Pyrography Tutorial

I just love the smell of burning wood in the morning. Perhaps it’s my childhood sensory memories of campfires and wood smoke from a hot stove. Perhaps it’s the way the smoke wafts its tendrils up into the air. Perhaps it’s the sparks or when I hit a resin pocket and it bubbles like pine honey. Perhaps it’s the final results. Perhaps, just perhaps, it’s all of the above…I hope that you find this information helpful and that you step off into a new craft with joy and that it brings you and the recipients of your gifts much pleasure.

(click on any image for a larger version)


I recommend that, in addition to this tutorial, if you really want to get going in this really fun art, you get your hands on more detailed information, more photos, other people’s experience. This is but a humble starting off point…These two books really cover it all. There are a lot of different books out there. I like to take a look at books via the public library (if you have one) before buying myself. I’ve reviewed these two and honestly I think they are the most comprehensive to date with a slightly more modern feel plus I like their designs best. Most of what is out there is good so don’t worry if you find something other than these books listed, they have the basics.

Safety and getting started

Please make sure to observe safe practices. Always:

  • Turn off your machine when leaving it unattended
  • Turn off your machine when changing tips and wait until they are quite cool, the tips get brutal hot. My professional burner cools faster then my first two inexpensive student tools
  • Use the holder to support your tool when turned on and not in use, preferably over a spark proof surface, mine is glass
  • Don’t keep flammable liquids or gases around a hot tool. (I know, I said “hot tool”)

Some folks have the space to dedicate to their arts and hobbies, some do not. Make sure your workspace is comfortable and safe.  I admit that my idea of this is not in sync with many.  I approach my work very casually and admit to clearing off the coffee table (glass topped) and getting to it while sitting on the floor. I’ve been known to curl up on the couch with a box in one hand and the burner in the other, the long cord makes this easy. I’m a rebel. You may feel you need a work table and chair, some get really in to it and have easels and all kinds of accessories. I keep the work in my hands so that I can turn it easily (which really helps with curved lines). I like a good light source close by. Whatever you currently use, be it the kitchen table or the full blown artists space, be safe, be comfortable, and above all, have fun! Did I say I love the smell of the tendrils of smoke up my nose.  Many folks say to burn in a well-ventilated space.

The Materials

  • Pyrography burning tool
  • Tips if interchangeable
  • Sand paper
  • Design one paper plus a piece of tracing paper
  • Pencil / Eraser / wax free carbon paper / Blue painters tape
  • Sealer / Varnish (George’s Club House Wax)
  • Wood object or Gourd


Let’s talk about wood for a moment. There is a wide variety to choose from.  I have boxes of all different sizes, some with clasps, some magnets, some without.  I have wooden eggs and flat plaques in pine and cherry.  You can find clock faces and plates/chargers, wooden spoons, pizza peels, bread boxes, treehouses, the list is lengthy. Gourds make a great surface and there is a lot of information out there just for gourd work.  I myself stick to wood in general. Most of what you will find in crafts stores are basswood boxes.  Basswood can be very soft in places and also very hard. Between the rings it is softest and I’ve put my burn tip right through the piece in 3 seconds before I even knew what was happening. I’ve also had some very hard rings that take forever to burn and the next stroke is soft and bam, bad deep wide burn. Pine is fun because it can be pitchy even when very dry. I love it when I hit a small pitch patch and it bubbles and smells so sweet.  It takes some time to get used to the different ways that different woods can act under a hot tip (heeeh “hot tip” heeehhhh). Just making sure you’re paying attention.  I find that I can work pretty well with most woods now that I’ve worked with a few types.  My burner has 11 settings (it goes to eleven!) so it’s easy to regulate for the type of word you’re using.There are books out there just for working with gourds including gourd pyrography, this is a cool thing too but has different preparation requirements. Some of the pyrography books cover burning leather too.

Burners and tips

I started out with a burner I got at a local craft store for $10. I almost immediately progressed to their deluxe model that provided interchangeable tips as well as some other options such as a soldering tip. It came with a little folding holder which I taped to a ceramic tile. It was a bit unstable as the weight of the cord and the on/off switch had a tendency to pull it out of alignment.
These brass and copper tips are no match for the heat required. Tip #2 looked like tip #1 one project earlier. Significant copper was lost. There was also the problem of the long pointed tip burning too fast in soft wood and creating a deep pit. #3 was less pointed but less accurate. The most successful of these tips, #4 worked fairly well but it wasn’t sharp enough or precise enough either. I very quickly outgrew this machine and moved on to my favorite, my baby…
…the Detail Master III, Dagger. This machine has a range of heat settings and interchangable points. This is not the only pyrography tool available but it was the one I found in my local wood working store and it serves me well. There are a variety of tips available in a variety of shapes created for different uses as well as a hard carrying case. Mine resides in the cardboard box it arrived in, I should remedy that soon to ensure the tool is protected when not in use.
These are the 5 tips I chose. I’ve tried them all but so far have found that I use one more than any other. My favorite is second from the right, a small angled blade. I have found that it is an all around great tip for all the strokes I need so far. Perhaps one day when I branch out to other shading techniques I might find I need them but for now, I love this one a lot. I can do straight lines, curved lines, big dots, small dots, hatch marks, fill large sections with a solid burn, so far that is plenty. For some of my work where I color the design in with colored pencils, I use color and shading in that medium as much as I use shading in pyrography.

Preparing the Wood and Transferring the Design

Have your design ready.  Make sure it has been created or modified to fit your wood piece.  In the case of boxes you will probably want to decorate the sides as well as the top.  There are several ways to transfer a design and these don’t differ that much from say, preparation for embroidery.

  1. The first thing I do with my blank “canvas” be it box or wooden egg or plaque, is to sand it. I want all the edges and slivers removed and a smooth surface to work with. This won’t be the first time you sand. I sand before I burn, after I burn, and in between layers of varnish or finishing medium.
  2. Design transfer methods:
    • Carbon paper – you can tape carbon paper between your wood surface and your design and simply trace the main outlines of your design.  Be sure not to press too hard because any big mistakes need to be sanded off. This is my least favorite method.
    • You can tape your design down and prick the outlines with a pin, you can press pretty hard here as you will burn over it.
    • You can pencil in a grid and transfer your design like this
    • You can copy freehand. Since I am an artist and the designs I’m using are drawn by me, I simply eyeball the whole thing.  My original design was already created using the exact space measurements of my final piece so it’s fairly easy to do for me. The burn is where I really refine the lines of my design.


I prefer to burn in this order; 1) outline all of the major lines, 2) then the smaller lines like on the thorns in the third image, and 3) then the shading

Straight Lines

I press down and then slowly draw the point towards myself in even pressure.  You will need to notice if you are dealing with a heavily veined wood and adjust as you cross from soft to hard to soft… I always test the tip by making a couple test burns on the bottom the piece.  Sometimes I mark my name, sometimes I make random marks and cover them later with felt to pad the bottom and keep the piece from damaging furniture.

Curved Lines

I burn curved lines in small short strokes, turning the piece as I work around. Note in the images below that board is turning in relation to the placement of the blade. I use the point of the blade. This can take some practice and I recommend you do so.

Dots: Big and Small

The larger dots I press in once and then turn the board 90 degrees and press again with a tiny turn right before lifting off the wood to soften the dot.  The small shading dots I basically slowly tap the wood with the point.


I use a series of 5-8 strokes for small solid leaves. The first two are short curved strokes bending my wrist to curve things.  I fill in with a series of straight strokes.  I top off each leaf with a little point at the top and a stem at the bottom.

Fill burn

Press the flat against the wood until a tendril of smoke rolls. Move and repeat.  If you aren’t burning at an edge, I turn the blade 90 degrees and pull slowly like a straight stroke above in wide stripes.


Time to sand again. The moisture from the varnish or finish can raise the “tooth” of the wood which causes a bit of roughness and which needs to be smoothed out so I usually sand in between applications. When I’ve colored the box, I like to use a non-toxic sealer for decoupage and am careful not to bleed certain colors, especially reds, but paint certain sections by themselves.  I will varnish all the white first, then the dark colors until the first coat is done.  I only need to be this careful on the first application.

If you are not coloring the box and leaving the wood clean you can also use a few thin layers beeswax rub. With plain wood, I usually give it 3-4 thin coats with a light sand in between. This is a method I love. It leaves a nice not too shiny sheen, it’s non-toxic, and darn it smells good. The box smells good after beeswax, like honey on a summer day, yummmm.  Love this.

And there you have it!

3 thoughts on “Pyrography Tutorial

  1. You know in some strange way this reminds me of carving a pumpkin. Not just a jack-o-lantern with a face, but some of those really complicated ones the artists make.

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