I’ll wager good money that most woodworking enthusiasts have wondered how to burn letters into wood with the best wood burning tool at some point. It’s a logical technical progression if you think about it, and combines craft with art in a really cool way. In addition, pyrography is an affordable pastime and doesn’t require much in the way of workspace.
Pyrography! Sounds a bit like some shady, anti-social pursuit that could result in jail time. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Pyrography is simply the gentle art of burning lettering or images into wood using a specially designed, heated tool.
Now, if how to burn letters into wood is a new concept for you, you need to know a few basic things.
How to Burn Letters into Wood like a Pro: Getting Set Up
Essentially, woodburning is the process of scorching or burning a design into the face of a piece of wood. Typically, you can do this with a purpose-designed electric woodburning tool quite similar to a small soldering iron. These tools are usually available in kits which normally include a bunch of different heating tips for creating various effects.
Woodburning is a truly satisfying and fulfilling pass time and can quite easily become very lucrative. When considering how to burn letters into wood, one of the most attractive things about it is its simplicity and low cost. Let’s check out what you’ll need to get started.
What you’ll need
We are going to list a basic starter woodburning kit in this section. One of the great things about woodburning is that you’ll probably be able to use this setup for a good long while.
Tools, equipment and safety gear
The most important piece of equipment is, of course, your woodburning tool.
Single, soldering iron style burners and burner kits are great and do a good job.
However, dual burner, thermostat-controlled units are the winner and, if you can afford one, you’ll be thanking yourself later.
The rest of the tools and equipment you’ll need to set up for woodburning are more generic, often household, items. Here’s a quick checklist:
- Access to a computer with some kind of design software (optional)
- Medium flat and Phillips screwdrivers
- A pair of long-nosed or square nosed pliers
- A sanding block with sandpaper – 300 to 800 grit is great
- Small sponge block
- Masking tape
- Carbon paper
- A selection of pencils
- A pair of scissors
- A good quality respirator: The Yinshome respirator is great and includes safety glasses
- Safety glasses
- Heat resistant gloves
- Desk or stand fan
- Varnish or wood stain (optional)
- Picture hanging hardware (optional)
Wood canvas — best types of wood for woodburning
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The wood support, or canvas as it’s known in pyrography circles, is the heart of your woodburning project. Choosing the right piece of wood can mean the difference between a pedestrian piece or a masterpiece. Generally, fine-grained softwoods are the best choices for most woodburning projects.
Some fine woodburning woods are poplar, basswood, birch, and pine. Other less desirable woods include white and red oak and pallet wood. Although durable and attractive, most oak varieties are hard and, as mentioned earlier, difficult to burn.
A specific word of caution bears mentioning here regarding pallet wood. It is often chemically treated with insect repellents or anti-weathering agents which can release dangerous fumes when burned.
Setting up a workspace
This is probably the easiest part of how to burn letters into wood as there aren’t too many specific requirements. Essentially any well lit, reasonably sized table, desk or workbench will suffice.
Your workspace lighting should be bright enough not to cause eye strain and cast as little shadow as possible. The workbench should have close, ready access to a suitably rated power outlet to avoid a spaghetti junction of cables.
Woodburning generates a fair amount of smoke and fumes so a fan close to your bench is essential. It’s great if you have a window or extractor fan nearby to completely eliminate the fumes from the room.
Getting Started on Your Design
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Now that your workspace is set up, it’s time to start on your design.
Before you can start burning you need to prepare your wood canvas and transfer your design to it.
Preparing your wood
Before you start your project you’ll need to prepare your wood canvas. This step will involve first cutting your canvas to the right shape and size. When you’re done sizing the canvas, the face of the wood should then be sanded to a smooth, even surface.
Transferring your design
The first transfer step is printing out your design on plain white paper at the correct size for your project. Trim the paper to fit your canvas and place it in the right position on the face of the wood. Put a sheet of carbon paper under the design, use your masking tape to secure them both and you’re set.
Once you’re happy that your design is in the right position simply trace it firmly with one of your pencils. When you’re done, remove both sheets of paper and your design should be clearly marked on the canvas.
Burning your design — the techniques
The basic principle of woodburning is very simple. Your woodburning tool has a removable tip of varying size and shape. That tip is heated electrically to temperatures between 800 and 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
The hot tips burn the wood on contact, marking it permanently while etching the pen stroke into the wood surface. The temperature of the tooltip, the pressure applied to it and the length of time the stroke takes dictates how dark or deep the burned stroke is.
Outlining, or single line burning is used to burn fine details or the outlines of filled designs. You can use fine wire tips or the edge of chisel tips to burn fine, single lines. Just remember, the longer you take to complete each stroke, the darker and deeper it will become.
Fills are larger areas of color between defined outlines. For large, solid fills use a wide, flat-edged chisel tip. Work steadily around your design, overlapping each stroke to ensure even coverage. If your fill is not dark enough, go over the entire fill again beginning from your original starting point.
Shading and branding
Shading is one of the really valuable techniques to learn and can add depth and perspective to any design. Shaded designs involve burning a gradient fill that can add a very realistic, almost three-dimensional effect to the piece.
Shaded fills are achieved by filling the shaded area with strokes that run from dark to light. You do this by easing off on the pen pressure and speeding up towards the end of the stroke. The gradient effect is a great way of burning skin tones, water or any textured subject matter.
You burn branding patterns with geometrically shaped tips reminiscent of old cattle brands. You can use branding tips to create lattice, basket-weave or any number of other creative, abstract fills.
Finishing your project
Not all woodburning projects will require or benefit from finishing with stains, oils or varnish. Be cautious when finishing wood types with prominent grain as varnish or stains tends to accentuate the grain. This can completely ruin an otherwise outstanding burn by overwhelming the design.
However, fine-grain woods like basswood really benefit from finishing and a subtle stain can make a good design a masterpiece. Furthermore, designs intended for outdoor display would need to be finished to prevent weathering.
Bonus Tips and Suggested Reading on How to Burn Letters into Wood
While woodburning is really simple, it does take time and lots of practice to perfect. However, the great thing about it is, once you’ve made the initial outlay for your tools and equipment, practice comes cheap. A collection of scrap off-cut timber will cost little or nothing and makes a perfect medium to practice burning techniques.
Here are a couple of handy tips for keeping things running smoothly while you’re building your woodburning credentials.
Burning pen parking lot
Put a small sheet of granite or an old floor tile on your bench. It makes a great, safe place to change tips or to park your burning pen while it’s not in use.
Keep your tip clean
Your pen tips collect a lot of crud while you’re burning. Clean your tips regularly using very fine sandpaper or a piece of denim off-cut. Above all, be cautious with the sandpaper though — overdoing it can damage or wear your tips out.
Switch your pen off during breaks
Always switch you burning tool off if you’re going to stop working even for short periods. Your pen will heat up very quickly, as a result, it won’t take much time to get back into action. Getting into the habit of switching your burning tool off when you’re not busy will greatly increase its service life.
Let the tool do the work
Let your burning pen do the work, don’t force things. Hot tips bend easily!
Explore design transfer options
You have many options available to you for transferring printed designs to your canvas including heat and rub-on transfer mediums. Scout around to find the one that best suits your set-up.
Read, read and read some more
There are a wealth of books out there which cover all facets of how to burn letters into wood. Here are a couple of really fine instructional books available from Amazon:
- Pyrography Basics: Techniques and Exercises for Beginners
- Pyrography Patterns: Basic Techniques and 30 Wildlife Designs for Woodburning
A Final Word on How to Burn Letters into Wood
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Hopefully, you now have a little more insight regarding how to burn letters into wood and the stunning results possible with this hobby. Keep in mind though, those results come at the cost of years of experience and there’s no substitute for practice and more practice. At least you’ll be having a bunch of fun while you gain that experience!
If you have tips on how to burn letters into wood or would like to add to this article, please use the comments section below.