An Introduction to Burning for Texture and Branding


An Introduction to Burning for Texture and Branding:
Molly Winton provides some useful information to consider when burning and branding woodturned projects.

Molly Winton provides some useful information to consider when burning and branding woodturned projects

This article will explore non-traditional pyrography techniques to enhance your turning once off the lathe. The traditional art of pyrography is a process of producing images or drawings on combustible material (wood, leather, paper, etc.) using a heated tool. Images are created by layering low temperature burns to achieve shading and tonal values. This series explores non-traditional techniques where mid to high heats are applied to create designs through texturing. The article will address information to get you prepared and ready to explore and execute these techniques by reviewing safety issues, equipment, selection and review of project wood/timber, and work space set up. Article two will involve selection of commercially manufactured tips/nibs and their application to complete a project, while article three will consist of making and use of home-made brands that will be used to imprint/stamp designs on projects.

While there are safety concerns with woodturning, there are also safety issues to consider when burning wood. The primary concern is protection of lungs and sinuses. When woodturning we protect our sinuses and lungs from particulate exposure through the use of dust masks, respirators and dust collection equipment. The same must be done to protect oneself from wood smoke. Wood smoke is also wood particulates, however they have now been made finer and add the element of carbon. Commonly used dust masks and respirators for dust do not catch the finer, microscopic smoke particulates. Full protection can be obtained through the use of a multi-contaminant respirator (dust filter paired with a charcoal filter). When purchasing such items always ask what is the right unit to buy for the job you are doing.
Additional methods of avoiding the inhalation of smoke, to a lesser degree than the multi-contaminant respirator should also be used. Work in a well ventilated environment. Use of mid to high heats for texturing and branding yield a higher volume of smoke. Use a fan to exhaust smoke by arranging the fan to draw the smoke away from the work area, rather than blowing across the work space, which can interfere with the heat of the burning tool.
There are draw fans on the market that have charcoal filters. The fan draws the smoke into the filter to mitigate the smoke remaining in the room. Ensure the filters are charcoal. Do not use a standard carving fan/filtration system. Filters designed to filter wood dust while carving are combustible. If used to filter wood smoke, live embers can be pulled from the burning/branding process, which will imbed inside the filter material, smoulder and eventually ignite the filter material. Use only charcoal filters. Attention should be paid to the burning/branding work area set up.
Low temperature burning does not result in loose embers falling into the work area, however high temperature burns and branding often yield embers that can fall into a lap, on to the floor, or become airborne as a result of being drawn away by a fan. It is recommended to burn in an area where woodturning or other woodworking projects are not produced. Choose an area where sawdust, shavings and other combustible materials are not present. Wearing a leather apron will protect personal clothing and also prevent potential ignition of embers that may land on a lap.
One last caution involving safety that is worth mentioning, is the wood and wood surface selected for this embellishment technique. When choosing a species of wood to burn, if it is a species known to cause an allergic reaction to the user, it is not recommended to burn. Exposure to the wood smoke is likely to cause a reaction, in the same way as exposure to its sawdust. Additionally, chose a wood surface that is clean, and unfinished. Do not burn on top of any finishing product. Heating and burning finishing products will release and expose potenially toxic chemicals into the air. Burning finishes can also create a gooey, sticky, unsightly mess, ruining a project.

Do not use filters designed for carving sawdust

Smoke and solder absorber with a charcoal filter

Use a leather apron to protect your clothing

Three different styles and placement of exhaust fans being used and there are many more units available to choose from, see below

Examples of anti-smoke masks available on the market. What is available will vary from country to country

• Pyrography/burning: used interchangeably to refer to the process of burning material to produce designs and textures.
• Branding/imprinting/stamping: used interchangeably referring to placing a hot wire, or other heated material onto the wood surface to imprint a pre-made pattern into the wood.
• Recovery time: the time it takes for the brand to reheat itself in between individual imprints.
• Transformer: power source for the pyrography pens.
• Port: the portion of the transformer in which the woodburning pen is plugged.
• Burning pen: hand piece that holds the nib/tip or brand to be heated.
• Pen body: handle of the pen, with or without the tip/nib attached.
• Tip/nib: manufactured tip used to burn or draw on the wood surface.
• Brand: tip used to imprint or stamp designs onto the wood surface.

There are a variety of transformers on the commercial market, all with the basic design of providing power to heat woodburning pens. Features to consider upon evaluating a machine for purchase will be discussed. Manufacturers frequently have a variety of models to choose from with varied features and costs.

Transformers accept pen cords with either ¼in phono plugs, or RCA jacks, while some transformers have their cords hard wired into the machine. Plugs used depend upon the manufacturer.
If the user wants the flexibility of using any pen made on the market, adapter plugs, if not supplied with the transformer, can be purchased where electronic components are sold. Transformers come with either a single port, or dual port. If it has a dual port, two pens may be plugged in at the same time.
A toggle switch will allow switching from one port to the other. Having dual ports is a convenience feature, so pens don’t have to be plugged and unplugged as frequently when using multiple tips on a project. The transformer will be used for high temperature burning, therefore select a transformer that ensures a high power output. For manufacturers that produce multiple models, the higher power models will be their more advanced, high-end machines. Transformer temperature range is a feature to consider as well.

A phono jack and RCA jack

The Burnmaster
The Burnmaster has a feature which allows the factory preset temperature range to be adjusted as needed. On the face of the machine, at the No.3 temperature setting, is a hole. If the factory preset range is too hot at the lowest setting, a hex wrench can be inserted into the hole, and rotating left will lower the temperature range. Consequently, if the preset range is too low at the highest setting, the hex wrench can be rotated to the right, to raise the maximum temperature.

Examples of some of the pyrography units available

The Antex, Razertip and Peter Child (below) units have different pen styles, but all have a similar wire tip connection

This Woodart unit has a variant of the tip connection method used on the above units

The Burnmaster has a different form of interchangable tip arrangement

Optima 1 has a similar nib connection to the Burnmaster

Timber/wood selection
Wood selection on which to burn designs or brand, depends upon what style of design is chosen. Designs that involve imagery and/or include crisp lines are recommended to use species with a tight grain, with little variant of hard and soft grain growth – i.e. holly (Ilex spp.) , Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana), cherry (Prunus avium), birch (Betula spp.), beech (Fagus spp.) – and don’t have open pores – i.e. oak (Quercus spp.),
ash (Fraxinus spp.), catalpa (Catalpa spp.). Stark differences of grain density within the same timber – i.e. oak, catalpa, elm (Ulmus spp.), hickory (Carya spp.) – can result in blotchy lines and edges and visible differences in the intensity of the burn. These are caused by the woodburning tip having a lighter effect on hard growth grain and darker/deeper burns into the soft grain growth. Timber selection for branded designs do not have as many restrictions. Open pore and grain variance are not as critical an issue, due to the nature of how the design is applied to the wood. Branding is stamping, or imprinting, as opposed to drawing.
Overall wood density can be a factor to consider if the wood is extreme in either direction. If the wood is quite soft, such as Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) or mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), the wall thickness
of the piece to be burned or branded should not be very thin. A soft wood, thin walled, vessel can easily be burned through, leaving an unsightly hole ruining the project. Soft wood will burn more easily, therefore lower temperatures will yield crisper lines and detail. Very dense, hard woods can present other challenges. Hard, dense woods such as osage orange (Maclura pomifera), black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) and oak can be resistant to burning and imprinting. Higher temperatures tend to yield better results, and deeper imprints. It is highly recommended to practise burning and branding on a sample piece of the intended project wood to gauge its response and properties as burning is applied.
Origin of wood species can be a factor in burn quality. The moisture of domestic woods to North America and Europe are generally watery. Heat reaction to this moisture tends not to affect the quality of the burn, unless it’s freshly green. A turning made from fresh, green wood is recommended to air dry at least a week prior to burning. Use of exotic woods harvested in more tropical climes often have a more oily consistency to their moisture.
When burning and branding woods that have an oil-based moisture, the heat can boil the oils and present a gooey deposit on the surface of the wood. The advantage of this is achieving a jet black appearance to the burned area as the carbon mixes with the moisture, yielding a dark, rich colour, while a disadvantage can be yielding a sticky mess, as well as gumming up the brand. Swiping the brand across a soft, brass brush will clean it, while removing the stickiness from the project piece can be done by wiping the piece with a cotton cloth soaked with isopropyl alcohol. Testing a scrap of wood ahead of time will help decide whether it is a good candidate for this form of enhancement.

Work space posture
When learning to turn, emphasis is placed on how to approach and stand at the lathe while making cuts, holding the tools properly, such as anchoring the handle of a bowl gouge to the body and moving the whole body with the tool, through the cut. Awareness of body positioning and anchoring to the work piece is critical to woodburning as well. Establish a comfortable work space. Find a chair that provides back support and promotes good posture. Place the woodburner where it is convenient to reach, arrange a draw fan that is close enough to the work to pull smoke away and ensure good lighting. It is recommended to work with the piece in your hands, rather than setting it on a tabletop. Working in the hands provides more flexibility of movement, and range of motion. It allows the work piece and the woodburning pen to be moved simultaneously. When the piece is stationary on a tabletop, it restricts movement and flow of the pen. 

Anchor the hand manipulating the pen to the work piece by touching the little finger to the piece, as an outrigger. The heel or side of the hand can also make contact with the piece, providing more stability. Anchoring in this way helps ensure a more steady touch and more control.

When possible make multiple points of contact to the project for stability and control

The intent of this article is to provide a foundation of knowledge and information to better begin the exploration of enhancing woodturnings through non-traditional use of woodburning tools and techniques. Safety, equipment, timber selection and body mechanics/work space have been reviewed. In subsequent articles the application of this information will be explored through practical examples
and how-to instruction.


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