When I was a kid, some smartass relative snuck a woodburning kit into my birthday presents — a kit of low quality and high difficulty combined with my complete lack of patience was not to bode well. Many might remember the kit: it came with a ton of little wood pieces and some leather you could burn on (which never worked out for me), and there was a child grinning on the cover of the box like he’d just been to Disneyland or something. This was my memory of what I later learned is called pyrography. And few weeks ago, I discovered that particular set from when I was a kid was to woodburning what a model-T is to a modern-day automobile.
The way those craft or hobby burners worked was a single, high-temperature heat that warmed up a thick copper tip. It was exasperating in the extreme because the iron got stuck in the wood and I couldn’t draw for crap as a child. The iron took 5 to 10 minutes to warm up and get hot, even longer to cool down, and in between was a lot of frustration. Plus the tip could weld itself to the screw threads and be a complete bear to remove, if you didn’t break it in the meantime.
What no one told me when I was young is that pyrographic work combines many things I sucked at — patience, fine motor skills, forethought, and planning. Add to that the many layers of shading and the slow nature of the process itself (lifting and waiting for the pen to warm for a few seconds before continuing on), and you’ve got a recipe for discouragement. Unfortunately for me I always liked woodburning even though I was pretty horrible at it. 25 years, formal art training, and a ton of artistic projects later, I wanted to return to it and found an excellent website that broke it down like a fraction for me.
The Sawdust Connection site, while perhaps a touch difficult to navigate at first, is a wealth of information on how to get what you what out of burning. The proprietor, Nedra Denison, is an experienced artist of some repute who has written out the pitfalls and traps that aspiring artists fall into when entering and learning the craft. She enlightened me to the world of variable temperature detail burners and how they work, the different fixed point pens available and what they might be used for, plus the concept of burning on anything you’d like instead of rounds — which I always despised.
Case in point, Nedra says that there’s nothing really wrong with craft burners if you are looking to do mostly outline work in small doses. However, if, like me, you’re looking to get something more robust out of the process, then variable temp burners like the Razertip SK (that I eventually sprung $140 for) is the way to go. You can shade, outline, and damn near paint with the thing given the right pen hooked to it. She warned that claims of super high wattage models really don’t matter; all the pens can do is about 27 watts max and almost all variable temp transformers do that, so you might as well get the one that fits your needs and budget. I spent nearly three hours on the site learning what equipment, setup and iron/pens to pull the trigger on. She thoroughly goes over all the questions I was chewing on, plus about twenty more I hadn’t thought of.
As an adult I found the process to be much more relaxing and highly challenging as I picked up a pen for the first time in over two decades and began to blacken lumber. On some junk wood, I free-handed two quick outline designs that interested me. They are not good yet, but I know now I’ll only get better with time. I learned more from reading Nedra’s site and practicing for an hour than the sum total of my many frustrating hours as a kid combined. Next I will shade and do some detail work to really put the gear through its paces.
It’s clear I had no idea how much there was to learn about pyrography and the modern gear now involved. And for the first time in my life, I look forward to trying more.