When you’re just getting started with wood-burning, you’ll see possibilities everywhere, but I want to talk about what material is safe for pyrography and which ones you may want to stay away from.
Wood, paper, leather, gourds, and tagua nuts – but some wood is toxics when you are burning on it and it’s imperative that you do some research on that.
The wood you can buy at local craft stores is usually basswood as it is soft with a little grain. Light or a white kind of wood is the best one to choose as the burning will contrast nicely.
I have burned on Red Cedar with mask and outside, so I won’t inhale the fumes. The Red Cedar requires you to burn dark, charcoal-like for it to be seen properly. The hickory is a hardwood and will take a little longer when you are layering the different shades onto the wood.
I have not used paper, leather or gourds so I cannot speak on them but have seen some amazing art. What I have used and will continue to use is tagua nut, which is referred to as the vegetable ivory as they handle just like real ivory. It requires fine tips as they are quite small. You can purchase them whole for carving or slicing. Some will have them sanded for you – others you will have to sand yourself. This is where a power-operated sander can come in handy if not you’re going to be a minute.
There are plenty of wood suppliers out there where you can purchase your wood, be it your local craft store or find it online. So, let’s talk about some of the safe woods to use!
Basswood, perhaps the most common wood to burn on. It provides good contrast between your wood-burning and the wood itself. It comes in plenty of sizes and shapes that you can find at the craft store. You will also find some with the bark still on them and those always found for a rustic feel of things like personalized signs.
Italian poplar is a great wood to use as it’s very light in color and smooth. You can find them in different size rectangular sheets making the art great for framing.
What wood should you be avoiding for your wood-burning art?
Please don’t use any wood that has been painted, stained, pressure treated, molded. It doesn’t matter how much you have cleaned it or sanded it, the chemicals used in the process go deep into the grain and can be harmful to you if you use them.
A good rule is to not use wood that is man-made such as MDF (medium-density fibreboard) and plywood. MDF contains formaldehyde and that isn’t something you will want to wood-burn on.
I will also caution against using plywood even though some artists use it, but since plywood is made out of layers and uses glue, you are going to melt the glue and inhale the fumes, which isn’t great for your health.
If you are concerned about the possible hazards of working with a particular material, MSDS sheets are a good starting point for your research. These sheets list the components of thousands of materials and products and their known hazards. You can ask the supplier for an MSDS sheet.
Woodcraft.com has a great overview of the impact different types of wood can have and you can choose which material is safe for pyrography.