Burning Wood Projects
With Handheld Torches

Note on burning wood: Since these techniques utilize a live flame, proceed with caution! Never try burning wood projects inside your studio or workshop. Even if you thoroughly clean the area of combustibles, it's not worth the risk of a fire. Always burn your projects outside, on a concrete patio, or driveway and keep a fire extinguisher, or garden hose charged and nearby for additional protection.

Caramelized White Ash bowl
with blackout interior.

Overview: One of the more interesting ways you can accent wood is by burning the surface with small handheld torches. Each timber responds to the fire differently and the resulting colors achieved are unlike those achieved by using stains or dyes. Many tools can be used to burn the surface of woodturning projects including propane torches, butane torches, pencil torches and even tiny micro torches. Chances are you probably already own one or more of these tools, so it's an easy and inexpensive way to get started with surface embellishments.

Burning embellishments can range from a complete blackening of the surface, to a light caramelization that adds a unique warmth and glow to the surface. I've been burning woodturning projects for more than eleven years. I've come to really like the effects you can produce with very little effort, or expense. Years ago, I ventured into burning wood with much trepidation because at the time, I was still in my "purist" phase and I was resistant to applying supplemental embellishments to my projects.

If you've ever sold your woodturnings, you've probably found out that darker timbers usually sell better. If you've got a lot of light colored timbers like White Ash on hand and you make your money selling bowls, you've got a problem. That was the situation I was in all those years ago… I was doing retail and wholesale shows at the time and I kept having customers say they really liked my bowls, but they wanted them with a darker colored wood.

White Ash platter burned
with a pencil torch.

While I was able to fill these orders, I kept thinking there had to be a way to sell the light colored bowls, so I began experimenting with numerous embellishment protocols in an attempt to find a way to make lemonade out of my large stash of lemons… I eventually settled on burning wood because of the limitless variations that can be produced very quickly. I use three primary torches for my burning embellishments, a regular propane torch, a small butane torch and a pencil torch.

One of my favorite timbers to burn is Ash. White Ash is plentiful in the Houston area, so I always have lots of it on hand. Burning Ash enhances the grain and makes it look similar to Zebrawood when lightly burned. It has been very popular with my clients and collectors. I frequently burn light colored timbers now and the previously hard to sell bowls frequently sell out.

Burning Wood Projects:
Pencil Torch Protocol

Most of the time when I use a pencil torch, I'm looking for a light to medium burned color, not a blackout. Pencil torches are available at any hardware store or home center. In my early attempts, I used a standard propane torch. However, the flame was not very adjustable and it was far too large for fine detail work. It always seemed to put out too much, or not enough heat. I tried several different types of smaller torches and settled on a pencil torch. It allows you to adjust the flame very precisely and it is easy to use for extended periods of time, since it's no larger than a regular writing pen.

Small pencil torches
like this are excellent for
burning wood projects.

My pencil torch is fired by propane, (not MAPP gas) and it has several tips available to vary the flame size and spread. The flame can be adjusted to pinpoint size if desired. This is very valuable when you want to trace the flame along predominate grain lines, without touching the adjoining timber areas. This particular protocol gives Ash a color similar to Zebrawood. You end up with jet-black areas surrounded by caramel colored areas.

If you want to achieve the "Zebrano Effect" on Ash, then the piece must be rotated by hand (use a protective glove on your hand). Very little rotation is required when using this protocol because you are tracing the grain lines across the piece. To get an even black or caramel color takes practice. What you want is an even burn with little char, so the finish sanding will be easier. The pencil torch is brushed (my old artist days have come back to haunt me) back and forth across the timber in a short arc (like using an airbrush). The distance from the tip of the torch to the timber is variable depending on the effect required and the density of the subject timber.

When you are burning wood in small sections, make sure you maintain an even depth on your burn. I use the natural dark grain lines as a guide, burning wood across the piece following these lines with the torch. The areas in between the darker burned lines are lightly colored with the torch moving in small circles, or shallow sweeps. When you're burning wood, you have to go slowly. You do not want to get the piece too hot, or it may develop cracks. Sometimes, I burn a bit and then let the piece cool for a few minutes and come back and burn it a little more. Once I think I'm finished, I will let the piece cool overnight before sanding.

As you begin sanding, you will be removing excess char and some of the blackened surface. What's underneath that black char is a gorgeous caramel color that looks like butterscotch, or dark caramel sauce. By varying the amount of sanding, you can control the eventual color of the piece. It takes a bit of trial and error when you get started, but it's an easy protocol to master and the results can be very provocative. Sometimes I add darker burned areas to a piece burned with this protocol. This gives a more randomized look to the burn that many buyers seem to prefer.

Burning Wood Projects:
Blackout Protocol

Standard propane torches are best suited to larger burning projects.

A standard propane torch is used to create a complete blackout on a project. The larger flame works the surface much faster than using a small pencil torch. However, you have to be careful because a lot of heat is coming out of the torch, so you have to keep the torch moving to prevent over burning. I usually use my revolving table to rotate projects for burning.

To make the table, I used an old barbeque grill motor and a homemade revolving table. It turns about 30rpm's, so the process is very easy to control. There is a slight incline (5 degrees) on the table, so it does not revolve in a true circle. Much like spraying lacquer, you will usually get better results this way than revolving the piece in a true circle. This setup works equally well if you want to blacken an entire piece, or large bands on a piece.

Blackout burning on a
spalted Magnolia bowl.

I usually start on the bottom, with the piece upside down and make small up and down movements with the torch to burn the surface evenly. It's a good idea to keep a spray bottle filled with water handy, in case you get heavy handed and catch a section of the project on fire. A quick spray of water will knock down any flames very easily. This is another reason that you NEVER want to chance burning wood inside your studio or workshop! Don't take chances, burn outside on a concrete patio or driveway, with a fire extinguisher or garden hose hooked up and turned on right next to your feet.

Once the bottom has been completed, I let the piece cool for thirty minutes and then complete the top of the project. You have to pay particular attention to burning around details on the project like beads. The flame does not want to burn all the way to the bottom the bead gullets, so you have to come back and use the fine pencil torch to touch up any areas that the larger torch could not burn effectively. Once the burning has been completed, I let the piece cool overnight and proceed with sanding and finishing.

Burning Wood Projects:
Other Effects

Another interesting effect can be achieved by burning deeply into the timber. The density difference between the spring wood and summer wood creates an undulation in the surface texture. Much like the beach at low tide, a rippled surface is created when timber is burned deeply. Sandblasting creates a similar surface, but it is not as refined as the torched surface. This effect leaves a sensuous feeling to the surface and always amazes clients and collectors. My favorite timber for this effect is Ash. It's a very versatile timber and offers so many artistic opportunities.

Safety Note: Always follow all manufacturers safety instructions before working with your lathe, or any of the tools or products you may use. If you are unsure about any operation, obtain competent professional instruction before proceeding. Use and wear all necessary safety devices during turning and observe safe woodturning practices to prevent accident or injury.

Steven D. Russell is a professional studio woodturner, teacher and writer. He has written numerous articles for international woodturning magazines, which have been published in more than 78 countries around the world. Steve has demonstrated in numerous cities across the United States. His studio, Eurowood Werks, specializes in bowls, platters and hollow forms with unique visual and tactile treatments.

Steve is also the current and founding President of the Lone Star Woodturners Association, Inc., an AAW member chapter. The LSWA is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching and demonstrating the art and craft of woodturning.

Steve is also a featured writer for the Guild of Master Craftsman's "Woodturning" magazine, published in London England. Woodturning magazine is the world's leading magazine for woodturners. Look for his articles covering technical topics, or project based articles in an upcoming issue.