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Pyrography-art - 8/30/08


"Pyrography" by Lady Lillian the Wandering Artist.


NOTE: See also the files: wood-msg, wood-finishes-msg, bone-msg, ivory-msg, leather-msg, woodworking-msg, furniture-msg, wood-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set

of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


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Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be

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                              Thank you,

                                   Mark S. Harris

                                   AKA:  THLord Stefan li Rous

                                        stefan at florilegium.org                                         



This article is created from some of her A&S documentation and the class handout for a class taught by the author - Stefan.



by Lady Lillian the Wandering Artist


What is it?


Pyrography-the word is taken from the Greek for fire and markings-is the art of decorating a receptive surface with a heated tool. Many different materials, such as leather, gourds, horn, and bone can be used as a working surface for pyrography, but wood is perhaps the most common, so the pyrography is often called "woodburning". This is a bit of a misnomer, however, since it implies the art form is restricted to wood, which it is not. With specialized tools and the necessary level of skill, the pyrographer can produce pictorial work on any receptive surface as subtle in the use of line and shading as that of any other monochrome art form.


I first became interested in pyrography some twenty years ago as a way to make inexpensive presents. Since that time, my quest to uncover uses and examples of pyrography in world culture and to gain some sense of its history and evolution has led me down some very obscure pathways. Because examples of pyrographic art are less durable than other art forms such as sculpture or jewelry, they are less apt to survive the ravages of time. Locating the pieces that have managed to survive, especially those from earlier periods, and obtaining usable pictures of them is an ongoing challenge.


What follows is an overview of pyrography, its history and evolution, as well as a discussion of techniques for producing pyrographic art in a modern setting.



How Did I Do That?


With a woodburning kit purchased from a local hobby shop, I took my first steps in pyrography some 3 years ago. A self-taught artist since I was a child, I was fascinated and excited by this new technique for producing artwork that was durable and useful as well as being decorative. When I joined the Society for Creative Anachronism, I naturally brought my artwork with me and found new and exciting areas of research, both for art designs and experimentation with how pyrographic art would have been produced in period.


Since I am not a woodworker thats my husband area, I either purchase wood pieces that have already been shaped, sanded, and (in the case of boxes) assembled, or have them made to order. I usually give the piece a final light sanding before I start work, and then draw the design directly onto the wood in pencil, which allows me to make corrections before any permanent work has been done.


The basic woodburning tool has a tip that is chisel-shaped. The sharp edge is used to outline and detail the design. Once that is done, the flat side of the chisel is used to produce various shading effects. Although paints, dyes, stains, and bleach are often used to accomplish this, I prefer the greater challenge of using only my woodburning tools.


Shading with the woodburning tool is done with a circular motion, combined with pressure and time-duration. The longer the tool is in contact with the wood, the darker the shade. This means that the lightest shades are the most difficult to achieve, needing a light touch and a very cautious application of heat. Even an electric woodburning tool does not maintain a constant temperature against power fluctuations, and so I have learned that late after-noon and early evening, when people are just getting home and making dinner, are among the best times to do delicate shading, since my tool will be at its coolest operating temperature at that time.


When the burning work on the piece is completed, I finish it with a coating of shellac or lacquer in order to protect against surface damage. if the piece is left unfinished, the burning gives the wood a natural sheen, resembling pottery that has been rubbed with a rock; an unfinished piece is, however, very prone to damage when handled even from skin oils-and should be treated with care.


But Is It Period?


Of course, there was no electricity in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. But they had fire, and wood and leather and other materials, and the capability of making metal tools, which is all that is really needed to do pyrography. Even a hardwood stick heated in a fire will work as a woodburning tool for simple linear designs.


Yet I was asked this question often enough, and I myself wondered just how many examples of period community had to say about the art form as it was practiced in that time frame. Researching this subject proved to be very challenging for two reasons. First, there are so few surviving examples. Second, since pyrography tends to be one of the earliest decorative art forms practiced by a culture, it is often classed as an "ethnic" or "folk" art form, and thus receives less academic attention than the "fine" arts such as painting and sculpture.


Certainly pyrography as an art form is not restricted to one or two cultural groups, but is found in various forms worldwide, with applications ranging from simple branding for identification purposes to complex and beautiful floral and zoomorphic designs. Photographs of a fascinating selection of such items can be found in Pyrography: The Art of Woodhurning by Bernard Havez and Jean-Claude Valet. [1] Cultures in Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas have all produced examples of pyrography over the centuries, decorating everything from musical instru-ments to kitchenware. Gourds with pyrographic designs, dated at 3,000 years old, have been found in the Peruvian highlands.[2]


One of the earliest surviving examples of woodburning I was able to find was a Roman caudex that dates back to the occupation of Britain (1st - 4th centuries CE). A caudex was a wax tablet in a wood frame that was used for writing letters. In this example, the outer cover carried a brand mark to denote the identification of the letter writer, much as sealing wax was used in later centuries. [3]



While these examples show that burning designs on wood was in use for utilitarian purposes for many centuries, these pieces could not truly be termed "art". It is a given of human nature that if the technology exists, it will be used, and by the fourteenth century this was proved true in Europe with regards to pyrography. Two Celtic harps, the Queen Mary Harp and the Trinity College Harp, both possess burnt decorations of "line and compass" which may have originally been colored in with paint. These harps were constructed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in the West Highlands of Scotland by craftsmen of Irish descent, whose industry had unfortunately died out by the mid-sixteenth century, probably an after-effect of the devastating Battle of Flodden in ~ 13.


From Mr. James Yorke, the Curator of Furniture and Woodwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, came an article on pyrography in the museum's monthly periodical. This article describes the use of pyrography to decorate marriage chests in the Alpine region of northern Italy in the early fifteenth century, when it was called, not surprisingly, pirografata. Pictorial art outlines would be incised with red-hot needles on these chests, constructed of cypress wood and called cassones; the designs were then painted in, much in the same way as the two harps mentioned above. [5]


Other period examples of furniture decorated with pyrography I have found include a chest dated to the 14th century done by Italian monks, as well as panels within furniture, mantels, and wainscotting.[6] Relief carvings through use of a heated tool were used on the alter pieces of a number of older English churches.[7] In Scandinavia, metal stamps, iron pins, and wheels were used during the medieval period to produce geometric patterns of dots, circles, and S-patterns.[8] A tradition of pyrography incorporating unique animal and plant motifs and dating back five hundred years can be found on the wood pieces produced in the Numedal district in Norway. [9]


Another application of pyrography dating back to the 15th century is in conjunction with the use of marquetry, which is a veneer inlay decoration usually done on furni-ture. [10] Marquetry artists often attempted to produce actual pictures with their work, employing a variety of techniques to achieve a detailed, pleasing effect. Pyrography was frequently used for adding detail into this pictorial marquetry, since it could be done after the picture inlays had been completed. [11] A technique called "Sand Shading" was also used in marquetry, employing silica: a fine, white sand which is heated in a pan. Pieces of wood veneer are then inserted into the sand to achieve a shaded effect, the heat causing the parts more deeply buried to become darker. [12]


How Did They Do That?


The primary difference between period and modern pyrography techniques is of course the benefits of electricity, which allows the heated tool to be maintained at a more or less constant temperature for an indefinite period of time. To achieve the same effect without electricity requires the maintenance of a brazier fire at a fairly constant temperature, and the use of several tools of the same shape~ because once removed from the heat source and applied to the wood, the tool will lose its heat. Though I've enjoyed the challenge of gaining a proficiency with my period tools, I continue to use my electric tools for the bulk of my work, (much like SCA costumers who use sewing machines, and armorers who use gas torches)But do use my Pokers when at events.


It has been conjectured that magnifying lenses were used in period to produce pyrography. Even though the existence of such lenses and their use in producing fire have been known for many centuries. [13] (Aristophanes mentions them in his play, The Clouds), I have been unable to find any mention of such lenses being used to produce pyrography during the Medieval and Renaissance periods. I prefer not to use this method because of the risk of retina damage, and the necessity of wearing eye protection that impairs my vision.


Just How Ancient Is This Art?


There is a general consensus that pyrographic art in one form or another has and on any number of materials goes back to the advent of man's use of fire. Since discovering either the originator or the origin of the art form is highly unlikely, two objectives comes to the fore as worthy for the researcher to pursue: Tracing pyrographic art by discovering examples and by locating documented references and illustrations of the art form from many (often unlikely) sources. A subsequent goal emerges: compiling sufficient primary and secondary sources until a reasonable encompassing history takes place.

In a small book on the merits of pyrography written in the early part of the century, the author stated that some of the great Masters--and here he named Rembrant, Hals, Brouwer, and Teniers specifically-- had decorated the wainscots of Dutch and English Alehouses with Poker Work. This isolated tidbit of information would seem of great significance, yet the author did not list sources for this claim or any other substantiation of it. You might imagine that these early artist did this decoration while socializing, maybe even encouraged by complimentary refreshments from the owners of the establishments! But this is merely conjecture. The author of the little book did not even go that far, and numerous queries over the years to verify his statement or discover more information in that regard have not met with any success.


But I have found that as late as 1600's there were those that used poker work as decorations on castle panels and some chapels. See castle on previous page. In a book on church decoration of the Middle Ages, a 12th century Hungarian church was cited as having choir stalls of wood inlay with pyro-engraved enhancement in the wood inlay.


Pyroengraved Mate cup of Nazca culture of Peru from the period 0-700 A.D.

A very small container of 13.9 cm (5 1/2 in.) in height; 13.6 cm (5 3/8 in.)at the largest point on the diameter and down to only 3.3 cm (1 1/4 in.) at the mouth. Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology, and History Lima Peru.


Not everyday are we fortunate enough to find pyrography dating back to before 700 A.D. like this Mate (pronounced Mah`-tay) cup, above from the Nazca people of Peru. This curious little container has a pyroengraved flower design encircling the mouth and all around the belly are nine little humming birds posed vertically to take nectar from the flower.


Pyrography is accorded such little recognition in its own right that often it is mentioned in passing or not at all, so that even where it exists, reference is not often found even in the index of a larger work. Fortunately another obscure reference has surfaced-- this time to still another early Peruvian culture called Moche. These people lived about 1,00 years before the Incas and unlike the Incas and other Andean civilizations, the Moche lived along the desert coastline of Peru. This very old civilization flourished between 300 B.C. and 700 A.D. when they developed many skills, including according to Claudio Cavatrunic of the Pigorini Museum of Rome, Pyroengraving!


If we are going to look at pyrography far back in time, it is evident that we must also look around the globe, for surely we will discover examples of this beautiful art form in myriad manifestations throughout history and the world.



Hungary, 1610--View No. 3

Pyro-engraved into a 5/16 in. piece of solid wood, 19 in. x 21 in. It has the Hungarian word for "kneeling" and "1610" burned into it. The piece has bowed badly.



August 14, 1997

Aberdour, Fife



Aberdour has undergone several changes over the centuries. The original tower house was built in the 12th century, with the central range added in the 16th century and finally the gallery and stable added in 18th century. The stable was very large and probably housed six horses. The tower house collapsed in ruins in 1844. In 1791 the east range had been abandoned, there was no one left to care for it. Many of the stones had been plundered to build surrounding farms.


Aberdour was originally owned by the de Mortimer family in the 12th century. It passed to the Douglas's in 1342. The Earl of Morton took up residence in 1456 and the Earls stayed in residence until 1790. Thereafter the buildings had been used for several different purposes; schoolhouse, troop housing, masonic hall. In 1924 it was turned over to state care and declared an ancient monument.

An inventory of household contents showed this was a very prosperous estate in 1647 but by 1675, the estate was on the decline.



Although the owner of this castle did not know much about the wooden wall panels, after some checking I was able to find that they were painted and done with pokers and that some color was added, however the colors were unknown due to damage. The panels were 1 x 8 sheets of pressed wood shavings.


The How-to of Poker Art


These are the methods I use.


So what makes what I do so different from today's version?


I will try to take you through the steps I do each time I do a woodburning.


*  I sand down my whole sheet of wood or horn depending on the material I'm using before I do anything else.


* I them add the sketch I'm going to use to the material by either using carbon paper if its a flat surface or freehand if its rounded.


* I start by setting up my forge in a well cleared area with sand surrounding it and a fire extinguisher. (safety first)!!


* then I build a fire in the forge using large pieces of fire wood and I let them burn until I have red hot coals. This takes about 2 or 3 hours to get the coals depending on the weather.  Once I have hot coals, I add small wood chips to keep it burning.



* I lay in my pokers which are about 18 inches long, 3 of each poker must be heated so it is not unusual for me to have 6 or 8 pokers in the fire at a time. I try to keep just the ones I need in mainly (more on that later). Once I know the fire is hot enough to heat the pokers at a constant heat then I begin.


* I burn on 1/4 inch cabinet grade plywood. I pick the piece that best suits the design I am burning. The grain of the wood decides what I do. I burn against the grade when ever possible otherwise with the heats I use it would go right through the wood. This is very important to remember.


Also making sure I have a stable easel is important. I use a vise when I'm working on things such as horn and leather, however.


The Pokers Themselves


My pokers are custom made for me by a local blacksmith (Steve Bloom) here in town. They are made of 1/4 inch steel shaped to my specifications for burning. Like electric burners I have sharp blade edges(like a knife), a flat square edged for shading and I have some curved one like a gouge. I also have a couple of stamps as well to keep from having to do the same design over again I have a square, circle, and triangle shaped.



Project Stages

1. design.

2. prep pokers.

3. heat pokers in order.

4. test heat on scrap.

5. burn.

6. cool down pokers and forge.


The Pokers


Anyone can heat pokers but in order for you to use them properly you need to master the heating of the pokers, otherwise you will burn them up really fast.

Steel only holds its temperament so long. Like knives being made if you over heat the pokers it loses its strength. So the hardest thing really is know how hot to get the poker and how long it will hold its heat.


* Different metals hold heat differently.


I have learn the hard way (the only way) about what my pokers will and will not do. I know not to let them get red hot unless I am trying to put holes into something. Getting the pokers to a grayish red is just about right.


* They hold the heat for about 5 to 7 seconds which is why I keep several of the same shaped pokers in the fire at once.


* When one cools I can grab another and just continue. This is very important otherwise I have to wait for that poker to reheat and that takes time with the thickness of the metal.


* I never want the poker to be so hot that the handle is warm, which means I am overheating it. If this happens I let the fire die down some.


* I never take my pokers directly out of the fire and just let them sit. To keep the pokers in good clean working order, I have a sand bucket(metal) handy at all times. I use the sand to cool the pokers. It allows them to cool off slowly with less chance of cracking and splintering. It also cleans off in residue that may be left on the poker.


* To test the heat of each poker before use I use a buddy board or a scrap piece. Should the poker be too hot then I am not damaging my project.

* Once I have everything setup and ready to burn, I begin slowly. I will touch an area usually the background that is going to be dark to test the wood. If there is still heat left I move the poker over to an area I want lighter. By using this cooling, I am able to burn lighter and allow for shading.

* If I do get an area too dark then I can sand it down. However I prefer not to do this as it shows in some cases depending on the material burned.







[1] Harvez, Bernard & Valet, Jean-Claude. Pyrography: The Art of Woodburning. New York: Van Nostrand & Reinhold Co., 1978.


[2] Boyer, Ruth McDonald. "Gourd Decoration in Highland Peru." Ethnic and Tourist Arts: Cultural Expressions from the Fourth World. Berkely: University of California Press, 1976, pp.183-186.


[3] James, Simon. Eyewitness Books: Ancient Rome. New York: Alfred A. Knop{ 1990, p.17


[4] Sanger, Keith & Alison Kinnaird. A Tree of Stnngs: Crann Nan Teud; A History of the Harp in Scotland. Scotland: Kinmor Music, 1992., pp.59-68.


[5] Yorke, James. "Engraved Decoration on Early Fifteenth-century Italian Furniture." Apollo. June 1989, London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1989, pp.389-392 andp.445.


[6] Thompson, Frances, "The Story of Burnt Wood." Antiques and Collecting. Vol.93, No.8, October 1988, pp.36-37.

[7] Maude, Maud. A Handbook of Pyrography. Dawbarn & Ward, Ltd., 1891, p.21.


[8] Plath, lona. The Decorative Arts of Sweden. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, Inc., 1948, pp.139-159.Also Nylen, Anna-Maja. Swedish Handcraft. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., Inc., 1977, pp.340-381.


[9] Stewart, Janice S. The Folk Arts of Norway. New York: Dover Publications, 1972, pp.64-85.


[10] Beazeley, Mitchell, ed. The International Book of Wood. London: Mitchell Beazeley Ltd., 1976, p.122.

[11] Lincoln, Alexander. The Art and Practice of Marquetry. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971, pp. 10-12.


[12] Ibid., pp.152-156.


[13] James, Peter & Nick Thorpe. Wonders of the Past! Ancient Inventions. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994., pp.157-163.



Copyright 2001 by Karen Starbuck, 2822 NE 10th Drive, Gainesville, Florida 32609. <lillian1 at bellsouth.net>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in

the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also

appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being

reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org