Pyrography for Beginners – Border Frames wood burning tutorial

In this tutorial I’m going to explain how to create a wood burned border frame on your board.   This is a way to dress up your artwork without actually framing it.  I think it gives the artwork a polished look and increases its visual appeal.  It’s not hard to add a border frame, but depending on the size of the board it can take some time.  Time well spent I think, so let’s get started. 

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






  • Sharp Knife (like an Xacto)
  • Pencil
  • Ruler
  • Metal straight edge
  • Clamps
  • White Charcoal pencil
  • Skew or Rounded heel pen tip
  • Shader pen tip

This may surprise you, but I don’t really enjoy finding links to products I use.  I recently wrote a blog that lists the products I use, and I included links to the majority of them.   So, I’m not going to bother with product links here.  After all, that’s why I wrote the supplies list blog.  Here’s a link to that blog: Supplies I use  


I thought I’d begin this tutorial with some examples of border frames I’ve done on my artwork.  In the variations step I will explain some of these different frames I’ve created.

With the Raspberry Bandit I burned a solid or uniform colored frame along the border, but allowed a couple of raspberry leaves to overlap onto the frame.






From an angle you can see how the dark color wraps around the sides.  I think makes the artwork look more impressive when it’s hanging on the wall.








The cheetah artwork has a flat or solid color frame around the border.  I turned the board on the diagonal and let the image of the cheetah extend to the outer edge of the board.  I really like how that ended up looking.








Viewed from an angle and you can see how I continued the color along the sides of the board. This really gives the artwork a polished look.  This particular artwork was burned on a cradleboard which is nothing more than a piece of plywood mounted on a wooden frame.








If you have access to a router, you can give a nice shaped edge.  This can allow for some creative frames or borders.   With the Mexican Wolf I burned a thin solid border around the edges on the front of the board.  I darkened the sides of the board, but left the router groove unburned for contrast.








From this angle you can see the sides and the unburned router groove better.









With the little beggar house sparrow I burned a dark uniform border around the edges of the board.  Then I left a pale gap and created an inner border.  It was my attempt to make it look like the artwork was matted and framed.  Not sure how successful I was with that, but I thought it looked decent.








Looking at it from an angle and you can see how I continued the dark uniform color along the sides of the board.   This is another piece of artwork that I burned onto a cradleboard.   








So that the board would lie flush or flat against the wall, I used eye hooks and wire. 






The eye hooks are set about around a 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) from the edge of the frame.








The border frame I will be showing you today is the one I put around Biscuit the pug artwork.  This frame has the appearance of being rounded.









I burned the frame first, and then started working on the pug.  At the time I wrote this tutorial I wasn’t done with the artwork, so don’t judge it too harshly.









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. 

The board should be damp to the touch, 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. 


The first thing we need to do is drawing the frame.  It is completely up to you on how wide you want your frame.  








Use a ruler and mark off where you want the frame to end.  I made my frame one inch (2.54 cm) wide. 







Then use a straightedge and draw a line connecting the marks.  I usually draw over the line twice before removing the straightedge.






You want a line that is very easy to see.   Repeat the process until all sides of the board have a line.


Next use a metal straightedge and clamp it to the board.  Make sure the edge of the metal is aligned with the pencil line on the board. 







Yes, the straightedge needs to be metal, but one of those cheap wood rules that has an inset metal edge would work.


You should use at least 2 clamps to keep the piece of metal from shifting around.





Then use a knife with a sharp blade and cut along the pencil line using the metal straightedge as a guide.







I am pushing the blade up against the edge of the metal to help ensure it follows the pencil line.









When you are cutting across the grain line I am in this photo, you will notice that it is more resistant than cutting with the grain.  The blade doesn’t sink in a deeply when cutting across the grain.   I suggest cutting over the line twice when cutting across the grain to ensure you have a nice deep score line.





My metal straightedge wasn’t long enough for the board I’m working with, so I repositioned it to cover the last part of the line.




Then I put the tip of the knife into the thin groove made during the first cut and continued scoring the line.  Rotate the board and repeat this process on the next side.  Continue until all lines on the frame have been scored.





STEP 4 – BURN LINES       

Now we will burn in the scored lines.









This photo shows the skew, knife, rounded heel, or whatever you want to call them pen tips. 

The pen tip on the far left is the largest and produces the thickest burn mark.  The one on the far right is what Colwood calls a rounded heel. 

Of the three I like the rounded heel best because the metal is thinner and it follows the score lines better.  For some reason I used the far left one for this project.  I think the larger blade seduced me into thinking the burning process would go faster.  Instead I had problems with the pen tip jumping the track.  That was because the pen tip was a bit wider than the score line, and I wasn’t as familiar with this pen tip.  I think this was the second time I ever used it.




Begin by placing a skew type of pen tip into the score line at the top of the board.  Always start at the top of the board and gently pull the pen tip downward towards the bottom.







Take you time and allow the pen tip to follow along the grooved line.  Try to keep your hand and wrist in a locked position and move your arm from the shoulder.  The less your hand moves the better the straight line results tend to be. 








Make sure to rotate the board before you start your next line.  Always burn so that you are pulling the pen tip downward.






The red arrow is pointing to a spot where my pen tip jumped the track. 







Fortunately, I noticed right away and stopped burning before the stray burn line got very long.

STEP 5 – HIGHLIGHT         

This is an optional step, but I find it helpful.  Use a ruler and a white charcoal pencil and mark the halfway point on your border.






Technically you don’t have to put your highlight in the middle.  You can offset it so the highlight is closer or further away from the edge.  That is your choice. 




Then draw a line with the charcoal.  I freehanded the line because when I used a straightedge the charcoal didn’t transfer well.  I must have been holding the pencil at the wrong angle or something.   Since the line doesn’t need to be perfectly straight, I just drew it in using the marks to help keep it centered.


One thing I have discovered is to not let the charcoal sit on the board for more than a few hours.  Much longer it gets harder to erase all traces of it.  One of the lines on my board was in place for over 24 hours and I had sand it away.  


Use a shader of your choice and burn a band of color from the outer edge of the board to the white line.








Start the burn stroke on the outer edge and pull it downward towards the white line.  We are giving the area a base color.

The burn stroke almost always starts darker than it ends, so do not start the burn stroke on the white line!  The white line represent the area we want a highlight which is the palest area on the frame.




Lift the pen tip and start another burn stroke that is adjacent or slightly overlapping the first one.  Again, start the stroke at the top of the board and pull it down towards the white line. 







I like to work small sections at a time, so I fill a small area with slightly overlapping burn strokes that are fairly uniform in color.   The start of the stroke is sometimes a bit darker, but not substantially so.






This shows the small section filled in with the first application of burn strokes that give the section its base color.  You can see that the base color isn’t perfectly uniform.   






To make sure that you don’t end up with a crisp line where your burn strokes end, just burn a little ways onto the white charcoal line.   Also make sure that as you near the end of the burn stroke you start lifting the pen tip up and away from the board.  Do not stop or pause at the end of the burn stroke!



Next, repeat the process, but this time stop a short distance from the white line.   During the reburning the color tends to get evened out and much smoother looking.






I want to point out that during this second round of re-burning, you are only burn over the three-quarters of the original burn marks.  Or to put it another way, we are darkening up the upper three-quarters of the area. 

Not only will this help smooth out the color, but it accomplishes two other things.   The area close to the white charcoal line is becoming paler in color than the upper edge of the frame, so we are creating the highlight.   Also, since the burn strokes tend to start out darker than they end, this creates gradient shading from the upper edge to the white line and that is helping give it a rounded appearance.




Lastly, I re-burn over the area one more time, but this time I only burn about one quarter of the way down.  This will really darken up the upper edge and help give the mock frame a very rounded appearance.

To create the illusion of a rounded or domed frame requires a highlight, dark edges, and gradient shading that transitions between them.   By reburning over the area 3 times with different lengths of burn strokes each time, we are meeting the requirements for the illusion we want to create.   Plus, the reburning and slightly overlapping the burn strokes is what creates the ultra-smooth looking burn results on my board.




Repeat the process on the next small section.   Keep in mind you can burn across the entire board during each step.  It is just my personal preference to work in small sections at a time.







Of course, after the area is filled with a base color, the re-burn over it to darken up the top three-quarters of the area.  Always start each burn stroke at the top of the board and pull it down towards the white line!   As I said before, the burn marks usually start out darker than they end, so this help create gradient shading.





Lastly, burn over the area one more time, but this time only burn down about one-quarter of the distance from the edge to the white line.





It took me a little over 1 hour to burn in the upper edge on one side of the board.  By the time I was done, I was tired of working on the frame. 

Since I discovered that the white charcoal didn’t erase well if it sat on the board for a prolonged time, I erased it.   It was easier to redraw the line than try to remove the stubborn remains of it.



Rotate the board before you start on the inner edge.  Always have the board positioned so that you are pulling the pen tip down towards the white line.  Or in this case, where the white line was. 



Begin by burning a thick dark line along the inner edge.  If you angle the shader so that it dips down into the groove line a little, you can gently pull it along to keep the edge perfectly straight.






This might be easier to do if you are pulling the pen tip towards yourself.  If you’re having difficulties, then rotate the board so you can burn in that direction.  Just make sure to rotate it back before continuing on with the next step. 




After the thick line has been burned, then start burning the strokes to fill the area with a base color. 







Just like before, you start the burn stroke at the top of the area and pull it down towards the white line.   If it’s easier for you, redraw the white line with white charcoal.






With this particular section I’m burning the three-quarters length burn marks first, so I’m stopping a little way before the white line.   I’m trying to show you can alter the order of the 3 rounds of burning is done and still get the same results.





Then reburn over the small area, but this time I burn until you connect with the existing burn marks along what is now the bottom of the board. 





To make sure that you don’t end up with a stop line, just burn slightly onto the lower burn marks.  Do not pause at the end of the burn stroke.  Instead as you near the end of the burn stroke begin to lift the pen tip up and away from the wood.  This will allow the burn stroke to fade away. 



Lastly, I burn the short strokes that darken up the edge of the area.  As I mentioned earlier, you can do the different burn stroke lengths in any order.  That means you can start out with the short ones and work your way to the longest strokes.  It really doesn’t matter.  Instead it is about what feels comfortable or is easier.  





The process continues on in the next small section. 







Yes, there is a lot of reburning involved, but that is what give the mock frame its rich smooth color.   If a section looks pale or uneven, I re-burn over it again.  Sometimes I ended up reburning over areas 5 or 6 times before I was happy with the color.




Finishing up this small section.  The last thing I want to mention is that the larger the contrast the more rounded your frame will look.






Let’s explore this composite photo.  

Square 1 (upper left) looks flat because the color is uniform or mostly uniform.  

Square 2 (upper right) looks slighted rounded because the edges are a couple of shades darker than the center.  Plus, there is gradient shading between the edges and the center. 

Square 3 (lower left) looks more rounded because the edges have been darkened up.  

Square 4 (lower right) looks very rounded and that is because there is more contrast between the dark edges and the pale center.   

So you can control how rounded you want your border frame to look by increasing or decreasing the contrast between the highlight and the edges.



The corners get the same treatment as the straight edges do with one minor alteration.   We need to angle the burn strokes from the outer corner towards the inner corner.







Other than the slight direction change, everything else stays the same.








The corner receives a base layer of color.








It took me a little longer to get a corners done versus the straight area.  That was because I had to work slower to stay in control of the burning.






Of course the corners need the several rounds of reburning to to create the gradient shading. 

While the board was in this position, I burned the board to the left of the corner.  With the unburned outer edge to the right (below) the corner is add a just enough burn strokes to serve as guidelines.






Then I rotated the board to finish the outer edge of the corner.  Rotating the board allows for the burn strokes to be pulled downward towards the white line. 

There are two reason for pulling the pen tip downwards.  First is that it is easier to control the burn stroke when pulling the pen tip towards yourself versus pushing it away.  Secondly, the burn stroke often starts darker than it ends, and we want the darker portion of the burn stroke along the edge of the frame.



The inner corner is no different than the outer corner. 








Begin the burn strokes on the inner edge and pull it towards the white line.  Also, angle the burn stroke from inner corner towards the outer corner.








The slight direction change is the only modification for the corners.








I doubt you’ll have any problems with them.   








Take your time and do quality work.   








My board is 16 x 16 inches (40.6 x 40.6 cm), and it took me around 1 hour to do each frame edge.  That’s 8 hours I spent just working on the frame.   








Here’s how the corner looked once I was done.



Let’s recap the information for achieving smooth burn results.  These are not in any particular order.

  • Rotate the board so you are pulling the pen tip down towards yourself. This makes it easier to control the pressure on the pen, and produces more consistent results.
  • Slightly overlap your burn strokes.
  • Don’t use a really high heat. The higher the heat the harder it is to control the results.
  • Re-burn to build up the tonal depth and smoothness.
  • Always start the burn stroke on the edge or where the color is the darkest.
  • Never rest or pause the pen tip on the board at the end of the burn stroke.
  • Always lift the pen tip up and away from the board at the end of the stroke, so that the color to fades away to nothing.
  • Don’t try to get the burning done with just one layer of color. Re-burning is a major key to getting smooth results. 
  • Use a light hand pressure. Let the pen tip glide over the wood.  The light hand pressure helps keep the temperature of the pen tip constant, so you get more consistent results.


I have a dark line showing up in my highlight area.   I’m not 100% sure what I was doing wrong to make this happen.  It might have been a bad spot on the board, but my guess is that I was doing something that caused it.  Most like I stopped the burn stroke too soon and didn’t let it overlap slightly on the lower portion of the frame.






To fix it I used the sand ink eraser on my electric eraser and gently rubbed over the area.  I did NOT turn on the electric eraser.  Instead, I used it as a tool to hold the small ink eraser.    








The reason I didn’t turn on the erase is that would have made it too difficult to control how much color was removed.  This way I could slowly and gently remove just enough color to make the line disappear, but not create a white line in its place.






Here’s how it looked after I was done.


Flat Edges

The flat edges are created by filling the area with solid or uniform color.  There are 3 methods to accomplish this that I am aware of.

Method 1 is to burn them in using uniform strokes.









Method 2 is to use a torch and a metal shield.






As you can see, I’m not very good with this method as the flames got under my shield.  Most of that was because I had the torch angled wrong.  I have since learned that you always do the torch work on the top or upper edge.  Never burn on the sides, instead rotate it so it is on top.  Secondly, angle the torch upward towards the outer edge of the board.  This way it can’t get under the metal shield.

Using a torch creates a lot of carbon on the wood and it smears easily!   It also transfers to your fingers and to anything else that touches it, so make sure to wipe over the area with a clean paper towel until it mostly comes clean.  Either that or promptly spray with a sealant to keep it from smearing.


Method 3 is to paint the border frame.   I haven’t done this because I hate painting, and I’m not sure if my brush skills are good enough to keep a crisp edge.  Mostly likely they are not.   If I were to brush them on, I’d use a thicker paint like acrylic that is unlikely to bleed.








Inner Border

With the little beggar artwork, I created an inner board.









The process is similar to the rounded edge.  I drew a line, scored the line, and burned over the line using a rounded heel pen tip.  Then I burned a thick line along the scored line.   Afterwards, I burned short strokes that started on the thick line and ended a short distance.  I moved my hand fairly fast to make sure that the line ended much lighter in color than it started.  This is called a pull-away stroke.


I now paint the sides of my boards.  This is much easier than torching them, and it doesn’t create the carbon that gets on your fingers and everything the board touches.   This is the very last thing I do before the board is sealed with either a lacquer or polycrylic finish.

I pick colors that are in the brown to black range.  Actually, I mix the two to get something between.  No two colors are ever the same.  😊 






Dip a clean brush into the paint and brush it along the far edge of the board.  The far edge is the edge furthest from the front of the board that has your artwork. 






Then I place the brush on the far edge and pull it towards the close edge. 






Painting in this directing helps keep the paint from getting on the front of the board.  It generally takes two coats of paint before everything is good and covered.   I’m using acrylic paints, so by the time I get all four sides painted, the first side I started with is dry and ready for the second application.




Even though I didn’t burn a border or mock frame on my Bighorn Sheep artwork, I painted the sides.  The front of the board was fairly dark with the sandstone texture background, so I look it looked nicer or more polished with the dark sides.









I hope you found this tutorial informative.   Border frames really do add a lot of visual appeal to the board.  Plus, it gives the board a professionally finished look.  Yes, it takes a bit of time to do, but given the results I think it is time well spent.

Until the next blog,


Apr 27, 2021

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