Looking for a fun new way to make home decor, gifts, and more in your spare time? Wood burning might be just right for you.
This historic art form still has a well-deserved place in modern arts and crafts.
Not sure if you have the artistic skills required?
Here's the truth:
Anyone can learn to create designs in wood using fire for totally unique results. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can even transfer your skills to other materials besides just wood for more creative options.
Let's learn how to burn that wood, but good.
Wood Burning Specifics
Wood burning, also known as pyrography, is the art of carefully applying heat to wood to create burn marks in artistic patterns.
The term “pyrography” comes from the Greek words for writing and fire. Many people use these techniques to create written designs on wood.
But it gets better:
You can also use wood burning to create just about any image or design that speaks to you.
Today, people use specialty tools for wood burning to make precise, beautiful images. Want to add shading and other specific elements to the picture? With the right techniques, you can even create different shades within the wood.
Check this out:
When you change tools or temperatures, you’ll get different results. That’s how experienced wood burners can make such elaborate images.
For example, if you use a tool that has a large, solid end, you’ll get bold graphic lines. But if you use a tool with a delicate, looped end, you’ll get soft shading. And when you adjust the pressure you use, you can change how light or dark the burned wood becomes.
People have actually refined wood burning over the course of centuries to figure out the best techniques. Let’s delve into the fascinating history next.
History of Wood Burning
The art of pyrography is often considered to have started in the 1600s. Back then, people didn’t have refined wood burning tools, so they used hot pokers to create designs. In fact, they called it “pokerwork” before they called it “pyrography.”
But get this:
People have actually been using wood burning techniques for far longer than that. There is evidence of pyrography in many ancient cultures, from Egypt and other parts of Africa to China.
It reached a fever pitch of popularity in Europe in the 19th century, when people experimented with new ways to create more intricate designs in wood. They developed creative new tools in their quest for the best wood-burned art.
And eventually, people even invented electric pyrography pens, like the ones still used today. In many countries, ranging from Europe to South America, wood burning became a part of traditional folk art.
Is wood burning right for you?
Even if it's not a part of your culture, there are lots of other reasons to give wood burning a try -- let’s take a look at some of the best ones.
Reasons to Try Wood Burning
These are just a few of the reasons you’ll love wood burning, even if you aren’t an experienced artisan. Once you try it, we’d bet you'll find even more reasons to love it.
Make handmade gifts
Have you ever wondered what to give the person who has everything?
Check this out:
With basic wood burning skills, you can make custom gifts that your loved ones will treasure for years to come.
Since you can apply this technique to so many items, you’re sure to be able to make something for anyone in your life. It’s not just art -- you can use wood burning to make everyday, useful items more beautiful, too.
We have some specific wood burning project ideas below, where you’ll find great gifts and more.
Create rustic decor
Do you love the look of rustic decor and artwork in your home?
There’s nothing more rustic than something you actually made yourself. Wood burning fits perfectly with a chic, country-inspired look, whether you actually live in the country or in a bustling city.
You can buy wood-burned items online, but because they’re often made by hand, they tend to be costly. Why not learn to make your own instead?
Explore your artistic side
Wood burning also helps you tap into your artistic side, and reap all the benefits that come with it.
This is crazy:
Making art actually is good for your health.
When you get creative, you’ll feel less stressed, and improve the brain connections that help you stay sharp as you age. Creating works of art can even help you get through difficult times in life, by helping you translate your experiences in new ways.
Make more money
If you find that you have a knack for wood burning, you might quickly turn it into a side job that lets you make even more money.
And get this:
Even if you aren’t great at wood burning right away, if you keep at it, you can develop the skills to make pieces that look good enough to sell.
Plus, with wood burning, you can easily trace designs onto the wood, instead of creating your own freehand designs. This will help you make beautiful work that people will want to buy, even if you aren't a visual artist.
Just one word of caution:
If you trace designs to sell them, take care that you don’t use other artists’ designs without permission.
Now for some good news:
Thanks to platforms like Etsy, it’s easier to sell art online than ever before. Even if you only sell something every once in a while, why not profit from your cool new hobby?
Wood Burning Project Ideas
You can make countless interesting wood burning projects. Use these ideas to springboard your creativity and see what else you can come up with!
Burning a design onto wood is a great way to make amazing art you can hang on your wall.
You can choose from a wide range of different wall art designs. You might trace elements of a photograph onto a piece of wood, or burn your favorite saying into a wall plaque.
Or try a cityscape or landscape for a classic art piece.
As you learn more advanced wood burning techniques, you’ll be amazed at the elaborate wall art you can create.
For a simple gift or a small piece of decor, decorate wood coasters with unique burned designs.
You can keep it simple with designs like the family initials, or try fancier images of nature or anything you like.
Classy wooden serving dishes are an easy way to elevate a dinner party or just a cozy meal at home. With wood burning techniques, you can add designs that will better your dining experience every time.
And if you want even more wood burned decor in your kitchen...
add designs to wooden serving spoons, cutting boards, storage containers, and anything else made of wood, too.
Not sure what design to use? Try burning a family recipe into the surface!
Want to give your kids a set of toys that will become family heirlooms?
You can easily burn “doors” and “windows” into blocks of wood to create “buildings” that the kids can use to build their own city. Add some paint or stain for color, and you’ll create a cherished toy set that will get passed down for generations.
How cool is that?
Always at a loss for what to give people when the holidays arrive?
Wood-burned Christmas ornaments make great gifts. Just made sure to add a hole to the wood, so you can tie a ribbon through it and hang it on the tree.
Want a durable, reusable way to mark what’s growing in your garden year after year?
Burn the names of veggies, herbs, and other plants you love growing into wooden sticks, so you’ll never have to wonder what’s sprouting where.
A wooden box with a burned design is a great place to keep jewelry, knickknacks, and anything else you need to store in one place.
It's all about personalizing.
To give rustic appeal to a photo or painting, add a cool design to a wooden picture frame with your pyrography skills.
I hear what you're thinking, but listen:
Even the simplest items in your home can become beautiful with wood burning techniques.
Invest in high-quality wooden hangers and upgrade them with wood burning.
You can add:
With such luxe hangers, getting dressed every morning will become infinitely more exciting.
You know those pictures -- the ones your kids drew that have taken up space on the fridge for months, or even years. Should you keep displaying them? Store them? And what happens if someone accidentally spills something on that precious piece of paper?
Give this a try:
Immortalize your kids’ drawings by tracing them and burning them into a piece of wood. You can turn them into wall hangings, or engrave their drawings of people and animals onto wooden blocks for unique, artistic toys.
Stop giving people those cheap key chains from the gift shop -- they’ll probably pile up in a junk drawer or get lost.
You know it's true.
Instead, you can make your own key chain with a wood-burned design, and the recipient will love the thoughtful gift. This is also a great way to ensure you never lose your own keys again!
For the ultimate rustic decorating, try adding wood-burned designs to side tables, chairs, and any other furniture you choose.
How beautiful would your bedroom look with a custom wooden headboard engraved with your own designs?
The Tools You’ll Need for Wood Burning
Ready to get started?
This is awesome:
You don’t need expensive tools or equipment that takes up a lot of space. Just invest in these simple items so you can start trying some of those wood burning projects for yourself.
Naturally, you’ll need the wood first and foremost.
You can buy existing wood items, like coasters or cutting boards, and add your own designs to them. Just make sure the wood is untreated.
Or, want to get really crafty?
You can also finish natural wood yourself and then apply pyrography techniques to it.
It’s easiest to apply wood burning methods to woods in a light color, so the designs show up well. We’ve got a more detailed guide to how to choose the best types of wood below.
Technically, you can use any heated metal tool to apply wood burning techniques to your art. However, it’s easier (and safer) to use a pyrography pen, at least at first.
You have a few different types of pens to choose between.
If you want solid lines, get a solid-point burning tool to make clear, thick designs. For more delicate work like shading, you’ll want a pen with a wire nib at the end. Look for adjustable heat controls if you want to create elaborate patterns with different shades.
Some people also use lasers to apply designs to wood. However, this is a little different from traditional pyrography. Lasers can often make far more intricate designs than wood burning done with pyrography tools.
Need to stay on a budget?
You can buy basic pyrography pens for well under $50. As you learn the techniques, you may want to upgrade to more advanced models or buy a wood burning kit with various pens and attachments.
You'll use sandpaper to brush away the excess bits of wood that land around your wood burning pen and keep the work area clear.
Design, carbon paper, and pencil
It’s difficult to draw freehand with pyrography tools. Even if you want to use your own custom artwork, create the design on a separate piece of paper first, then trace it onto the wood before you burn it in.
You can also print out a photograph, some lettering, or any other design you’d like onto a piece of paper to transfer it to the wood.
This is cool:
To trace the design, place a sheet of carbon paper directly onto the wood, then place the paper with your design on top. Trace the design through the paper with a pencil, and the carbon paper will transfer the pencil marks to the wood. Then you can just follow those lines with the pyrography pen.
The Best Types of Wood to Use
Many people start out with beech, birch, and other light-colored hardwoods or softwoods. However, you can also use the same techniques on darker woods like oak and maple. Just keep in mind that the design won’t show up as well on the darker color.
Let’s take a closer look at how some specific types of wood respond to pyrography.
This type of wood has a light color so you’ll easily be able to see even delicate designs.
Some people may find it difficult to navigate around the grain of birchwood, but it’s still popular even for beginners. You can buy high-quality birchwood to get a more even color and fewer flaws.
Pyrographers also love working with basswood, another light-colored hardwood.
It has minimal grain and tends to burn very easily, so it’s one of the easiest kinds of wood to learn on.
Light-colored poplar also works very nicely for wood burning projects.
You can find it in a variety of shades, so look for the lighter ones to get the best contrast. Poplar is also easy to work with if you want to do your own woodworking by hand, too.
Pine doesn’t cost much and is usually light in color, making it a great wood to try your wood burning techniques on.
However, there’s a wide variety in the grain on some types of pine. You’ll probably find it easy to burn designs into the lighter-grained areas, but the dark ones can pose a challenge.
Yellow pine tends to be more difficult, while white pine offers a more even surface to work with.
Although maple is darker in color, it can still look beautiful with wood burning techniques applied.
Since it’s harder than some of the other woods listed here, you’ll likely need to set your pyrography pen to a higher temperature to get the best results.
Once you’ve mastered your basic techniques, you can challenge yourself by giving oak a shot.
Oak tends to be expensive, so you’ll want to practice on cheaper woods first to make sure you won’t waste a piece of pricey hardwood.
This kind of wood has an uneven grain and lots of moisture, which can make it difficult to work with. Try it for simple designs, since delicate images may not show up well.
Dark-colored mahogany is expensive too, but because it doesn’t have a strong grain pattern, it’s very easy to work with.
Just pick bold designs that will stand out against the dark wood.
Step-by-Step Guide to Wood Burning
You’ve got your wood and your wood burning tools:
Now you’re ready to get started!
Follow these steps for great results every time.
Test your tools
If you haven’t used your pyrography pen yet, you’ll want to give it a trial run first.
This will help you get steady strokes when you’re ready to apply it to the wood.
Here's what to do:
Get a piece of excess wood for your test run. You’ll need to plug in your wood burning pen and let it heat up for a few minutes -- it uses electricity for the heat. Then try writing, drawing, or doodling on your scrap wood.
If you want to try out the different tips, just wait a few minutes for the tool to cool off before changing them. Then heat the pen back up for several minutes before using it again.
Prep your wood
Since you’ve already gathered your materials, all you need to do here is take your design and trace it onto the wood, as described above. Tape the design and carbon paper in place, so they don’t move as you’re tracing.
Start wood burning
Now here’s the fun part:
Watching your design come to life on the wood you chose!
To get the best results, keep your movements slow and your hand steady. You need to take your time so the wood can burn properly and the design will show up.
Try to get each line finished in a single, slow stroke, so it looks smooth.
In addition to clearing away the sawdust with sandpaper, you may want to wipe the end of your pen off occasionally with a damp paper towel to remove excess wood dust.
But be careful: the tip is hot!
It’s best to start with the rough outline of your design, then add the delicate details later with a different tip on your pen. Avoid using lots of force, since the tips can easily bend while they’re hot.
If you want to fill in a large area with solid black, work slowly in circular motions with medium heat. You can pass over each area again if it needs to be darker.
Here's a trick:
Use higher heat to get darker lines, and lower heat for shading. As you get more practice, you’ll be able to execute fancier designs with ease.
Essential Wood Burning Safety Tips
Wood burning is fun, but it can be dangerous if you make certain mistakes. Luckily, those are easy to avoid -- just follow these safety tips.
Avoid treated wood
Burning wood that has chemicals, glue, or other contaminants added can result in toxic smoke. If you’re using reclaimed wood and you aren’t sure what it’s come into contact with, always use a face mask while burning.
Even if you’re burning pure, safe wood, you should still wear a mask to limit the bits of wood and smoke that you inhale.
Make sure to always work in a well-ventilated area so the smoke can escape. Open plenty of windows and turn on a fan to get the air moving.
The bigger your project, the more important ventilation is. This will also keep the smoke out of your eyes so you can see better!
Now get this:
Some natural woods can actually irritate your skin due to natural toxicity, even if they aren't chemically treated.
It’s a good idea to shower and change your clothes after you’ve finished a wood burning project to limit the exposure. If you notice signs of irritation like a rash, try working with a different kind of wood.
Check wood species toxicity
You can check online guides for the toxicity levels of different wood species before you try a new kind of wood. This will help you see how likely a certain kind of wood is to irritate your eyes or skin.
And here's a tip:
Always know what species you’re working with!
Also, never work with wood that’s been damaged by water, or that has visible fungus or mold growing on it. This will make the wood very toxic.
Take care with hot tools
Finally, don’t forget that you’re working with hot tools!
Never touch the end of your pyrography pen until it’s cool. You might want to use pliers to switch out the nibs, so you’re not touching them with your bare hands.
Worried about accidentally burning yourself?
You can also invest in a pair of thick gloves to protect your hands from the heat.
Dos and Don’ts of Wood Burning
Like any hobby, wood burning has a few tips and tricks that can help you out a lot.
For the best results and added safety, follow these quick dos and don’ts.
Do: Turn the wood
As you work on your design, the best angle to approach it from will change. Turn the wood as you go to get the best angles for each part.
Do: Shade lightly first
When shading, it’s best to start with a light touch and add color gradually.
You can always add more color, but you can’t take color away!
Do: Clean your pen
The tip of your pyrography pen will build up with a residue of burned wood as you go. Clean the pen thoroughly between each project, and while in the middle of a bigger project. The manufacturer will include instructions for how to best clean the tip.
Don’t: Push the pen away from you
For a smooth line, always pull the pen toward you, instead of pushing away.
Don’t: Grip the pen tightly
With a super-tight grip, your hand will tire faster. Not only that, but you’ll also have a harder time getting a smooth line. Let the pen do the work for you -- you don’t need to push down hard or grip tightly.
Don’t: Leave your pen plugged in
When you’re not using the pen, always unplug it. It’s dangerous to leave a hot tool unattended.
Not only that:
If you have small children or anyone in the household who shouldn’t handle a pyrography tool, put it away somewhere secure when it’s not in use. This will prevent accidents like burns or fires.
Get Started with Pyrography Today
Now, you’re ready to get started with wood burning!
After you’ve got the basic techniques down, let your creativity take control. You can even apply these methods to other materials, like leather or gourds, for cool new project ideas.
Wood burning lets you take part in an ancient art form that's still highly in demand today. Will you give it a try? Let us know in the comments!