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How to Color a Wood-Burning Project

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Various boxes decorated by the author

Various boxes decorated by the author

What Is Wood Burning?

Wood burning and coloring make a perfect match. The simplicity of wood burning, also known as pyrography, lends itself to a variety of techniques and every level of skill. Coloring, on the other hand, brings surprising life to the natural tones of wood. And who doesn’t enjoy coloring? For some, it is a mindless stress reliever, while for others, it is an exercise of autonomy: “I’ll choose whatever color I like!”

Moreover, research indicates that coloring helps the brain to disconnect from anxious thoughts and focus on the moment. While it is not necessary to color a wood-burning project, putting the two techniques together often makes for magical results.

Unfortunately, most demonstrations of how to color a wood-burning project use water-based paints. This is the wrong choice because water will raise the grain of wood. All right, enough jabbering—let’s get started!

  • Wood Burning Unit: I use the Colwood Detailer. It costs under $150.00 and includes a variety of tips. It is highly recommended if you want to become serious about wood burning.
  • Natural Wood Box: They're available from Hobby Lobby for $1.99 each.
  • Tracing Paper
  • Carbon Paper
  • Scribing Tool: You'll use this to transfer the design onto the wood. A dried-out rollerball pen works best, though a regular sharpened pencil or mechanical pencil will work as well.
  • Inktense Watercolor Pencils: Though typically used for watercolor techniques on paper, these pencils work very well on wood.
  • White Acrylic Paint
  • Rubbing Alcohol
  • Small Artist's Brush
  • Blue Tape
  • Ruler

Step 1: Design Stage

  • A pleasing design for your wood-burning project is obviously essential. Refrain from corner cutting in this stage as it usually reflects in the final product. What makes for a pleasing design? St. Thomas Aquinas’ definition rings true for me: “Beauty is that which pleases the eye of the beholder.” Yes, beauty may be subjective, and tastes vary among beholders, yet a universal consensus often exists as to what is lastingly attractive.
  • Realizing this phenomenon, the ancient Greeks developed an array of design principles to help artists and architects. The most important of these include balance, repetition, harmony, proportion, contrast, and unity. Regardless of one’s subject matter, these principles often help create a sense of classic beauty.
  • Whichever design you choose, work at it until you are perfectly pleased with it. The design I have chosen is Celtic in nature. I tried to make it original, which is always more meaningful. However, it is acceptable to copy something that you like, especially if you are just beginning.
  • When searching for a new design, I first doodle in a sketchbook until I arrive at something that pleases me. It often takes several tries to smooth out the bumps. After the design, I refine and perfect the design, I proceed to transfer it onto tracing paper. Using tracing paper is useful because it is easier to transfer the design onto the wood. You may even want to practice color combinations on some scrap wood or paper before committing them to a good surface.
Wood burning provides a simple joy after the initial steps are completed.

Wood burning provides a simple joy after the initial steps are completed.

Step 2: Design Transfer

  • Before transferring the design, it is a good idea to go over the wood first with some light sanding paper. Generally, #220 is best, but something coarser may be necessary with damaged wood.
  • Next, remove the particles with a tack cloth; don’t use a cloth dampened with water, as this will raise the grain of the wood. If your design has a need for a border, it is best to draw this on the wood first. I cut the paper to conform to the size of the box top and used blue tape on four corners to keep it stable.
  • To transfer the design, I place an old piece of carbon paper between the drawing and the wood. New carbon paper tends to transfer the lines too intensely, but it is possible to use a very light touch as well. Some practitioners may not like to use carbon paper at all since it has a very subtle greasiness, which may affect the color of the wood burning. Another option is to rub the back of the design with a colored chalk pencil.
  • Whichever method is preferred, you will need to go over the lines on top of the drawing with some sort of scribing tool, such as a dried-out rollerball pen or engraver. After transferring the design, don’t remove the tape entirely, as it may happen that you missed some lines.

Step 3: Burning the Design

  • After you have transferred the design, the moment of joy has arrived. Yes, the preparation may seem somewhat tedious, but it is well worth the effort. It is especially rewarding if you have put time into the design and feel confident about it. Patience is most useful when wood burning; as Michelangelo says, “Genius is eternal patience.”
  • Cheaper wood-burning tools take some time to warm up, so you may wish to plug them in before transferring the design. The boxes that come from Hobby Lobby are pinewood, which is tolerable, though not ideal.
  • On softwoods such as pine or basswood, a bad singe mark will occur if you hold the tip on the wood for too long. It is useful to have some scrap wood for practicing and testing the strength of the hot tip. I have also worked on basswood, aromatic cedar, cherry, and oak. Birch is also highly recommended. I’ve also removed the pinewood top off these boxes on a belt sander and glued it on basswood.

Step 4: Cleaning

Once the design is burned, go over your piece of wood with an eraser to clean any carbon lines. Make sure you don’t use a pink eraser since it may leave streaks. I use a white eraser called Staedtler.

Step 5: Coloring

  • To add color to a wood burning, I use Derwent Inktense watercolor pencils. The 24-pencil selection is sufficient for my needs, though larger assortments are available. In application, these pencils appear as a regular colored pencil would on paper or wood. When moistened with alcohol, however, the color dissolves into the paint. Whereas ordinary colored pencils tint the surface of the wood, the method described here allows the color to penetrate the wood fibers.
  • I usually color everything with dry pencils before moistening it with a brush. To integrate better with the wood, I prefer mostly transparent colors, but others may prefer intense, opaque applications. After applying the colors, put some rubbing alcohol in a small dish and soak a soft artist’s brush in it.
  • Why use rubbing alcohol instead of water? Normally watercolor pencils require water, but water will raise the grain of the wood. To avoid this unpleasant effect, it’s best to use rubbing alcohol in place of water. In addition, the white watercolor pencil is fine for making some shades more pastel, but for a strong white, the best option is acrylic paint mixed with rubbing alcohol. I have also used a gold paint pen, which can give just the right touch on certain projects. However, make sure to use good ventilation when using toxic paint pens.

Step 6: Varnishing

  • After completing the color stage and letting it dry, it is wise to varnish your project. This will bring out the colors more and will protect them from scratches. I have tried several varnishes on wood burnings, including linseed oil, polyurethane, and shellac; however, my preferred varnish is lacquer, which is available at most hardware stores. It is non-yellowing, dries quickly, and gives a very good finish. Moreover, if the application is too glossy, it may be removed easily with lacquer thinner.
  • For a box with metal hinges and clasps, it is best to remove them before varnishing. Make sure to use good ventilation when using lacquer.
Red felt is a good finishing touch.

Red felt is a good finishing touch.

Step 7: Felt Padding

  • The inside of the box used in this demonstration is designed to hold playing cards, but it may be used to store jewelry or other trinkets. An extra touch to make it more presentable is to add felt on the inside of the box.
  • Felt comes in a variety of colors, but personally, I think red looks best. Dark green felt also looks good. I recommend using felt with a peel-away back rather than felt that requires glue.
Wood burnings often look fine without color, but in some instances, it really enhances the overall effect.

Wood burnings often look fine without color, but in some instances, it really enhances the overall effect.

Finis Coronat Opus

I hope that the number of steps described in this article may not seem intimidating. With practice, this method is actually very simple. Yes, there is some preparation, especially in the design phase, but as the Latin phrase suggests, “The result crowns the work.” Moreover, you can reuse a finished design on multiple projects. If the work turns out poorly, don't be discouraged. Keep on trying!

A Brief History of Wood Burning

  • The official name for wood burning is pyrography, which in Greek means “writing with fire” or “drawing with fire” and is also an acceptable translation since the Greek verb graphein has several meanings.
  • From the time of the Han Dynasty, the ancient Chinese practiced a form of wood burning known as "Fire Needle Embroidery.” The art developed particularly from the 17th century onward in the West.
  • In the 19th century, François Manuel-Perier adapted a surgical cauterizing instrument to make the first pyrography tool. Pyrography subsequently became a very popular art form and remains so to this day among artists and weekend hobbyists alike.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Can this wood-burning method be used to design a cutting board? I would be using food safe oiling and conditioning once done.

Answer: I don't recommend this method for a cutting board because the varnished layer can easily be removed with cutting utensils. The exposed paint could contaminate food and make people ill. Many pigments have toxins that are best not to touch let alone eat. However, there may be food grade colors (paints, etc.) that may be used instead that are not dangerous.

Question: Do I need to erase white charcoal for a wood burning project?

Answer: I don't recommend using white charcoal but white acrylic paint as described in the article.

Question: Is it possible to get the effect of shading with the inktense pencils you recommend?

Answer: Yes, without a doubt - simply vary the pressure of the pencil. You can also vary the amount of alcohol on your brush.

Question: Could you please tell me where you purchased your pencils?

Answer: I believe I bought the pencils at Blick Art Supply, but it's been a long time. You can find them on Amazon, I'm sure.

Question: Can I use oil paint on a wood-burning? I burned an image of an elephant and want to colour the background with grass and bushes.

Answer: I’ve used oil paint on raw wood, but I recommend thinning it down considerably with mineral spirits so that it goes on like watercolor. If you want to use thicker paint, I recommend applying a gesso primer first, otherwise, it will eventually peel away.

Question: Can you use neon acrylic paint with regular acrylic paint on wood burnings?

Answer: I've never used neon acrylic paint, though in general, I do not recommend acrylic paint for wood burnings unless you mix it with rubbing alcohol instead of water.

Question: I'm interested in burning a picture and want to paint a sunset in the background. Should I paint it first or burn it first. Any suggestion on what type of paint?

Answer: I recommend wood burning first then coloring. I personally use Inktense pencils with rubbing alcohol but there are a variety of methods.

© 2018 Bede


Bede (author) from Minnesota on September 09, 2020:

Hello Bryan. Regular colored pencils will not blend like watercolor pencils. Also, watercolor pencils allow the pigment to penetrate the wood grain which makes the color stable. You may also have issues when varnishing, as the pigment of regular colored pencils remains on the surface rather than soaking into the wood. In short, I highly recommend the investment toward watercolor pencils.

Bryan Theeck on September 08, 2020:

Hello. I was wondering if I could use prismacolor colored pencils? Also, what effect would it create? Thank you in advance.

Bede (author) from Minnesota on September 05, 2020:

Hello, thanks for the comment; I'm happy to answer your questions. The watercolor pencils that I recommend are one of many brands and are relatively inexpensive. Though I've never tried mixing alcohol with ordinary colored pencils, my hunch is that it won't work because of the oil/wax content in ordinary pencils. The pigment in watercolor pencils dissolves easily, which is why it's best on wood.

Isopropyl alcohol, with at least 70% alcohol, works well. Denatured and ethyl alcohol may work, but have stronger odors. Isopropyl alcohol is generally inexpensive.

I've never burned cork but I know it is possible. As far as applying color to cork, give it a try, and tell me what happens, if you wish.

Good luck in your efforts and keep at it – it’s an enjoyable art.

Craftynewbie on September 03, 2020:

Hi. I am trying to learn the art of pyrography and your article is very helpful especially that I would also like to add pops of color to my work. May I know if using ordinary/less expensive colored pencils and brushing it with alcohol will also result to a a nice looking piece of art? Do you recommend a certain type of alcohol (ethyl, denatured, isoprophyl etc) and percentage (70% or less?) for the color to be permanently absorbed by the wood? Is this process also applicable if I use cork sheet instead of wood? Sorry for asking a lot of questions and thank you so much in advance! :-)

Bede (author) from Minnesota on March 20, 2020:

Hello Miebakagh, it’s difficult news to hear that somebody stole your laptop and camera. Let’s hope that the guilty one will return them soon. God allowed it to happen for some reason, perhaps to detach your heart from earthly possessions. My laptop is seventeen years old and has innumerable issues such as loud fan noise. Last evening, it also beeped continually and wouldn’t stop until I restarted it. Thanks.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on March 18, 2020:

Thanks Bede for the response. You don't have to apology. Every one is busy. As for me, I an unable to publish an article for the past 6-months. My laptop and camera got stolen early last October and I try to lease another. That effort failed. Now, I've locate an internet cafe where I can do all my typing. I will publish a story next month. Thank you.

Bede (author) from Minnesota on March 17, 2020:

Miebakagh, it's great to hear from you and I send my apologies for being out of the picture, so to speak. I've been occupied with other projects, mostly art related. By the grace of God, I've been able to develop my artistic skills. I say, "my skills," but they are in fact on loan from Him, and someday I have to give an account of how I've made use of them. Many thanks for the comments and for reading the article.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on March 17, 2020:

Hello Bede, I do not know you are that creative with wood and coloring. I do not have a basic training. However, my pleasure reading the article. Thanks for sharing.

Bede (author) from Minnesota on September 06, 2018:

Hi Vince, you could try, but if it's burnt then it may not accept water based paint. I suppose if you burned it slightly it may work. Give it a try on some scrap wood.

vince on September 06, 2018:

I was wondering about not using water because the wood grain might raise but after the wood has been burnt is that still even possible?

Bede (author) from Minnesota on April 19, 2018:

Thanks much Dolores. Michael’s probably have boxes; I used boxes from Hobby Lobby. They sell them on Amazon, but sometimes the quality control is erratic, which is why I prefer to shop at the store.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on April 17, 2018:

Wow, Bede, I love this! I would never think to use those pencils on wood. I have everything but the wood box! Must head to Michaels to find one!

Bede (author) from Minnesota on April 14, 2018:

DDE, I encourage you to try it! The one temperature wood burning tools are amazingly inexpensive, and if you sell some wood burnings, then you can invest in a better model. Thank you for your comment.

DDE on April 13, 2018:

Great ideas to try on wood. I would enjoy this type of creative work.

Bede (author) from Minnesota on April 11, 2018:

Thanks Vickie, I hope you are inspired to give it a try.

Vickie Reynolds on April 10, 2018:

YEs this is cool