Pyrography Techniques – Tips for Smooth Burn Results wood burning tutorial

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.   

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

Now, let’s get to work.

 

SKILL LEVEL: 1

 

MATERIALS NEEDED:  

  • Writing tip
  • Shading tip
  • Practice board of any size

6 TIPS

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.

Begin by thoroughly sanding the board using 220 grit sandpaper.  You can use one that is close to that value. 

 

 

 

 

Then thoroughly wet the board by misting it with water or a damp cloth.  I keep a little spray bottle filled with water for this purpose. 

 

 

 

 

 

Make sure you spray the entire board.  It’s okay if it starts pooling or running.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remove and excess water with a dry paper towel or cloth. 

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.    

 

 

Once the board is dry, then sand again using the same grit or higher grit sandpaper to remove the fuzziness and make the board ultra smooth.

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. 

The left side of this birch plywood board has been prepared using the steps I just outlined.  The right side was left alone.     You can see the difference in the surface texture between the two sides.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

As I burn a small test patch on the un-sanded right side of the board, it feels rough.  I’m having a difficult time getting smooth results.  The pen tip is encountering a lot of resistance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sand left side of the board is so much easier to burn on.  The pen tip is able to glide over the surface and I’m not noticing any resistance.  The results in a smoother burn.

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a comparison of the two burn results.  I know they look pretty similar, but the left side was so much easier to create.

Tip 2 – Adjust the heat

Before your pen tip ever touches the board, test out the burn results on a scrap board.  Adjust the heat setting on your burner in small increments until the desired tonal value is achieved. 

Be aware that even with professional burners it can take up to 30 seconds before the change is fully in effect.

 

 

 

 

When you are adjusting your heat setting, it is often better to aim for a tonal value that is 1-3 shades lighter than what you want.  The lighter color allows for re-burning.

To help visualize this, I circled the tan color I’m after on this value finder.

 

 

I will set my burner to get a shade closer to what the arrow is pointing to.  Again, this is to account for re-burning which will darken up the burn results.

 

 

 

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

Just before you start burning, blot the pen tip on a scrap board.  This is to remove any excess heat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once your pen tip touches the board, keep it moving.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do not pause or allow the pen tip to rest on the board.  Doing so will cause uneven burn results.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Small dark blotches that appear at the beginning of a burn stroke are often the result of heat buildup.   

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.   

 

 

 

 

How dark blotches will be depends on two things:  the heat setting and the duration of the pause.   The longer the pause the higher the heat builds up. 

If the heat setting is really low, then the resulting blotch might not be that noticeable even with a longer pause. 

 

 

 

 

For example, this darker blotch that the yellow arrow is point at isn’t super bad.  Mostly likely it wouldn’t be noticed unless the person was fairly close when viewing the artwork.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unlike this very dark blotch which is very noticeable.   The higher the heat the less time it takes to get a very dark blotch like this. 

Both of the blotches in the above examples could have been avoided if the pen tip had been blotted to a scrap board first.

 

 

 

 

Each burn patch in the red rectangle was made with a different heat setting. 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The burn patch I’m working on may look okay from a distance, but if you look closely you’ll see that it has a lot of irregularities in it.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Basically, the higher the heat is, the harder it is to control the results and achieve smooth burns.  I highly recommend turning down the heat and working at a slower more controlled pace.

Tip 4 – Hand pressure and speed

I cannot emphasize enough the need to using a light hand pressure when burning!   

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another important aspect is to keep a constant hand speed. 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

There is another important aspect to achieve smooth results and that is re-burning, but I’ll cover that more in tip 6.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This burn patch is being created using a heavy hand pressure.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

The color started out dark, but quickly faded.  Plus, the color isn’t very uniform.  Often the hand speed varies when using a heavy pressure, and that further contributes to the uneven results.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Re-burning helps the area look better, but that can only do so much.   Especially when using a heavy hand-pressure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s another example using a heavy hand pressure, but this time I’m burning at a bit higher heat level.   Notice how dark the first burn started out as, but the color faded away very quickly.   

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.

 

 

 

 

Whereas this burn was created at the same heat setting, but I used a very light hand pressure.   Notice how the color is very consistent from the top to the bottom of the burn stroke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let me explain this final photo.  The burn patches framed in yellow were created with either light or heavy hand pressure and a small amount of re-burning. 

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

It is easier to control hand pressure and speed if you pull the pen tip down towards the bottom of the board.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Avoid pushing the pen tip up towards the top of the board.  The reason is that it is much harder to keep a consistent hand pressure, or match the hand pressure used during the downward stroke.   

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 last tip I have involves overlapping and re-burning. 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The second burn stroke should slightly overlaps the first one. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Continue to create the patch of color with new burn strokes that slightly overlap the last burn stroke.   Overlapping the burn strokes helps hide individual burn strokes.

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s how the patch looked once I was done with 1 layer of color.  The patch is pretty smooth look; especially given the fact that I’m burning on plywood.  I think you can see that it’s not perfect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

To help smooth or even out the color I re-burn over the patch.   When re-burning continue to overlap the burn strokes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Begin by testing out the burn results on a scrap board.  Adjust the heat in small increments until the desired color is achieved.

 

 

 

 

Then just before you start burning, blot the pen tip on a scrap board to make sure there isn’t any heat buildup.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Start the burn stroke at the top of the area and pull it down towards yourself.  Do not pause to stop burning while the pen tip is in contact with the wood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Slightly over lap your burn strokes and keep a light hand pressure as you burn. 

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.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

Make sure to vary the length of the extension burn strokes.  Apply the same guidelines to them that we’ve used creating the first row of burn strokes.   

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.

Take your time.   You will get better results if you slow down and take your time instead of trying to rush and finish the job as quickly as possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this photo I’m re-burning over the area to smooth out the color and help hide individual burn strokes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s how the area looks so far.   Considering I’m burning on plywood, I think this burn patch looks very smooth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rotating the board

I’m using an easel, and the lip along the bottom of it can make it tough to burn along the bottom edge of the board.  To counteract this, I just rotate the board. 

Before I resume burning, I blot the pen tip on scrap to remove any excess heat.

 

 

 

 

Then it’s business as usual.   The burn stroke is started at the top of the area and pulled down towards the bottom.

 

 

 

 

 

Use a light hand pressure, constant hand speed, and slightly overlap your burn strokes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Re-burn to help hide individual burn strokes and smooth out the overall color of the area.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s how the area looks so far.   The upper left corner got a touch dark, but other than that it’s not bad looking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Since I’m matching the color of an existing burn, it is very important to make sure the color being produced with the new pen tip is lighter in value than the existing burn.  

 

 

 

Right before touching the pen tip to the board, blot it on a scrap board to remove any excess heat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then start burning very close to the existing burn area.   As you can see the burn stroke color is a touch lighter than the existing burn and that’s what I want.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Re-burn over the area as needed to match the color of the existing burn and smooth out the color on the new burn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

For best results, pull the pen tip down toward the bottom of the board and slightly overlap the burn strokes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If needed, rotate the board and work on the other end of it.  Make sure to blot the pen tip before you start burning.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m nearing the end of the square.  The color is fairly smooth looking, so I’m happy about that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now that the square has been filled with color, it’s a matter of re-burning over the left side to make sure the color matches that of the original burn on the right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Continued work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Before and after  

The below image shows the board before and after I burned over it.  The lower right corner got a touch dark, but other than that I thought it turned out fairly well.

FIXING PROBLEMS

Problem 1 – Scraping

Now let’s examine a problem burn.  This patch of color has 2 small spots of noticeably darker color. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve marked the two spots with yellow arrows to make sure you know the spots I’m referring to.   

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Use the flat tip of a sharp knife, and very gently scrape over the burn mark.  An X-acto knife is my favorite because its small tip that allows me to be extremely precise with my scraping.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

I like to scrape both vertically and horizontally.  It is important to only scrape on the darken spot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Periodically brush over the area with your finger or a clean paintbrush to remove the scraped debris and evaluate the patch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s how the patch looks so far.  The really dark spot is lighter in value, but it still needs work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I said, there were two areas needing to be lightened up, so now I’m working on the other spot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other spot wasn’t near as dark as the one I’m currently working on, so it didn’t take long to fix. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s how the patch looks before and after I fixed it.  

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Again, I’ve marked the problem areas with yellow arrows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I begin by scraping away the excess color on the dark spot.   I don’t want the overall color on this patch to be that dark.

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s how the patch looked after I was done scraping.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now I’m going to start doing a targeted re-burning.  This means I’m only re-burning over specific areas instead of the entire patch.

IMP.  It is extremely important to turn down the heat on your burner when doing a targeted reburn.   There are three reasons for this.

  • 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.

I continue to reburn along the lower right side of the patch to get this side even in tonal value.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It has taken me a number of times of re-burning over the area to build up the color. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keep in mind when you are doing a targeted re-burn it can be beneficial to use a smaller pen tip.  This will allow you to be a bit more precise when re-burning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Work your way from one side to the other.  Re-burn as needed until the color matches.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have a couple of horizontal lines that formed during my re-burning process.  A yellow arrow is pointing to the top one, and the second line is a short distance below it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

I also re-burn along the bottom of the patch to darken it up the overall color near the bottom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the before and after of this problem burn. 

IN CONCLUSION

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,

Brenda

Oct 12, 2021

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2 thoughts on “Pyrography Techniques – Tips for Smooth Burn Results wood burning tutorial

  1. I tried to view the video several times with no results. Could you please send me an email with the video attached? Wayne

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