PYROGRAPHY

ITS HISTORY AND VERSATILITY

Where does pyrography originate?

 

“Pyrography” is not a commonly used word. It comes from the Greek word “pur” meaning “fire” and “graphos” meaning drawing or writing.

Nobody knows exactly how old pyrography is, but it probably dates back to the discovery of fire itself. Primitive people would have used metal or stone tools to scrape charred wood and reveal the lighter surface underneath. It was practised by Egyptian and African cultures, and research reveals that it was known to the Han dynasty in China, which stretched over four centuries from 220 BC. They called it “Fire Needle Embroidery”. It was also known in South America, and one early example of a cup excavated in Peru dates back to before 700 AD. Nearer home there has also been evidence of pyrography unearthed from Roman sites here in Britain.

 

Mediaeval times saw its emergence as an art form with artist and engraver Albrecht Durer (famous for his “Praying Hands”) practised it. It was also very popular in the 17th century when it was used to decorate small wooden objects, and the famous Rembrandt was believed to have used it. More recently Victor Hugo and Picasso also had a go!

 

Prominence came in the Victorian era – elegant ladies took it up as a respectable hobby – which was a bit surprising really, because “pokerwork” as it was known in those days was anything but an elegant hobby. The “pyrography kit” of the day would have been a circular charcoal stove, perforated all the way round with holes through which pointed pokers would have been inserted – imagine how hot it must have been for ladies in all those heavy full-length clothes … and “heat control” was taking the poker out and letting it cool down!! It is reported that asbestos yarn was wrapped round the poker handles which became uncomfortably hot after a while, and of course inconsistent heat was a big problem.

 

Following on from the charcoal stove came the Vulcan Machine – a creation guaranteed to put off all but the bravest. It consisted of a bottle attached to a length of rubber tubing and a pair of bellows. The bottle was filled with benzolene and pumped by the bellows, and this produced ignition at an appropriate point at the end of the tube. It was also recommended that nitric acid should be close at hand to clean the points. Health and Safety these days would have much to say about this arrangement, and it is perhaps surprising that the Victorian ladies survived to tell the tale! Perhaps they didn’t realise the danger!

 

Nevertheless, despite the basic nature of their tools they managed to achieve a very high standard of workmanship in producing some lovely wood burned designs.

What pyrography tools are needed today?

 

By the early 20th century burners had developed to be operated electrically, and were more like soldering irons, and although there have been new designs and developments, pyrography tools have remained very much the same in principle as they were in those earlier days. There are still two main types of wood burner:

 

The Solid Point Burner: The Solid Point has detachable points, which means that they can be interchanged for different effects. Think of the burner as a bit like a pyrography pen which fits into a transformer, and thence into the mains electricity. It is a bit like a soldering iron, but unlike a soldering iron it will not do a decent job in pyrography as it generates insufficient heat. Some of the transformers have only one inadjustable heat, others have as many as four variable heats. This kind of burner is a good old faithful warhorse and a type that was used for many years. It still has its place in the world of woodburning kits, but its limitations have to be accepted. While it is cheaper, sturdier, and readily available, it is slower to heat up and cool down, is more cumbersome, and is not really well suited to extremely detailed woodburning designs.

Wire Point Burner: Most professionals these days tend to use a Wire Point burner. The pyrography pen for this type is slimmer and lighter than the older Solid Point, and therefore easier to handle. Like the Solid Point it also has a transformer which acts as the link between the wood burner pen and the electricity mains. There is a much greater heat variation in the transformer, often with as many as ten different settings, which can dial a range from really cool to red hot in a matter of seconds. This obviously gives more opportunity for variety in wood burned designs – a distinct advantage as the same heat is not suitable for all woods or all jobs. It is equally capable of burning the hardest of woods, or of carrying out the most delicate of work.

The business end of the burner (the nib) can be nothing more than a short length of wire fastened to two terminals on either side of the pyrography pen nib, and these can be bent into an appropriate shape for writing and/or shading, or they can be fashioned by the pyrographer for a particular use. However there is also a wide range of ready-made nibs which can be bought in different shapes for immediate wood burning, and these also fit into the terminals on either side of the burner nib, and can be changed with ease when necessary.

What kinds of wood and other materials are needed for pyrography?

 

Most pyrographers, unless they are wood turners as well, will buy their items for wood burning ready-made.

Plates, boxes, plaques, keyrings, coasters, etc can be obtained commercially for pyrography, and they will be supplied turned and sanded, which immediately provides a “blank sheet” on which to wood burn the design. The magic word with any wood is “unfinished” – it should be free of any varnish or seal. Any kind of wood that is reasonably robust, light in colour, and without too much grain can be used – sycamore is a great favourite though getting scarcer, but birch, beech, hardwood (an expression that covers a multitude of sins but wood burns perfectly well!) and even good quality plywood can all be used. Wood with joined layers should be avoided as burning through the fixative can be toxic.

It is also perfectly possible to pyrograph other materials – notably leather, cardboard or even paper! Work has even been done on rag paper, cowhide, bone and old piano keys!

Where do the designs come from?

 

One of the many joys of wood burning is that it is not necessary to be an artist as well. Some people are fortunate enough to have artistic skills and can make their own designs, but in this country there is an almost endless supply of design books on which to draw, many of them at very reasonable prices, and of course the internet is another vast source. Designs do not necessarily need to be specifically for pyrography – it is quite possible to use those intended for some of the other crafts. This writer has used Hawaiian quilt-making patterns, glass patterns, Norwegian folk art, Celtic pattern work, Asian art, Portuguese tile designs, and church stained glass window patterns. Another good resource is children’s colouring books which usually have good clean lines to follow, particularly for those beginning pyrography. With buying or downloading woodburning designs, care should be taken to observe copyright issues about reproduction.

How is a pattern put onto the wood?

 

As it is not possible to rub out errors on a wood burned piece, it is always better to plan the whole piece of work before putting it onto the surface to be pyrographed. Making a template and working out size and position of the elements involved in the work is worth the time and extra effort that is required. Transferring the finished template to the surface for wood burning is simple enough with the use of some suitable graphite or tracing paper (office carbon is not ideal as it tends to be too dense and difficult to erase the lines afterwards).

Is it possible to achieve much creative variation within the designs?

Despite mentioning earlier that there is a wide range of pyrography pen nibs available, many pyrographers manage very well with three essential nibs, even for very sophisticated wood burning. Briefly the three nibs are:

 

The Skew: - a burner with a finely shaped knife-like edge. It is used for fine lines and limited fill and shading.

The Writer: this has a pointed or a rounded edge and can go in any direction. It can cope with all letter shapes, and is also used for some shading. It is probably the most versatile member of the woodburning kit.

The Shader: there are various shapes to this wood burner, but essentially it is flat-sided and intended to cover larger areas of shading and filling.

 

With these three burners amazing results of lightness and shade, bold outline and intricate detail can be achieved. The beauties of nature, flowers, trees, animals of all kinds, and even portraits of people and pets can produced ……. and all that in addition to the multitude of different pattern styles, both classical and freeform that are available from around the world. There is a treasure chest of creativity out there for wood burning enthusiasts!

What about the use of colour?

 

Pyrography can be extremely effective on its own, and there are many times when this is preferable and no enhancement is needed, but colour can also add greatly to the effect when used appropriately. One of the best paints to use on wood burned pieces is gouache. This is a water colour but of a denser nature than fine art water colour. It works very well on wood, doesn’t leave streaks, and will keep for some days very happily in a pot with a screwtop lid and then re-constitute without argument. Acrylic paint also works well, particularly these days when it can be thinned down with water and does not require the use of spirit. However it doesn’t keep – once it dries out that’s it.

How does one correct mistakes?

With a certain amount of cunning! There are two main ways of correcting wood burning errors. Sanding is one way, but has to be done very carefully to avoid leaving bruised or scratched wood behind. Another way is to scrape the error very gently along the grain with a craft knife. If colour has been used and there is a large blob in the wrong place it is very unlikely that this can be successfully removed as gouache paint particularly soaks straight into the wood ….. this then calls for a crafty flower, a bumble bee, a bird or something appropriate to be burned in the spot to cover it!

What about finishing the piece?

 

This will depend entirely on what it is. For pieces that will be in contact with food (fruit bowls, cheese boards, bread boards etc) a food safe oil may be preferred, but many varnishes these days are safe with food pieces although it’s as well to check before using. For any wood burned work finished with varnish and including colour, this writer uses three coats of spray gouache varnish to seal the colour, and prevent it moving, before lightly sanding and using a brush for a further two coats. Some pyrographers would say this is over-kill, but it does ensure a good protective cover. Finished pyrography should never be permanently sited under powerful electric light or in full sunlight – this will cause it unavoidably to fade over a long period of time. The best position for any wood burned piece is in good light but not direct light. External pieces of wood burning can be further protected with external quality varnish.

How long does it take to complete a project?

How long is a piece of string!! However, any pyrographer should be prepared to spend the time needed in choosing a design suitable for wood burning, composing the layout, tracing it, burning it, possibly colouring it, and varnishing it! Even with a pair of coasters it will take a few hours to go through the whole process, and to complete a large disc with a diameter of 40 to 46cm it may be something of a surprise to find that it takes about 20 hours, or perhaps more, to complete the work. However, it is worth that time and effort to create a thing of beauty that gives pleasure to somebody special, or to mark a special occasion.

What are some of the more unusual pyrography projects undertaken?

 

  • A set of seven reward boxes with animal identification for a class of primary school children below reading age

  • A small decorated box to house a rubber stamp signature for a paralysed MS patient

  • Large collection plate for church showing part of the floor tile pattern on the rim

  • Large platter showing two cultures in an English/Bangladeshi marriage

  • Set of coasters with hymn tunes for a choral married couple

  • Advertising plaque for reception area of helicopter training school with coded keys for each aircraft

What wood burning tools are needed to take up pyrography?

 

  • A reputable wood burner (solid or wire point of choice)

  • Sandpaper of various densities (a small electric sander would be a wise investment)

  • Steel wool (a useful fine sanding material, but be sure to brush away the tiny steel fibres)

  • Craft knife

  • Graphite or tracing paper

  • Masking tape to secure patterns

  • Scissors/rulers/pencils/erasers

  • Rags

  • Sheet of plywood to protect work surface from scorching

  • Scrap wood to practise strokes

 

The above is a very basic wood burning kit, to which every pyrographer will add as they go along, but it’s enough to begin the journey to woodburning excellence!