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General Pyro Tips



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TAKING PHOTOS of pyrography can be frustrating because of flash glare kicking back off the irregular and shiny surfaces of the work. To help, tape a few layers of tissue paper over the flash to diffuse the light. Vaseline (petrolium jelly) can also be carefully smeared on the flash window.

A CLEAN NIB is ESSENTIAL for good burning. Skews and cutting pens should also be kept sharp. A build up of carbon and muck will hinder good heat transfer and smooth travel of your nib across the surface.

PHOTOS COPIES and laser prints can be used to transfer images to your wood to burn. Print the image, place face down on the wood and gently iron the back. Perhaps even a better way is to rub the back with turpentine (mineral spirits). Remember though, the image is a reverse of the original.

THE HEAT CONTROL OF YOUR NIB can depend on many things. The temperature dial and the size of the nib you have attached are the most obvious. There is however one other, non-mechanical method of heat control…your breath. Think of this as the fine tuner of your heat control. I will often gently blow on the nib to take the edge off the heat if I need to tone it down while working. This is especially useful when working with a shader and doing very subtle grades of tone. While working, if you get to a patch that needs a softer heat, you simply, ever so softly, blow down on the nib rather than taking you pen off the work and turning the dial down. When you need to have the full heat back to the nib, simply stop blowing. It’s also useful for taking the edge off the nib heat before touching down on a surface, to avoid the dreaded black blob.

THE DREADED BLACK BLOB can also be avoided by keeping your nib in motion when touching down on the surface, as well as when you lift back off. Think of your nib as a plane about to land, keep it in motion as you land…taxi along, then lift off again. I know…it seems awkward at first, but soon you wont even be thinking about it.

THE HEAT OF YOUR NIB depends on many things. The machine you are using; the condition it’s in; the size of the nib you are using; how clean the nib is; how clean and flush the contacts are; the type of material you are burning on; your power point; how cold the day is; if there is a breeze; how fast or slow you move the nib across the surface and how much pressure you use. It’s one of the reasons it’s impossible to tell people what setting to use when burning….there are simply too many variables. About the closest we can get is cool, medium and hot.

PYROGRAPHY IS LIKE DRIVING A CAR. It seems such a lot to remember when you start out…a heap of variables to enable you to make the perfect, smooth line. But trust me, it’s just like learning to drive. At first you are conscious of every move you must make to make the car drive smoothly, as well as steer!! It’s just the same with pyrography. And just like the car, soon you’ll no longer be conscious of what goes into driving you burner. that’s when you’ll start doing your best work.

TEXTURE Don’t think of your woodburning tool as just a hot pen or pencil. The burning tool is one the few writing implements that can texture as well as draw. When looking at a prospective subject, don’t just think of it in terms of light and dark tones, think of it also in terms of TEXTURE. Everything has texture, from the smoothness of a shiny apple, to the coarseness of a bison coat. Depending on the nib and your imagination, the pyro machine has the ability to recreate just about any texture you will find in this world.

PRACTICE! Trust me when I say, practice really does help a great deal in perfecting your pyrography. Pyro is not just a visual thing, it is also a ‘feel’ thing. It’s not like picking up a pencil and drawing a line. Practice will help you ‘feel’what you are doing and improve your work by leaps and bounds. (I know…LOL…should see some of my early work!)

MONOCHROME is a term you will often hear in pyrography. It technically means a picture done in a range of tones in one colour…for us it means burning a picture without the use of colour.

POLYURETHANE varnish tends to yellow wood, creating a honey glow but also causing the picture to lose some subtle contrast. Water based varnish looks almost milky in the can. It’s use allows the wood to stay close to it’s ‘raw’ colour.

FADING Most pyrographers know that burning can fade if put in direct light, especially fine, subtle burning. A UV protective additive in your varnish/finish will help prevent fading.

TRACING It is far better to use graphite paper than carbon paper. Carbon paper will bleed badly when heated, staining the wood. Graphite can be rubbed out or wiped out with a damp cloth. This will raise the grain of finely sanded wood though, so I prefer lightly sanding heavy lines or using a white rubber.

ERASING pyrography is difficult, if not impossible in some cases. One way to lighten burning, correct mistakes or make highlights on the wood is to use the side of the blade to gently scrape away the burning. I find a blade gives good control and a more natural finish than sandpaper.

PERSPECTIVE Be sure to stand back now and then to gain perspective. Sometimes, because we burn so close to our work, we get a little lost in the details. Try standing back now and then to see the picture as a whole. I do this when something just isn’t working. Distance will give me a better feel of the balance of the piece….especially if I’m not sure if a certain part should be lighter or darker.

REST YOUR EYES It’s also a good idea to take a break from a particular piece if you are struggling with it. It’s amazing how fresh eyes will find the solution much faster than tired ones.
©Sue Walters

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One Response to “General Pyro Tips”

  1. Annie Says:

    Very useful to know! I wish there was a way to read that a year ago, when I started making pyrographed pieces. :-)

    Just a suggestion, instead of only a small RSS icon, why don’t you ad a “followers” option too?

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