How to Color a Wood Burning Project
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 make 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 the 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
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 is 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 the good surface.
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 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. 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 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.
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.
- 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 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 the dry pencils before moistening with a brush. To integrate better with the wood, I prefer colors that are mostly transparent, 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 the 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.
- 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.
7. 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.
“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 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.
Questions & Answers
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.
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.
Could you please tell me where you purchased your pencils?
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.Helpful 5
Do I need to erase white charcoal for a wood burning project?
I don't recommend using white charcoal but white acrylic paint as described in the article.Helpful 5
Can this wood-burning method be used to design a cutting board? I would be using food safe oiling and conditioning once done.
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.
Is it possible to get the effect of shading with the inktense pencils you recommend?
Yes, without a doubt - simply vary the pressure of the pencil. You can also vary the amount of alcohol on your brush.
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