How to Color a Wood Burning Project

Updated on April 17, 2018
Bede le Venerable profile image

Bede has worked with a variety of artistic media but enjoys the simplicity of wood burning.

Various boxes decorated by the author.
Various boxes decorated by the author. | Source

Con·tent·ment \kən-' tent-mənt\ n 1: the feeling of simple joy when working on a small wood burning project in the evening. 2: the unique pleasure of sitting in a room heated by a woodstove, while the outside Minnesota temperature is ten below.

Occasionally, I have the good fortune to experience both realities simultaneously. I’m often involved with artistic media that are complicated, such as egg tempera or buon fresco, but working on a small wood burning project is simple and easy on the mind. The fragrance of the singed wood is pleasant, and seeing the design emerge on the natural wood is very satisfying. It is not necessary to color a wood burning, but on certain projects, it really enhances the overall appearance. Unfortunately, most demonstrations of how to color a wood burning are faulty. Why? Water-based paint is used, which is the wrong choice as water will raise the grain of the wood. I will share my secret for properly coloring a wood burning without raising the grain.

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Tools: A. pencils, brush, rubbing alcohol B. Colwood Detailer C. blue tape, container for alcohol D. carbon paper, dried-out rollerball pen, eraser E. box and tracing paper. This stack of boxes was under ten dollars.These tools are helpful for transferring the design: on top is an etching needle, and the rollerball pen is dried-out.
Tools: A. pencils, brush, rubbing alcohol B. Colwood Detailer C. blue tape, container for alcohol D. carbon paper, dried-out rollerball pen, eraser E. box and tracing paper.
Tools: A. pencils, brush, rubbing alcohol B. Colwood Detailer C. blue tape, container for alcohol D. carbon paper, dried-out rollerball pen, eraser E. box and tracing paper. | Source
This stack of boxes was under ten dollars.
This stack of boxes was under ten dollars. | Source
These tools are helpful for transferring the design: on top is an etching needle, and the rollerball pen is dried-out.
These tools are helpful for transferring the design: on top is an etching needle, and the rollerball pen is dried-out. | Source

What You'll Need

  • 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

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The carbon paper goes between the sketch and the wood.Tape the drawing down with blue tape.This is how the transferred drawing appears.
The carbon paper goes between the sketch and the wood.
The carbon paper goes between the sketch and the wood. | Source
Tape the drawing down with blue tape.
Tape the drawing down with blue tape. | Source
This is how the transferred drawing appears.
This is how the transferred drawing appears. | Source

1. Make the Design

  • A pleasing design for your wood burning project is obviously essential. Refrain from corner-cutting in the design stage, as it usually reflects in the final product. What makes for a pleasing design? Make it so it simply feels right. Tastes may vary, but a common consensus often exists as to what is lastingly attractive.
  • The ancient Greeks developed an array of design principles that are still valid, regardless of the subject matter. The following are especially useful to keep in mind: balance, repetition, harmony, proportion, contrast, and unity.
  • 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 perfectly 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 has been refined and perfected, 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 the 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. | Source

2. Transfer the Design

  • 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 tack cloth; don’t use a cloth dampened with water, as this will raise the grain of the wood. If your design has need of 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 use 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 on 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.

3. Burn 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 it in before transferring the design. The boxes that come from Hobby Lobby are pinewood, which is tolerable, though not ideal.
  • On soft woods 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 pine wood top off these boxes on a belt-sander and glued on basswood.

4. Clean the Lines

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.

5. Apply Color

  • To add color to a wood burning, use Derwent Inktense watercolor pencils. I use a 24-pencil selection, which is sufficient for my needs. In application, they appear as a regular colored pencil would on paper or wood. When moistened with water, however, the color dissolves and appears to be painted.
  • I generally color everything with the dry pencils before moistening with a brush. I prefer colors that are more transparent, but you may prefer very vibrant, 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, as mentioned, but water will raise the grain of the wood. To avoid this unpleasant effect, it is best to use rubbing alcohol in place of water. Moreover, the white watercolor pencil is fine for making some shades more pastel, but for a good, strong white, the best option is acrylic paint. Based on experiments, I have found that acrylic paint mixed with rubbing alcohol works very well. 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.

6. Add Varnish

  • 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 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. | Source

7. Add Felt Padding

  • The inside of the box used in this demonstration is designed for holding playing cards, but it may easily be used for storing 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.

Color often complements the natural wood tones very well.
Color often complements the natural wood tones very well. | Source

“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!

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Crosses with colorful designs make good gifts.Sometimes just a hint of color adds much to the wood surface.Various box designs by the author.
Crosses with colorful designs make good gifts.
Crosses with colorful designs make good gifts. | Source
Sometimes just a hint of color adds much to the wood surface.
Sometimes just a hint of color adds much to the wood surface. | Source
Various box designs by the author.
Various box designs by the author. | Source

A Little History of Wood Burning

  • The official name for wood burning is pyrography, which in Greek means, “writing with fire”; “drawing with fire” 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.

© 2018 Bede

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    • Bede le Venerable profile image
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      Bede 25 hours ago from Minnesota

      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. You may have noticed my rendition of Hokusai's Great Wave…I tried to be consistent with my teaching and make it slightly different. Inspiration is o.k., right?

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 27 hours ago from East Coast, United States

      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 le Venerable profile image
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      Bede 4 days ago from Minnesota

      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.

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      DDE 4 days ago

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

    • Bede le Venerable profile image
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      Bede 7 days ago from Minnesota

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

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      Vickie Reynolds 8 days ago

      YEs this is cool

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