Pyrographic Calligraphy: An Introduction to Woodburning
Back when I first got into calligraphy and hand-lettering, my mother gave me a woodburning kit as a gift. I unwrapped the gift and saw this strange apparatus. I had no idea what to do with it! I had never even heard of pyrography. When I first tried my hand, I found it frustratingly difficult. A couple years (and burns on my fingers) later, it’s something I’ve finally gotten the hang of and I really enjoy working with it. Today, I’m going to show you how to begin creating pyrographic calligraphy of your own!
Woodburning, also known as “Pyrography” (get it? pyro?) is an ancient form of art that dates back centuries. Quite simply, it’s the act of burning a mark into something in a controllable manner. Most commonly, wood is the canvas medium. However, it can also be done on leather or even hard-shelled gourds!
Sounds dangerous and difficult. It can be both. But with some precaution and patience, you can get started for cheap and begin creating beautiful pyrographic calligraphy of your own.
A basic woodburning kit is quite simple. It’s basically a soldering iron. It consists of a cylindrical, pen-like, structure that you hold. Inside of it is a heating element. The “eraser” end of the woodburner has a chord that plugs into the wall. Using the electricity to generate the heat, the heat transfers through the pen and heats the “writing” end.
Because the heat required to burn is so high, the body of the woodburner is thicker than that of a pen. This is to protect your hand from burning, but it makes the tool a little more difficult to control — at least compared to a regular pen.
Given the simplicity, they’re very inexpensive. This $20 woodburner comes with a stand, stencils, a variety of tips, and the woodburner itself.
Tips? Yes! This is one of the coolest thing about woodburning. The heating element at the end allows you to screw in a wide variety of soldering tips. Each tip will burn the wood a different way. Some are narrow and sharp (like a pencil tip), which will give you thin, fine lines. Some are more broad and rounded, which are great for wider but still precise lines. Others are much broader and flat, which are great for filling in backgrounds or wide areas. There are even stamp-like tips that allow you to apply shapes!
Personally, my favorite type of tip is the chisel tip, as it works well for blackletter calligraphy.
Most kit will come with at least a couple tips, but you can also purchase wider varieties separately. Just do a quick amazon search to get a sense of everything available.
You’re working with high temperatures, so you’ll need to be careful not to burn yourself. Chances are it will happen sooner or later, but you should always be mindful when the woodburner is powered, particularly if you’re using it indoors. Here are a couple of tips:
- When not in use, make sure the woodburner is unplugged. When you’re done, make sure it cools down before you put it away.
- If you take a break and want to leave the woodburner on, make sure you rest it on its stand in a place where it won’t get knocked over.
- Avoid any situation where it could come into contact with anything flammable (like paper). Let’s not burn your house down, okay?
- If you want to change the tip mid-use, you MUST power it off and let it cool down first — otherwise you’ll burn your hand. I’ve impatiently used metal pliers to change out the tip, but you’ll scratch and damage them if you’re not careful.
Pretty obvious, right? Don’t burn anything you don’t intend to burn. Well here’s another not-so-obvious tip… Choose your wood carefully.
A piece of wood can have many different qualities. It can be knotty or… not? It can be hard or soft. It can be smooth or grainy. It can be dark or light. Adequately soft, smooth, light wood is the best for obvious reasons. Soft because it will burn quicker. Smooth so you’re not fighting the texture of knots or bumps. Light so you can see your work. Fortunately, there is craft wood specifically sold for woodburning. These woods are typically basswood.
Don’t use any pressure treated, chemically treated, or stained wood. When you burn safe wood, it creates a nice woodfire smell. This is harmless. But if you burn treated wood, you’re breathing in these chemicals and that is not good.
An Example Pyrographic Calligraphy Project
My girlfriend recently bought me a bunch of these little balsa wood coffins from a craft store thinking I could decorate them and then gift or sell them. I thought about spray painting some and decorating them with blackletter or calligraphy. Then it occurred to me that it would probably be even cooler if I burned them. And that’s what inspired this blog post!
Before beginning, I like to check the wood for splinters and uneven bumps or graininess in the surface. These are all pretty common, so have some sandpaper handy and sand down any questionable areas.
If you’re not confident enough to woodburn freehand (I’m sure as hell not), you can lightly outline your artwork with pencil as a guide. I’d recommend using the softest graphite you can fine. Just be careful not to press too hard or else your sketch will be permanently etched. After you’re finished, you can erase these guides (or sand them off).
For blackletter calligraphy, I like to use General’s flat sketch pencils. If you widdle these down carefully, you can get a nice flat chisel — perfect for gothic letterforms.
The woodburner generally takes a few minutes to heat up, so I screw my chisel tip in and plug it in first. Then I get started with my sketching. In these example, I’m going to do a nice abstract calligraffiti pattern.
Woodburning requires patience. Depending on the wood, getting an adequately dark burn on each stroke takes time (and sometimes a second pass). Even on softer woods, it still takes longer than it would with a pen or brush on paper. Because of this, I like to set aside a good chunk of dedicated time and take breaks in between.
Pretty cool, right? This piece took about an hour. If you’re working on something bigger, it could take multiple days. That’s okay! Power off the woodburner when you’re tired and come back later.
That’s all there is to it! I hope you’re inspired to try it out for yourself. Unfortunately, you don’t see much Pyrographic calligraphy out there. Hopefully, we can change that! I’d love to see what you create. Be sure to tag me in the post or shoot me an email!