How it works
Pyrography is an ancient art form, dating back to the earliest histories of most cultures. The word itself means “writing with fire,” stemming from the Greek words “pur” (fire) and “graphos” (writing). Many believe this stems from cavemen pulling charred sticks from the fire to draw pictograms.
Of course, the practice has come a long way since then. I use a hot-wire tool, heated anywhere from 340°F (170°C) to 1400°F (745°C), to etch and burn into the surface of woods and leathers. Not only is it faster and easier to do detail work with, it involves far less grunting!
My process starts with the hunt for a perfect "canvas". As far as wood goes, I look for softer boards with minimal grain and sap. Poplar, maple, birch, and basswood are my favorites—though, I've found their ply counterparts to be more cost effective and just as lovely. (This is where I should probably include a "don't try this at home" disclaimer. If you're a budding pyrographer, remember plywoods release toxic fumes if you burn through the veneer and make contact with the glue core; I wear a respirator and use a fan to draw smoke away.)
Once I find the perfect piece, it needs to be sanded until the surface is buttery smooth. Not only is sanded wood more pleasant to handle, the absence of rough grain makes for much cleaner burn lines.
Next, depending on the project, I'll either sketch something freehand in pencil or work up an outline in Photoshop. For the latter, I print it out, washi-tape it over a piece of graphite paper, and burnish important lines with a red pen (the bright color helps me keep track of what I've already covered).
With a basic shape before me, it's time to get burning! I absolutely adore my RazorTip system and the handpieces / pens I've collected thus far: a skew, a ballpoint, and two shaders. (Side note: If you're in the market, I can't recommend TreeLineUSA enough. They're knowledgeable, friendly, and have a great selection.) Anyway, this is where firsthand experience comes into play. Different woods respond to different temperature settings, different tips respond to different amounts of pressure, etc. It helps to keep notes, but each piece is unique unto itself and requires careful experimentation (usually on a scrap piece from the same board). Burns are not easily corrected—believe me.
Each project varies, but for something like a pet portrait, it usually takes me about 5-12 hours of burning. From there, it's a game of "hurry up and wait," i.e. apply a coat of polyurethane, wait for it to dry, apply a second coat of polyurethane, wait for it to dry, etc. Once the piece is finally sealed, black melamine edging is carefully applied with a heat gun and filed down. (I've never seen another pyrographer use this, but I love the contrast it brings.) Finished artwork is wrapped in black tissue paper, nestled in a fitted box, and prepared for its journey to the most thoughtful gift-givers on earth (you guys)!