A lesson in pyrography with The London Craft Club

Name: Sonia Bownes

From: East Finchley, North London

Job: Founder, The London Craft Club

Lesson: Pyrography

Sonia is a self-proclaimed ‘craft-tart’ (definition: someone who switches from craft to craft with reckless abandon) and she’s one of the most notorious, too. Her company, The London Craft Club, has introduced countless Londoners to the stress-busting, confidence boosting benefits of making things with their hands.

When Sonia offered to teach us the art of pyrography (burning patterns in wood), we felt confident we were in safe hands. Pyrography tools can be dangerous if used improperly, but as a former glass blower, Sonia is no stranger to working with hot implements. She was confident that we wouldn’t burn her house down and, therefore, so were we.

Matthew of the teach us team learns how to use a pyrography tool

Sonia Bownes invited the teach us team into her home to learn pyrography

We fell in love with this craft instantly. Satisfaction comes with every mark made, not just because of how it looks, but because of the deep, homely smell that fills your nostrils as the tool touches the wood. We started off by dotting and branding on wooden spoons and, before long, there was no stopping us. We tried creating some overly ambitious patterns freehand, then moved onto branding coasters, spare strips of leather and, eventually, a phone case. Stopping just short of branding each other’s skin, we took a moment to ask Sonia more about one of her favourite crafts.

Sonia Bownes of the London Craft Club invited the teach us team into her home to learn a new skill

Tell us more about your company, the London Craft Club

London Craft Club’s aim is to help people fire up their creativity and find time in their lives to get all the stress busting, social and other benefits that you get from making with your hands.

What are you going to teach us today?

Pyrography, which is the art of woodburning. You’re using a pyrography tool, which is kind of like a soldering iron but slightly modified to have various bits and nibs you can use to burn patterns into the wood.

How did you learn pyrography?

We have a joke term at Craft Club, “Craft Tart”, which is somebody who takes up new crafts all the time, and that’s very much me. If I hear about a new craft or new craft gadget, I have to get it and have a go. I’ve been doing that for over 30 years. I have a degree in glass blowing, but I’ve done everything from sewing and knitting too, you name it. When I found pyrography, it was an unusual thing to do so I bought the kit and had a crack at it.

Alice Albery from teach us practises her new skill - using a pyrography tool

What do you like about pyrography specifically?

It’s very immediate. You press the nib to the wood and the burn is there straight away. It requires minimal kit and set up really, so you don’t have to give over your entire house to do it. Another thing I really like about it is that it doesn’t try to hide the look of being handmade. It’s rough around the edges and you can really see that. The aim is not to create something that looks shop bought and factory made, but to put your mark on it and show the effect of your handmade efforts.

What do you like about teaching pyrography?

Teaching is great because I get to see the pleasure people get in learning something new. When people have a penny drop moment, it’s nice to see. Some shout ‘yaaaay!’ and others remain quiet, but it’s always obvious that they’ve got it. Pyrography is a nice thing to teach because it’s immediate and gives good results.

How long would we need to produce great stuff?

Well it depends what you define as ‘great’. You could get very skilled at it and do details or elegant drawings, or spend more time learning different design approaches so it’s hard to say. I mean, to be able to draw very skilled craftsmanship on wood, it’d take years as with any craft, but if you’ve already got an understanding of design, or you have shortcuts, or a visual language already then you can get good at it very quickly. And also, if you’ve got templates and things to follow, you can be turning out quite nice work in a couple of hours.

What’s the most impressive thing you’ve seen a student make?

There was a guy who came along – brought along by his girlfriend – who said he couldn’t draw at all. He had no creative background, and didn’t have a creative job, but he picked up the pyrography tool and did the most incredible wild flower drawing freehand, following one of our templates. It was remarkable because he was so adamant he had no creative skills at all.

How were we as students today?

Oh, you were great because you’re all very different. You had different approaches.  Some people are yeah it’s fine, and others who are keen to get it right and do it accurately, and I think it’s always quite nice having a mix of people and their different learning approaches in there, and you were keen to have a go at it and get stuck in, which is good.

Is there a skill you don’t have you wished you had?
Up until this week, I didn’t know how to crochet, which for somebody who’s been in crafts for the number of years I have and knits and does macrame, is a bit of an embarrassment. So I taught myself and now I’m obsessed with making crochet baskets. I’d love to get good a ceramics, which is something else I’ve never done. I’ve done glass blowing and lots of plaster casts, but it looks amazing fun and I’d love to be able to make mugs like the ones we’re drinking from right now (teach us note: the mugs were fabulous).

The teach us team made these using a pyrography tool

The teach us team listen intently to their skilled teacher

Matthew from teach us practises a new hobby

What we learned

  • Pyrography literally means “writing with fire”. It’s an ancient art form that can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt
  • Burning patterns into wood is deeply satisfying and completely addictive
  • Pyrography smells better than any other art form (in our opinion)
  • Leather should be untreated when it’s being branded with a pyrography tool
  • It’s immediate, inexpensive and relatively easy (unless you want to draw a straight line)
  • Covering paper with a thin layer of charcoal makes it a good substitute for carbon paper, and can be used to trace patterns onto wood or leather