Use this beginner’s guide to learn recommended supplies and tips to get started with the art of wood burning. With some basic materials you can create an assortment of art including decorative garden signs, wall art, and plant markers.
Getting Started With Wood Burning
The art and craft of wood burning has been around for years and it is easy to get started.
With a basic beginner kit including the wood burning tool and some custom tool tips for different effects, you can start right away.
While it does take a steady hand and concentration, it is also a very relaxing way to spend an afternoon.
I will walk you through everything you need to know including how to choose a kit, wood and other supplies, and how to create your first design.
- The Art of Wood Burning
- Getting Started
- Setting Up a Safe Work Area
- How to Use a Wood Burning Tool
- Frequently Asked Questions
The Art of Wood Burning
The art and craft of wood burning, also known as pyrography, uses a heated tool much like a soldering iron to gently etch designs on the surface of wood pieces.
A wood burning tool can be used to make all levels of art from simple embossed wood shapes to more advanced portraits, quotes, and drawings.
If you can draw it with a pen, you can do something similar with a wood burning tool.
Work from your own freehand drawings, use other design patterns, or a combination of the two.
Anything made from wood may be fair game. Get familiar with using the wood burning tool first.
Furniture – bed, chair, dresser – coffee table
Jewelry – bracelet, necklace, earrings
Signs (indoor or outdoor)
Wooden planter boxes (decorated with designs)
The Best Wood for Wood Burning
If you want your design to show up nicely, choose a light-colored soft wood with a nice smooth surface and minimal wood grain.
Some options include:
The wood should be natural, not processed with preservatives or synthetic materials.
Tree branches and stems as well as finished lumber including plywood (if non-synthetic) are all fair game.
Do not, however, use MDF or other composite wood products.
Did you know a wood burning tool works on other surfaces too?
- Tree Bark
Sanding the Wood
Yes, if the wood is not already smooth, sanding is recommended. The smoother the surface, the easier it is to draw designs with a wood burning tool.
Working With Patterns or Stencils
This depends on your skill as an artist and what you want to create.
There are lots of good books with patterns and designs. And you can find free designs online. Always check copyright restrictions and permission for personal and commercial use.
After printing with your home computer printer to match the size of your wood piece, transfer the design to the wood surface with tracing paper.
It is also possible to transfer laser printer images with a hot iron.
Drawing freehand is simple: use a pencil and go for it. Use an eraser to remove any unwanted lines when you’re done.
Wood Burning Craft Tutorial
Make Mini Fridge Magnets
A fun beginner project using mini wood slices, a wood burning tool, and gel pens.
Wood Burning Tools & Supplies
- Wood Burning Tool with temperature control or
- Wood Burning Kit + Stencils with temperature control
- Needle Nose Pliers
- Sandpaper, Fine
- Black Carbon Tracing Paper
- Unfinished Natural Wood Slices
How to Choose a Wood Burning Tool
I like the entry level kits like this one on Amazon. If this becomes a passion and/or a career, you may want to level up to more sophisticated equipment.
Features to look for:
- On/Off switch
- Stand to hold the hot pen
- Temperature control | This is very useful to get the results you want
- Comfortable handle/grip
Some kits come with accessories or you can buy them separately:
- Style tips – different shapes and thicknesses
- Alphabet tips – upper- and lower-case letters in various fonts
These are used to press shapes into the wood as opposed to drawing.
- Stainless Steel Stencils | Use with pencil beforehand; some are made for tracing with the wood burning tool.
- Wood | Smooth, light, fine-grain softwood.
- Work space protection | I use a scrap piece of plywood as my work base.
- Sand paper: 320 grit
- Ceramic tile | Good as a resting spot for hot wood burning tool.
- Needle nose pliers to change tool tips.
- Pencil and eraser
- Transfer Paper | For transferring designs to wood.
- Clear-drying polyurethane
- Spray lacquer
- Spray matte polyurethane
Paint or Wood Stain
- Any paint or stain suitable for wood surfaces
Setting Up a Safe Work Area
Plan out the project first so your work space is functional and safe.
The electrical cord for the wood burning tool should be plugged in nearby with room to move freely.
Have a spot ready to rest the hot tool when pausing and turn it off if you need to stop or leave the room.
A fire-resistant surface like a ceramic tile makes a good base for the tool.
Follow the safety instructions that come with the tool and avoid contact any flammable materials.
And, keep kids and pets away from your work area.
Indoor Safety Precautions
Many artists do their work indoors while taking sensible precautions. You are burning wood, after all, and there can be fumes. Some prefer to wear a respirator mask, protective gloves (to avoid burns), and keep a fan running to avoid any smoke.
While small projects do not generate much smoke—just occasional little plumes—it’s always best to put safety first and avoid inhaling the fumes.
How to Use a Wood-Burning Tool
How to Hold a Wood Burning Tool
A wood burning tool is like a thick pen, but you can’t place your fingers near the tip. The tools have built-in barriers to shield your hand from the heat.
To get started, choose a nice big plain piece of wood and do a practice board.
Turn on the pen, let it warm up—mine takes about four minutes to reach full heat—and start drawing.
Try burning curves, straight lines, geometric shapes, printing and cursive writing, animals, people, flowers, and any other objects that interest you.
It’s really easy to work with stainless steel stencils like these ones.
You will soon know what suits your style. If you can draw it on paper, you can do it (with practice) on wood.
The wood grain can interfere with long lines or curves: try steadying your drawing hand with your other hand to have more control.
And, slow and steady tends to work best. It’s not fast like handwriting: a slower even pace often works best.
Keep that practice piece handy: I use mine to test tips and heat levels before working on ‘good’ projects.
Special Tool Tips
In general, the basic bullet tip is often a favorite because it’s fine but blunt so it doesn’t catch in the wood.
You will learn with practice how your hand movements affect the results. If you stall in one spot, the burn becomes bigger. Nice fluid—but slow—movements brings good, consistent results.
How to Change Tips
When you have just one heating tool, unless you are using just one tip, you will end up changing tips while the tool is hot.
Practice changing tips first when the wood burning tool is cool so you get the feel for how the tips pop on and off.
To change tips safely when the tool is hot, use needle-nose pliers to remove the hot tip (gradually wiggle it out) and place the tip in cold water to cool it off.
Apply the new tip with the pliers. It’s not hot but the tool is.
Using Alphabet and Shape Tips
Unlike the drawing tips, these tips are applied like branding tools where you press the heated tip into the wood.
It takes some practice to be sure you are applying the tip level on the wood surface with even pressure. If you press more to one side of the tip, that area of the imprint in the wood will be darker (burns more).
Use ruler and grid lines to plan out lettering. This will help with spacing. And don’t forget to leave a space in between words.
Pencil lines can be erased afterward.
As you progress and get comfortable with both the tool and the wood, you can start experimenting with shading and other effects.
Basically, shading is achieved by varying the thickness and depth of the burn. This may require changing the tool tip several times for one section of your work to achieve the desired effect. There are several good videos on YouTube demonstrating shading effects.
At some point your wood burning tool tips will get a build up of carbon (burned wood).
Check the instructions that came with your kit to see what they advise for cleaning it. I use fine sandpaper to remove it.
Sealing or Finishing
You can leave it as is or apply stain, paint, or sealant.
The old-fashion method was to rub on wood stain.
You can also use acrylic paints to fill in your design with colors. This is popular for children’s projects.
If you wish to seal the wood, a clear-drying polyurethane or spray lacquer or spray matte polyurethane will work. Follow the instructions on the product labels.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, both “wood burning” and “pyrography” are used to mean using a heated tool to burn designs into wood (and other) surfaces.
Wood options for pyrography include pine, aspen, birch, basswood, and poplar. The wood should be all-natural and not pressure-treated, composite, or otherwise processed.
Yes, wood burning tools have numerous household and art uses. You can create designs on other materials including canvas, cotton, leather, cork, bones, horn, paper, antler, tree bark, and gourds. It takes practice and skill to successfully create designs on more flammable materials.
If the wood you are using for wood burning art is not already smooth, it is recommended that you sand it first. It is difficult to create designs on rough or uneven surfaces.
No, you do not need a pattern or stencil to burn wood but beginners may feel more confident using some sort of template. It’s also fine to freehand any designs.
A good wood burning tool will have an on-off switch and temperature control. Also look for a handle that fits comfortably in your hand and a stand to hold the tool when it’s hot. Some kits also include different pen tips including letters and shapes.
It is recommended to do wood burning outdoors or in a well-ventilated room. You may also want to use a respirator mask and electric fan to remove any fumes. Heat-resistant gloves are also useful.
Sealing is not required on art created by wood burning. You can protect the surface with polyurethane or spray lacquer or use paint or stain depending on the look you are after.
25 Garden Art Projects & Ideas
by Melissa J. Will
Grab the top garden art DIY projects and tips from Empress of Dirt
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Ready, set, burn!
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