The pairing of wood and fire is one of the most ancient innovations of man, used to sustain human life on Earth. In unison, wood and fire provide means for warmth and safe food, and their duality has been written in myth and legend, with Prometheus stealing mankind fire from Mt. Olympus in Greek mythology. And while wood and fire provide us with means for survival, their combination can also be a terrifying and threatening one, associated with forest fires and painful burns.
Wood and fire hold another context, where their beauty is combined into art. How did this primitive, but vital combustion method with the potential to wreak havoc transpose into the art of pyrography?
History of pyrography
Pyrography, which translates from Greek to “writing with fire,” utilizes heated metal tools to burn designs into wood surfaces. It is also called wood burning, pokerwork and pyrogravure; regardless of the name it is dubbed, each creation produces incredible, intricate designs in wood surface. Commonly, desirable wood species include light-colored woods like Oak and Basswood for wood burning.
Pyrography has global, historic roots across cultures and is considered a traditional artform. Evidence of primitive pyrography can be seen as early as 700 AD and became pyrography methods became more notable in the Middle Ages with inventions of wood stoves as heat sources. These wood stoves had holes in their lids, in which pokers could be placed through until they were hot enough to be used.
In the 20th century, pyrography advanced with the invention of a heated, hollow pencil in which benzene fumes could be pumped through to remain hot. Artists could now make different shading and tints, not previously possible. The inventor was Alfred Smart and Smart’s discovery went on to be improved through electricity.
Pyrography has had yet another evolution in the modern day. With further electric advancements, techniques and tools have allowed for the art form to be accessible to all. Whether you want to create a drawing or realistic picture in the woods surface or burn your favorite recipe as a DIY cutting board design, all of these are achievable. Getting started with pyrography is quite easy, with just a few tools required.
- Wood: the majority of pyrography design is done on wood, though leather is a common medium. Light toned woods with a fine grain are best for pyrography, as they will show your design more clearly against their light surface. When choosing a piece of wood for wood burning, rough and surfaced wood will both do the trick, though surfaced slabs may be easier to work with. When looking to buy wood for pyrography, Forest 2 Home lumber has a wide variety of wood species that can be used for various projects!
- Wood burning pen: another pivotal tool in pyrography is the pen used to etch the designs into the woods surface. All pens have metal wire tips in various shapes and sizes. There are fixed wood burning pens and interchangeable wood burning pens; their difference being that fixed pens have attached tips. The advantage of interchangeable pens is having the option to change tip styles, and while more expensive, they are adaptable to ensure you have the right tip for your project.
- Wood burning unit: wood burning units supply the heat to the wood burning pens and come in a range of models to fit each individual’s project. A large advantage of these wood burners is the dials they have, which allows artists to control the amount of heat depending on their project and design type.
- Wood burning cord: cords will come already attached or will attach to your wood burning pen and wood burning unit. As the conduit for the heat used, they often burn out. Wood burning cords are easily replaceable, and you can find many that are compatible with a variety of brands.
There is a large variety of complete of kits that can be purchased at almost any price point. Wood burning pens can cost as little as $15, though their durability is far less than one that is a higher price point.
Once you have your pyrography kit, there are certain nibs that may be better for one design versus another. With a multitude of pyrography pen tips, or nibs, it is hard to determine which is right for you. Along with the wide variety of their various shapes, pen tips also come in various sizes, ranging from extra small, to small, to medium to large. Choosing which size tip you work with is another important factor, as smaller tips are important for detail work, calligraphy and delicate line work, while larger sizes will cover more space and are better for bolder designs.
Different pyrography nibs
- Ball tips: ball tips take longer to heat up and cool down due to their solid shape, but they glide easily over wood and are optimal for writing in cursive and drawing lines
- Skew tips: angled, with a very sharp point at the end, this nib is incredibly versatile and is the one most popular in pyrography. It can be used for both cutting into wood and detail work.
- Round tips: contrary to their name, the round tips shape is that of the letter “C.” Round tips are most often used for shading and creating lines on uneven surfaces
- Tight Round tips: like the round tips, just smaller and narrower shape. These are better used on flat surfaces.
- Flat skew tips: these nibs are similar to skew tips but have a blunt point
- Spear tips: with sharp, pointed ends, these tips are perfect for shaping fine detail
- Chisel tips: chisel tips have a straight, flat shape and are perfect for long, straight lines and shading work
- Round skew tip: angled with a rounded end. These tips allow for pyrographers to create detailed and realistic feather and fur designs, making them perfect for animal carving.
- Writing tips: while other tips, like the ball tip, can be used for writing, writing tips resemble standard calligraphy pens most. They are optimal for both writing and fine detail work.
- Curved spear tips: like spear tips, just angled on one side
- Knife tips: knife tips are a general use top with a sharp and flat shape.
- Shader tips: shader tips cover larger surface area with their flat and angled shape making them ideal for gliding over wood easily.
- Multi-use tips: while many tips can be used for various elements, multi-use tips are tin, curved, durable and great for various projects. They are useful in shading, calligraphy, and scaling, yet can still add detail and shapes.
Branding on hardwood
While wood pyrography is generally associated with fine detail and intricate designs on wood, wood burning encompasses other methods like branding. Branding is a popular way to mark a project as your own and modern brands have a similar structure to wood burning pens, with their heated tips. The differences between wood burning pens and wood branding are temperature, relief, pressure, and, of course, final design.
To ensure a clear brand, the surface area must be flat and level-that is the only way your design will look as you intended it to. Similarly, if the temperature of your brand is not compatible with the material you are branding on, it will cause defects in the final design. For softwoods, branding temperature should be between 650 degrees Fahrenheit and 750 degrees Fahrenheit, while with hardwoods it should be between 750 degrees Fahrenheit and 850 degrees Fahrenheit. It is important that steady pressure is applied when branding to ensure deep, even impressions and to mitigate the possibility of your brand moving while it burns the woods surface. The final important distinction between pyrography with a wood burning pens and a brand is the end design. The goal of brands is uniformity-whether it is the second time in use or the fiftieth, with each brand being a repetitive mark across projects. Wood burning pens can create similar results, but like pen on paper, the designs will never be a carbon copy.
Laser burning for large and small woodworking projects
Laser burning is another wood burning method that has taken hold of many woodworkers and DIYers. It has various advantages, including replicable and detailed designs from wood slab to wood slab. Laser wood burning engravings can be both large and small woodworking projects and are most often utilized in mass production of wood burned materials because of their efficiency and time saving properties.
The laser burning process is the most hands-off process of all pyrography techniques, as the design is input digitally and then produced exclusively by the laser. That said, it achieves the most realistic images, with the capacity to replicate digital photos on wood boards. In most laser systems, it is as easy as creating or importing your custom design, sending the data to the laser, and pressing “go” with final results being as soon as just minutes later.
Due to the technology that composes laser systems, they are the most expensive of pyrography methods, with low-cost lasers starting around $400 and higher priced ones reaching above $5,000. Like all woodworking supplies used in the woodshop, the cost is worthwhile if repeat designs are an important component to your woodworking projects and likely, the higher the cost, the more longevity you will see from the tool over time.
Forest 2 Home lumber projects
Take a look at these Forest 2 Home projects that have utilized various forms of pyrography. As you might be searching "woodworking supplies near me" after learning so much about wood burning, we've got you covered with links to our quality hardwood lumber.
Gio's Wood Burned Charcuterie Board
(crafted by @flguardgio on Instagram out of Forest 2 Home Cherry hardwood)
Bryan's Oregon Cheeseboard with Custom Brand
Terry's Laser Engraved Hat Box
Gonzalo's Custom Branded Planter
Have a tip for new pyrographers? Leave a comment! New to the medium? How will you be bringing pyrography and wood burning into your next workshop DIY build? Show us your Forest 2 Home pyrography projects by using hashtag #BuiltWithF2H on your final project photos across social media and tag us @shopf2h on Instagram. Photos and project descriptions can also be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org! Happy Woodworking!