There are many factors that determine what temperature settings you need to use with your wood burning unit to create specific tonal values. The media that you are burning is perhaps the most important factor. Soft woods burn quickly at low temperature settings. Artist watercolor paper needs hotter temperatures and you may not be able to reach the true black-brown or extremely dark tones. Gourds, because on their natural mid-tone coloring, barely show the pale tonal values in your design.
Your wood burning unit is the second major factor in the range of sepia toned values you can create. One temperature tool units have only two heat settings – off or on. This means that once your pen tip has reached the set heat for your unit you are always burning on a high temperature. Rheostat variable tools, which have a thermostat on the cord, and full variable temperature units, which have a base thermostat unit and uses corded pens, vary in their temperature ranges between manufacturers.
Learn more about Wood Burning Sepia Tonal Values.
Let’s take a quick look at just three wood species – poplar, basswood, and birch – to see how each burns, what tonal value range can be created, and what temperature settings you might use.
Practice Board Layout
For each of the three sample practice boards I used a 9″ wide by 12″ high piece of plywood. I divided each board into three columns, one for each of my wood burning units – Walnut Hollow Versa-Tool, the Colwood Detailer, and the Optima 1 Dual System. Each column was then divided into two columns – one for the temperature setting used and one for the sample burn made at that temperature setting. I worked all three practice boards in one burning session.
For these boards I used a 1/2 range set for each new grid square for the Colwood and Optima – both on these wood burning units use a 1 through 10 numbering system for their dial. The Versa-Tool uses a color code system of pale yellow through dark red. I divided the Versa-Tool grid into one-third settings.
Poplar Practice Board
Poplar is a soft wood that burns quickly and reaches black tonal values on fairly low temperature settings. The Versa-Tool started the pale tonal values at a mid-Yellow point on its thermostat and was at a full heat setting of Red for the darkest tone. The Colwood used heat settings between 3 and 5.5 for the same tonal value range. My Optima heat range was very tight, working between a less than 3 setting to a full black tone by the 4.5 setting.
For my systems, the Versa-Tool gives me a wider tonal value range and more control over the burn colors than does my Optima.
Basswood Practice Board
Basswood is classified as a hardwood species, but it behaves as a soft wood in our pyrography. It burns well at very low temperature settings and you can establish strong black tones with all three wood burners. As you compare the poplar board to this basswood board you can see that the basswood uses a wide heat setting range to reach the same tonal values.
Birch Practice Board
Birch is a true hardwood in our pyrography. Of the three wood species used here, birch needs much hotter temperature settings to reach the black tonal values than the other woods. The Versa-Tool did not have enough temperature range in the hot settings to reach a true black tone. Both the Colwood and Optima needed the heat range from 7 and higher to create the darkest tones.
Because birch needs a wider temperature range it also give a wider range of easy to control tonal values. Birch is my favorite wood species.
Optima Comparison Chart
Here’s a quick summary of the three practice boards using the Optima. As the wood species changes the temperature settings for the tonal values change. How wide an easy-to-control tonal value range you can create with which wood species and with your burning unit can determine which styles of pyrography will work best for you. Referring to the image above, if I am working on a poplar blank and with my Optima a simple outline designs, silhouette pattern, or a bold black-and-white image would be my best option. When I move to birch with my Optima I have a very wide, full range of tonal values that I can use in a very realistic drawing style.
Creating your own practice tonal value scales
Next time you are at your large craft box-store pick up a few wood blanks to create your own set of wood species practice boards with your wood burning unit. You can find poplar, basswood, balsa, and even paulownia wood at Micheals, Joanns, and MJ Designs. Poplar is the wood commonly used in pre-cut shapes as hearts and star, it may also be found in pre-made jewelry boxes or photo frames. Walnut Hollow products are available at most large craft stores, they make a very nice line of pre-cut and pre-routed basswood plaques for our pyrography.
Balsa, an extremely soft, clear grained wood, can be purchased in small boards from about 3″ wide by 36″ long. Paulownia is the wood often used to create the bird houses, clock blanks, and small boxes found at the large box stores. This wood has a soft beige-gray coloring often with darker grain lines. Both balsa and paulownia can be so soft that they burn instantly into the black tone ranges.
For 1/8″ and 1/4″ thick birch plywood I go to eBay.
Create your own ten gauge tonal value scale
Click on the Sepia Chart Worksheet above and save a copy to your computer. On the “best” or high ink setting of your printer, print a copy of this worksheet. With a pencil mark the temperature settings that you need with your particular wood burning unit next to each tonal value square. Mark the wood that you have used to create your practice board, the burning unit you used is you have several wood burners, and the name of the project that you are working.
Fold the chart down the center of the burned tonal values. You can now lay your sepia chart onto the computer screen,a magazine, or book image, aligning your chart to match the area that you want to work. You can now easily reproduce that exact tonal value by using the correct temperature setting for your unit.
For the sample project, Ceremonial Mask, I used poplar and my Optima. With the sepia worksheet you can easily translate my tonal values into an exact copy using basswood and a Versa-Tool.