Newsletter 16

MDF - a BIG No No

It's come to my attention that at least one woodburning instructor out there is advocating the use of MDF as a material to burn on. I can't stress enough how much I disagree with this practice. Apparently this person, (no names, no pack drill) states in their defense that they haven't felt any harmful effects so far. (I'm sure there are quite a few past cigarette smokers out there that have said the same.) Even though a few people might end up angry at me, I must say I find this attitude to be quite irresponsible. Teachers have a responsibility to pass on good safety procedures, not to pass on safety hazards.

Because I feel strongly about this, I decided to do a little research for this newsletter. What I found was no surprise. There's a ton of information out there...please feel free to search and form your own opinion, but these are just a few snippets of what I found:

'The major concern when dealing with MDF is in the resin used to bind the fibers. Urea formaldehyde is the primary binder used when manufacturing MDF. Formaldehyde will leak from the surface for the life of the board if it’s not properly sealed. Some MDF will use even stronger glues like phenol formaldehyde.'

'Formaldehyde is known to cause cancer and is a sensitizer that can cause and aggravate severe allergies. This chemical can also irritate and damage the respiratory system and trigger asthma attacks.'

And this from the 'Nation Cancer Institute' (

Key Points

  • Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical that is used to manufacture building materials and to produce many household products
  • Formaldehyde sources in the home include pressed-wood products, cigarette smoke, and fuel-burning appliances.
  • When exposed to formaldehyde, some individuals may experience various short-term health effects.
  • Formaldehyde has been classified as a known human carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Research studies of workers exposed to formaldehyde have suggested an association between formaldehyde exposure and cancers of the nasal sinuses, nasopharynx, and brain, and possibly leukemia.

Believe me, I'm no Goody Two-Shoes...I hate to rain on anyone's creative parade, but to me this sounds pretty nasty. And keep in mind folks, its not just saw dust we're talking about...people who burn MDF are super heating the material and then sucking the toxic gasses and smoke into the lungs. (For this same reason I also warn against burning into the glue layer when burning on ply wood.)

One last word on this before I get off my soap box; if you still want to burn on MDF, after hearing all the pros and cons, then that's your business...but please don't advocate it's use to other people.


Erasing Mistakes

Some people think pyrography can't be erased... some people use sandpaper. In this video I'll explain why I advise against using sandpaper while showing how I use a blade to successfully erase woodburning mistakes on wood.

I find using sandpaper to erase pyrography mistakes tends to pick up the loose carbon and grinds it back into the surface. This tends to smudge and dirty the wood.

For clean and precise erasing of pyrography, I prefer the edge of a sharp blade


The key to erasing with a blade is patience. You must scrape lightly to gradually remove the burnt layers.


Heavy & over zealous scraping can create ruts in the wood's surface.


The resulting cleaned surface will be perfectly smooth & ready to re-burn should you wish to.


 You can use the tip of the blade to erase or highlight small areas.


I prefer to use a simple snap blade for erasing but feel free to experiment to see what style of blade suits you.


The Spoon Shader Explained

It's no secret that I'm a fan of the spoon shader. The only problem is, when asked, it's difficult for me to articulate in writing why I do. Hopefully this clip will show you in action what words alone can't explain.


The spoon shader is round along its edge

Its profile has a shallow bowl shape.

When a flat shader is tilted on contact with the surface one side of the line tends to burn darker than the other.

Because the spoon shader has a slight convex shape, no one side can dig in. It burns a consistently even line.

When compared side by side you can see that the flat shader does have one distinct advantage, it burns a broader area. Both shaders have a their own strengths, making a case for having one of each in your kit.

Like other shaders the spoon shader covers larger areas by the application of a series of burnt line, next to and slightly overlapping the last. 

Because the spoon shader burns a soft wide line, I use it to burn the undercoat of animal hair. In the video I discuss this method while you view a series in inserted photographs. In the background I continue to demonstrate burning with a spoon shader

I build several layers of undercoat with the spoon, gradually darkening the coat where needed.




The strokes of the spoon are burnt in the same direction as the fur on the animal.


The length of the strokes are in proportion to the hair of the animal. They are also burnt slight staggered and askew to each prevent burning a series of tram tracks.

After the undercoat tone is burnt with the spoon shader, a writer is used to add more defined hair on top.

Next, a final layer of dark, fine hair is added with a skew tip.

When burning an undercoat, keep the length of the strokes in proportion to the length of hair. Eg, short strokes on the tiger's nose...

...long strokes on the tiger's rough.


The complete tiger. The spoon shader burnt all of the tonal undercoat and gave the initial structure and texture to the fur.

One advantage of the spoon shader is it can be swept in any direction...making it possible to use when writing or when drawing entire pictures.

The spoon shader is also great for burning broad stipples. Stipples can be used purely for decoration or can be used to burn entire pictures.

 The skin texture of 'Elephant Eye' was burnt entirely with a spoon shader. Layer 1 was burnt lightly.

Layer 2. Additional blobs were peppered across the surface.

Layer 3. Gradually the darker tones are added to.

Once an area reaches the darkness I want, I no longer add any more blobs to those areas


While the darker areas continue to be added..

...until a 3D effect is achieved.

This is a close up of the elephant eye after completion.

Even though this technique is slow in building, it is very difficult to make mistakes and the 3D effects can be very realistic.