Newsletter 18

Burning on Bone

For those of you who can't access online videos or who want to print out the tutorial, I've also put together this tutorial in a captioned step x step format. (See below)

Burning on bone presents its challenges but I found the experience well worth the challenge and look forward to doing more in the future.

Perhaps the greatest drawback of this material is in the messy preparation of the bone. Did I say 'perhaps'? Okay, definitely, by far, without doubt, the biggest drawback of bone burning is the stinky, time consuming preparation. But I confess that the little ivory like gem that presented itself at the end of lengthy preparation filled me with the promise of what could be. The material was creamy coloured, super smooth to the touch and had a weighty quality.

For my project I selected thick beef bone that I found at the butchers. Check out the dog bone or soup bone section of your local meat shop and you should easily find the same.

I'm sure other bone could be burnt on as well, but that will have to wait for my next bone experiment. I chose beef for this project based on the thickness of the bone wall and the readiness of supply.

I decided to burn a portrait of a bison. I wanted to push the high realism envelope to see just what could be done on bone but there is no reason that more simple designs could also be used. Celtic, art deco and art nouveau designs immediately come to mind.

My overall impression is that bone burning is similar to ivory burning. A very hot tip is required and it can be a sticky burn at times. Having said that, I think the pros far outweigh the cons for the more adventurous burner. The material resembles ivory but, in comparison, it is readily available and many shapes can be cut from it. The resulting burn has a lovely sepia tone, contrasting handsomely with the shiny cream canvas.

Even though the size of bone work is somewhat limited it is perfect for jewellery making, inlay work, pen work, gourd work, free standing shapes,, belt buckles, tree ornaments and numerous other objects and applications.

What are you waiting for?? Fight Fido for his bone, whack a peg on your nose and let's get burning!




Select beef bone that is thick enough and has enough area to cut your shape from. Cut the bone down to size if it's too big. You could ask your butcher to do this or you could use something like a bandsaw.


2: Scrape as much meat and other material off the bone as you can. If you can get to the marrow, scrap that out as well. (Finally, a pyrography project where we can enlist the help of the family dog!)

3: Now you need to boil your bone until it is clean of meat, fat and marrow. This may take hours, so be patient. To speed up the process you can add some detergent to the bone soup...this will help break down the fat and grease. After boiling you may have to brush the bone with detergent and a stiff brush. (Are we having fun yet?



After you have cleaned the bone trace the project shape onto the bone surface. I used graphite paper and hard pencil.

5: To get the shape I wanted, I used a Microsoft Word program. I simply used the program to insert an oval shape and dragged the corners until I was happy with the size. I then printed my design to use as my pattern. Any number of Text or Image programs can be used to create all sorts of shapes to cut out of your bone.

6: Now it's time to cut the shape out of the bone. I got my friend, Gayle, to cut this out using a scrollsaw. She used a #9 blade and said the cutting was easy. (Thanks Gayle:))


I next used a flat sander to flatten the surface but you could certainly leave it curved if you wish.

You can see here the bone is still somewhat discoloured. To bleach it to a bright creamy colour I then soaked the bone in a mild solution of hydrogen peroxide.


Rinse and then allow your bone to thoroughly dry in the shade.

After this I sanded the edges and surface as smooth as possible. I worked from 120 grit through to 400. (Using a mechanical sanding method will, of course, speed up this step.



9: I then polished the surface of the bone using a Dremel and Aluminium oxide paste. Blocks of Aluminium oxide can be readily found in most hardware stores. (It will probably be called Aluminum oxide in the States and Canada.) You could also use other polishing products such as white rouge and white cream toothpaste...just make sure the product is white in colour or you may stain the bone.

 10: Well, it's been a bit of a long, involved road, but the bone is at last ready to burn! (At this stage my 3 dogs, Mac, Lily and Brini were banned from the studio. Mum would not have been impressed to find said bone used as a chew toy at this stage.)


11: A few years ago I had the great fortune to be able to travel to both Dakotas with my friends Barb and Frank Kaminski. There I was thrilled to witness tons of wild animals, including buffalo. I cropped one of my photos with imaging software to use as the pattern for my bison portrait.

12: I reduced the size of the image and taped the printout to the face of the bone disc. This tracing gives me the very basic shape of the animal and I then freehand burn all the rest by referring to a second print out and the original reference on my computer.


13: The resulting traced design is fragile to the touch. It will rub off very easily with straying finger tips, so do be careful.

14: OUTLINE Because the tracing was so easily erased I decided to go over my tracing and burn the entire outline first. Here I am outlining the longer hair with a skew. When burning longer lines like this I immediately noticed that the skew tended to 'stick' and not glide smoothly.

15: I found that the sticking resulted in some patchy, uneven lines. I remedied this by going back over the lines and stabbing the blade in the places left unburnt.

16 After a bit of practice I started to manage the longer lines a little better. I found the skew had to be nice and clean, the temperature red hot and a very light pressure used when dragging the stroke. (This is a close up of the long hairs in the shaggy beard.

17: Remember; don't use a solid, unbroken line when edging hair that is fluffy or shaggy. Doing so makes the subject look very unnatural.

18: The bison's hair sticks out, so, use staggered, broken strokes to burn the outer edge.

19: This super close up shows the edging of the head. You can see how the strokes flick outward. (The complete picture of the buffalo next to the introduction is larger than its actual size, so you can see how magnified these images actually are.)

20: I also defined the main groups of hair with staggered, broken strokes. The length of stroke is in direct proportion to the hair length I'm seeing. This or course has to be done to scale. This buffalo head is very small, so if I'm burning short nose hair then my lines are so short that they are almost dots. I then lengthen my strokes in relation to the length of hair...the longest being the shaggy beard.



The unruly bison hair was a bit of a challenge. I decided to burn in the individual clumps of hair first...concentrating on the patterns they make rather than being distracted by individual hairs.

 22: You can see the burnt clump pattern in this close up. Notice how each clump is made by burning a series of random, staggered lines. They all go in the general direction of the coats flow, but they are not a collection of straight tram tracks. A solid clump, with the lines all running the one way would look unnatural. The staggered lines help loosen up the coat and give it some 'wild' life.

23: Once I had established the general coat pattern I could start intensifying some of the areas that needed darkening. Protruding hair will create a shadow on the coat below. Areas of shadow are some of the places that I burnt darker. Creating shadow is one of the premium 'tricks' in portraying realistic objects. When shadow is cast by one object on another it shows depth and helps create three dimensional feel.

24: Note some of the areas of shadow: under the eye, under the muzzle, under the jaw, below the horn and in other various areas...particularly where the level of hair changes.

25: Some of the bison hair is naturally darker so I now go over those areas to add a little more darkness on the structure I've already formed. This also makes the shaggy protruding top coat stand out more.

26: You can see how I've darkened some of the hair around the back of the neck. Darkening here also pushed this area to the background more and makes the Shaggy top coat appear to 'pop'.


27: The hair on the face is very short, so in keeping with this I keep my strokes very short...almost dot like.


28: I start by burning the very lightest tone on the face...


29: ...then I gradually build the darker tones on top of this. I don't try and establish each of my total areas individually because I find this causes each area to stand out starkly compared to its neighbour. It's important to me here that the tonal areas are gradually built in overlapping layers. This allows for a smooth transition and blending of the different tones.

30: The area between face and the long hair of the shaggy beard is of a medium length. In keeping with my rule of stroke length I therefore burn these hairs at a length somewhere between the short facial hair and the long shaggy beard.


31: The area around the nose is one of the last I filled. The hair here is very short so my strokes were again very short.



32: Lastly I burnt the fluffy flyaway hair of the forehead by pulling my strokes outward. At the end of these strokes I sped up my nib speed and quickly lifted off. This flicking at the end of the stroke produces a thin, tapering tail and that helps give the appearance of softness.



Because bone is sticky to burn on it tends to make nib movement somewhat staggered. For this reason it's rather difficult to use a writing nib to fill in the tonal areas. I prefered to use the point of a skew to stipple in the tone. (Stipple: draw by means of dots and flicks.)


34: You can see by this close up how the tone on the horn has been built up by burning layer upon layer of tiny dots. Make sure you gradually build up to the darker tones...this gives a smoother transition between the various tones.



There isn't much room on this piece to give the eye any detail. The main challenge was to sit it in a location that looked natural and to burn it as dark as possible. I inverted the skew and used the pointy tip to burn this small area. A mini ball tip or other mini writing tip could also have been used.


36: I found the best way to achieve near black on the eye and in the nostril was to rest the hot nib gently in place for longer periods of time. I kept repeating this until I got the colour I was after. I didn't push too hard because cooked bone can be brittle and I didn't want to chip the surface.



Lastly I signed my initials with a 0.4mm ball writer. (The Razertip F99.004)

38: Because of the stickiness I found writing more difficult than on other materials. On wood you can burn letters without ever having to lift the tip off the surface. On bone I found I could only burn neatly by pulling the tip towards myself.

39: You can see at this angle how the skew leaves cut marks that help accent the texture of the hair.

40: A close-up of the finished buffalo.