Monday, 24 October 2011

Elephant No. 22: Pyrography

Years ago, one of my brothers gave me a woodburning kit. I tried it only once before deciding that I didn't really like it. I came across the kit again last week, and decided it might be worth a second shot.

Pyrography—also known as woodburning or, more archaically, pokerwork—literally means "writing with fire". Although modern pyrography relies on specialized tools, pyrography was traditionally practiced with pokers heated in a fire, or even by concentrating the Sun's rays through a magnifying glass.

The practice likely dates back to prehistoric times, when early humans used fire embers to create designs. Pyrography was a common art in Ancient Egypt, and has been used by some African peoples for millennia. During China's Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220), it was rather poetically known as "fire-needle embroidery".

Pyrography tools and machines were invented during the Victorian era, sparking new interest in the craft. Experimentation led to new techniques in tinting and shading and, by the early twentieth century, electric hot-wire etching machines had helped to automate the process. Today, pyrography remains a traditional folk art in many countries around the world.

Although you can spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on specialized woodburning equipment, the simplest type of woodburning implement looks exactly like a soldering iron. The solid brass tip heats up, and stays at a fixed temperature. There are also the more sophisticated "wire nib" burners, which come with variable temperature controls. Both types have interchangeable nibs. Mine is the simple type, and actually came with a special tip that transforms it into a soldering iron.

There are various ways to create a range of lines and shading in pyrography. Different nibs produce different effects, as does changing the temperature of the tool, and adjusting the way the tool is applied to the wood. Hardwoods are preferable for pyrography, because their finer grain interferes less with the design. A light-coloured wood is also preferable, for obvious reasons. The piece I tried years ago was a tiger on a square of grainy plywood that came with the kit, which may have led to my disenchantment with the technique.

Pyrography is also used on leather, and dried gourds, both of which can result in highly dramatic images. Well, in the right hands, anyway.

Arabian StallionAdri and Cassie Pretorius
Pyrography on leather

Hare's Lament by Jenn Avery.
Pyrography on gourd
See more of Jenn's incredible work at and

For today's elephant, I decided to try pyrography on a little wooden box I had. I'm not sure what kind of wood it is, but it seems to have a fine grain, and it's very light in colour.

I assumed my skills would be pretty much limited to outlining in this technique, so I sketched something simple on top of the box.

One of the first things I noticed is that the tool has a tendency to catch on the grain of the wood, making for a sort of juddering line if you apply any kind of pressure. Another thing I found is that the tool I had is a bit awkward. Because of the length between the handle and the point, I didn't have a lot of control over where the point went, or the amount of pressure I could use.

Once I got the hang of it, I actually didn't mind the technique. I outlined everything first, occasionally using a sort of pointillism to draw some of the lines.

After I'd done the outline, I went back in, using the tip very lightly as a sort of sketching tool. The fine shading is the result of barely scratching the surface of the wood with the tip.

This took me about half an hour, and I quite like the result. I may go back and do some more to it at some point, or do something to the sides, or perhaps even stain or varnish it. But for now I'm happy with it as it is.

Elephant Lore of the Day
One of Europe's most renowned elephants was Hanksen, whose name is a Dutch derivation of the Malayalam word aana, meaning "elephant". Born in Ceylon (today's Sri Lanka), Hanksen was brought to Holland in 1637, when she was seven years old.

When Hanksen arrived in Amsterdam, the artist Rembrandt—who was quite taken with the exotic creature—made several sketches of her. For the next eighteen years, Hanksen toured Europe, performing to the delight of both the nobility and the paying public in Holland, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

Ein Elefant (An Elephant), 1637
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669)
Charcoal on paper
17.9 x 25.6 cm (7 x 10 in.)
The British Museum, London

Taking Roman author Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79) as their authority, Europeans of the seventeenth century believed that elephants were highly intellectual, able to understand human speech, follow commands, and write words in the Greek alphabet. It was even thought that elephants had a sense of religion, as well as a conscience.

Although Hansken fell somewhat short of this lofty ideal, she did have many clever tricks in her repertoire. She could fire a pistol, wave a flag, beat a drum, steal money from people's pockets, put a hat on her head, and pick up coins from the ground.

Hansken died in November 1655, greatly mourned by many—including artist Stefano della Bella, who memorialized her in death.

Elefante morto in Firenze, adi 9 di novembre 1655Stefano della Bella (1610–1664)

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home 

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