In this tutorial I’m going give you 6 tips for getting smooth burn results. Then I will do an example burn to show the tips in action. During the example burn I will provide some addition information such as extending the color, and switching pen tips. I created a video version of this tutorial and I did try to present the information a little differently in the video. My reason for this, is that sometimes if a concept is presented in different ways, one of the explanations might make things understandable. The last thing I will cover is how I fix problems, and the most common reason why they occurred.
Now, let’s get to work.
SKILL LEVEL: 1
- Writing tip
- Shading tip
- Practice board of any size
Tip 1 – Prepare the board
I can’t emphasize enough the need to prepare a board for burning on it. Any sort of blemish or roughness on the board can snag the pen tip causing inconsistent results. In other words, the smoother the board is, the smoother the burn results will be. Plus the easier it will be to achieve smoother results.
The board should be damp to the touch, but not soaking wet!
Let the board dry completely. Once the board is dry it will feel fuzzy to the touch. That is a sign that the grain or nap has been raised. For whatever reason the grain absorbs more water than the surrounding wood. When it dries the grain now sticks up a past the rest of the wood, making the board feel fuzzy.
FYI – if the board should be wetted out second time the grain won’t raise again.
I often get asked is it necessary to wet out the board. Another common question I get is what is the point of wetting out the board.
First off, wetting out the board this is not something you must do, but instead something I highly recommend doing.
As I said before, wetting out the board allows the grain or the nap on the board to rise. I want this to happen before I burn on the board, and the reason is that I don’t want the grain to rise after I’ve burned on it. Maybe you’re wondering how that could happen, so let me provide you a couple of example.
1 – Adding color that is liquid in nature. This would be watercolor paints, markers, inks, thinned out acrylics, etc.
2 – Some brush on wood finishes. For example, when Todd applies lacquer, the first layer is a mixture of lacquer and lacquer thinner. This mixture is has a very runny or watery consistency, and can raise the grain if the wood hasn’t been properly prepared.
2 – Humidity changes. Sometimes it can take me months before I finish a project. During that time the humidity can change from the dry summer months, to the very damp winter months. This can also happen if you live in an area that gets hot and muggy in the summer.
3 – Testing the color change of a board. When I think I’m finished with a project, I will mist the board with water to get an idea of the color change that will happen when a finished is applied. I’ve yet to encounter a finish that doesn’t impart a color change of some sort. The reason I check for this is to see if I lose some of my softer burn marks. If I can’t see them when the board is damp, then I re-burn over them after the board is dry.
What is the problem with having a fuzzy board? Re-burning over it becomes more difficult, but mostly it’s unprofessional. If you bought a wooden table and it felt fuzzy you’d think something was wrong with it. People will think the same thing with your artwork. For some reason people love to touch wood burnings; at least the people I’ve encountered do.
Here’s the same board at a different angle. I hope you can see all of the little hairs and rough spots on the right side. The board felt smooth to my finger, but, as this photo shows, it wasn’t all that smooth.
Tip 2 – Adjust the heat
To help visualize this, I circled the tan color I’m after on this value finder.
If you switch pen tips make sure you going through the heat adjusting process again. The reason is that no two pen tips will require the same heat setting. Even if they are the same type, they will most likely need different heat settings to get the same results. The heat settings might be close, but extremely doubtful that they will be exact.
Tip 3 – Blot and move
Anytime the pen tip is not in contact with the wood the heat builds on the pen. Once the pen tip contacts the board, the excess heat produces a dark burn spot or blotch. The yellow arrow is pointing to a dark blotch.
If the heat setting is really low, then the resulting blotch might not be that noticeable even with a longer pause.
The one on the far right was done with the lowest setting of the 4 patches. The one on the far left had a heat setting so high that smoke was emitted during the burn. Hopefully you can see the smoke.
The problem with burning at higher temperatures is that it becomes difficult to get lighter colored burn results. You have to move your hand faster to account for the higher heat. The faster your move your hand the harder it is to maintain precision and consistency.
Tip 4 – Hand pressure and speed
Let the pen tip gently touch the board so it can easily glide over the surface. Using a light hand pressure with help keep the heat at a steady level producing more consistent results.
If you slow down your hand speed, the resulting burn will be darker in value. Speed up your hand and the burn will be lighter in value. So, if you want uniform smooth color, it is important to keep your hand moving at a steady speed.
Here’s a photo comparing the light and heavy hand pressure burns. The burn on the left that was done using a light hand pressure looks better than the one on the right created with a heavy hand pressure.
I did not do any re-burning on this patch, so you can really see the how the color of the patch is darker at the top where the burn strokes start.
The burn patches framed in blue did not have any re-burning done. Plus, the heat was increased by a small amount.
Both of the burn patches created with a heavy hand pressure (marked with the letter H) are not as even or uniform in color as those created with a light hand pressed (marked with the letter L).
Tip 5 – Burn direction
Keep in mind, that I’m not saying it can’t be done, because it can. What I’m saying is that it is easier and you’ll get more consistent results pulling the pen tip down towards the bottom of the board.
This dark burn stroke in the middle and the one to the left of it on this patch were made by pushing the pen tip up and away from myself. All of the other burn strokes in this patch were created by pulling the pen tip downward.
Another consideration is the grain direction of the board. For some reason burning with the grain tends to produce smoother results than burn against or across the grain. In this photo the grain on my test board is horizontal. Since I’m burning in a vertical direction, I’m burning against or across the grain.
The burn patches found in the red frame were burned across the wood grain. Compare those with the patches to the left that were burned with the grain. The left burn patches are a touch smoother looking.
I’m not sure why, but this is more noticeable when burning on plywood versus boards made out of a solid piece of wood.
When possible, try to burn with the wood grain.
Tip 6 – Overlap and re-burn
The burn patch starts out like they all do, a single burn stroke created using the flat of the shader. The burn stroke starts at the top of the patch and is pulled down towards the bottom of the board.
Here’s how it looked once I was done. It’s smoother looking than it was with just one layer of burn strokes. It is also darker. That’s why I always set my burner to get a lighter color than what I want the final color to be.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Recapping the information
I will be filling a 2 x 2 inch (5 x 5 cm) square with uniform color. That is a long way to pull the pen tip and maintain a consistent hand pressure. Instead burn to a length that is comfortable, but vary the length of the strokes. What you want to avoid is creating a horizontal line forming from having burn strokes that are all the same length.
Also, because I will be extending the color, I purposely let the color fade at the end of the burn strokes. More about that in the next paragraph.
When extending the color of a burn patch, start the stroke a short distance from the end of a previous burn stroke. Or to put it another way, overlap the where you a new burn stroke near the bottom edge of an existing burn stroke. Yet one more way to visualize this, start a new burn stroke on the faded portion of an existing burn stroke.
Use a light hand pressure
Maintain a constant hand speed
Overlap your burn strokes
Don’t burn at a high heat
Pull the pen tip down versus pushing it up
Never pause or stop with the pen tip resting on the board. Keep the pen tip in motion the entire time it’s in contact with the board.
After breaks or pauses from burning, always blot the pen tip on scrap wood to remove excess heat and help prevent dark blotches from happening.
Rotating the board
Before I resume burning, I blot the pen tip on scrap to remove any excess heat.
Switching pen tips
I’m switching pen tips to finish up the square. There isn’t a reason for this other than to show you the shader pen tip you use doesn’t matter. They can all do the same basic things. The first thing that needs to be done is adjusting the heat on the burner until the desired color is achieved.
I’m sure you noticed that there is a very noticeable grain line on this board. I am doing my best to avoid burning over that grain line. The reason is that grain lines tend to darken up much faster than the adjacent wood.
Keep your hand speed constant as you burn. Altering your hand speed will change the resulting color of the burn stroke. Slowing down your hand speed will darken the burn, and speed up your hand speed will lighten the burn.
Before and after
Problem 1 – Scraping
These spots are mostly likely the result of not blotting the pen tip before burning. I’m often guilty of this. I will pause to examine the reference photo, and then resume burning without blotting first. I’ve had to fix problems of this nature many times.
The scraping method is a bit time consuming and tedious to do, so I only use this method for small blemishes.
Problem 2 – Targeted reburning
Here’s the other problem burn. This one has several problems going on. First there is a dark burn spot on the upper right, a very pale streak in the middle, and the bottom of the burn area has an overall lighter color than the top.
- We need to work slow and precise. The slower your burn, the darker the results.
- Often the burn strokes are very short. This means the pen tip isn’t in contact with the wood for as long, so it doesn’t lose much heat. This will also create darker burn results.
- It is better to burn lighter and re-burn to build up the color until it matches the existing burn area.
Because of those two reasons, it’s important to work at a lower heat than what you initially burned the patch with. I often reduce the heat on my burner by a full number. For example, my burner goes up to 10. Let’s say I created the patch while the burner was set at 4. When I start doing a targeted re-burn, I will turn the heat down to 3 or maybe even lower depending on how slow and precise I need to work.
To fix this, I place the pen tip between the two lines and burn horizontally between the lines. Always pull the pen tip in your hand direction. This means that if you are right-handed, then pull the pen tip towards the right. I’m left-handed, so I’m pulling the pen tip to the left.
Don’t push the pen tip in the opposite direction of your hand; especially when burning on plywood. If you’re right-handed, then you should not push the pen tip towards the left side of the board. Instead start on the left side and pull the pen tip towards the right. The reason is that the front edge of the pen tip might dig into the wood surface. Yes, I’ve had this happen.
That’s it for the tutorial. I hope the information will help you get smoother burn results. Keep in mind, that if you’re just starting out that this might seem like a lot of information to absorb. Not to mentions a number of different skills to master. Be patient, continue to create art, and both your art and burning skills will improve.
Until the next blog,
Oct 12, 2021
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