Pyrography - original art by Kathleen Marie
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Kathleen Marie:  Internationally recognized artist

Pyrographic Art – Wood-burning Tutorial:  
       Advice and answers to frequently asked questions

Due to the large volume of e-mail inquiries and phone calls I receive asking questions and advice about wood-burning, I have created this page for you. Until now, I have tried to answer everyone’s individual inquiries and look at the pictures you send me of your work, but it has become impossible for me to keep up. Please use this page. I hope it helps to answer most of your questions.

What kind of wood do you use?

I like light-colored hardwoods with interesting grain patterns, but the easiest wood to use if you are a beginner is basswood. It is clear and relatively soft so burns easily. I started out using basswood and then developed into using woods with more character. Pecan, maple, locust, hickory, poplar, sycamore and cypress are examples of woods I use frequently. I particularly like Spalted woods and wood with knots and color changes.  Depending on where you live, you will find different types of wood available. Dark woods are nice for some applications, such as silhouettes but remember that typically, wood darkens and the color grows richer as it ages. Cherry is nice, especially if you use wood with sap and heartwood, but it is very hard.  Be prepared to labor over it. The harder the wood is, the longer it takes to burn. Walnut is one of the few woods that get lighter as it ages, so it can be interesting.  Some high-grade plywood panels work nicely, such as birch, white oak and maple.

The most common "mistake" people make is using pine.  It is readily available, but it is difficult to burn. It does not burn evenly, and the sap collects on your tip. Sappy woods in general are not a good choice.

Where do you get your wood?

Most of my wood comes from fine hardwood lumber yards, saw mills and other woodworkers. I like to use native woods a lot, so local saw mills can provide those. If you do not have tools to mill your wood, you can find basswood blanks at craft and hobby stores.

How do you prepare the wood for burning?

I usually buy my wood rough cut or planed on 2 surfaces (s2s). I then need to plane, sand and cut it to size. I sand it down to a 240 grit. I study the wood before cutting it to size to figure out my composition. If you are not sure of the final image, cut the wood larger than you need and you can trim it and sand the edges after you do your sketch.

How do you finish the piece?

I use tung oil, lacquer, acrylic and matte finish in different combinations. Tung oil will darken the wood, so sometimes it is not good to use. Lacquer will not change the color of the wood, but you will need to use a matte finish over it to cut the glare. I don't like glossy finishes. I sometimes use tung oil on part of the picture, and then spray lacquer over the entire piece after the oil is dry. A matte finish will go on last. I recently discovered a wonderful finish: Acrylic Crystal Clear by Krylon. It makes a very nice satin, protective finish, and you don't need to spray the matte finish over it. Be sure to get satin. If you are using color, you will need to fix that first (see color).

I have not found a UV protective finish yet that I like as they seem to yellow the wood which defeats the purpose.

Important Tip:  Never spray your piece unless the humidity is low. I have ruined a few pieces by finishing them when the humidity is too high. The finish clouds over, and you cannot fix that.

How do you do the color?

I use prisma-color pencils. I suggest you experiment because there are other color applications that work well. I just like pencil. Oil pastels, pastels, acrylic paint and stains are all useful depending on your style.

Pastels are good for large areas of color but you need to build and spray, build and spray. For an example, look on my "horse page" at the picture called The Answered Challenge at Wild Horse Ridge. I used pastel on the cliff because it is a very large area. The rest of the color on the piece is pencil.

Some people like to use oil pastels, but they are not transparent enough for me. I want to see the wood grain. You can build the color with pencils from extremely subtle and transparent to bold. Color mixing with pencils is done on the piece as opposed to paint, which is mixed before applying. Watered down acrylic paint can work well, but I prefer the pencil because I have more control  It doesn't run or bleed; in addition, paint tends to fill and dull your burn lines.

How do you finish the color?

I use Workable Fixatif made for pencil and pastel. Krylon is the brand I use, but depending on what part of the world you are in, there may be a different brand name. Always spray the pencil with fixative before applying any other finish, as tung oil or lacquer will remove the color if it is not fixed.

Tools for burning
What kind of tool do you use?

I use the Detail Master Sabre IV from Leisure Time Products. You can find the tools at Woodcraft stores. Also check out There are cheaper tools on the market that may work just fine for you. Look on the web under "pyrography tools" or "wood burning tools". Just be sure to take note of how the tools are wired. Some European tools have different electrical set ups that won't work in American outlets. Detail Master is wired for American electrical set ups. My tool uses 100 watts of power, and I don't really need more than that.

Burning Tips

I use a shading tip (8B or 8C) for most of the work I do and would suggest getting that tip. For super fine lines like feather barbs, I use the 3A tip. That's it. You can get many different tips, but these are the only ones I use for my flatwork. Many of the tips available are designed for carvers. If you want to do fish, the scale tips would be handy, and if you like to do stippling, the 6A is good for that.

Remember, I'm telling you how I do it, but that should not limit you.  Experiment.  Everyone has a different style and some of the other tips may work well for you.

How do you make prints of wood burnings?

There are several ways you can get prints (reproductions) made of your wood burnings. The best, most cost effective way to start is with photographic reproductions. You need to take a good 35 mm print of the work with the camera level and parallel to the image using a tripod. I take my photos outside in natural light in the shade of a building. You can hang work to photograph on the north exterior wall of your house. If the building is gray, you'll get a good light reading. Otherwise, you can hang a gray or black fabric on the wall first. I use black fabric as a backdrop. It does not reflect light back into the lens, which can distort the light reading from the image. Black backdrop also looks good if you are using the pictures (or slides) for entering shows. I'm sure it is better to use photographic lights, but I have not done that. Do not use a flash unless you have the equipment to do a bounce.  If you use a straight flash, you will get a nasty glare.

You can also take your original to a good photo lab and have them take the pictures for you. Be specific about what you want and make sure that a back drop is used. They will need to use a bounce flash so as not to get a glare off of the finish. When you get the prints developed, choose the best ones for enlargements and just start with one to see how they look. This way you are not investing a lot of money initially. You can get 1 or 10 or however many prints you want done at a time. Keep one back to use as a color match print. It may take a few adjustments to get the color right each time you print. The best quality photo prints are done in a chemical bath, not on a digital printer. In a chemical bath, the ink is infused chemically and with heat into the paper rather than sitting on top of the paper. 

You can do essentially the same thing with a digital camera. Some photo labs can make larger prints for you from digital files but again, look for a lab that uses a chemical bath.

The larger images I have are giclees. They are expensive but excellent quality. Look on the internet for "giclees" and see what you can find. There may be a printer in your area that does them. Be sure to look at the printer's work because quality varies a lot depending on the equipment and quality of paper and ink. Using good paper is essential to getting a nice print. Giclees are also digital reproductions, but the image is recorded on a large scanner.

I have tried lithographs but was not satisfied with the quality as too much of the minute detail in the wood grain did not reproduce.

Where do you sell your work?

Marketing is my weakest point, folks. I keep trying different things. I do art shows and show at galleries.  I have this web site.  I built a gallery onto my studio and invite people to come out here. It seems to take a combination of all these things. You have to be motivated and it takes time, money and lots of work to market. People have to see your work, so you have to keep getting it out there. I think advertising is important, but it is expensive and hard to know what works. I'll let you know if I figure out some great secret!

My best advice is to present your work as art. There seems to be a tendency to think of wood burning as craft.  If you think of it that way, you are telling other people to think about it that way. I frame my work nicely and present it just as you would a painting. Don't refer to one of your pieces as a plaque unless you are not doing your own original art. If you are using patterns, then it is not the same as original art. However, you can still present your work nicely. It is important to be honest about what you are doing. As you develop your talent, you may stop using patterns. There is no right or wrong about this except being honest about what you are doing. If you use patterns, it is craft; if you do your own work from beginning to end, it is art. Copying another artist's work is an absolute no-no!

Taking care of the work

Customers sometimes ask me if they can hang my wood burnings outside on a patio or on a sunny wall where they have had another piece of art that was ruined from too much sun. The answer is no. The woodburning is susceptible to the same kind of sun damage and humidity as a painting or print and needs to be protected from the elements. Another question is about finishing: does the customer need to re-oil the work. If it is properly finished and properly cared for, it should not need to be re-oiled or refinished for a very long time.

Good Luck and Burn On!

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Kathleen Marie • 491 Wildwood Lane                                                                            © 2003-2012 Kathleen Marie Studio, Wildwood Studios.                        
Johnson City, TX 78636 1-830-868-0335                                                                    All Rights Reserved