Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 143, July 2017 Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Subscribe to Wood News
The Down to Earth Woodworker
By Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

This Month's Column:

• Burning Wood – The Good Way • The Garden Gate Putzing With Wood

Burning Wood – The Good Way

Click on any picture to see a larger version.

There are a lot of branches to the tree that is called "woodworking." There are cabinet-makers, furniture builders, turners, carvers, box-makers, scrollworkers, pyrographers, and those who simply like to putz around with wood. During the summer months, when attentions are drawn to the great outdoors and all the work around the home that fell behind (for those of us who suffer through winters), it might be a good time to consider branching out and trying something new with wood when those outdoor chores are done.

Last year while doing something mindless in the yard (mowing, watering, weeding, whatever) I wondered whether I might be able to carve something . So, I ordered some basic carving tools from Highland and when the weather turned ugly again (ah, summers are so short!), I gave it a try. I have since used the infinitesimally small amount of skills I learned to carve several things. I made some decorative leaves on the back of a bench, carved a few gouges in a natural-edge slab to accentuate the "rustic" look, carved a knife handle, and tried to carve something decorative in the top of a tree limb that looked very much like a walking stick… that was a disaster, but hey, I learn from my mistakes.

Figure 1 - If you have never tried woodburning (pyrography)
this set is a good, inexpensive way to get started!
This year, while disposing of countless winter-wind-downed branches and limbs, I thought about woodburning . Not as in burning wood to get rid of it, which is an ecological travesty, but as in burning designs, letters, and stuff into wood. Now, in all honesty, this would not be my first attempt at pyrography. Back in Boy Scouts I got a merit badge for woodburning. I free-hand burned our Troop number into a board that hung outside our Scoutmaster's tent at a rally. I can barely remember how crude it was, since that was something like a million years ago. woodburning would, for all intents and purposes, represent a "new" tool in my woodworking arsenal, and it might be fun. So, I ordered a simple "starter set" of woodburning tools like this one sold by Highland Woodworking , and set about to make a sign for the gate of our vegetable garden.

It is important to know one's own limitations, and my drawing and handwriting skills are sub-par. Therefore, to make a legible sign, I decided to start with a template. I thought it would be cute, if not downright "precious," to make the sign in my wife's native language, so after verifying the best I could the translation and spelling, I typed the word into my computer, selected the largest font size that would fit on one sheet of paper, and printed it. Using a razor knife, I cut the letters out and produced a stencil that I used to trace the letters onto a piece of wood.

An extra fine point "Sharpie" is the pen I used to trace the letters… that was a mistake, but more about that in a minute. With the letters traced onto the wood, I picked a tip and attached it to the woodburning tool and plugged it in. With no instruction, no mentor, and no experience, choosing the tip was arbitrary and likely wrong. Possibly because the overly short cord provided with the woodburning tool required an extension cord, or possibly because it is a "beginner's" set, it took forever for the tool to warm up to a temperature that would actually burn the wood.

Figure 2 - This means "vegetable garden" in Serbo-Croation...
I hope! Anyway, the wood-burned letters look nice on the cedar
board and gives our garden gate a little "pizzazz"
When it was finally warm enough, I started by carefully marking out the outline, running the tool along the previously made ink lines. Now, as you likely know, a "Sharpie" pen's ink doesn't exactly smell like a gift from nature to start with… when you burn that ink it smells very much like something that might cause you irreparable harm. After only a few seconds I stopped, set up a fan to blow the noxious fumes away and out a window, and started over. Within just a few minutes I was getting "the hang of it" and my strokes with the woodburning tool were more sure, more accurate.

Within another few minutes I could see how an artist (I am, definitively, not) could vary pressure, time, and direction with the tool and create various shades and effects. In the hands of the right person, pyrography could create some super art. In my hands, alas, it only burned wood and made letters. Not much different than painting on the letters, but hey, it was a new, fun, experience. You should try it… who knows what artistic talents might be lurking just beneath the surface and who knows how pyrography might broaden the scope of your woodworking. The starter set might be all you ever need, but if your talents exceed the capabilities of the starter set, this Colwood Detailer Woodburner looks like the cat's meow.

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Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life). Steven can be reached directly via email at sjohnson@downtoearthwoodworking.com

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