Basic to burning is having a smooth surface. Unfortunately, flaws that include bur and bit marks and sandpaper scratches won’t be disguised with paints. Even heavy applications of thick gesso will not cover defects. Before burning, but after sanding with a paper in the range of 220 to 400 grit, rotate the wood under an indirect light source such as a single bulb to find scratches and unwanted hollows. In most cases, you can eliminate them with a tip set at low heat. Holding the tip with a wide edge as flat as possible to the wood, lightly go over the surface and literally heat-seal it. Wood sculptors and cabinetmakers call this burnishing. Another approach consists of positioning the tip so that it is as perpendicular as possible to the wood and scraping until the surface is smooth.
The essence of a feather consists of a central shaft and radiating, hair-like structures called barbs. For both of these features, hold the pen perpendicular to the surface of the wood. If you are right-handed, burn from left to right so that your view of where the tip has been is not obscured; but holding your head to the right may be necessary to get the best view. I have met some carvers who bend the tip to one side so that the handle can be tilted slightly while the tip remains perpendicular to the surface of the wood.
Needlenose pliers are a good tool for re-shaping the nichrome, but the wire must be brought to maximum temperature first. Failure to do so may snap the tip or put a curve in it that will render it ineffective. Make sure that your fingers are well removed from the hot tip.
Feathers can be described as hard or soft. The hard feathers consist of the major flight feathers. The description comes from edges that have a smooth, hard look. Soft feathers, found on the belly, flank, sides, head and some-times the breast, have a variety of shapes, but their appearance is not rigid at all. Instead, they will appear fluffy in many cases.
When burning an open wing that consists of hard primary and secondary feathers, start with the shaft first. Since a shaft is not always centered, sketch it in with a pencil before you start to burn. Begin by burning two parallel lines that merge at the feather’s tip. If the feathers on your project are splayed, use a backup block to prevent breaking the tips.
On large feathers, the shaft is noticeably raised. To remove wood from both sides of the shaft, you can go back with a rotary stone or diamond bit to remove wood. In most cases, the burning pen will be just as effective. Using a low-heat setting, a wide tip and heavy pressure, hold the pen so that it is almost horizontal to the surface. The result is compressed wood and a surface that needs little if any further sanding.
Beginners who are not familiar enough with feather anatomy sometimes burn the barbs nearly perpendicular to the shaft. In nature, the angle is only 30 to 45 degrees, except at the feather’s tip where the angle decreases to almost zero.
Another phenomenon of real feathers is that the barbs radiate from the shaft in flattened S shapes. Putting a slight twist in each barb actually contributes to the look of the natural convex shape of the feather. To keep yourself focused on the S curves, draw a few barb lines on each feather as a reference before burning.