Learning how to wood burn as a beginner can seem intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, we think this is one of the more approachable arts and crafts out there!
This guide goes over everything you need to know if you want to learn how to wood burn. It makes things easy by going over the entire process from start to finish.
Table of contents
1. Safety & Workspace Preparation
Strategically setting up your workspace will make wood burning easy. Your movements will be efficient, you’ll stay comfortable, and you’ll minimize reaching that could lead to accidental contact with a hot surface.
Quick Tip: As a general rule you should install a smoke detector where you plan to complete your wood burning projects and never leave your pen unattended when it is turned on.
Typical wood burning pens reach a temperature of 600 degrees Fahrenheit. Accidental contact with your skin can cause significant and irreparable damage, affecting your fine motor skills.
Insulated finger guards or full gloves protect your fingers and hands from incidental contact with hot surfaces or the pen. Many styles provide adequate protection without compromising your dexterity. This provides an extra layer of protection beyond the device’s built-in hand guard.
Quality needle-nose pliers and a ceramic dish are essential when wood burning. These tools allow you to safely change tips and store hot tips without damaging your work surface or risking injury.
If you have long hair, be sure to wear it up or back. This minimizes the risk of burning yourself while examining your project or obstructing your vision.
When learning how to wood burn, it’s important to set up your workspace in a way that will keep you comfortable and ensure you are unencumbered while using your pen and inspecting your work.
Defining your workspace as exclusively for wood burning will allow you to minimize clutter, which creates unnecessary fire hazards. Selecting a surface that is heat resistant will prevent damage and allow you to burn at the hottest temperatures. Many experts recommend adjustable drawing tables. A tiltable work surface allows you to reduce stress from craning your neck and stops heat and smoke from rising straight up into your face.
When hot, your pen can burn plastic and wood. Be sure to keep other drawing tools and your wood burning accessories away from the workspace when you’re working.
Wood burning generates heat, vapor, and smoke as you burn the surface while creating dazzling images. Beginners often underestimate how intense the byproducts of wood burning are. Wood burning in an area with adequate airflow, where smoke and vapor dissipate quickly, is essential for your health and safety.
A fan for your workspace will quickly clear smoke and vapors, allowing you to diligently wood burn while reducing risks.
Investing in a respirator-style mask can help you closely observe your work without the risk of inhaling harmful vapors. Goggles can prevent stinging and burning sensations due to smoke in your eyes. Some wood burners find them unnecessary, but they enable you to closely observe your work.
2. Choose Your Wood
When learning how to wood burn, it’s important to get familiar with the actual wood you’ll be using. You want to be sure that the wood you’re using isn’t toxic to burn and is also capable of withstanding the heat needed for your designs.
Quick Tip: Also, be wary of potential allergens. Just as we can be allergic to pollen, some of us cannot tolerate particular types of wood, while others do not bother us.
In general, you’ll usually want to select light-colored wood because darker colors will hide burns, obscuring your work. Choosing wood free of knots with a smooth grain will provide the best medium for your art. You should never burn finished or treated wood. The heat from your pen can release toxic vapors.
You can find wood at big box retailers, specialty arts-and-crafts shops, and hardware stores. Available woods come at a wide range of price points and sizes based on their availability and other uses.
Pine is both inexpensive and easy to find, making it an excellent option for beginner wood burners. It’s the perfect surface to hone your skills but offers some challenges due to the sappiness of the wood and the inconsistency of the grain. In addition, applying shading and other advanced techniques can be challenging on pine.
As you gain experience, you may elect to wood burn an entire design on pine as practice before recreating it on a higher-end wood.
A relatively soft hardwood that allows you to burn fast and smooth, Aspen has a subtly varied grain that can add character to your designs. Its white color accepts burning and maintains its appearance under a clear coating. It’s only available in smaller sizes.
Poplar is a common choice in the wood burning community because it offers excellent balance. It’s relatively inexpensive and available at most arts-and-crafts retailers. Also, its grain is consistent and the wood is soft (which makes for an easy burn). Poplar also comes in a wide range of sizes, making it suitable for any size project.
Cherry is a hardwood that requires a higher temperature for successful wood burning, but still allows for smooth pen motion. These wood slices offer rich coloring and slightly darken without compromising the subtleties of designs.
Maple is plentiful and burns well. The hardwood is virtually grainless, creating a clean surface to receive designs. Maple has an even and consistent tone and only darkens slightly when properly sealed. Most experienced pyrographers consider it best for patterns and simpler designers because it doesn’t allow shading to show as well as lighter woods.
Basswood is an extremely popular option because it’s light-colored, has a consistent grain, and is relatively dry wood. It is one of the more expensive types of wood and only comes in relatively small pieces, usually limiting your project options.
Willow is a relatively soft hardwood that allows you to smoothly wood burn while achieving good detail. The wood has an almost imperceptible grain and absorbs coating without altering its pale color. Unfortunately, willow is one of the scarcer woods.
3. Sand The Wood
Getting comfortable with sanding is a vital step in learning how to wood burn, because smooth surfaces are easier to burn. Evening out a potentially rough grain will allow you to burn faster and minimize snags that can halt pen strokes.
Quick Tip: While sanding takes time up front, it saves you time after you burn by minimizing the need for touching up your design and making corrections with a razor to remove clumping.
You can sand manually or with an electric sander, but the key is to use paper with a grit between 150 and 220. Anything lower will leave the wood uneven, and anything higher will overly polish the wood. Your markings will not adhere to wood that is too smooth.
4. Find A Design To Start With
Once you’ve selected the type of wood and prepped it for burning, it’s time for your art to take shape. You can draw your design by hand, use a template, or make a pattern on your computer using imaging software.
If you choose to sketch your design by hand, always draw on paper first. Drawing directly on wood is difficult. Removing the sketch or correcting mistakes will almost always leave residue, spoiling the wood you’ve meticulously prepared.
Regardless of the method you choose, it’s best to select a simple design for beginner projects. Your monogram or a basic geometric pattern is an excellent way to express your creativity while you learn how to wood burn.
5. Get Your Burner Ready
Just like preheating your oven, your burner must reach its optimal temperature before you begin. After choosing the appropriate tip and temperature, turn your pen on and allow it to reach the heat recommended in the manufacturer’s instructions.
You won’t be able to wood burn easily if you have an under-heated pen. Excessive heat will lead to deep burning if you do not move the pen fast enough. Before starting the project, you should test the pen on the back of your sanded wood or an extra piece of scrap wood. This brief assessment helps ensure you selected the appropriate tip and the pen is functioning as intended.
6. Trace Your Design Onto The Wood
Whether you’re using an original design or a template, the next step is to transfer it to the wood. Cut the design to the appropriate size for your wood and affix it using tape. Be sure that the template is on the wood where you want it. Once you emboss the design, you will not be able to reposition and redo your tracing.
Then, carefully slide a single sheet of graphite paper beneath the template or sketch. The dark side should face down.
Next, trace the design or outline of the template using a ballpoint pen or embossing tool. You want to use a medium amount of pressure to ensure proper transfer without penetrating the sketch or graphite paper.
Quick Tip: After you complete the tracing, gently lift the graphite paper to ensure your sketch is visible on the wood. It’s critical to lift the sheet as little as possible in case you need to retrace certain sections. This will help make sure everything remains lined up correctly.
7. Begin Wood Burning
Once you’ve completed the prep work and your pen is warm, you can begin wood burning. It’s important to remember that your wood burning pen is both an artistic device and a tool, so let the heat do the work.
Using a piece of scrap wood to make some practice markings will help you get a sense of how the pen operates and what markings it makes. Take this time to experiment and gain experience with the right amount of pressure.
Before beginning, remind yourself to take your time. After the time devoted to sanding your surface and transferring your design, fight the impulse to burn quickly. Burning slowly will keep your hand steady and allow you to experience how the markings develop. Observing the piece’s evolution will help you maintain consistency.
Use Appropriate Pressure
One of the biggest traps for beginners learning how to wood burn is applying the correct amount of pressure. Remember, you guide the pen, not the other way around. Let it do the work. We subconsciously think that intense pressure is necessary because we’re burning a design into a hard surface, but the opposite is true. Steady yet firm pressure that allows you to smoothly glide the pen is best.
Applying excessive pressure will slow your movements, making them uneven and choppy. Much like painting, you can always apply another layer of wood burning. If you are unhappy with the darkness of the markings, it’s better to go over them a second time with appropriate pressure. Digging the pen into the wood in hopes of achieving your desired shade will blur your design and compromise the wood.
Start With The Edges
It’s critical to begin burning at the edges of your design and work inward. Properly burning the edges creates the framework for the touch-up and shading work that will take your project to the next level. It’s generally best to start outlining with the universal tip, which has a straight edge.
As a beginner who is learning how to wood burn, this will also help you get acquainted with the pen and hone your skills. You want to move the pen with efficient and fluid motions. Pulling the pen rather than pushing yields the best results because it gives you more control. This is also safer because you won’t glide your hand over areas of the wood that have already been burned.
Fill In What You Want
The most challenging step for all wood burners, particularly beginners, comes last. Once you have completed the edges and outline of your design, it’s time to fill in the interior. Broad pen tips can help you shade and fill in as much or as little of your design as you choose.
Filling your design in adds depth and accent, but is not necessary. Remember, wood burning is a form of self-expression, so you dictate the design. At this point, experimenting with different tips and techniques can help you craft distinct patterns and achieve various visual effects in your piece.
Pyrography also allows you to experiment with mixed media. Once burning is complete, you can use stain, paint, or any other media to bring your project to life. If you choose to add other materials, only apply them once burning is complete. The heat from the pen will damage other media and could create potentially hazardous fumes.
8. Remove Any Graphic Lines & Marks With Sand Eraser
Most people who want to learn how to wood burn don’t realize that great pieces are always touched up by their burners. Part of what enriches the art form is the texture and grain of the wood. Unlike canvas, this texture inevitability causes unintended markings and globs.
Fortunately, you can resolve these lines and marks using a sand eraser. More effective than a rubber eraser and finer than sandpaper, a sand eraser enables you to remove graphite and stray marks with precision. The tool is durable enough to erase but gentle enough not to alter the wood.
Quick Tip: In the event of large globs or deposits, you can gently chip away at them with a razor blade before polishing off any leftover residue with your sand eraser.
9. Add Your Wood Finish
After completing the touch-ups, your art is ready for display. There are an array of options for sealing and finishing your wood, including choosing to simply leave it unsealed.
Consider the intended use of your work and where it will be stored or displayed. All wood is vulnerable to moisture and the wood burned markings will fade over time. Your home’s humidity alone can lead to warping and fading.
Even if you consider your early projects practice, it’s worthwhile to seal them for the experience. Finishing is often a multi-day process that requires cleaning the wood and patiently applying oils and varnishes while allowing adequate time to dry between layers.
Danish oil is the simplest and most cost-effective varnish. You simply wipe your wood clean, evenly apply the oil, and allow it to dry. Danish oil provides adequate protection from moisture and carries minimal risk of bubbling during the application process. Its main downside is that it will slightly yellow your wood.
Spar Urethane protects wood from moisture and ultraviolet light, which causes burnings to fade over time. This product can be purchased in matte or glossy finishes and works for projects you plan to store indoors or outdoors.
Resin will give your projects a smooth glassy finish. It applies thickly, making it ideal for protecting artwork you hope to display for years.
Many wood burning projects are for kitchen use, like cutting boards and wooden spoons. The challenge to finishing these items is ensuring functionality and durability.
For this, apply two to three coats of plant-based oil. This helps prevent the wood from cracking. Then, you’ll want to seal it with a food-safe finish to prevent moisture. Food-grade carnauba wax, beeswax, and butcher block conditioner work best.
Now that you know how to wood burn (or at least the basics), it’s time to get started! Don’t be intimidated by the equipment this hobby requires, it’s actually quite approachable!
Follow our steps, be safe, and have some fun! Experimenting is how beginners become experts.