Pyrography or pyrogravure is the art of decorating wood or other materials with burn marks resulting from the controlled application of a heated object such as a poker. It is also known as hot-poker-work or wood-burning.
The term means “writing with fire”, from the Greek pur (fire) and graphos (writing). It can be practiced using specialized modern pyrography tools, or using a metal implement heated in a fire.
A large range of tones and shades can be achieved by varying the type of tip used, the temperature, or the way the iron is applied to the material all create different effects.
After the design is burned in, wooden objects are often coloured. Light-coloured hardwoods such as sycamore, basswood, beech and birch are most commonly used, as their fine grain is not obtrusive. However, other woods, such as pine or oak, are also used.
Pyrography is also applied to leather items, using the same hot-iron technique. Leather lends itself to bold designs, and also allows very subtle shading to be achieved. Specialist vegetable-tanned leather must be used for pyrography (as modern tanning methods leave chemicals in the leather which are toxic when burned), typically in light colours for good contrast.
Pyrography is also popular among gourd crafters and artists, where designs are burned onto the exterior of a dried hard-shell gourd, usually with dramatic results.
The process has been practiced by a number of cultures including the Egyptians and some African tribes since the dawn of recorded history. Pyrographer Robert Boyer hypothesises that the art form dates back to prehistory, when early humans created designs using the charred remains of their fires.
It was known in China from the time of the Han dynasty, where it was known as “Fire Needle Embroidery”. During the Victorian era, the invention of pyrography machines sparked a widespread interest in the craft, and it was at this time that the term “pyrography” was coined (previously the name “pokerwork” had been most widely used)
In the early 20th century, the development of the electric pyrography hot wire wood etching machine further automated the pokerwork process, and Art Nouveau pyrography gloveboxes and other works were popular in that era. Pyrography is a traditional folk art in many parts of Europe, including Romania, Hungary and Flanders, as well as Argentina and other areas in South America.
Traditional pyrography can be performed using any heated metal implement. Modern pyrography machines exist, and can be divided into three main categories.
Solid-point burners are similar in design to a soldering iron. They have a solid brass tip which is heated by an electrical element, and operate at a fixed temperature.
(I’m not a big fan)
Wire-nib burners have variable temperature controls. The writing nib is heated by an electrical current passing directly through it. Some models have interchangeable nibs to allow for different effects.
(I’ve had a couple of these and I do love the versatility)
Laser cutters can be set to scorch the material instead of cutting all the way through it. Many laser cutters provide software facilities to import image files and transfer them onto a sheet of wood. Some laser systems are sufficiently sensitive to perform pyrography on thin card or even paper.
(This kind of burning feels soulless to me and you would need a heck of a machine to create on some of the beautiful pieces of wood that I use)
For me I think of Pyrography in the same way that I view old dipping pen & ink or good pencil/graphite drawing. The wood I choose is my ‘Canvas’ and my Pyrography Machine with nibs and wires is my pen and ink. I love to work on wood like sycamore, holly, cherry and each kind of wood has it’s own character. I would groan if I were asked to pyrograph pine or oak wood as it does not tend to suit my style of work.