How to Pyrograph

Monday 9 July 2018

We all know there is more than one way to burn a design on a vessel or even to sign the bottom of a piece with your name.

This article shows some of the processes I use to add pyrography to my pieces, as I have come up with my own artistic vision and application to this ancient craft. Having read many 'how to' pyrography books myself, I will be sharing my approach to burning designs, hopefully adding a few more tips

and tricks to your skill level.

First I start by drawing a pattern on tracing paper. The tracing paper allows me to turn the paper over to modify and improve the front design by redrawing overlays on the back. I can make changes without losing the original layout on the front – top. If the new idea on the back doesn't really work, I can erase it without losing the original idea on the front – top – side of the paper. Once I

am satisfied with the entire design, I transfer it to the vessel using carbon paper. Note: you can also photocopy the pattern and transfer it using the hot knife technique, but I prefer carbon paper and retracing, as this gives me another opportunity to practise drawing before burning. Flow is important. If you can draw a design with ease, then you can burn it with a hot pen.

Tracing paper also allows you to copy clip art designs for easy modification – making it your own is important. The natural world here in Hawaii has such incredible morphing patterns to draw inspiration from. Actually anywhere you are, just look at the clouds and start drawing all the creatures – birds, animals, fish and faces in the sky. That can get you started. After all, nature is an excellent source of inspiration.

Just about anything you turn on a lathe can be embellished with pyrography designs. Find what works best for you and start experimenting with burning.

The enjoyment of pyrography is that it has the capacity to engage each of us in new ways of expressing ourselves artistically. Exploring new techniques gives us the opportunity to learn with our hands and hearts as well as with our creative minds.

The piece I am working on in this article is one that I am entering in our 45th annual Hawaii craftsmen juried exhibition. This platter is turned in the style I learned from Jimmy Clewes two years ago at his demo and hands-on workshop here in Hawaii.

He taught us how to undercut the inside rim of a platter, which provides a nice wide, flat rim surface that is perfect for pyrography patterns and designs.


For burning, I prefer the two-port system transformers with a control heat dial. These allow me to continually burn non-stop for hours on end. When a pen gets too hot, I just flip the switch, pick up the other pen and keep going. This allows time for the first pen to cool down.

There are quite a few different burning tips and pens available on the market: some light, some heavy, some with solid-state tips and others with changeable tips and spoons. You can even make your own tips if you are inventive. I've tried them all; my favourite three are shown here.

Note that each pyrography pen and tip has a different heat range. I set my transformer dial to the lowest setting that will allow for burning effectively without flashing. If the tip is excessively hot it will smoke and burn the wood too much. If the tip is too cold, it cannot cut a smooth line that flows without drag. Speed of pull will vary the depth of a burn as well as the darkness of the line or

the shading applied.

After burning, I clean the surface with alcohol to eliminate the oil-like flash residue in unwanted areas. Sometimes I use 600 grit sandpaper on these flashes to clean the line definition that has accumulated.

When burning I generally try to make each line by using only one pass. Trying to re-burn a line can create a double line. Always remember – don't leave the 'iron' on if you walk away and be careful to not get burnt. Be creative and have fun.

Step 1

The actual pattern I drew before transferring my idea to the rim of the platter. Note: I use tracing paper because it allows me to work with and correct the images before transferring them to the vessel. The tracing paper is held in place with tape – Scotch Tape or masking tape – which is easy to remove. I stretch it tight and attach it at four points equally around the vessel

Step 2

Here is the paper pattern next to the rim of a large platter, which is made in Norfolk pine (Araucaria cunninghamii). Here you can see a piece of carbon paper and pencil being used to transfer the drawing to the rim. When I trace the pattern on to the vessel, I use a mechanical pencil with a harder lead. I try to make this transfer as clean as possible because it represents the true lines that I intend to burn

Step 3

Here is the pattern transferred and the first lines burned, using a razor-tip burning pen

Step 4

This is the pattern next to the rim with the start of the background being filled in using a point pen. My technique is dot-dot-dot in a flowing pattern that darkens the background field to pull the image forward. The heat setting varies according to the wood used. I set the dial at a temperature that allows for burning effectively without 'flashing' or smoking the wood. For the initial outline I use a scalpel-shaped tip, that looks a lot like a #11 Exacto knife blade. I actually file and sharpen it, so that it cuts like a knife. This eliminates drag and helps reduce carbon build-up. For the dot-dot-dot pattern I use two different tips, one is pointed – like an awl, to make a fine dot – and the other, more rounded tip makes a slightly larger dot which darkens the background

Step 5

Here you can see the detail of the rim

Step 6

This is a close-up shot of my dot-dot-dot burning technique. I usually make three or four passes during this process. The first is like a line-drawing using the scalpel tip. Next, I begin shading, using the dot system – something like pointillism painting – with the dots varying in size, depth and darkness. I then darken the field even more using a 'shading tip' that is flat, wide and spoon-like. Sliding this tip across the dotted field will further darken the background and add depth to the image you are creating

Step 7

A close-up of the drawing I intend to burn on the inside of the platter. Here I have drawn the image freehand, using a very soft lead ebony drawing pencil, which will not scratch the surface if I have to erase and make corrections

Step 8

Here you can see the start of burning the bird on the inside of the vessel outlined. In this process I used the scalpel tip that has a thin knife-like shape

Step 9

Here I am using the Burnmaster pen, carrying out finishing touches to the bird, using interchangeable tips

Step 10

The vessel before the first coats of oil have been applied. Note: no sealers or oils are applied until all artwork is burned. Oil smoke is hazardous to your health so always burn in a well-ventilated area

Step 11

Next I turn the vessel over to sign the bottom. This photo shows the signature pattern placed in position with carbon paper under it, ready to transfer

Step 12

Darkening the transferred drawing to clarify the image before I burn it

Step 13

Burning the first fine lines of the design using the razor-tip pen. Yes, this is the scalpel tip but I call it a razor-tip, because I file it so that it is even sharper and cuts through the wood like a razor

Step 14

Progression of pyrography detail using my dot-dot-dot technique to define and shade the image

Step 15

A top view of the completed design, after the oil finish has been applied

Step 16

Bottom view of the oiled vessel after signing. For me, finding new ways to express my creativity on this final step has become part of my signature pyrographic technique

Step 17

Here is the finished piece, entitled 'As Above, So Below', which is made in Hawaiian Norfolk pine