A pro keeps it hot with woodburning tools and tips
Realistic bird carvings are the envy of many woodcarvers. The best in the business command top dollar for commissions, win piles of awards, and quickly gain respect from their peers.
To keep a competitive edge at the next competition or to satisfy your own desire for the best results, you need to have a working knowledge of woodburning equipment and techniques. Woodburning is a critical element in making realistic feathers.
The woodburning system that most of the experienced carvers use is fairly simple. It consists of a lightweight AC-powered control box with an on/off switch and a temperature control dial. A plastic handpiece typically called a pen is attached to the box by an electrical cord. Interchangeable tips that perform the burning are fitted onto the pen.
One manufacturer of woodburning systems offers 30 different tips to deal with a range of textures from the intricate details of small fluffy feathers to scales on fish carvings. For most of my wildfowl projects, I get by with as few as three.
Wood-handle burning pens with a single heat setting are available, but these simple units are intended for pyrography projects where burn lines and shading are prominent. In most cases, the point tends to be too large for even the macro details on a bird. If you haven’t already done so, invest in a system that offers a range of heat settings and a handpiece that allows for tip replacement. A good tabletop model runs in the neighborhood of $100, while an economical system comes in at a little over $70. Digital models with LED displays are available, but expect to pay much more.
The workhorse of the burning system is, of course, the tip. Technically speaking, it is closely related to a toaster. Whether you are putting a burn on your bread or on a piece of wood, nichrome wire is at the heart of it. The heating elements in the toaster and the wire tip of the pen consist of an alloy of nickel and chromium. The material has two features that make it a good producer of heat:
Nichrome wire has a high electrical resistance compared to a material like copper wire, so even a short length of it has enough resistance to get very hot.
Nichrome does not oxidize when heated. Iron wire, by comparison, will rust very quickly at the high temperatures in the toaster or in the tip of the burning pen.
One manufacturer claims that its high-end systems can heat from a cool tip to 2000 degrees in seven seconds, providing almost instantaneous use of the handpiece. Are such high temperatures essential to realistic bird carving?
A question I am often asked by beginners is how much heat is needed to burn in textures or even undercut feathers. Whenever possible, burn at the lowest temperature the control box puts out. The lines produced will be subtle and show little burn. I do know carvers who set the control at extremely hot temperatures that result in very visible lines. High heat, unfortunately, produces charcoal and ash on the surface. In order for the paints to adhere smoothly and be true to color, the burned wood must be cleaned off, usually with a bristle brush.
There are exceptions. One well-known bird carver burns for color. Using a high temperature, he creates color patterns and variations that show through the paint. In effect, he is employing pryrography to enhance the bird.
Unfortunately, when learning which temperatures are best to work with, you may not be able to rely on the control dial. The numbers are simply references, not abbreviated temperatures, and typically range from zero to ten. Purchase a dozen units of the same model and each will vary in temperature at the same dial setting. Only trial-and-error as well as practice will provide the answers. Have some scrap wood on hand to discover just how much burn the system is giving you.
Another question posed by beginners is how deep should the burn lines be. I begin my answer by pointing out that you can make your burns not only too deep but also too shallow. A fairly deep burn, while it may not be charred and black, is a crevice that has to be filled. Extra paint such as gesso is needed, but that can take away from the crisp-ness of the line. A burn line that is too shallow is quickly filled with paint, and again a potentially crisp line is lost.