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Pyrography Materials and Safety Precautions

What materials are safe for woodburning/pyrography?

You can safely burn on many materials that are natural, untreated & unfinished. 

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

Woodburning/Pyrography is done on a variety of surfaces in addition to wood, but the material you choose is very important. Some surfaces can be toxic when burned and can cause serious harm. One of the best woods, especially for beginners, to burn is basswood. It is soft and has very little grain. Birch & Italian poplar plywood are other nice woods and wonderful for framing your work when its complete. Even with these being relatively safe you need to take precautions NOT to burn through layers of plywood into the glue. There are many other woods that are good, but be sure that you determine which ones are safe and which are not BEFORE you start burning on it.

Burning on some woods can be potentially dangerous to your health....maybe not today. Some symptoms may show up immediately others might take years for you or those around you to develop serious health problems as a result of working on dangerous materials.

This page was last updated 9/11/16

Please be sure to read the updated important notice just above the chart of toxic woods!

Woods that are relatively safe to burn

Even though these woods are listed as safe to burn on you may still have a sensitivity so always err on the side of caution.

When burning on plywood DO NOT burn deep so that you burn into the glue.

Basswood is one of the most popular woods used by woodburners. It is a great choice for wood burning because it's easy to burn, has very little grain to deal with and it burns beautifully. You get such a rich, crisp contrast between the wood and the deep color of the burning.  It is available in all shapes and sizes. The slabs and rounds with bark around the edges are great for "western" themes, wildlife and rustic designs. This is a great wood for newcomers to start with because it doesn't have much grain to fight when learning but I recommend newcomers start with a square plank or board rather than a round because the rounds will have grain going in different directions making it more challenging.

Italian poplar plywood is also very light in color and has very even, smooth grain. It's easy to wood burn on and like the basswood creates a pleasing light background against the deep rich color of the burning.  It creates a nicely finished piece that is suitable for framing. Be cautious when burning on plywood not to burn into the glue which can cause health problems.

Birch plywood is another wood that is commonly used for wood burning but it has an uneven grain and is harder to burn on than the Italian poplar or basswood. It is more challenging to use because of the grain and since it is a darker wood there is not as much contrast. Burning on birch will require a higher temp on the burner than burning on Italian poplar and basswood. Be cautious when burning on plywood not to burn into the glue which can cause health problems. My favorite birch is Russian birch because it has less flaws and more even tones and overall is a better quality than baltic birch. When looking at birch the better the grade, the less flaws you will find.

Maple is bit darker and a hard wood but it produces wonderful results when burning. You will get nice clean, crisp detail. Burning on maple will also require a higher temp on the woodburner because it is a harder wood. 

Other woods that are relatively safe include tupelo and holly. There are probably many others but these are woods that are generally safe to work with. Again, just because it's not listed as toxic you may be sensitive & develop a reaction to please be careful.

NOTE: Please use caution when burning on any plywood....do not burn into the glue layer as it can be toxic. If you are new burner and unsure of your ability to control the burner start out on a piece of solid basswood until you gain some control. 

Wood Toxicity

This is a subject that I could devote an entire book to, but I will just cover nominally here and give you some resources to do more research on your own.

While many woods 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.

The main hazard to be wary of is the extremely fine wood dust when sanding the wood or in some cases the pitch/sap or resin that emits harmful fumes when burning. All wood dust is hazardous & can cause respiratory problems if you do not wear a mask, some more than others & should be avoided. You should always wear a quality dust mask/respirator while power carving, and use a good dust collection system to avoid a lifetime injury to your lungs. These recommendations really are not just for power carving or sanding, but they should be used for burning as well.

Some research indicates that long-term exposure to the dust and fumes from these woods can cause asthma or increase the risk of more serious illnesses, such as nasal cancer. Molds can also trigger allergic reactions, and you should take extra precautions when using spalted materials which contain mold.

Most wood dust can be hazardous, some more than others. Proper precautions are always recommended when carving or burning wood.

Some woods that are listed as toxic, such as ash, beech, birch and spalted maple are due to fungal contamination rather than the wood chemistry itself. Woods such as cedar or pine contain resins  or oils that emit toxic odors when burned and may cause serious respiratory problems when inhaled.  If you must use some of these woods, be sure to take precautions, such as wearing a good dust mask and/or gloves when sanding to prevent a rash between your fingers.

If you have an aspirin allergy, be wary of willow and birch. Both of these species possess significant concentrations of salicylic acid (the predecessor of aspirin) and very sensitive individuals might only need casual exposure, such as a whiff of sawdust, to react.

Never say "no" to a dust mask. You might not make a fashion statement but it could prevent serious health problems in the future. Among woodworkers, the chances of developing nasal and sinus cancer run about 5-40 times greater than non-woodworkers but this is probably true mostly among people not wearing protective masks while working with wood. Although researchers haven't identified the exact cancer-causing compound (primarily because the disease has a latency period from 30 to 50 years), some evidence points to dust from wood with high tannin content, such as chestnut, oak, redwood, western red cedar, and hemlock. Wearing a mask can singnificantly reduce the chances of having any health issues from working with wood.

IMPORTANT NOTICE ABOUT TOXICITY: 

People constantly tell me they have been burning on this and that for a long time with no problems. I say, that's great but do you know that some of the effects of toxicity may not show up for 20 years and then it's too late. It's true and I'm constantly reminded of this by phone calls I receive from people who have suffered the effects of breathing unsafe materials. I worked for the VA as a Social Worker for 10 years. Young men exposed to toxic chemicals developing lung cancer, brain damage and other serious illnesses years (sometimes 30+ years) after exposure. 

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

The bottom line is when it comes to wood burning/pyrography or any craft: If it's man-made don't use it it unless you know for sure that there's nothing in there that can cause problems. If it's a wood with known toxicities don't use it. Burning on and/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). If you are in doubt contact the manufacturer. Get an MSDS sheet. But most of all don't rely on a pyrography instructor or a gourd instructor to be an expert in material safety. We are NOT. Get the facts on material safety from an expert! If your instructor tells you it's safe ask them for something in writing proving it is safe to burn on or through. You may trust them but do you trust them with your health?

Several years ago I received a call from a customer in Nebraska. He asked me about good woods to burn on and 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 and he agreed to try my suggestions. A couple of weeks later he called back and told me that he had followed my instructions completely and 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 and 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 and agreed that it just wasn't worth the risk.

A few years ago I received another 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.  Irreversible he is now paying the price of being exposed to things that he was told were safe. 

So, I am stressing to you the importance of safety when burning. Don't take the word of anyone that burning on some of these materials is safe. My theory is, unless it's "natural" and 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!

Remember, that the effects of burning on some of these materials doesn't just affect you, it could effect everyone around you so please be safe!

For addition information on toxicity, please do some research on your own. There are lots of resources on the subject but make sure they are reliable sources. The chart listed below has been passed around through the woodcarving community for many years and can also provide some valuable information. Some woods that were not on this original list but that have been known to cause problems, especially to woodburners have been added and I continually update this list as I become aware of health risks.

Wood allergies, reactions & toxicity

Below is a list of woods that are known to cause allergic, toxic, infectious, or respiratory reactions. I have added to this list over the years as I hear of other woods that have caused health risks.

Keep in mind that all inhaled wood dust can be hazardous to your health. It is important that when you are working with wood that you wear a mask to protect yourself from inhaled dust.

Just because a wood is not listed on the chart, does not mean that it is completely safe to use. It simply means that adverse reactions have not been reported as of yet. (The wood may be very obscure or unknown.)

VERY IMPORTANT NOTICE: I am not an "expert" in the field of wood, toxicity & which woods comes from where. I also don't know all the woods that can be toxic. I do not know where all these woods can be found nor do I know if the wood you got at your local lumber yard is one listed here or if that table you want to burn is made from toxic wood.

If you are planning on burning on a piece of material (wood or any other medium) you need to contact an expert in that field. So, let's say you have a chair that someone made & you want to burn on it. First you need to contact the company that made the chair & ask them what kind of wood they used to make it. If they don't know then I wouldn't risk burning on it. If you go into a lumber yard you want to ask them specifically what type of wood it is. If you are looking at cedar be sure to ask them what type of cedar. You also need to ask questions such as...has the chair been treated with anything or has a finish been applied to the wood. These are important questions to ask BEFORE you decide to start burning on the material.

Keep in mind that I am an artist, I am a pyrographer...I am not an expert on wood or toxicity so please don't expect that I can answer specific questions about particular woods, where they grow, if the wood you are planning on burning is toxic or if it's safe. My husband is a woodworker. Yes, he knows what woods are toxic just like I do from this list. When he makes something he knows what wood he uses because he asks when he goes to the lumber yard. You need to ask questions of the people with the knowledge...the person who made the product or the lumber yard where you buy the wood that you intend to burn, carve or saw. Do not expect an artist or teacher to be an expert on toxicity because that is NOT our area of expertise.

Definitions of Meanings Used in the Chart Below

Irritant: The wood species that act as an irritant, cause itching, rashes, watery eyes, and other uncomfortable reactions. An irritant causes a reaction fairly rapidly after exposure and will cause a similar reaction repeatedly.

Skin, respiratory tracts, and mucous membranes get irritated easily by any fine dust because dust absorbs moisture, thereby drying out the surface with which the dust is in contact. Itchy skin and sneezing are examples of basic irritation thanks to wood dust. The level of irritation is proportional to the exposure time to, and concentration of, wood dust.

But irritation is not necessarily benign. Woods like walnut and rosewood emit pleasant odors with low levels of dust, which most woodworkers find very pleasant & one of the joys of working with wood. However, the natural substances in these woods that cause the fragrances are also potentially toxic with greater exposure. Long term effects of exposure to wood dust can include developing an allergic reaction to the dust or possibly nasal cancer.

Sensitivity: The wood species that act as a sensitizer, cause people to develop allergic reactions after repeated exposure. They may have a latency period of hours or months and may require repeated handling before reaction occurs. Sensitivities are the more severe, because once you're sensitized, you're sensitized for life and the reactions only get more dramatic.

Substances in wood that can cause an allergic reaction after repeated exposure are called sensitizers. This type of toxicity is specific to individuals and takes time to develop. Some people may experience a significant reaction to a wood while others may not have any problems. While sensitization typically takes time and repeated exposure to develop, it is possible for some individuals to have an allergic reaction to a wood upon their first contact.

Even if you do not have any reaction to a wood (or its dust) the first few times you use it, it’s still very important that you take precautions and avoid as much exposure as possible. It’s possible that your body will develop a reaction the more you are exposed much like allergies to grass, trees, etc.

Direct toxin: Chemicals (called extractives) in the wood species are poisonous. Nausea, malaise
Exposure to the wood species cause flu-like symptoms.

Systemic: Reactions are not confined to a specific body part; they affect much or most of the biologic system.

Nasopharyngeal cancer: A cancer that affects the back of the throat where the nasal passages open into it. Statistics show that woodworkers have a 40 per cent greater chance of nasal cancer than the general population. However, the majority of statistics on nasal cancer are based on data from 1920-1960 when the furniture industry became highly mechanized with little or no dust control methods. There is no current evidence of this but I suspect this is due to the fact that more & more woodworkers are now using mask while working with wood.

Poisoning from chemicals: Universally lethal chemicals are rarely found in natural wood that are available on the commercial market. Most poisons in plants and trees are located in the bark and/or sap. Of course there are some exceptions for rare woods.

Sometimes poisonous chemicals are introduced into wood products, such as with pressure treated lumber. Hardwoods cut for cabinetry, flooring, and furniture are not pressure treated.

Some common woods demand that woodworkers be aware of their own allergies. One important example is people who are allergic to aspirin. Those who have an allergic reaction to aspirin should avoid using woods from birch and willow trees (Betula spp. and Salix spp.) because these contain good concentrations of salicylic acid, the key ingredient in aspirin.

Things you can do to protect yourself

It is imperitive that woodworkers take precautions against dust when working with any lumber, whether the wood is domestic or exotic. Wood dust is no good for your lungs or eyes, and some wood dust can also react with your body. Possible reactions include skin rashes, watery eyes, respiratory problems, headaches, dizziness, or nausea. This is also true for people doing woodburning.

You can limit your exposure to wood dust by doing the following things:

  1. Use a vacuum dust collector in your shop, and keep your shop ventilated with fresh air.
  2. Use protective equipment while woodworking: dust mask, goggles, particulate respirator or a full-face respirator, and a protective barrier cream on your arms or exposed skin.
  3. Immediately after woodworking change your clothes, wash them, and take a shower. This will prevent transferring wood dust to your house where you or your family may be repeatedly exposed to it.

Where to find more information

There is a lot of information out there regarding safety while working with wood. One of the best sources comes from The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) of the Department of Labor. Here's a link to their site where you can find more information. Woodworking health hazards & Wood Dust Hazards Information.

OSHA also have a list of their own on Toxic woods. The attached PDF ‘Contains public sector information published by the Health and Safety Executive and licensed under the Open Government Licence’ OSHA's List of Toxic Woods.

DISCLAIMER

Sawdust Connection believes the information & data contained in this tutorial to be accurate. I have compiled the information from a variety of sources believed to be reliable. However, Sawdust Connection makes no warranty of any kind, expressed or implied concerning the accuracy of the information & data contained here.

It is the responsibility of each user to do their own research & understand safe practices. If you have questions regarding material safety Sawdust Connections you contact an expert in the field.

NOTE: I am not an expert in this field. The information compiled here was done through research, personal experience & reports from experts such as manufacturers of acrylic, glues, etc. If, after reading this, you are still unsure if the material you want to use is safe please find an "expert in the field" for assistance. That means, NOT a pyrography or gourd teacher, not a pyrography or gourd artist, it means an expert in the field such as someone who is knowledgeable about the material you are considering burning. The lumber yard where you bought the wood or the woodworker who made that table you want to burn & knows what wood they used can help you identify woods but that does not mean they are experts about toxicity. If in doubt, don't do it. It's that simple!

Keep in mind that some of this information may/may not be relevant to pyrography.

 

Wood

Reaction

Site Affected ~ Incidence

Potency

Source

Alder

Irritant

eyes, nose, respiratory, skin

Unknown

++

dust, leaves, bark

Ash, Mountain

Irritant

eyes, nose, respiratory, skin

Unknown

++

dust, leaves, bark

Bald Cypress

Sensitivity

respiratory

Rare

+

dust

Balsa

Irritant

respiratory, skin

Unknown

+

dust, leaves, bark

Balsam Fir

Sensitivity, Irritant

eyes, skin

Common

+

leaves, bark

Basswood

Sensitivity

respiratory, eyes, skin

Rare

+

dust, wood

Beech

Sensitivity

Nasopharyngeal cancer

eyes, skin

Common


respiratory

Unknown

++


?

dust, leaves


dust

Birch

Sensitivity

respiratory

Common

++

wood, dust

Black Locust

Irritant

eyes, skin, gastrointestinal (nausea)

Common

+++

leaves, bark

Blackwood

Sensitivity

eyes, skin

Common

++

wood, dust

Boxwood

Sensitivity

eyes, skin

Common

++

wood, dust

Camphor (laurel)

Sensitivity

respiratory

Unknown

+++

resin

Cashew

Sensitivity

eyes, skin

Rare

+

wood, dust

Cedar, western red

Sensitivity

skin, respiratory, nose, nervous system

Common

++++

dust, leaves, bark, resin

Cedar, southern red

Irritant

respiratory

Unknown

++++ dust, leaves, bark, resin
Cedar, northern white

Irritant

respiratory

Unknown

** bark, dust, leaves, resin

Cocobolo

Irritant, Sensitivity

eyes, skin, respiratory

Common

+++

wood, dust

Cypress Sensitivity

respiratory

Unknown

+

wood, dust

Dahoma

Irritant

eyes, skin

Common

+++

wood, dust

Douglas Fir

Irritant

respiratory, skin, nose

Rare

+

Ebony

Irritant, Sensitivity

eyes, skin

Common

++

wood, dust

Elm

Irritant, Sensitivity

eyes, skin

Rare

+

dust

Goncalo Alves

Sensitivity

eyes, skin

Rare

++

wood, dust

Greenheart

Sensitivity

eyes, skin

Common

+++

wood, dust

Hemlock

Nasopharyngeal cancer

respiratory

Unknown

?

dust

Iroko

Irritant, Sensitivity

eyes, skin, respiratory (pneumonitis)

Common

+++

wood, dust

Magnolia

Irritant, Sensitivity

respiratory, nose +

wood, dust

Mahogany, African

Irritant, Sensitivity

nose, skin, respiratory

Unknown

+++

wood, dust

Mahogany, Honduran

Irritant, Sensitivity

skin, respiratory
Unknown
+

wood, dust

Mansonia

Irritant, Sensitivity

eyes, skin, gastrointestinal (nausea)

Common

+++

+

wood, dust

Maple, Acer genus

Irritant, Sensitivity

skin, respiratory
Common
++

wood, dust

Maple. Acer genus (Spalted)

Irritant, Sensitivity

respiratory (pneumonitis)

Common

+++

dust

Mimosa

Nausea, Malaise

Gastrointestinal (nausea) Systemic

Unknown

?

leaves, bark

Myrtle

Sensitivity

skin, respiratory, nose

Common

++

leaves, bark, dust

Oak

Irritant, Sensitizer


Nasopharyngeal cancer

eyes, skin

Rare


nose, throat

Unknown

++


?

leaves, bark, dust

Obeche

Irritant, Sensitivity

eyes, skin, respiratory

Common

+++

wood, dust

Oleander

Direct toxin

nausea, malaise, cancer

Systemic

Common

++++

dust, leaves, bark, wood

Olivewood

Irritant, Sensitivity

eyes, skin, respiratory

Common

+++

wood, dust

Opepe

Sensitivity

respiratory

Rare

+

dust

Padauk

Sensitivity
nausea, malaise

eyes, skin, respiratory

Systemic

Rare

+

wood, dust

Pau Ferro

Sensitivity

eyes, skin

Rare

+

wood, dust

Peroba Rosa

Irritant, nausea, malaise

respiratory, gastrointestinal

Unknown

++

wood, dust

Pine

Irritant, Sensitivity

nose, skin, eyes, respiratory (Asthma)

Common

++

sap/pitch

Purpleheart

nausea, malaise

skin, eyes, gastrointestinal (nausea)
Systemic
Common

++

wood, dust

Quebracho

Irritant


nausea, malaise, Nasopharyngeal cancer

respiratory

Common

Systemic

nose, throat

Common

++


?

?

leaves, bark, dust


dust

Redwood

Sensitivity

eyes, skin, respiratory, Pneumonitis

Rare


nose, throat, Nasopharyngeal cancer

Unknown

++



?

dust

Rosewoods

Irritant, Sensitivity

eyes, skin, respiratory

Common

++++

wood, dust

Satinwood

Irritant

eyes, skin, respiratory

Common

+++

wood, dust

Sassafras

Sensitivity

 

Direct toxin

respiratory, systemic, nausea, malaise



nasopharyngeal cancer

+

+



?

dust

dust,wood, leaves, bark


dust

Sequoia

Irritant

respiratory

Rare

+

dust

Snakewood

Irritant

respiratory

Rare

++

wood, dust

Spruce

Sensitivity

respiratory

Rare

+

wood, dust

Teak

Irritant, Sensitivity

skin, eyes, respiratory
Common
+++

wood, dust

Tupelo

Sensitivity

eyes, respiratory

Rare

+

dust

Walnut, African

Irritant, direct toxin

eyes, skin, respiratory, systemic effects
Common

+++

bark, leaves, sap, wood, dust

Walnut, Black

Sensitivity

eyes, skin, respiratory

Common

++

bark, leaves, sap, wood, dust

Wenge

Sensitivity

eyes, skin, respiratory, gastrointestinal (abdominal cramps) & central nervous system

Common

+++

wood, dust

Willow

Sensitivity

respiratory, nausea

+

dust, leaves, bark, wood

Yew

Irritant, nausea, malaise

 direct toxin

eyes, skin

Common

Systemic

Common

nose, throat

Common

++++


++++


++++

 dust


dust,wood


dust

Zebrawood

Sensitivity

eyes, skin

++

wood, dust

Updated 9/22/16

Notice About the Chart

I incorporated the original version of this chart into my website back in 2002 when I first published the Sawdust Connection website. The information contained in the above chart is based on data compiled by Robert Woodcock, RN, BSN, CEN & was in originally printed in the American Woodturner Magazine, June 1990. It was reprinted from Art Hazards News Vol. 13 No.5. The original database has been used by many woodworking websites, woodturning guilds, woodcarving clubs, etc over the years. It has been a wonderful resource & was the beginning of my online Pyrography tutorial on safety.

Over the years I have added many wood's to the original list & will continue to do so as I learn about other woods that may pose health risks. This list contains the most popular woods in North America. There are species that are popular in other countries but I decided to stick with woods more common to us in North America. Some of the additions I have made over the years came from personal experience as well as from customers, students & friends who have experienced reactions working with certain woods.

© Copyright 2002, Sawdust Connection, LLC

Useful resources & references regarding wood toxicity & safety

some of this information might be repetitive but I think the more informed you are, the safer you will be when you begin burning. The first link was written by a pulmonary doctor. I think this is one of the most valuable links here.

Keep in mind that some of this information refers to wood dust but it is also applicable to woodburning.

References:

  1. Woods Toxic to Man, author unknown
  2. "Toxic Woods". ,Woods, B., Calnan, C.D., Br. Journal of Dermatology, 1976
  3. ILO Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety, 1983
  4. AMA Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants, Lame, K., McAnn, M., AMA, 1985
  5. List of woods and toxicity characteristics, Roy Banner, 1989
  6. Poisondex, Micromedix Inc., 1990
  7. The Wood Database
  8. DeckWise
  9. Medical Doctor's Article Regarding Wood Toxicity
  10. The Wood Box website article on wood toxicity
  11. OSHA Letter on Wood Toxicity

Some materials that are not safe to burn on or through:

  • DO NOT burn on pressure-treated wood. It is treated with chemicals that, although safely bound in the wood fibers for construction purposes, are inherently dangerous to woodworkers and woodburners.
  • DO NOT burn on medium density fiber board (MDF).  MDF is loaded with chemicals and formaldehyde that are unsafe and should not be used for pyrography. 
  • DO NOT burn on any type of treated wood: Chemically treated, stained, painted, sealed with a finish, etc.  If you  must use this type of wood be sure that you have thoroughly sanded it to remove all traces and are burning on BARE wood.
  • DO NOT BURN ON PLASTIC of any kind. I have spoken with manufacturers of plastics (includes Plexiglas, Lucite, press 'n seal and acrylics) and they stress the fact that plastic is composed of chemical and is toxic when burned.  I don't care what they call it, it's plastic, it's chemicals and it's TOXIC!!!!  So I urge people to find safer methods of transferring patterns and safer things to burn.  Plastic in any form was not invented for people to burn so please be safe!  This includes things such as:  plastic stencils, acrylic mirrors, press n Seal (taught by some instructors to transfer patterns on gourds).
  • IT IS NOT SAFE TO BURN ON THINGS SUCH AS: glue (masking & adhesive tape), ink from printers and copiers; paper that has been processed (most paper is processed) and many more things.  I've contacted manufacturers who say it's not recommended for use in pyrography or any other burning which can release the chemicals in the glue. Basically what this means is things such as pyrography paper sold by many dealers may or may not be safe to burn on since it's probably processed (with chemicals) & you are printing a pattern with ink or toner. I don't like the unknown so I prefer to err on the side of caution & find other things to transfer patterns.
  • SPALTED WOOD contains mold and may cause health risks if you are allergic to mold. So if you decide to burn on spalted wood on this take precautions.
  • NOTE: 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 and others who might come into the room where you have burned on these materials please use good judgment. 

If you're not sure, don't do it. CHECK IT OUT BEFORE using it! When I say check it out, I mean talk to an expert. Not a woodburning instructor or carving instructor but an expert, such as the manufacturer of that acrylic or Lucite or an expert on wood toxicity.

Other materials that are fun and safe to burn on or through

NOTICE: While many woods & other materials 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.

  • Burning on many plywoods, such as birch and Italian poplar are relatively safe but precautions must be taken to avoid burning through the wood into the glue layer which can be harmful.
  • Gourds are nice to work on, but burning or carving gourds can also cause respiratory problems so use a mask/raspirator when working with gourds and work in a well-ventilated area. The biggest problem comes when you cut them open and carve or sand inside or burn deep past the "skin". Be careful to wear an appropriate mask when working with gourds and it's best to do it outside the house.
  • Leather is another nice material, but you must ensure that you are only using leather that is oil/vegetable-tanned. You can usually find this at Tandy Leather and many other suppliers. Chrome or metal tanned leather can produce dangerous fumes. Burning on leather requires a slightly cooler pen than burning on wood but, and again you must ensure that you keep your tip clean. Please check out the tutorial "Wood burning from A-Z" for more information on leather burning.
  • Tagua nuts, also known as natures ivory, are fun and interesting to use. Burning on these little nuts requires very fine-tipped pens, which are available from Razertip and some other companies.
  • Canvas is my new best friend. It's fun to burn but please make sure the canvas you burn on is untreated. Also use a lower temperature and be sure to put it on top of a solid surface and iron the canvas before you start burning. 
  • You can burn on most surfaces that are created from natural fibers such as paper (as long as it's untreated), velum, bamboo, canvas, cloth...as long as they are not treated with anything but it's still best to err on the side of caution. 

Press 'n Seal and other similar materials

Several years ago I started hearing people recommend using press and seal (a plastic wrap) to transfer patterns. I thought this was an interesting idea and 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 and made from chemicals and is NOT intended for burning and it is NOT safe.

Many years ago when a well known pyrography instructor started teaching her students to burn on acrylic (PLASTIC) mirrors and told people it was safe and 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 and to this day this lady continued teaching her students to burn on acrylic (but she started calling it Lucite and 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 and 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 and said that it is safe when used for it's intended purpose as an adhesive and they were 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 and can cause health problems? Again the answer is you don't want to!!!!

Pyrography Paper

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

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 and better printability. Rosin, alum or combination of other chemicals is used to make paper water resistant.

Some special purpose paper such as coffee filter paper contain wet strength polymer to withstand hot water soaking.

Paper may contain dye or pigment

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 and 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!

I am not a chemist but I really think that it's better to be safe than sorry & when you are dealing with so many unknowns it's better to play it safe.

Other important safety precautions

  • The burning tips on the pens are hot (duh!) and 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 (and yes, they do happen!) keep your work area clean
    Be sure you work in a well ventilated room but do not have fan or air blowing onto you or the pen tip as this will cool the tips. 
  • 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.
  • I learned the hard way about the safety of burning on synthetic materials, so my final word here is to use extreme caution and do not burn on synthetic materials such as acrylic, which contain chemicals that are toxic when burned and 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 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 or fun to do, but it also sometimes takes years for symptoms to show up and then it's too late. An example is people who have been exposed to asbestos...it took years before they developed serious complications and by then it was too late to reverse the damage that had been done. So, please be safe!
  • If your instructor tells you that something is safe to burn on or through please ask them for something in writing from an expert in the field saying it's safe. You may trust them but do you trust them with your health?
  • 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!

Gourd artist's please be sure to read the Gourd Pyrography & Safety Tutorial for more specifics regarding safety and burning on gourds.

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

If you are aware of any other materials or woods that should be added to this list please let me know

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 and Sawdust Connection makes no warranty as to the completeness or accuracy thereof.

Happy Burning ©!

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