Wood Burning

Growing up, I attended a lot of craft shows.  I always had a great time when my mom and I would go.  We’d look at every booth, eat corn dogs, funnel cakes, candied apples, and cotton candy.  It was like going to the fair, but with crafts.  The artists working with wood and leather never failed to impress me.  It was at these craft shows that I learned about wood burning.

To be honest, burning in general was pretty much guaranteed to catch my attention.  I admit it.  I am a bit of a firebug.  My mom would hide the matches and my aunt Jeanette would slip me some more.  Setting the field between your parent’s house and your neighbors is not the type of burning we’re here to talk about though. 

In September, I decided to try wood burning.  I’d tried it before back in 1982.  I made four things, and two of them were so bad that they remain at the bottom of a box to this day.  Wood burning was okay, but I didn’t stick with it.  Fast forward 40 years…gees, that is a long time…and it is all new to me again.  THIS is the type of burning we’re here to talk about today.

What is wood burning?

Wood burning is using a heated tool, or flame, to draw on wood.  You may have also heard the term pyrography.  This basically translates to “writing with fire” and encompasses the ability to draw on things other than wood, like leather and gourds.  You could take a piece of metal or wire, heat it in a flame, and use it to burn your drawing into the wood.  Fortunately, today’s wood burning tools are electric and much more convenient.  There will be more on that in a bit.  Never fear though…I can attest to the fact that the risk of burning yourself on the hot wire is still something to watch out for.

You may think that wood burning is a new fad, and while it may be experiencing a resurgence, it is anything but new.  Wood burned artifacts dating back to 100 A.D. from both Rome and Peru can be found in museums.  There is evidence of wood burning as an art form in Egypt, among the tribes of Africa, and in China.  The word used by the people of China to describe the art form translates to“fire needle embroidery” which sounds very pretty to me.  Based on what I’ve read, the term pyrography dates to the Victorian era.  Basically, humans have been burning designs into wood, leather, and gourds for thousands of years.

Antique Examples of Wood Burning

100 A.D. Stein
Beaked-lid wooden stein, ca. 1885. Property of The Sophienburg Museum and Archives.
Queen Mary Harp, c.14th-c.15th centuries. Property of National Museums Scotland
Brian Boru Harp, ca. 1064. Property of Trinity College, University of Dublin

How to get started

You don’t need much to start wood burning.  I guess if you want to go the route of our ancestors, you could grab some wood, a wire, and a fire.  You could also come across one of those benzene fueled tools from the 1800’s, but I’d recommend steering clear of those.  Benzene is not the safest chemical in the world when it comes to your health.  A magnifying glass on a bright, sunny day will definitely cause burning.  I’ve done some basic silhouettes with a magnifying glass.  Shading is non-existent though, and on a cloudy day you’re screwed. 

I’m going to recommend that you skip all those methods.  Go to the store.  I know…twist your arm and make you go shopping.  I’m such a bad friend.  While you are in the store pretending to hate every minute of it, purchase a wood burning pen.  Your fingers, your home, and your homeowner’s insurance policy will thank you for choosing this modern, safer option.

Types of pens

There are two basic types of pens…solid point and wire tip.

Pens like the Walnut Hollow solid tip pen can be picked up online or in most craft stores.  You can usually find them for under $20.  These pens are solid point pens because the tip is a solid slap of metal.  Some come with interchangeable tips.  Most of them only have one temperature setting too, but some solid point pens do come with a variable temperature setting.  The variable ones are more expensive.  For beginners, I recommend starting with something on the cheaper end of things.  You might be like me and not take to pyrography right away.

After you know you enjoy wood burning, you might want to upgrade to a wire tip model.  Wire tip pens have several advantages over the solid ones.  The biggest advantage is speed.  They heat up and cool down in seconds.  They all have a variable heat setting too.  This allows you to create a range of colors from the lightest golden browns all the way up to black.  Having a tool that gets extremely hot also allows you to burn on things like gourds.  Most of the wire tip models have a wide variety of tip shapes to choose from too.  Colwood, Burnmaster, and Razertip are some of the big-name players in the field.


You’re going to need some type of wood to draw on.  Whether you buy it or cut it yourself, soft, light-colored woods work best.  Basswood, birch, poplar, aspen, and willow are great to work on.  Pine is also soft and light colored.  You can burn on pine too.  The one thing to keep in mind though is that the resin in the pine is going to bubble and pop when the tool touches the wood.  So, while pine is very cheap, you may not like the results. 

Plywood is often used for practice.  Gods know I’ve used my fair share of it.  One thing to keep in mind with plywood, or any type of manufactured wood, is safety.  Some type of glue or resin was used to bind the wood layers together.  If you burn through the top layer, toxic fumes can be released.  Be careful. 

Optional items

You probably want to have some sandpaper around.  I sand my wood before I start.  Do you have to do that?  No.  It does make it easier to move the pen across the wood.  Sandpaper is also handy if you need to erase.

Graphite paper is useful when you want to transfer an image onto the wood.  You can always use a pencil to draw directly on the wood if you prefer.  You can skip this step and just draw directly with your pyrography pen too. 

I keep a scrap piece of denim folded up on my desk too.  This works very well when I need to clean the tip of my pen.  Denim doesn’t melt or flame up like some fabric.  It also has a texture that helps to wipe off any soot.  Just quickly drag the tip of your pen across the denim several times when you need to clean it. 

For the truly safety conscious, a mask or respirator wouldn’t hurt.  I use one when I’m using my airbrush to paint, but don’t use one when I’m burning.  Guess that tells you where I fall on the safety conscious scale. 

Hey!  Don’t look at me like that.  I already admitted to setting things on fire for fun as a child.  The no-mask thing should not come as a shock.  You wear one if you want though.  I won’t laugh…at least not while you are wearing it.  When you take it off and I see you wander around with those indentations on your face…yeah, I’m probably going to laugh then.  But hey, I’ll die first of smoke inhalation so, you can laugh last.  We’re good.

Sealing the wood when you finish is important too.  This protects your design.  Sealing is entirely optional, but if you want to take this last step, you will also need finishing oil, shellac, varnish, polyurethane, or Polycrylic.  If you are going to stain your project, do it after burning and before sealing.

Need more convincing?

There you have it.  A wood burning pen that can be purchased for under $20, some wood, and your imagination…that’s all you need to get started.  You’ll have a brand new outlet for your artistic expression, and a hobby that leaves your home smelling like you have logs burning in your fireplace.  While I enjoy that smell anytime, it is the perfect fall/winter smell to have lingering around the house.

If you need more convincing, or just want to check out some amazing artwork, head on over to Instagram.  You can see what I’ve been up to on my page.  Here’s the link.  While you are there, you can check out lots of other artists who put my work to shame.  Just search for “woodburning” or “pyrography” to get started. The featured image on this blog is some of my handiwork. Whenever I try a new tip, I practice on Popsicle sticks. That’s what you are seeing in that image.

Are you into wood burning?  Do you have a favorite tool or tip you’d like to talk about?  Feel free to do so in the comments below.  I enjoy meeting new artists and hearing about people’s experiences.

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