Pyrography: The Principles of Woodburning

Pyrography also known as woodburning, is beautiful and much simpler than any other drawing or painting medium.

Luckily it is also rather easy to master when you understand that pyrography is a physical rather than a mechanical process and so cannot be approached in the same way as drawing or painting.

Whereas drawing and painting are mainly mechanical – meaning that you lay in the ink, graphite, or paint – pyrography is physical. By physical I am referring to the fact that it is the heat that is actually making the marks. The heat is physically changing the surface to create your marks. In essence, instead of laying in color, you are transforming the physical properties of the surface. The artist’s role is one of guiding and adjusting the burning process instead of mechanically laying in pigment.

One of the biggest issues I see people having when they try to burn is that they treat the burning tool like an ink pen. They are expecting to move the pen and see a mark. Whereas this does happen, it doesn’t usually look the way they think it should.

In this article I will share with you the three principles for burning mastery. These three principles will go a long way in helping you get excellent control and results with your burning.

Understanding the Pen

Uneven pressure, hesitation (even for a millisecond), and too much heat will lead to messy burning. Based on the speed of your stroke, your pressure and your rhythm the quality of the burned mark will vary greatly.

The reason for this, is that the heat must have time to do its job of burning in the mark. If the heat is too high and the pen is held in one spot too long it will burn very dark. When someone sees this they are tempted to flick the pen and move quickly away. This tendency to overreact gives a “tadpole” look to the line. This leads to fuzzy burnings and a whole lot more work than necessary.

When you understand that it is the HEAT that does the work you can begin to approach the work with the mentality that you must adjust your strokes to allow for the burning to take place. A steady temperature and stroke will give you the most consistent results.

It is best to use a lower heat and use a slower stroke at the beginning until you get used to the tool and find your optimal combination of heat and speed. Take your time and pace yourself to create clean crisp lines and gentle shading.

Body mechanics

Your comfort is the most important element to maintaining the control necessary to master this process. Whenever possible move your work surface to facilitate hand comfort.

Watch the position of your wrist. Bending your wrist puts a strain on your carpal tunnel and will lead to discomfort and ultimately permanent damage to your wrists. Avoid this by using supports and accommodating your hand to reduce strain. Using pillows and risers to maximize the comfort of your hand can help.

Each part of your body has an optimal range of motion. Hyper extending your fingers and wrist reduces your control and will result in poor quality of work and physical discomfort. In order to create the best burns make sure you understand how far you can comfortably sustain your strokes.

By “taking off” and “landing” your pen like an airplane you can “stitch” together your strokes and maintain not only comfort but control of your burning. With this method you can “land” and burn for your optimal range, then “take off” when the end of that range is reached. You then shift your position and again “land” continue your stroke and “take off again”. Because of the graduated contact of the burning tool with your surface, the stroke will fade in when “landing” and out when “taking off”, giving you a chance to connect your strokes seamlessly by overlapping.

Pen Maintenance

Last but certainly not least is pen maintenance. Too many pyrographers fail to understand the importance of proper pen care. The most common mistake is failing to clean the tips.

As you burn, carbon will build up on the pen and begin to affect the heat. This will create inconsistent lines, black smudging, and eventually will insulate the pen tip redirecting heat up toward the handle and making it uncomfortable to burn.

Be sure to clean your pen frequently. A metal tea strainer can be used to lightly scrape off carbon build up while the pen is hot. After cooling the pen be sure to also clean your tips with a leather strop or fine sanding block. This will keep your pens functioning properly and prolong their lifespan. It will also help you to create clean lines with minimal effort.

Understanding these three principles will reduce the learning curve and allow you to master the art of pyrography quickly.

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