What is Pyrography? Definition, History, and More

What is pyrography? Only the hottest art form out there! But pyrography is sooooo much more than just “burning wood”.

I can do that in my fireplace.

Yes, many people call it “woodburning art” – and they are not technically wrong – but that really limits the scope of pyrography.

That's like someone asking "what is painting?" and getting the reply "watercolor".

Watercolor is only one form of painting.

Just the same, woodburning is only one form of pyrography.

Let me tell you all about it.

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What is Pyrography? Full Definition

Pyrography is the art of burning.

If you search for the technical definition, you'll read that it means "writing with fire"... although for the life of me I can't find the original author of that.

If you take the word apart…

"Pyro" is an offshoot of the Greek word “pyre” which means "fire".

"Graphy" is also Greek based. Some say it stems from "graphos", which translates to "writing".

BUT...

If you research the term "graphy" all by itself, it has 4 meanings...

  • writing
  • drawing
  • art
  • science

THAT makes a lot more sense to me.

Writing can certainly be included in art just as drawing can. Science has a great deal to do with art too.

To me, art is the culminating word here.

Even the professionals from Oxford Dictionary give "graphy" 3 distinct meanings - in THIS order:

  1. descriptive science
  2. technique of producing images (dare we say art?)
  3. a style or method of writing or drawing (...again, art?)

Even when you read Wikipedia's examples of "-graphy" words, you'll see that a truckload of definitions start with the words "art of [fill in the blank]".

In my humble opinion, the stiff and limited translation of "writing" doesn't fit here.

So what is pyrography?

Just like photography (photo-graphy) is the art of taking photos, pyrography (pyro-graphy) is the art of burning or fire.

Photo + Graphy = Photo Art

Pyro + Graphy = Fire Art

Doesn't that make more sense?

ISn't pyrography Just Woodburning?

Ah, this is a favorite question on mine. And a bit of a pet peeve. Here's the short answer.

No.

Woodburning art is the art of burning wood (I know, obvious right?).

But pyrography is not LIMITED to wood.

Oh, no no no!

There are SO many things you can burn art on besides just wood! To give you a few examples, you can burn on...

  • Gourds
  • Leather
  • Cork
  • Paper (yes, without it catching fire)
  • Cotton Fabric (like jeans, just don't wear your jeans while you burn them...)
  • Canvas (I like to burn on canvas totes)
  • Bone
  • Antlers

...and SO much more that I haven't listed. I've tried all of the ones above and really enjoy trying out different mediums!

If it burns (and I’m shooting for non-toxic stuff here) I intend to put my art on it.

That's not to say that wood isn't a massively broad medium all by itself.

Have a look at this list of popular woods for woodburning for more ideas and inspiration.


A Quick History of Pyrography

Pyrography is an ancient art where the main medium is heat.

If you asked "what is pyrography" back in ancient China, they called it “fire needle embroidery” (1).

In its primitive and medieval roots, pyrography was commonly called “pokerwork”. They would pull pokers or hot metal rods out of the fire pit to burn amazing designs – usually on wood or leather (2).

It was renamed “pyrography” in the 1800’s when it became a fad again. Actual machines and pyrography kits were made and sold in popular magazines – mostly geared toward creative women in the home. Addie E Heron, author of Fancy Work for Pleasure and Profit, said pyrography is a “delightful and profitable pastime for long winter evenings.” (3)

I completely agree.

Electric pyrography machines were made in the early 20th century, which spread the art even further (4).

And now they're gaining momentum again!

You've GOT to check out this old school, truly Victorian "Pyrographic Outfit" where they used gasoline and and a hand pump to run the woodburning tool! Isn't it awesome?!

You can also ready more about the "Vulcan pyrography outfit" and how it worked here.

And just because old pyrography tools are cool, here's another cool site to see more pictures and read about how these old tools were used!



REFERENCES (My apologies to English majors for not using MLA or APA format):

(1) https://web.archive.org/web/20110906032848/http://traditions.cultural-china.com/en/16Traditions1930.html

(2) Pyrography Workbook. Sue Walters. 2005.

(3) https://blog.etsy.com/en/history-pyrography/

(4) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrography

Traditional Pyrography vs. Modern Art

Traditional pyrography generally means burning art or words onto wood using a modern electric machine.

But remember, what is pyrography?

Fire art.

I didn't read any rules where you HAVE to use a modern burning tool to do real pyrography.

Hey, the original pyrographers used hot fire pokers!

Just like you don't have to stick with wood, you don't have to stick with traditional burners either.

You can use...

  • Gunpowder
  • Torches
  • Magnifying glasses (a.k.a. solar burning)
  • Chemical woodburning
  • High voltage electricity or fractal burning (Lichtenberg technique)

I’ve been playing with gunpowder and torch art, and I can’t wait to get my hands on some solar burning.

Different methods can be a truckload of fun

Just be smart about it. Stay safe.


So now you Know...

Next time someone asks you "what is pyrography?" you can answer confidently "Fire art."

But I admit, when I give that answer, people tend to stare at me like there's a hole in my forehead.

Then I say, "It's like burning art onto wood or bone or whatever!"

Then their stares turn from "whuuuut?" to "Wow! That's so cool!"

And all I have to say is...

Yes. Yes it is.

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