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Gourd Pyrography and Safety Tutorial - Woodburning Safety and Caring for Your Pyrography Nibs

One of the most important things when learning pyrography is safety & how to care for the burning nibs

I am not going to attempt to teach you everything about gourds but this should offer some VERY IMPORTANT INFORMATION for burning on gourds.

IF YOU DO NOTHING ELSE, PLEASE READ THIS TUTORIAL IN IT'S ENTIRETY!

As a pyrographic artist and instructor for many years my goal has always been to share my passion for pyrography with anyone interested in learning. One of the most important things I have stressed over the years is safety. Burning on materials that are safe to avoid health and safety problems in the future.

First, let me explain that Pyrography means "fire drawing". It is the art of drawing pictures on a variety of materials such as wood, canvas, paper, gourds and many other materials. Wood burning is the art of burning on wood.

Second, the most important things to remember is that you must burn only on raw, untreated & unfinished surfaces. That means no stains, dyes, paints, treated paper (most are), inks, etc. If it's man made, don't burn on it! If it's treated, don't burn through it! Remember these important things and you will be burning safely.

Over the years I have heard so many people experimenting with pyrography burning on things such as acrylic which is a man-made product not intended to burn. Since getting more involved in the gourd world I continue to hear about new techniques popping up to simplify the process of transferring patterns. Simplifying is great as long as it does not put you and those around you at risk in the process. 

So, my goal here is to provide you with some basic information about burning on gourds as well as safety issues.

Please check out my Gourd Crafts 101 Tutorial for a general tutorial on using gourd chalk and dye inks and some of the other products I carry.

This page was updated 4/5/13

Burning on Gourds

Burning on Gourds.I started dabbling in gourds back in 1999 after discovering a gourd farm near where we lived in Texas. I didn't know much about them back then but they offered a unique medium for pyrography. Little did I know at the time that there were artists all over the country burning and decorating gourds. It seemed that most were merely using a burner to outline the design and then paint, stain or dye the design. I figured I could probably do some really nice designs on them just with a wood burning tool so, I did some experimenting with my burning tool. 

My first creation was a bowl gourd using a Petroglyph design of New Mexico mimbre style figures.  Living in New Mexico Petroglyph design of New Mexico mimbre style figures.for many years was already starting to influence my art and would continue to do so. 

I had no idea what I was doing at the time but I used this gourd as a means of experimenting with different techniques on the gourd. 

Since I was trying to create an "old" look to this gourd I left the gourd "mottled" rather than trying to cover it up with pain, dye or stain. The designs at the top were created with a single temp burner and a detail burner with different tips for the other designs. Indian pattern frog dog.

I used a writing tip (such as a Colwood "C", Nibsburner #4 or the Razertip 9S) for most of the designs to create a textured look and a spear shader (such as a Colwood "E45", Nibsburner #5BSM or the Razertip "HD5MP") for other parts of it such as the heart design on the lizard. For the dark border I used a solid point craft style burner.

It was a simple and a rather easy gourd to do and when I finished my website in 2002 it was one of my first pieces of art that I put on the site. Al was still working for the VA and he let some of his friends in Washington DC know of the site and within a matter of days I received a message from someone wanting to buy that gourd. Still in my recuperative period it was a real boost to my self-esteem and it inspired me to go on and do a few more gourds. 

Some words of caution when burning on gourds: Be sure to wear a mask and perhaps use an air purifier when burning on gourds; if you are going to use any color on your gourd do it AFTER you do all of the wood burning.  It is not safe to burn over paints, stains, dyes or varnish (any kind of finish for that matter). Paints and finishes have chemicals in them and burning over them can cause health problems. So do all your burning first and then you can color to your hearts content. 

Cleaning the Pyrography Pen Tips

One of the most important things you must do when burning is cleaning the tips on your wood burning pens. Nothing will ruin a pen or your burning faster than dirty tips.

If you have a single temperature (craft style) burner with brass tips you can use a brass brush to gently clean the tips. Brass is a soft metal so don't get too over zealous when you do this. You can also use a straight-edged razor to scrape off the heavy build-up of carbon.

You have to clean frequently when working on gourds so you don't get stray sparks.

If you have a  detail burner, such as Razertip, Nibsburner or Optima that have polished tips you should start with a single-edged razor to clean off the excess carbon and then with a COOL tip you can use a strop and aluminum oxide to polish. DO NOT do this while the pen is hot. Clean frequently when working on gourds so you don't get stray sparks that can start a fire. 

For burners that do not have polished tips please follow the manufacturers instructions for proper cleaning.

How to Clean Polished Pyrography Pen Tips:

I'm always asked how to clean the tips and it's a great question. I will address the proper procedure for cleaning wood burning pen tips that are polished. For pen tips that are not polished please be sure to check with the manufacturer for their recommended methods of cleaning the tips.

If your tips are caked with carbon, leather or gourd "gunk" I recommend you start with a single-edged razor or the Razertip tip cleaner and gently scrape off excess carbon. You can do this while the pen is hot or after it has cooled. For the next step be sure your tip is cool. Once you have cleaned off any excess carbon use a strop (leather or composite) with aluminum oxide powder.  Never use sandpaper or anything more abrasive than aluminum oxide.

I tend to burn mostly on clean woods that are free of oil so regular cleaning with the strop and aluminum oxide is all I need to keep my tips clean and carbon free. When burning on gourds or leather I start with a single-edged razor and then use the strop and aluminum oxide powder. 

Using a Strop and Aluminum Oxide:

When burning on gourds, leather and certain woods you will probably have to clean the tips more frequently than if you areCleaning Carbon from tip. burning on wood such as basswood or Italian Poplar. 

Directions for using the strop and aluminum oxide: Add a TINY pinch of aluminum oxide to one edge of the strop and run the tip across the powder just a few times, then on a clean area of the strop run the tip over the clean area to remove the remaining powder and gently polish the tip. You need to do this only a few strokes. I then wipe it on my denim jeans (you may want to get a patch of denim to keep on your

 

Cleaning & polishing the tip with a strop.work area) to clean off excess polish. Remember you're really just polishing, so you don't need to try to remove all the discoloration. These tips stay cleaner than many other brands so if you are burning at a moderate temperature on wood you can probably burn longer between cleanings. If you are burning on gourds or leather you will need to clean more frequently. 

Remember that proper cleaning maintains the life of the tips, makes burning easier and your finished burning cleaner and keeps them in factory-new condition. If you clean the tips regularly you will not have much difficulty maintaining them.

IMPORTANT NOTICE ABOUT TOXICITY, HEALTH AND SAFETY

NOTICE: While many woods & other materials, including gourds are considered safe to burn there is always the possibility that you have an allergy to it or will have some reaction to burning it. It is always advisable to take precautions when burning.

People constantly tell me they have been burning On this and that for a long time with no problems. I say, that's great but do you know that most of the effects of toxicity may not show up for 20 years. It's true and I'm constantly reminded of this. I worked for the VA as a Social Worker for 10 years. Young men exposed to toxic chemicals developing lung cancer, brain damage and other serious illnesses years (sometimes 30+ years) after exposure. 

For every call I receive saying it's not dangerous to burn on this and that I receive another call from someone thanking me for trying to educate the public about material safety. 

The bottom line is whether it be burning on toxic wood, burning on plastic (press n seal, acrylic, Lucite, etc.), paper (most are treated with something), masking tape (glue) if it's not totally natural and untreated DON'T DO IT!!!

Even burning on gourds can cause health problems. Gourd smoke, gourd fumes and other gourd irritants, which are produced by pyro-engraving can be cumulative and are harmful to the lungs. These particulates, if not eliminated, will end up as problematic respiratory diseases. The health of all gourd crafters participating in these unhealthy gourd related practices, are at great risk. Using a respirator with the correct filter when pyro-engraving is essential. Gourd crafters should always use dust protection measures to capture and remove as much of the gourd dust from their working environment as possible. Breathing dust that settles on clothing or anything around the operator, is just as hazardous as breathing the dust from the working process. A breathing mask or respirator that is designed to filter ultra fine dust particulates is necessary. Respirators designed to trap the smoke and fumes created when pyro-engraving can be purchased to prevent the gourd crafter from most of these irritants. These irritants can cause the mucous in the eyes, ears, throat and lungs to become thicker and therefore lose their effectiveness. It makes it more difficult to cough and or eliminate congestion from the lungs, tear ducts, etc., causing infections, colds, allergies and many other chronic ailments.   The gourd crafter should know that even an occasional crafter could become affected by anyone of the irritants. Long time crafters still in good health cannot assume that they are spared from these health hazards. Denial will create health problems at a later date, which are NOT REVERSIBLE.

What this means essentially is not just protecting yourself, but those around you. Doing pyrography, cleaning ,cutting, etc. in a place away from others is important to protect those around you.

Several years ago I received a call from a customer in Nebraska. He asked me about good woods to burn on and he told me he bought a large quantity of red cedar to burn on. I warned him of the risks but he said he couldn't afford to buy wood when he already had this. I offered some suggestions on precautions he could take and he agreed to try my suggestions. A couple of weeks later he called back and told me that  he had followed my instructions completely and vented the fumes out a window but he told me that the fumes must have still lingered even though he could not smell anything. The following weekend his young son came to visit and the boy had difficulty breathing within minutes of entering his apartment & ended up in the ER. He was very upset, not to mention horrified about the impact on his son and agreed that it just wasn't worth the risk. 

Just today (7/25/09) I received a call from a man thanking me for taking such a serious stance on safety.  This man lost his life long career due to toxicity. Exposed to toxins at the age of 17 (now 58) while in the service he thought he was fine until recently developed brain damage. After spending a lot of money on tests it was discovered the damage was caused by toxins he was exposed to (airborne).  Irreversible he is now paying the price of being exposed to things that he was told were safe. 

So, I am stressing to you the importance of safety when burning.  Don't take the word of anyone that burning on some of these materials is safe. My theory is, unless it's "natural" and untreated DO NOT BURN ON IT! You may not have problems now but 5, 10 or even 20 years down the road you might regret your past actions. Taking the easy way out of transferring a pattern isn't worth risking your life and it could mean risking your life!

The bottom line is when it comes to wood burning/pyrography or any craft: If it's man-made don't do it. If it's a wood with known toxicities don't do burn on it. Burning on and/or through such things as: paper (most are treated with something), ink from toners or printers, plastic (press 'n seal, acrylic, Lucite, etc.), masking tape (glue). If you are in doubt contact the manufacturer. Get an MSDS sheet.  But most of all don't rely on a pyrography instructor or a gourd instructor to be an expert in material safety. We are NOT and honestly I've heard pyrography instructors tell their students burning on acrylic/Lucite is safe.  I cannot believe that they would consider putting themselves and their students health at risk for what...making a buck! Get the facts on material safety from an expert and don't rely on someone else with your heath!

Remember, that the effects of burning on some of these materials doesn't just affect you, it could effect everyone around you so please be safe!

Safety and Transferring Patterns to Gourds and Other Material

Since I have gotten back into gourds and participate in a couple of online gourd forums I hear all kinds of things. Some great tips are given but others leave me shuddering in disbelief.

A couple of those tips I feel it necessary to discuss here. Since I started teaching wood burning over 12 years ago I have always stressed the importance of safety and when it comes to burning on gourds it's no different.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the toxic fumes emitted when burning on some of these materials lingers long after you have stopped burning. So, for the safety of yourself and others who might come into the room where you have burned on these materials please use good judgment.

Below are a few of the new "gimmicks" that many people are using to transfer patterns to gourds. I urge people to do research & be sure you want to experiment with these materials.

Press 'n Seal

Recently I started hearing people recommend using press and seal (a plastic wrap) to transfer patterns.  I thought this was an interesting idea and helpful because it adheres to the round surface but when I heard that people are actually burning through it I almost fell off my chair. Let me mention again that Press 'n Seal is PLASTIC. Plastic by any name is still plastic and made from chemicals and is NOT intended for burning and it is NOT safe.

Many years ago when a well known pyrography instructor started teaching her students to burn on acrylic (PLASTIC) mirrors and told people it was safe and continues to do so. I contacted a manufacturer to discuss the safety of burning on plastics. His first response was "what are you crazy".  Of course I knew the answer before he said it but I needed to hear it from the experts. Those words still ring in my ear. I have reported all of his remarks regarding this issue on many forums over the years and to this day this lady is still teaching her students to burn on acrylic (now she refers to them as Lucite and safe even though Lucite is PLASTIC) mirrors. What that man said was that if plastic in any shape, form or name is burned it will emit toxic fumes. So my question to you is this...is the ease of transferring a pattern that important that you risk killing yourself? Clearly the answer is NO!

Used as it was intended Press and Seal is safe. It was NOT intended for use as a means of transferring patterns to burn through.

Masking Tape

The other aid to transferring patterns I have heard about is masking tape. Well I have been using masking tape for years to attach my pattern but never considered burning through it.  When I heard that people were being taught in classes to burn through masking tape I had to check this out too from the experts. Sure enough when I called 3M they basically gave me the same response and said that it is safe when used for it's intended purpose as an adhesive and they were horrified to think people were using it to burn on. So, again I ask people why would you want to burn through tape which has adhesive on it and can cause health problems? Again the answer is you don't want to!!!!

Pyrography Paper (made under a variety of names)

Since I (and nobody else) seems to know what's in this paper or how it is processed, my question to you is do you want to burn through anything unknown. Here is something I found on the internet:

What are main ingredients of paper?

Answer: Main ingredient of all paper is plant material. Loading or filling material such as clay, CaCO3, Talc, TiO2 etc. are used for higher brightness and better printability. Rosin, alum or combination of other chemicals is used to make paper water resistant.

Some special purpose paper such as coffee filter paper contain wet strength polymer so to withstand hot water soaking.

But what is this pyrography paper made of? Do you know? I sure don't & I am not willing to risk my health experimenting with it to find out if it's safe.

Paper May Contain Chemicals, Dye or Pigment

In addition to the paper itself possibly posing some risks there is also the risk of burning through the ink contained in the laser or ink jet ink. These inks DO contain chemicals and they were not intended to be burned.

You might not develop health problems now but you may down the road...is it worth the risk to take shortcuts! Don't take shortcuts...be safe!

Other materials you should not burn

Although this is a gourd tutorial these are some other materials that are not safe to burn on or through. For more specific information on pyrography safety please go to my Pyrography Safety Tutorial.

  • DO NOT burn on pressure-treated wood. It is treated with chemicals that, although safely bound in the wood fibers for construction purposes, are inherently dangerous to woodworkers and woodburners.
  • DO NOT burn on medium density fiber board (MDF). MDF is loaded with chemicals and formaldehyde that are unsafe and should not be used for pyrography. 
  • DO NOT burn on any type of treated wood:  stained, painted, sealed with a finish. If you  must use this type of wood be sure that you have thoroughly sanded it to remove all traces and are burning on BARE wood.
  • DO NOT BURN ON PLASTIC of any kind. I have spoken with manufacturers of plastics (includes Plexiglas, Lucite, press 'n seal and acrylics) and they stress the fact that plastic is composed of chemical and is toxic when burned. I don't care what they call it, it's plastic, it's chemicals and it's TOXIC!!!!  So I urge people to find safer methods of transferring patterns and safer things to burn.  Plastic in any form was not invented for people to burn so please be safe! This includes things such as:  plastic stencils, acrylic mirrors, press n Seal (taught by some instructors to transfer patterns on gourds).
  • IT IS NOT SAFE TO BURN ON THINGS SUCH AS: glue (masking & adhesive tape), ink from printers and copiers; paper that has been processed and many more things. I've contacted manufacturers who say it's not recommended for use in pyrography or any other burning which can release the chemicals in the glue.
  • Spalted wood contains mold and may cause health risks if you are allergic to mold so if burning on this take precautions. Another thing to keep in mind is that the toxic fumes emitted when burning on some of these materials lingers long after you have stopped burning. So, for the safety of yourself and others who might come into the room where you have burned on these materials please use good judgment.

The bottom line...if you're not sure, don't do it. CHECK IT OUT BEFORE using it!

 

Other materials that are fun and safe to burn on or through

Burning on many plywood, such as birch and Italian poplar are safe but precautions must be taken to avoid burning through the wood into the glue layer which can be toxic and the fumes can be harmful.

Gourds are nice to work on, but a nominal challenge, because of the curvature and slick surface. You can sometimes find gourds that are craft-ready, so you don't have as much preparation to do. Burning on gourds does require a hotter temperature than burning on wood and you will need to ensure that you keep your tip clean at all times because you will accumulate more carbon and material from the gourd than from wood. Also keep in mind that burning or carving gourds can also cause respiratory problems so use a mask when working with gourds and work in a well-ventilated area. The biggest problem comes when you cut them open and carve or sand inside or burn deep past the "skin". Be careful to wear an appropriate mask when working with gourds and do it away outside the house.

Leather is another nice material, but you must ensure that you are only using leather that is  oil/vegetable-tanned. You can usually find this at Tandy Leather and many other suppliers. Chrome or metal tanned leather can produce dangerous fumes. Burning on leather requires  a slightly cooler pen than burning on wood but, and again you must ensure that you keep your tip clean. Please check out the tutorial "Woodburning from A-Z" for more information on leather burning.

Tagua nuts, also known as natures ivory, are fun and interesting to use. Burning on these little nuts requires very fine-tipped pens, which are available from Razertip and some other companies.

Canvas is my new best friend. It's fun to burn but please make sure the canvas is untreated. Also use a lower temperature and be sure to put it on top of a solid surface and iron the canvas before you start burning. 

You can burn on any surface that is created from natural fibers such as paper, velum, bamboo, canvas, cloth...as long as they are not treated with anything. 

Other Important Safety Precautions

Here are some very important safety precautions when burning:

  • The burning tips on the pens are hot and care should be taken when using them to avoid injury!
  • Always turn off your burner when you stop burning. NEVER walk away from your burner when it is turned on. That's an accident waiting to happen.
  • Do not leave children unsupervised near the pyrography tools. 
  • To avoid accidents (and yes, they do happen!) keep your work area clean
  • Be sure you work in a well ventilated room.
  • You can use an inexpensive computer fan to move the smoke away from your project without interfering with the temperature of the burning pen. 
  • If unsure about the safety of burning on any particular material, please check the MSDS sheets before burning.
  • If in doubt about the safety of burning on particular material contact an "expert in the field" rather than someone who thinks they are.  If someone recommends burning on plastic, contact the manufacturer, not a pyrography instructor who tells you it's safe.

I learned the hard way about the safety of burning on synthetic materials, so my final word here is to use extreme caution and do not burn on synthetic materials such as acrylic, which contain chemicals that are toxic when burned and can cause serious harm.  If you are unsure of the safety, do  your own research before burning anything you are unsure of. 

Do not rely on information from other people unless they are "experts in the field" without verifying the safety factors yourself from an expert in the field. Just because someone else has done it, doesn't make it safe. While it may be fun working on some materials, many are not safe when subjected to the intense heat of a burner. It may seem safe, but it also sometimes takes years for symptoms to show up and then it's too late. An example is people who have been exposed to asbestos...it took years before they developed serious complications and by then it was too late to reverse the damage that had been done. So, please be safe!

Bottom line is...do not burn on any man-made compounds....plastics, composite boards, glues, acrylics, anything of unknown origin, etc. If you are unsure if it has already been treated or a finish has already been applied DON'T BURN IT!

Pyrography is fun, as long as you take proper precautions. Be Safe!

If you are aware of any other materials or woods that should be added to this list please let me know

Happy Burning!

Nedra Denison signature.

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