the center of the cheek. 

By using gradient shading to transition between shadows and highlights you can make anything look 3d. 





Let’s start with the hair on the left side of the face.  This side is hangs mostly straight, so is a good side to start with.








Begin by burning darkly next to the skull.  This will imply a shadow deep between the hair and the mask.  Its purpose is to provide contrast against the spider web design on the left side of the face.








I used the flat of the shader to burn uniform strokes in long, thick or wide strokes of color down the hair.  The color varies a bit to create the impression of clumps or locks of hair.








The hair closest to the face needs to be darker than the hair along the outer edges.  








Continue to work your way down the hair extending the lines that create the different locks of hair.  You do not need to create a lot of locks as the hair is not the focal point. 








I let the hair fade away to almost nothing along the bottom









Now for the right side of the face.









There are a couple of stray locks of hair that need to be burned darkly around.







This side has some locks that curve a bit.  Treat the area the same as the left except pull the pen tip so it follows the curves of the hair.






As you work make sure to vary the color so you get the impression of locks of hair.







Another way of thinking about it is you pick a lock of hair to be pale and then burn the area around it darker, so that the lock stands out.   








Burn darkly right next to the skull.  Again this is to provide contrast.  If needed rotate the board so your pen tip stays in optimal position.








The dark line should be very thin next to the lower jaw.







Afterwards resume burning in the hair and creating locks of hair that vary in color. 









I would recommend keeping the burn strokes in the tan range and the contrast levels fairly low.  After all the hair is not a focal point, so it doesn’t need a lot of detail.








Like the left side, the inner hair or the hair closest to the face should be darker than the hair along the outer edges.


Here’s a close up of the hat.  With the hat we have the scrolling designs and spider webbing like the face has.  What is unique about the hat are the areas filled with white glitter like the looping band that circles the hat.  Also there are bugs placed on the hat, and I will explain those in the next step.  Keep in mind that you can leave the bugs out of your artwork.




Use a writer pen tip and burn along the lower edges of the brim.




Then burn along the upper edge of the brim thickness line.  A green arrow is pointing to the area I’m talking about.   Do not burn over or into the brim thickness area as this will be left unburned.  Since the area above and below will be burned in, and the thickness line is thin, our brains will turn it into a tan color.

Note that I rotated the board and switched to a shader pen tip to burn along the upper edge of the brim.  I did this because I feel like I have more control.   If you want to continue to use a writer pen tip and / or keep the board in its prior position then please do so. 

Now burn the underside of the brim to a dark color that is somewhere between medium and dark brown.  I tried to keep the color a shade or two lighter than the mask openings.



Then burn in the top side of the brim, but again do not burn over the brim edge.  A green arrow is pointing to the brim edge or thickness.   Also avoid the spider and the spider webbing.



Use a writer pen tip and burn darkly around the designs on the lower portion of the hat.





Then use a shader pen tip and filling the portion of the hat below the looping band.   I used circular motion as my burn stroke for this because I wanted the subtle texture that circular motion can make.





In some areas it might be easier to avoid the spider webbing if the board is rotated.  Also the hat needs to get gradually darker as you approach the right edge.  In this photo that would be the left edge.




Fill in each area between the spider webbing. 








Rotate the board as needed while you work.








Often I take advantage of board rotations to do additional work.  For example, I’m burning a dark line under the spider webbing as this angle is easier for me.






I will be burning the bugs to a dark brown or black color.  I made sure that the area around the bugs was slightly lighter in color than that.  This will the bugs will be a visible, but subdued. 








4a10.  In the small areas it might be easier to use a writer pen tip.  Even when using the writer pen tip I still used circular motion as my burn method.  You can see the mottled texture that is on the hat.  








Use the writer pen tip to burn darkly adjacent to the assorted designs on the hat.  You can use a shader pen tip for this.  Since I had the writer stipp equipped from the last step I’m using for this step.  I will admit the writer is easier to use for this.   






Then use a shader pen tip to burn the hat in the areas between the designs.   Notice how the color is getting lighter in value as I’m getting closer to the left edge.






Take you time with this.  There are a lot of designs and bugs to avoid.  That is easier to do if you’re working slower.







I tend to burned in the several areas and then rotated the board to burn along the lower edges of each area.  This ensured that the designs remained burn free and that the edges are crisp and clean.







Again a remember that the color should be gradually lighter as you transition from the right to the left side of the hat.  This will give the hat a rounded shape.   Also the reason the left side is the lightest in color is because the light is coming from the left.







I felt I got the highlighted edge of the hat too dark, so I’m using an electric eraser to remove some of the color.





Use a writer pen tip and burn above and below the looping design on the band that circles the hat.





While you have the writer equipped, finish burning dark lines adjacent to any designs on the hat lacking one.






Then burn along the edges of the raised portion of the looping design.







Lightly burn over the designs.








Here’s a progress photo that shows the difference between the designs that have and haven’t been burned over.







In addition to lightly burning over the designs, I also have been burning a much darker and thicker line next to the designs.   Most of the time I have a general idea of what I want to do, but that plan is an evolving thing as the artwork progresses.






In this photo you can really see the difference the dark lines have made.







Lastly, use a writer pen tip and burn tiny circles and squiggles over the white design areas on the hat.   If you prefer you can apply a layer of tiny tan dots to the area.   We just need some sort of texture to give the area a touch of color and tone down the contrast.







We’ll work on the two spiders first.






Use a writer pen tip and burn the spider to a dark brown or black color. 






I created a subtle highlight on the head, abdomen, and the top of each leg.  I doubt it’s that noticeable, so burning the spider to a uniform dark color will work just fine.






Lastly add a bit of a cast shadow under the spider.  Since the light is coming from the left, the shadow should angle downward towards the right.






Here’s how the spider looks.







With the second spider I used a shader on the head and abdomen, but I did not bother with the subtle highlight.








I did add a cast shadow under the two upper legs that touch the hat.









I used a writer pen tip to burn in the legs.  Again I didn’t bother trying to create a subtle highlight as this spider is in the shadows.







Finishing the spider.









Next bug is the centipede.






Use a writer pen tip and burn each leg on the centipede to a dark brown or black color.







Burn each leg individually and make them uniform in color.  If you want you can add subtle highlights along the upper edges.  







With the body, burn each segment individually to a dark brown or black color.  The lower edge of each segment was left a few shades lighter so the viewer can there are segments on the body.








Here’s how the centipede ended up looking.








The last bug we need to burn in is the fly.






Use a writer pen tip to burn in the legs on the fly.








The burn the body to a dark color.  I used a small shader, but a writer pen tip might be easier.






Burn in the head, but make the eyes a couple of shades lighter in color.








Then burn in the wings.  I think my wings are too dark, so I would advise making yours a lighter color.






Lastly, add a bit of a cast shadow under the fly.








Here’s a close up of the suit.  As you can see the suit is pale in color with a white lace covering.  I’m going to simplify the suit, so it will be a brown color without a lace covering.  The shirt and flower will be dark brown to black in color.




Burn the purple shirt to a very dark brown or black color.  Especially the area under the jaw as the dark color will help the skull seem pale.





It is your choice if you want to leave a hint of a lapel on the left side like I did.  Another option would be to burn the entire area to a dark color and it would look fine.




Avoid the stray locks of hair.







Rotated the board, if needed, when burning along shirt edges to ensure the edges are crisp and clean.








For the most part the purple shirt is burned to a uniform dark color, but you can leave a small area a touch lighter to mimic the reference photo.







The right side of the suit I burned to a slightly lighter color as it wasn’t being shadowed by the hair.







Leave the left the edge of the lapel a few shades lighter so it is visible.







Finishing up the suit.  Lightly burn over the brooch at the neck using circular motion to give it a bit of texture.






Then use a writer pen tip and burn 4 small circular shapes on the brooch.







Burn each flower petal individually.  The base of each petal should be darker than the end of it.  There are two locks of hair that drape over the flower.  Color over them with white charcoal so they will stand out.  This will help you see and avoid them.  Plus the charcoal will resist the heat of the pen tip, and that will help the locks of hair stay pale.




On the inner petals leave a pale line along the edges to give the flower shape.   





Without the pale edge on the petals I think the flower would look like a dark blob.  Not the look we’re after.   

Once you’re done with the flower make sure to erase the white charcoal from the locks of hair.


We’re done.    Well what do you think?  Did I break the subject matter down so that it was much easier than you thought it would be?  I truly hope so.   I think it is easy to feel intimidated or unsure how to begin.  When that happens try to focus on small areas to get started on the artwork.  Often once you get started the process gets easier as areas get burned in.

Now to answer a couple of questions I get asked frequently.  This artwork was burned on birch plywood that measures 6 x 8 inches (15.2 x 20.3 cm).  It took me 9 1/4 hours to complete the artwork.  

Until the next blog,


Oct 13, 2020

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4 thoughts on “Pyrography Techniques – The Skull Mask wood burning tutorial

  1. I am really excited about making an attempt to burn this pattern. I only found out about your website yesterday but have already printed off several patterns to practice many many things. I usually hand sketch drawings so I can keep learning both skills at the same time but with your tutorial notes and tips I really want to use the patterns and just jump into the lessons for burning and let concept and fantasy art be my learning platform for sketching. Your videos are very helpful as well. I am wondering if there is a problem with the link for this pdf pattern or if it is a problem with my computer? Every time I click to open the pattern it says that there is an error and it can’t load. The other 3 patterns I printed off had no issues and printed just fine.

    Hopefully I will find a way to print this pattern because it looks incredibly fun to me….and challenging. Thank you for putting all this work into this website, I will be coming here a lot.

    – Alecia

    1. Hi Alecia,
      I’m glad you’re enjoying the patterns and tutorials. I tested out the skull mask pattern and all of the links are in tack. I tried opening the pattern w/o being logged onto the website and everything pulled up. I would try opening the pattern from the patterns page and if that doesn’t work open it on the written tutorial page. Maybe one will work for you. They both should since it is the same link, but sometimes computers are difficult creatures! 🙂

      Let me know if you continue to have problems.

  2. Do you think some “relief carving” would work with some of this drawing. Thinking of doing this with a solid piece of 3/4in birch or maybe pine. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
    Thank you

    1. Hi Wes,
      I don’t see why it would work. Carving away the background would make the face pop up from the background.
      I say go for it! You don’t know until you try. I’ve discovered some fantastic things by experimenting, and I’ve have some colossal failures. Either way the information was valuable.
      Have fun

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