Pyrography or pyrogravure is the art of decorating wood or other materials with burn marks resulting from the controlled application of a heated object such as a poker. It is also known as pokerwork or wood burning. The term means "writing with fire", from the Greek pur (fire) and graphos (writing).
At its simplest, all that is needed for pyrography is a pointed metal tool, a heat source and wood. Traditionally, a pen-like nib was heated, then pushed into a wood surface. This burning technique could be executed on leather, velvet, gourds and even glass, although finely grained woods, such as basswood, holly or sycamore, were commonly used. Today, it can be practiced using specialized modern pyrography tools, using a metal implement heated in a fire, butane torches, or even sunlight concentrated with a magnifying lens.
The process has been practiced by a number of cultures including the Egyptians and some African tribes since the dawn of recorded history. It was known in China from the time of the Han dynasty, where it was known as "Fire Needle Embroidery". Pyrography is a traditional folk art in many parts of Europe, including Romania, Hungary and Flanders, as well as Argentina and other areas in South America. People have probably "written with fire" since fire was discovered. Cavemen may well have used charred sticks to draw on the walls of their caves! However no examples survive for us to see.
In early times pyrography, as today, was principally used for the decoration of artifacts, examples of which are likely to have been lost, principally as it was classified as a folk art rather than paintings and sculptures. According to Kathleen Menendez of the E-Museum of Pyrographic Art the earliest surviving example of pyrography is in fact a "container" decorated with flowers and hummingbirds found in Peru, which seems to be one of the main birthplaces of pyrography. This has been dated to before 700 AD. However Patricia Arnold claims the earliest surviving example of wood burning found was a Roman caudex that dates back to the occupation of Britain in the 1st to 4th centuries. During the Victorian era, the invention of pyrography machines sparked a widespread interest in the craft, and it was at this time that the term "pyrography" was coined (previously the name "pokerwork" had been most widely used).
In the early 20th century, the development of the electric pyrographic hot wire wood etching machine further automated the pokerwork process, and Art Nouveau pyrographic gloveboxes and other works were popular in that era. Pyrography grew so popular in the years around 1900 that the Flemish Art Co. of Brooklyn began producing it commercially, and “Flemish Art” became almost synonymous with the burned decoration. Small, manageable pyrography projects were common, with glove and handkerchief boxes, frames and wall plaques seen most frequently today (for an example of this “Flemish Art”, check out the antique Flemish Pyrography Box in my display). More ambitious projects were executed as well, including large-scale furniture — hanging cabinets, wardrobes, chairs and tip-top tables were all burned with intricate designs.
Artists such as Robert Ball Hughes and J. William Fosdick gained some acclaim for their pyrographic works during the second half of the 19th century, but the greater part of work in this medium was done by women in the home. Books and magazines of the time urged women to beautify their homes through handiwork — china painting, embroidery, beadwork and many other crafts. Today pyrography takes many forms, from simpler designs such as names burned into a plaque, all the way up to some pretty amazing fine art pieces, such as those created by Dino Muradian, Sue Walters, Julie Bender, David Kreider, and many others.
Are you curious to know more about pyrography? Check out the links and galleries below:
"Sue Walters Pyrography" - an excellent resource for tools & learning the art