Last year I taught a pyrography workshop, which went very well, and I am very much hoping to do this again - with more students. To follow up, I wanted to post some additional information about the decorative woodburning process. Three years ago, I was working on my first commissioned job - a mural to cover up what used to be a concessions window in the space occupied by the Looking Glass salon (there is a clothing store there now). This job presented me with the perfect opportunity to document the entire process step by step, and the large size of the piece allowed me to create some pretty good visuals. Please note, this is the first piece of this size I have ever done - until that point, my works have ranged from 1/2″ in diameter to 8-1/2″ x 11″. While the large format made some aspects of the process a little easier, it also presented a few challenges in terms of printing and assembling of the paper copy of the image in preparation for the woodburning part of it.
The image I selected for the mural is an illustration to one of my favorite books of all times - Thais of Athens by Ivan Yefremov - created by artists Boiko and Shalito.
While I am generally in love with all the illustrations these two artists did while working on Thais, I chose this particular one, portraying Thais in conversation with her son Leontiscus with her friend and guardian Eris playing syrinx (double-piped flute) in the background, for the sense of peace and serenity it projects.
One of the first changes the image underwent before the serious work even started was a slight rearrangement of the figures. The piece of plywood I was working with was to be placed “horizontally” - or (in printer settings terms) in the landscape position. So, the first challenge was to move Eris a little further away from Thais and Leontiscus to make the entire picture look more “horizontal”.
Another change I have decided on fairly early on was to omit the smoke-like shadowy lines obscuring Eris (she is sitting in the shade in this particular scene in the book) and make Eris herself a bit more defined. Due to the large format of the piece, it was also necessary to make Thais’ facial features (specifically her eyes) more distinct. The artists could get away with just the basic shapes and shadowing, as the illustration in the book was rather small. But I couldn’t do the same with the image magnified a dozen times.
I do not have access to a plotter, so printing a large image was a bit of a conundrum. I resolved it by inserting the image into a Visio document, which allowed me to size the Visio page to match the sheet of plywood I was working with, but let the program know that I would be printing the image on letter-size paper, which resulted in a kind of a puzzle consisting of nine pieces, which had to be carefully matched up and glued together.
The next (and my least favorite) step was to sand down the wood with two grades of sandpaper. This is the part of the process, where I sorely wished for a random-orbit palm sander, while putting some serious elbow grease into smoothing out the kinks in the wood and covering myself with sanding dust.
I then clipped the image to the plywood with binder clips and then carefully slid carbon paper under it. The reason I didn’t clamp them down together was that I wanted to be able to remove the carbon paper before I removed the paper image. That way, if I missed anything during the image transfer, I could slide the carbon paper back in and make corrections without having to realign the image (which can be a real pain in the wazoo - ask me how I know!). Note: I use the same carbon paper that glass etchers use for transferring image onto glass. This particular type of carbon paper almost doesn’t stain, so there is pretty much no need to clean up the unwanted traces afterward.
I then sharpened my trusty pencil and began the task of tracing the image on paper, in order to transfer it onto the wood. Please note, when you do this sort of thing, keep careful track of what you have or haven’t traced yet - it saves a lot of rework later. It always helps to have a light source you can shine onto your image at an angle - the lines you have already traced with your pencil will look shiny, and you’ll be able to see easily what you have missed. You can also print your image in “watermark” format - where all colors of the image are much paler than the original and the pencil trace shows up much better by contrast. I have long since stopped tracing every line on the image. Rather, I trace the contours and the main lines, and then do the details and the shading freehand.
The completed transferred image looked something like this (I used Thais, because (a) she was my favorite portion of this illustration and (b) her face underwent the most changes during the process).
After transferring the image, I did the detail work with pencil straight on the wood, although I still did not do the shading. It was a little risky - but the shading was better done without any “backup”.
While I was adding the finishing touches, I plugged in my woodburning tool. I use a Lenk woodburner (model L23WB). While the tool does come with three tips - a universal tip, a line tip and a flat shading tip, I prefer to use the universal tip for everything. I create lines of different thicknesses by turning the tip at a different angle and by applying varying degrees of pressure. The shading is done by using the flat side of the tip.
Note: please be very careful with any woodburning tool. It’s really quite hot, and you can burn yourself. I had a misfortune of accidentally grabbing a fully-heated woodburning tool by the tip, and it wasn’t pretty.
I was very fortunate with this particular piece of wood. It burned very nicely and I didn’t have to struggle with it much. Obviously, every piece of wood is different. Some are cooperative and some can really wear you out. Smooth furniture-grade birch veneer that I love so much for its warm tone, is actually very tough to work with - it’s hard, it doesn’t burn easily and it flexes from changes in temperature.
Once the burning portion was complete, I used a soft eraser to remove all traces of pencil. Actually, sometimes I do this while still burning, just to give my hand a break. Despite the fact that the tool has a wooden handle, it does get pretty hot, and the longer you work the more you start feeling it. Plus, even with the best most compliant piece of wood, you still have to apply pressure to burn the image, so your hand gets quite tired by the end of it.
Here is what the image looked like once the burning was complete.
The last step is more or less optional - finishing the image with tung oil. I decided to treat this piece, because I knew it would not be under glass, so it needed some protection from the elements (yes, wood needs protection from the elements even in doors). Tung oil is my favorite finish of choice, despite the fact that it stinks, when you first apply it. It protects the wood very nicely, brings out the grain, but doesn’t change the color of the wood significantly - it just livens it up a little. In short, it’s a really good finish if you are after a nice natural look - I strongly recommend it.
And, here again is Thais - post-tung oil treatment.
Obviously, this is just one piece - there are lots of other things you can do with a pyrographic project. But, this is a fairly good basic illustration of what is involved. Let me know if you have any questions - I’d be happy to share tips and tricks of the trade. Pyrography is a beautiful art form and can be very rewarding, although, as any art, it does present its own challenges and demands, if you wish to become really good at it. Enjoy!