Pyrography is an exciting art form to take up, especially if you are looking to try something unique and challenging. However, as it is an art form that relies on heat and flammable materials like wood and leather, you might be wondering how safe pyrography is and whether it’s worth taking up the hobby in the first place.
So, how safe is Pyrography? There are safety risks involved when performing pyrography, which include inhaling fumes or sawdust, risks of burns via heat tools, or the fire hazard of applying heat to wood materials. However, when appropriate safety measures are taken, pyrography can be performed safely.
Even more traditional art forms, like airbrush painting, involve risks–as certain paints can be more toxic than others, especially when emitted in a spray of air.
Pyrography does present more dangers than other crafts. However, we believe if one follows safety precautions that pyrography can be safe and rewarding.
What is Pyrography?
Contrary to popular assumption, modern-day pyrography does not use actual fire, as its name might suggest. The word pyrography is Greek and does mean “writing with fire” (pur = fire, graphos = writing). Pyrography is the art of decorating wood or other such materials with a free hand heat-tool of some kind (an electric poker tool, a metal heated in a fire, or a magnifying lens).
The heat-tool is used to create burn marks. These burn marks can be shaped into magnificent designs that end up looking like tattoos on wood.
Pyrography is sometimes referred to as pokerwork or wood burning. It dates back as far as the 17th century and grew in popularity in the 19th century. Pyrography designs can be manipulated via temperature, style of tip used on a heat-tool, and the way iron is applied to a given material.
These variants allow for a large range of tones and shades to create interesting dimensions in this heat-based artwork.
The most popular woods used for pyrography are light-colored woods such as birch, beech, sycamore, and basswood. These types of woods are used due to their unique fine grain qualities. Of course, these are not the only woods used for ‘fire writing.’ Some use darker toned woods like maple, pine or oak.
Another commonly used material for pyrography is leather. Leather is a material that takes on burn designs well and allows very detailed shading.
However, there are only certain kinds of leather than can be used in pyrography. Only vegetable-tanned leather can be used because other tanning methods contain toxic chemicals that are released when burned.
Safety Precautions when Performing Pyrography
While pyrography is a super fun way to create art in a unique and challenging way, there are some risks involved. The main concerns when doing pyrography are: protecting yourself from toxic fumes and sawdust, preventing burns from heat tools, and of course, being wary of the general fire hazard of putting heat to wood.
Preventing the Inhalation of Toxic Fumes and Sawdust
Many elements affect how hazardous or toxic smoke can be. Regardless, you should always research your materials to understand what toxic chemicals may be present and whether those chemicals are leased when heat is applied.
The smartest way to avoid inhaling toxins is to contact an expert who can outline the toxicity of your desired materials and the risks involved in using them. Some fumes created by certain levels of heat on certain kinds of wood will be more toxic than others. The best rule of thumb is to be selective with your choice of materials, choosing woods of low toxicity levels, and only using vegetable-tanned leathers.
To eliminate as many fumes as you can, we recommend keeping several fans in the room you’re performing pyrography in to keep air circulating, as well as ensuring there are windows open so the room stays well ventilated. This should help prevent the smoke from settling directly in your lungs.
Don’t overlook sawdust as a possible health danger. Best practices to avoid inhaling sawdust include:
- sand wood materials outside in the open air before performing pyrography,
- wear eye goggles and protective gloves
- use breathing masks.
Avoiding Certain Materials
It is good practice to avoid any woods that are painted, stained, have been pressure treated or molded. These types of wood materials contain a significantly higher level of toxins than raw wood materials that are un-treated.
A good rule of thumb is to avoid any man-made woods (like plywood.) These woods contain chemicals like formaldehyde that you do not want to breathe.
Accurately Identify Wood Materials
To this end, it is critical that you be able to identify the wood you plan to use. The easiest way to do so is to purchase wood from a craft store or online here. However, you might run across some unlabeled wood. What to do then?
A conversation with someone who works with wood would be a starting place. You can find online resources, such as this one, that help you to identify the wood. Mobile apps also exist, though the one for Apple users is superior to what has been developed for Android phones.
Choosing the Safest Pyrography tools
As previously mentioned, ‘fire writing’ is performed with a heat-tool of some kind. These tools get extremely hot! So one must take absolute caution when using any of the following heat tools, some of which are safer than others.
This tool is similar to a soldering iron. It is heated electrically, and the heat is emitted from a solid brass end, which is what one uses to burn designs into materials. A solid-point burner also allows the user to alter temperature, which in turn alters the shade and depth of the burn designs.
This tool is one of the safer modern pyrography heat tools as the heat can be lowered. As far as safety goes, it would be akin to a hot glue gun or a hair curling iron. It could cause burns if it meets the skin, but when used carefully and correctly, this is unlikely to occur.
This is a pen-like electrical heat tool that drives a current from a sort of module/interface to the nib tip at the end of the pen. It is typically made from Nichrome wire of differing gauges.
The wire is either inserted into collets (a collect is a type of metal cylinder that acts like a collar around an object) or is held in place by screws. A lot of wire-nib burners allow for interchangeable nibs (different tip shapes) which allows the user to create more specific effects.
A wire-nib burner is also generally safe to use unless the wires inside short. A shortage can occur if the collets inside make direct contact with each other by way of metal objects.
This device scorches materials using a high-powered laser beam. It provides a precise focal length to etch shapes into given materials. These cutters are similar to other computer-controlled tools, operating similarly to a traditional printer, except they use a beam of light as opposed to a blade or ink plate.
This tool is certainly not for beginners as it is very expensive to procure oneself. They are typically found in software facilities where someone designs or imports an image into the machine, which then transfers that design into the material via the laser beam.
This is by far the safest pyrography tool as all of the mechanics are not performed by the person themselves, but rather a highly-efficient and accurate computer-operated laser machine.
Stop When Health Issues Arise
While this seems obvious, it is paramount you stop working immediately if any of the following health issues occur–difficulty breathing, a developing rash, coughing, burning throat, irritated eyes, or lightheadedness.
The Key Take Away?
The safety precautions necessary to perform pyrography should not scare artists away from trying this amazing artform. However, the risks are real and must be taken seriously. There is no reason to carelessly inhale toxic fumes, smoke, or sawdust when one can keep a ventilated space and wear protective materials.
Likewise, as long as one is careful with their respective heat tools, the risk of burning oneself is minimal. However, it is wise to always use extreme caution with any object that emits high levels of heat. Therefore, never leave the heat tools near other objects, and never set them too close to your skin.
Pyrography is a beautiful and rewarding art form. It is all the more rewarding when performed safely.