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How to pyrography on leather

The first question that should be asked is whether you need to prep the leather surface.   You don’t have to.  We have some premium leather that our clients got decent results without prepping it. The smoother surface allows the pen tip to glide over the leather a bit easier. It also enables greater detail in your artwork.  We would recommend trying both ways and see which surface you prefer.   

Before we get going, we need to clear the difference between the flesh and skin side of the leather.   The flesh side is the rough or backside of the leather and the skin is the smooth side.  Pyrography is always done on the skin side.

You can try using a “polished” pen tip to burn on the leather, it can be easier to burn with! If you plan to do a lot of burning on leather, We’d recommend investing in purchasing a couple of polished pen tips.
A pyrography pen is the best way to go!

How to pyrography on leather

PREPARING LEATHER


STEP 1 – WET THE LEATHER

Place the leather, skin side up, on a clean smooth surface.  Do not cut your leather to size, as the smoothing process will distort the shape of the leather.  If you do cut it before smoothing, just keep in mind that you will have to trim it to shape later.   

Liberally mist the leather with water. Use a small pump spray bottle for this, but you can also use a damp sponge to wet leather.

As you can see, there are little pools of water here and there.  Don’t worry about them as the leather will quickly absorb the water.

STEP 2 – SMOOTH THE SKIN

After the leather is very damp, firmly rub over the entire skin surface of the leather with the burnisher of your choice.  Applying a lot of pressure with the burnisher as you smooth the leather. 

It is extremely important to make sure the burnisher you are using is smooth.  Rough spots can scrape/scratch the leather surface, ruining it.

You can make the burnisher out of a piece of scrap wood.  Round on all sides for comfortable gripping.   If you make your own, use hardwood and preferably one that is pale.   Some darker and/or colorful woods can bleed their color when wet, and we doubt the leather could be fixed if that happens.

The most important side of the burnisher is the rounded end.  Only the burnishing end needs to be sanded, so it is ultra-smooth. 

After you smooth, the entire leather surface with the burnisher, rotate the leather, and repeat in a new direction. 

Add more water if the leather starts to dry.  Continue this process of rotating and burnishing in a new direction until you have smoothed the leather in all directions.  

Let the leather dry completely overnight.

The right side will be much smoother as it has been compressed, and the texture will feel more like glass.

We mentioned before that the leather distorts with the smoothing process. Because of this, you don’t cut the leather to the exact size until after you are done with the smoothing process.

STEP 3 – SMOOTH THE FLESH

We are going to repeat the process with the flesh side of the leather.  The reason is that this will further compress the leather to give us the firmest burning surface.  Place the piece of leather flesh side up on a clean smooth surface.

Apply water or gum tragacanth to the flesh surface. If using water, apply liberally.  If using gum, apply very sparingly.

Smooth the entire surface with a burnisher.

Gum tragacanth will darken the leather and impart a shiny sheen once burnished.  Apply sparingly, as a thick coat will make the leather very stiff.  Gum tragacanth is normally used along the edges of the leather and is supposed to give a longer-lasting finish versus using water. 

You can treat the flesh side with water or gum tragacanth as both will smooth and compress the leather. 

WATER
  • free
  • no smell
  • matte finish
  • stays supple
  • Can smooth the flesh side while the skin side is still wet
  • No reaction. 
GUM TRAGACANTH
  • cost money
  • slight smell
  • darkens the leather
  • Imparts a sheen
  • loses a little suppleness
  • heavy coat turns milky and really stiffen the leather
  • The skin side must be dry before treating the flesh side
  • Might cause a skin reaction with wearables like bracelets   

Use the gum tragacanth when crafting items like credit cardholders.  The reason is that I want to keep the flesh side super smooth for as long as possible, so the credit cards don’t catch on anything.

To me, there is no benefit of using both water and gum on the same side.  Especially since you have to wait until the water treatment is dry before doing the gum. The gum produces the smoothest surface, but you lose a little suppleness.  And if you apply a heavy coat of gum, the leather can become almost ridged like cardboard. 

Why smooth the flesh side of the leather at all, especially if the project is going to be hanging on a wall?   Because smoothing the back of the leather will further compress the leather, providing the firmest surface to burn on. 

STEP 4 – LET DRY

Let the leather dry completely before doing anything else. 
Flip the leather once to help keep it semi-flat, as it has a tendency to start curling.  This is more pronounced with the water treatment.

After the leather is dry, it is ready for burning or crafting.

PATTERN TRANSFER

Use the tracing method to transfer my patterns. It’s cheap, easy, and gives me control over what I want to include.  Print off your pattern on lightweight paper (standard copier paper is perfect), coat the back of the pattern with a graphite pencil, secure to leather, and trace over the pattern.  Make sure to check the trace results for accuracy before removing the pattern.   

Do not!!! Press hard when transferring the pattern, as it is very easy to emboss the pattern into the surface of the leather.

DO NOT USE SCOTCH TAPE to secure the pattern to the leather. 
Paper tape.  Use “gentle paper First Aid Tape” as it has a very low adhesive factor, so won’t abrade the leather as long as you DO NOT press firmly or rub over the paper tape.

 Mist the leather with water, rub over the area with a burnisher, and the tape abrasion will disappear, so it can be fixed.

Gently place the tape onto the pattern and don’t rub or press hard on it.

Pencil marks erase from leather.  Make sure to use a soft eraser like the white artist style of eraser.  They won’t leave a color residue as pink erasers can, and they are soft, so they won’t abrade or scratch the leather.

BURNING TIPS / TECHNIQUES

We highly recommend burning on a scrap piece of leather to get a feel for it.  Try different techniques and heat settings to see how the leather reacts. 

Keep the pen heat low! Have the heat setting around between 0.5 – 2.5.  Remember each unit is different and the pen tip you are using also influences this. Keep a piece of scrap leather nearby to check the heat setting.

Keep a tip cleaner handy and use it often!   Especially when burning dark.  The gunk builds up quickly and can be difficult to remove.  Cleaning the pen tip is easier using the backside of the metal polishing cloth, as it is rougher than the polishing side.  Also, keeping the heat on a very low setting helped too.

Burn on cool leather. If you need to re-burn over an area, let it cool completely before re-working.  If the leather gets too warm, it loses firmness, and it feels more like carving/shaping the leather instead of burning it.   To put this another way, it is like working with soft butter.  When the leather gets to this point, it is very prone to tearing.

Burning on medium or higher heat the leather grain quickly becomes an issue. What will happen is that the leather will tear if you burn in one direction, but not the other. 
With high heat, you should go slow. Use very short strokes, as high heat tends to rip the leather.  Don’t burn deep lines, as leather isn’t that thick.

Use light pressure when burning. Put another way, you will have much better results when you barely touch the pen to the leather.  If you apply too much pressure on the pen tip, the resulting burn won’t be as smooth.

When burning really dark, go slow, clean the tip often, and try not to re-work dark areas.

Be forewarned that if the heat is really high, the leather tends to char instantly and the charring ‘bleeds’ or spreads. 

FIXING MISTAKES

You can try using the tip of a precision knife.  Be very careful when using these. An X-acto knife easily will remove the skin.   

Try a sanding pen.  Works, but not with precision.

Mist the leather with water.

Then gently rub over the surface with a plastic tool used to crease paper

 If you need to lighten a section that got too dark, I think that can be easily accomplished.  Completely removing a mark without any sort of residue or sign isn’t going to be very easy to do.  Keep the heat low and go slow.  Most of the mistakes made are due to excessive heat and rushing to get something done.

Practice

Like with everything, practice makes perfect!

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