Gourd Pyrography & Safety Tutorial - Woodburning Safety & Caring for Your Pyrography Nibs

One of the most important things when learning pyrography is safety and how to care for the burning tips

Safety is especially important when burning on Gourds

I am not going to attempt to teach you everything about gourds but this should offer some VERY IMPORTANT INFORMATION for burning on gourds & general safety issues when working with gourds.

IF YOU DO NOTHING ELSE, PLEASE READ THIS TUTORIAL IN IT'S ENTIRETY!

As a Pyrographic artist & instructor for many years my goal has always been to share my passion for pyrography with anyone interested in learning. One of the most important things I have stressed over the years is safety. Burning on materials that are safe to avoid health & safety problems in the future.

First, let me explain that Pyrography means "fire drawing". It is the art of drawing pictures on a variety of materials such as wood, canvas, paper, gourds & many other materials. Wood burning is the art of burning on wood so for the purposes here I am using the term Pyrography.

Second, the most important things to remember is that you must burn only on raw, untreated & unfinished surfaces. That means do not burn on surfaces that have been: stained, have had dyes or paints applied; or burn on other materials that have been treated such as paper (most are), etc. If it's man made, don't burn on it! If it's treated, don't burn through it! If the material was not designed to be burned (such as acrylic, masking tape, etc.) don't burn it! Remember these important things & you will be burning safely.

Over the years I have heard so many people experimenting with pyrography burning on things such as acrylic, masking tape & other items that are man-made products not intended to be burned. Since getting more involved in the gourd world I continue to hear about new techniques popping up to simplify the process of transferring patterns. Simplifying is great as long as it does not put you & those around you at risk in the process.  Yes, you need to understand that those around you can also be impacted by the choices you make on what you burn & where you do it.

So, my goal here is to provide you with some basic information about burning on gourds as well as safety issues.

Please check out my Gourd Crafts 101 Tutorial for a general tutorial on using gourd inks, pigment powders, works in progress, etc.

This page was updated 10/13/17

Burning on Gourds

Burning on Gourds.I started dabbling in gourds back in 1999 after discovering a gourd farm near where we lived in Texas. I didn't know much about them back then but they offered a unique medium for doing pyrography. Little did I know at the time that there were artists all over the country burning & decorating gourds. It seemed that most were merely using a burner to outline the design & then paint, stain or dye the design. I figured I could probably do some really nice designs on them just with a pyrography tools so, I did some experimenting with my burner. 

My first creation was a bowl gourd using a Petroglyph design of New Mexico mimbre style figures.  Living in New Mexico Petroglyph design of New Mexico mimbre style figures.for many years was already starting to influence my art & would continue to do so. 

I had no idea what I was doing at the time but I used this gourd as a means of experimenting with different techniques on the gourd. 

Since I was trying to create an "old" look to this gourd I left the gourd shell "au naturale" rather than trying to cover it up with paint, dye or stain. The designs at the top were created with a single temp burner.

For the rest of the designs I used a Razertip burner with different tips for the other designs. Indian pattern frog dog.The tips I used for this were the F99.008 ball stylus but you can use a writing tip (such as a Colwood "C", Nibsburner #4 or the Razertip 9S) for the designs where I wanted to create a textured look. For the rest of the designs I used the Razertip "HD5MP" bent spear shader but you can also use similar tips(such as a Colwood "E45" or Nibsburner #5BSM).

It was a simple & a rather easy gourd to do & when I finished my website in 2002 it was one of my first pieces of art that I put on the site. Al was still working for the VA & he let some of his friends in Washington DC know of the site & within a matter of days I received a message from someone wanting to buy that gourd. Still in my recuperative period it was a real boost to my self-esteem & it inspired me to go on & do a few more gourds. 

Some words of caution when burning on gourds: Be sure to wear a good quality mask/respirator & perhaps use an air purifier when burning on gourds; if you are going to use any color on your gourd do it AFTER you do all of the wood burning.  It is not safe to burn over paints, stains, dyes or varnish (any kind of finish for that matter). Paints & finishes have chemicals in them & burning over them can cause health problems. So do all your burning first & then you can color to your hearts content. 

Cleaning the Pyrography Pen Tips

One of the most important things you must do when burning, especially when working on gourds, is keeping the tips on your wood burning pens clean. Nothing will ruin a pen or your burning faster than dirty tips. When burning on gourds it's also a safety hazard when you start seeing sparks coming from your tip that is covered with "gourd gunk".

If you have a single temperature (craft style) burner with brass tips you can use a brass brush to gently clean the tips. Brass is a soft metal so don't get too over zealous when you do this. You can also use a straight-edged razor to scrape off the heavy build-up of carbon.

If you have a detail burner, such as Razertip, Nibsburner or Optima that have polished tips you should start with a single-edged razor to clean off the excess carbon & then with a COOL tip you can use a strop & aluminum oxide powder to maintain the polished finish on the tip. DO NOT do this while the pen is hot. Clean frequently when working on gourds so you don't get stray sparks that can start a fire.

For burners that do not have polished tips please follow the manufacturers instructions for proper cleaning.

How to Clean Polished Pyrography Pen Tips:

I'm always asked how to clean the tips & it's a great question. I will address the proper procedure for cleaning wood burning pen tips that are polished. For pen tips that are not polished please be sure to check with the manufacturer for their recommended methods of cleaning the tips.

If your tips are caked with carbon, leather or gourd "gunk" I recommend you start with a single-edged razor or the Razertip tip cleaner & gently scrape off excess carbon. You can do this while the pen is hot or after it has cooled. For the next step be sure your tip is cool. Once you have cleaned off any excess carbon use a strop (leather or composite) with aluminum oxide powder.  Never use sandpaper or anything more abrasive than aluminum oxide powder.

I tend to burn mostly on clean woods that are free of oil so regular cleaning with the strop & aluminum oxide is all I need to keep my tips clean & carbon free. When burning on gourds or leather I start with a single-edged razor & then use the strop & aluminum oxide powder on wire tips. 

Using a  Single-edged Razor & The Strop & Aluminum Oxide:

When burning on gourds, leather & certain woods you will probably have to clean the tips more frequently than if you areCleaning Carbon from tip. burning on cleaner wood such as maple, basswood or Italian Poplar. 

Directions for using the strop & aluminum oxide: Add a TINY pinch of aluminum oxide to one edge of the strop & run the tip across the powder just a few times, then on a clean area of the strop run the tip over the clean area to remove the remaining powder & gently polish the tip. You need to do this only a few strokes. I then wipe it on my denim jeans (you may want to get a patch of denim to keep on your work area) to clean off excess powder.

 

Remember you're really just polishing, so you don't need to try to remove all the discoloration. These Cleaning & polishing the tip with a strop.tips stay cleaner than many other brands so if you are burning at a moderate temperature on wood you can probably burn longer between cleanings

 If you are burning on gourds or leather you will need to clean more frequently.

Remember that proper cleaning maintains the life of the tips, makes burning easier & your finished burning cleaner & keeps them in factory-new condition. If you clean the tips regularly you will not have much difficulty maintaining them.

IMPORTANT NOTICE ABOUT TOXICITY, HEALTH & SAFETY

NOTICE: While many woods & other materials, including gourds are considered safe to burn there is always the possibility that you have an allergy to it or will have some reaction to burning it. It is always advisable to take precautions when burning.

People constantly tell me they have been burning On this & that for a long time with no problems. I say, that's great but do you know that most of the effects of toxicity may not show up for 20 years. It's true & I'm constantly reminded of this. I worked for the VA as a Social Worker for 10 years. Young men exposed to toxic chemicals developing lung cancer, brain damage & other serious illnesses years (sometimes 30+ years) after exposure. 

For every call I receive saying it's not dangerous to burn on this & that I receive another call from someone thanking me for trying to educate the public about material safety. 

The bottom line is whether it be burning on toxic wood, burning on plastic (press n seal, acrylic, Lucite, etc.), paper (most are treated with something), masking tape (glue) if it's not totally natural & untreated DON'T DO IT!!!

Gourd Safety

There are two primary safety issues when handling gourds. The first is the mold that grows on them; the other is dust created by sanding, brushing, scraping carving the inside &/or outside of the gourd. These issues affect all of us in one way or another, with varying degrees of consequences.

The inside of the gourd also has mold, mildew, fungus, & heavy concentrations of dust from the dried fibers that can cause lung, eye, & hand irritation. Many people have suffered from what is now commonly referred to as “gourd flu” which can be very debilitating & will require medical care.

Gourd crafting is fun but you must use common sense when you are cleaning, cutting, sanding, carving, or burning the gourds. It’s important for you to take precautions to protect you, your family & pets from the hazards of mold & dust while you are working on your gourds.

General Safety Precautions for Gourders:

  1. Wash the outside of your gourd in hot water & Clorox to remove all dust or potential mold & fungus spores.
  2. Wear a protective smock over your clothes when doing anything that will create dust & I also suggest wearing latex gloves.
  3. Be sure to remove the clothing you wear while doing your dirty work outside & shake them out well before bringing them in the house.
  4. Wear a dust mask or even better a respirator when doing things such as cleaning (especially important when cleaning the inside), cutting, sanding or pyrography.
  5. Do all cutting, carving & sanding outdoors if possible or in a well ventilated area away from family & pets (such as a shop or garage).
  6. If your project involves cutting the gourd open, such as to make a bowl, it's best to clean the inside with a solution of water & Clorox before you begin cleaning out the seeds & fibers. The Clorox will kill any spores from the mold or fungus as well as wet the fibers to reduce the dust potential.  Let the Clorox solution sit inside the gourd for about ten minutes, drain & then rinse. You can begin cleaning while it's still wet but if you are using one of the power tools, such as the carbide gourd cleaners, to clean the inside it's best to let it fully dry before using them.
  7. If you aren't wearing latex gloves while you are doing all this it is a good idea to wash your hands from time to time to remove any dust from your fingers & under your nails.

Some of the health issues when working with gourds:

  • Gourd smoke, fumes & other gourd irritants, which are produced by pyro-engraving, carving, etc. can be cumulative & are harmful to the lungs. These particulates, if not eliminated, will end up as problematic respiratory diseases such as "gourd flu". The health of all gourd crafters participating in these unhealthy gourd related practices, are at great risk.
  •  Using a respirator with the correct filter when pyro-engraving is essential. Gourd crafters should always use dust protection measures to capture & remove as much of the gourd dust from their working environment as possible. Breathing dust that settles on clothing or anything around those working with gourds, is just as hazardous as breathing the dust from the working process. A breathing mask or respirator that is designed to filter ultra fine dust particulates is necessary. Respirators designed to trap the smoke & fumes created when pyro-engraving can be purchased to prevent the gourd crafter from most of these irritants. These irritants can cause the mucous in the eyes, ears, throat & lungs to become thicker & therefore lose their effectiveness. It makes it more difficult to cough & or eliminate congestion from the lungs, tear ducts, etc., causing infections, colds, allergies & many other chronic ailments. The gourd crafter should know that even an occasional crafter could become affected by anyone of the irritants. Long time crafters still in good health cannot assume that they are spared from these health hazards. Denial will create health problems at a later date, which are NOT REVERSIBLE.
  • What this means essentially is not just protecting yourself, but those around you. Doing pyrography, cleaning ,cutting, etc. in a place away from others is important to protect those around you.

Horror stories I've heard from people who suffered the consequences of exposure to toxic fumes

  1. Several years ago I received a call from a customer in Nebraska. He asked me about good woods to burn on & he told me he bought a large quantity of red cedar to burn on. I warned him of the risks but he said he couldn't afford to buy wood when he already had this. I offered some suggestions on precautions he could take & he agreed to try my suggestions. A couple of weeks later he called back & told me that  he had followed my instructions completely & vented the fumes out a window but he told me that the fumes must have still lingered even though he could not smell anything. The following weekend his young son came to visit & the boy had difficulty breathing within minutes of entering his apartment & ended up in the ER. He was very upset, not to mention horrified about the impact on his son & agreed that it just wasn't worth the risk. 
  2. Just today (7/25/09) I received a call from a man thanking me for taking such a serious stance on safety.  This man lost his life long career due to toxicity. Exposed to toxins at the age of 19 (now 58) while in the service he thought he was fine until recently developed brain damage. After spending a lot of money on tests it was discovered the damage was caused by toxins he was exposed to (airborne) while in the service.  Irreversible he is now paying the price of being exposed to things that he was told were safe. 

The Importance of Safety When Doing Pyrography:

So, I am stressing to you the importance of safety when burning & working on gourds without taking proper precautions. 

  • Don't take the word of anyone that burning on some of these materials is safe. My theory is, unless it's "natural" & untreated DO NOT BURN ON IT! You may not have problems now but 5, 10 or even 20 years down the road you might regret your past actions. Taking the easy way out of transferring a pattern isn't worth risking your health & it could mean risking your life!
  • The bottom line is when it comes to wood burning/pyrography
    • If it's man-made don't do it.
    • If it's a wood with known toxicities don't do burn on it.
    • If it has a finish, stain or paint on it don't burn on it
    • Burning on or through such things as: paper (most are treated with something), ink from toners or printers, plastic (press 'n seal, acrylic, Lucite, etc.), masking tape (glue) is NOT SAFE!
    • If you are in doubt contact the manufacturer.
    • Get an MSDS sheet. 
    • But most of all don't rely on a pyrography or gourd instructor to be an expert in chemistry or material safety. We are NOT experts in the field & I've heard several instructors tell their students burning on certain materials is safe when it really was not. In each instance that I have personally heard this from an instructor (or told by someone in a class) I have contacted manufacturers of the products to verify if it was or was not safe to burn on those materials. In each case the manufacturer say absolutely not!...yet those instructors continued to teach those techniques even after they were told it was unsafe to burn on those materials. I cannot believe that they would consider putting themselves & their students health at risk for what...making a buck! If your instructor says it's safe ask them for something in writing proving it is safe to burn on or through.
    • Get the facts on material safety from an expert & don't rely on someone else. Is your health worth taking a chance?

NOTICE: Another VERY IMPORTANT thing to keep in mind is that the toxic fumes emitted when burning on some of these materials lingers long after you have stopped burning. So, for the safety of yourself & others who might come into the room where you have burned on these materials please use good judgment.

Transferring Patterns to Gourds & Other Materials

Since I have gotten back into gourds & participate in a couple of online gourd forums I hear all kinds of things. Some great tips are given but others leave me shuddering in disbelief.

A couple of those tips I feel it necessary to discuss here. Since I started teaching wood burning over 12 years ago I have always stressed the importance of safety & when it comes to burning on gourds it's no different.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the toxic fumes emitted when burning on some of these materials lingers long after you have stopped burning. So, for the safety of yourself & others who might come into the room where you have burned on these materials please use good judgment.

Below are a few of the new "gimmicks" that many people are using to transfer patterns to gourds. I urge people to do research & be sure you want to experiment with these materials.

Press 'n Seal & other similar materials

Several years ago I started hearing people recommend using press & seal (a plastic wrap) to transfer patterns. I thought this was an interesting idea & helpful because it adheres to the round surface but when I heard that people are actually burning through it I almost fell off my chair. Let me mention again that Press 'n Seal is PLASTIC. Plastic by any name is still plastic & made from chemicals & is NOT intended for burning & it is NOT safe.

Many years ago when a well known pyrography instructor started teaching her students to burn on acrylic (PLASTIC) mirrors & told people it was safe & continued to do so. I contacted a manufacturer to discuss the safety of burning on plastics. His first response was "what are you crazy".  Of course I knew the answer before he said it but I needed to hear it from the experts. Those words still ring in my ear. I have reported all of his remarks regarding this issue on many forums over the years & to this day this lady continued teaching her students to burn on acrylic (but she started calling it Lucite & continued to say it was safe even though Lucite is PLASTIC) mirrors. What that man said was that plastic in any shape, form or name is burned it will emit toxic fumes. So my question to you is this...is the ease of transferring a pattern that important that you risk your health & those around you? Clearly the answer is NO! Used as it was intended Press & Seal is safe. It was NOT intended for use as a means of transferring patterns to burn through.

Masking Tape

The other aid to transferring patterns I have heard about is masking tape. Well I have been using masking tape for years to attach my pattern but never considered burning through it.  When I heard that people were being taught in classes to burn through masking tape I had to check this out too from the experts. Sure enough when I called 3M they basically gave me the same response I got from the acrylic manufacturer. He said that masking tape is safe when used for it's intended purpose as an adhesive & he was horrified to think people were using it to burn on. So, again I ask people why would you want to burn through tape which has adhesive on it that can potentially cause health problems? Again the answer is you don't want to!!!!

Pyrography Paper (made under a variety of names)

Since I (& nobody else) seems to know what's in this paper or how it is processed, my question to you is do you want to burn through anything unknown. Here is something I found on the internet:

What are main ingredients of paper?

Answer: Main ingredient of all paper is plant material. Loading or filling material such as clay, CaCO3, Talc, TiO2 etc. are used for higher brightness & better printability. Rosin, alum or combination of other chemicals is used to make paper water resistant.

But what is this pyrography paper made of? Do you know? I sure don't, haven't been able to find out how it's been processed & I am not willing to risk my health experimenting with it to find out if it's safe.

In addition to the paper itself possibly posing some risks there is also the risk of burning through the ink contained in the laser or ink jet ink. These inks DO contain chemicals & they were not intended to be burned.

You might not develop health problems now but you may down the road...is it worth the risk to take shortcuts! Don't take shortcuts...be safe!

Other materials you should not burn

If you burn on other materials I recommend you read the general Pyrography Safety tutorial for more specific information on pyrography safety please go to my Pyrography Safety Tutorial.

The bottom line...if you're not sure if it's safe, don't do it. CHECK IT OUT BEFORE using it!

Other Important Safety Precautions When Doing Pyrography

Here are some very important safety precautions when burning:

  • The burning tips on the pens are hot (duh!) & care should be taken when using them to avoid injury!
  • Always turn off your burner when you stop burning.
  • NEVER walk away from your burner when it is turned on. That's an accident waiting to happen.
  • Do not leave children unsupervised near the pyrography tools. 
  • To avoid accidents (& yes, they do happen!) keep your work area clean
  • Be sure you work in a well ventilated room.
  • You can use an inexpensive computer fan to move the smoke away from your project without interfering with the temperature of the burning pen. 
  • If unsure about the safety of burning on any particular material, please check the MSDS sheets before burning.
  • If in doubt about the safety of burning on particular material contact an "expert in the field" rather than someone who thinks they are.  If someone recommends burning on plastic, contact the manufacturer, not a pyrography instructor who tells you it's safe.

I learned the hard way about the safety of burning on synthetic materials, so my final word here is to use extreme caution & do not burn on synthetic materials such as acrylic, which contain chemicals that are toxic when burned & can cause serious harm.  If you are unsure of the safety, do  your own research before burning anything you are unsure of. 

Do not rely on information from other people unless they are "experts in the field" without verifying the safety factors yourself from an expert in the field. Just because someone else has done it, doesn't make it safe. While it may be fun working on some materials, many are not safe when subjected to the intense heat of a burner. It may seem safe, but it also sometimes takes years for symptoms to show up & then it's too late. An example is people who have been exposed to asbestos...it took years before they developed serious complications & by then it was too late to reverse the damage that had been done. So, please be safe!

Bottom line is...do not burn on any man-made compounds....plastics, composite boards, glues, acrylics, anything of unknown origin, etc. If you are unsure if it has already been treated or a finish has already been applied DON'T BURN IT!

Pyrography is fun, as long as you take proper precautions. Be Safe!

 For more general pyrography safety information please read my Pyrography Safety Tutorial.

Disclaimer: Some of the information contained on this page is based on public domain information that is believed to be reliable & information used in my classes. The information in these tutorials is furnished free of charge. The information is to be used at an individual's own risk. Nedra Denison & Sawdust Connection makes no warranty as to the completeness or accuracy thereof.

Happy Burning!

Nedra Denison signature.

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