Using a Wood Burner to Thermally Transfer Photocopied Images Onto Wood

The Razortip wood burner

Overview: One of the biggest challenges facing woodturners who want try their hand at different types of surface embellishments, is how to get a complex design or image onto the surface of the wood easily. For example, let's say you want to burn a Grecian Key design into the rim of a platter you're tuning.

How are you going to get a good-looking, accurately scaled design onto your platter rim? You could freehand draw it of course, or trace it on the surface with tracing paper. Yet another way is to use an overhead projector to project the image on the surface so you can trace it.

Back in the day when I was in art class, we were forced to freehand draw most of our images and I became really good at drawing as a result. I became so good in fact, that my instructors all encouraged me to become a graphics artist in college. I still love drawing to this day, but I rarely have the time to sit down and spend a couple of hours drawing a complicated design onto the surface of one of my bowls or hollow forms.

What most turners want is something that's fast and easy, so they can put their time and energy into creating the embellishment, not the drawing or transferring the image. I'm a production turner, so I'm always looking for tools that eliminate labor-intensive tasks, allowing me to accomplish more in less time. One such tool that I have been using for years is called a "Transfer Pen." It is a heated pen tip that is used in conjunction with a wood burner unit, like the Razortip wood burner.

Razortip's transfer pen will allow you to thermally transfer line drawings; text and other images that have been laser printed, or photocopied onto the surface of your woodturning. Once an image has been transferred onto the surface, it’s a simple matter to use it as a guide for carving, wood burning, texturing, inlaying, piercing, painting, metal leafing or other embellishments.

The key is getting an accurate, correctly scaled image onto the wood. The transfer pen makes this a snap because all you have to do is find a royalty free image that meets your needs, photocopy it and use the transfer pen to transfer the image onto the wood surface. The technique for transferring photocopied or laser printed images onto wood is very simple. All you need is a wood burner unit and a transfer pen tip.

How The Transfer Process Works
Using a Wood Burner

The wood burner's transfer pen tip looks like a tiny iron, with a flat smooth surface. When heated and rubbed across the non-printed surface of the paper, photocopied or laser printed images can be easily transferred onto the wood surface. This procedure works best with line drawings, text and similar images printed in black.

The Razortip transfer pen

Images printed with Inkjets will not transfer. The reason for this is because laser printers and photocopiers utilize thermal transfer processes, whereby the toner is fused onto the surface of the paper with heat. Inkjets do not use heat transfer processes, instead they utilize fast drying ink that is sprayed onto the surface of the paper, so there is no "toner" on the surface to transfer.

If you reheat toner, you can easily re-transfer it again, to whatever is under the paper, in our example – the surface of your woodturning. This means that you no longer have to be good at drawing to get clean crisp images onto your wood surface. Simply find any royalty free line drawing of what you want to apply, photocopy it and transfer it onto the surface of your woodturning. Photocopied and laser printed images are only good for one transfer, but it's a simple matter to copy multiple images as needed.

You can use your computer (or a photocopier) to enlarge, or reduce the size of the image until it's the correct scale; print it out and you're ready to go. There are also lots of dedicated drawing programs that are available that you can use to scale, rotate and manipulate the image to suit your needs.

Note: Do not use copyrighted images, logos or designs. You want to look for images that are "royalty free" which means you can use them without having to pay royalties to the artist that originally created the image. There are hundreds of sites on the Internet that offer royalty free images that you can use. Simply search for "royalty free images" in your favorite browser and you will find lots of sites that offer free images.

If you do not have a drawing program, there are also websites that offer free downloads of drawing programs that you can use to manipulate your images. Simply search for "free drawing programs" and you will find several choices.

Additional Options For Finding Images
to Transfer with Your Wood Burner

Theme book for
North American Indian motifs

Another way to find high quality, professionally drawn images is to purchase "Theme" books that offer hundreds of images around a certain theme. For example, Cowboy Images, Seashore Animals, Birds, Fish, Flowers, Decorative Text, American Indian Art Scenes, etc.

These theme books contain professionally drawn, royalty free images that you can photocopy out of the book, or use the included CD-Rom with some books to print and manipulate them in your computer. 

If you're a good freehand artist, you can also draw your own images on paper, or perhaps use a computer aided drawing program to create the image. Once completed, you can easily print or photocopy these drawn images for easy transfer. This adds another level of creativity to your artwork, but it does require high level drawing skills if you decide to draw them yourself.

Remember too, that the image you transfer is only a starting point. Once the image has been transferred onto your woodturning, you begin to add your own personal touches (carving, burning, coloring etc.) to the piece and the end result stands as a unique example of your artistic creativity and imagination.

Thermal Transfer Protocol For The Razortip
Wood Burner Transfer Pen

Safety Note: You will be working with a hot pen tip, so be careful not to burn yourself or the paper! If you burn the paper, your pen tip is too hot and you will not be able to transfer the image successfully. Because of the fire hazard, only work outside on non-combustible surfaces when using wood burners. Safety First!

I set my wood burner unit to medium heat and cut out the photocopied or laser printed image that I want to transfer. Working from the backside (non-printed side) run the hot pen tip over the image quickly in small overlapping circles. You do not need to burn the paper, just lightly run the tip over the image as you keep the pen tip moving constantly.

You should be able to transfer your image with no black or brown color on the paper at all. If your paper is colored after transferring your image, lower your pen's heat setting. The hot pen tip will cause the toner on the image to heat up again and it will transfer the toner onto the wood underneath.

It takes a bit of time to get good at transferring the images, so photocopy something and practice for a few minutes on some scrap wood before you try it on your project. If the image does not transfer completely, it's really hard to line it up again. I usually go over the image with the hot pen several times to make sure I get everything. Overlapping circles work great to insure a complete transfer of the image.

Once you think you have the image transferred, gently pull the paper off while the paper is still warm. If you let the paper totally cool, it will stick to the surface. Also, remember, that although you can use laser printed images, it works best with regular photocopied images.

If you have the ability to adjust the photocopier, set it for a darker contrast. This will put more toner on the paper and will make it easier for you to transfer the image onto the wood surface. That's about it. It's really simple and easy to do!

Note: If transferring text, you will need to print out the text in reverse, so when you apply it to the wood it will come out in the correct orientation. Most word processing programs will allow reverse printed text, or you can use a simple drawing program or text editor to reverse print the text. If you apply the text as you would normally read it, it will appear backwards when transferred. By printing in reverse, you can transfer the text in the correct orientation.

Give this a try the next time you want to add a complex embellishment to one of your woodturnings. You can transfer the image much faster than freehand drawing and if necessary, you can use your computer or a photocopier to manipulate the image to suit your specific needs.

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.