About Woodburners

About Woodburners

Important Note: In 1979 Colwood became the first major manufacturer to produce the fine nichrome wire woodburning tool -- The Detailer. That's correct! -- before Razortip, Detail Master, Nibsburner, Optima and some others that have fallen by the wayside. Contrary to information being posted around the Internet, mostly by individuals with their own agendas, Colwood's tip wire has always been made from Nichrome.

Precision, Versatility, Control, and Service - Qualities that describe Colwood's full line of woodburning tools and accessories. Colwood offers five control units with their own distinct features to satisfy all skill levels - the novice to the professional artist. Each unit includes a solid state controller and ultra-flex cord as standard equipment. The "guts" of all our units are housed in a custom "cold rolled steel" enclosure; not a generic, off-the-shelf, plastic box susceptible to melting by  misplacing a handpiece or cracking if accidentally dropped. All our units are manufactured and serviced right in our factory. Thus, we can ship virtually every order and repair within 24 hours.

The Wattage Controversy

How Woodburning Units Work

Virtually all of the modern woodburning units are constructed in the same manner. A transformer provides the power and is controlled by a device not unlike a light dimmer that passes the power to a handpiece cord where a burning pen and tip are attached. The transformer's purpose is to step down the voltage to a usable level that is regulated by the controller that passes the power through the cord to the handpiece and tip.

There has been a lot of misleading information concerning wattage on woodburning units. Many manufacturers make high wattage claims that are false. We have tested many of these units and have found that they all consume less than 45 watts of power, including the units claiming to deliver 130 watts max.

Simply put, wattage is power; and generally speaking, more is better than less. The logical question to ask is how much wattage does one need. To answer this, we conducted an experiment in our shop using a wattmeter, a Detailer with 18 gauge cord, and a "K" tip (small point). Several feather barbs were burned on a piece of basswood with the Detailer's control knob set to 3. We were able to burn a nice, crisp "toast" colored barb. The wattmeter registered 10 watts! Next, we set the Detailer to full power. The "K" tip glowed a bright orange, the basswood burned a burnt black, and the feather barbs looked horrible. The wattmeter registered 27 watts. With respect to woodburning, we feel that wattage rating is severely overrated. You should chose a woodburner that has the features that you require, and a price tag that fits your budget. Colwood's wide selection of control units, and handpiece cords make it easy for you to accomplish this while satisfying all your artistic needs.

Below is an excerpt from the Power Carving Manual review of woodburning tools. Pay special attention to the section concerning wattage.

Woodburning Units Details and Traits


As children many of us had the opportunity to use the “soldering iron” type of woodburning tool.  Mine first came as a Christmas gift from my Grandparents – the kit included six or eight preprinted plaques, paints, and the burner. Sadly, I never saw it again after I burned (destroyed) all the plaques and decided to launch a career by doing some redesign on the side panel of a hutch.

These were fine for rough detail, but as the need for finer detail arose, new machines were built with sharpened wire tips that could burn much finer lines with far more control than the old time units.

One of the first units used a light bulb to vary the temperature output.  Just screw in a higher wattage bulb for more power!

Next came units controlled by a rheostat.  These units used a simple rheostat power controller to vary the voltage to a transformer, and thus vary the heat to the burning pen.

Today, most (if not all) of the newer generation woodburning systems use an electronic circuit to more evenly regulate power output.  The circuitry is similar in operation to a lamp dimmer, except that a transformer (primary side) takes the place of the light bulb.  The control circuit varies the level of AC voltage to the transformer.  The secondary of the transformer is connected to the output jack of the burner, which is where the burning pen is plugged in.  The burner transformer is unique in that most units only generate around 2 volts AC to the burning pen.  But even though the voltage is low, the current to the pen can be as high as 20 or more Amperes!  This high current is needed to heat the resistance alloy (most use Nickel-Chromium wire) of the burning tip.


Although most of today’s woodburners function basically the same, there are many differences between units.  Units can vary in price from $45 to over $200, depending on features and power output.  It is important to choose a burner that fits the way you burn.  If you burn hot or put a lot of pressure on the tip, you will need a heavier duty style of burning pen that can handle this kind of use.  Conversely, if you are creating a World Class miniature piece, you would want to use finer, more delicate tips that will allow the degree of detail that competition at this level requires – conceivably up to 125 or more lines (strokes) per inch!

There are also burning pens I call “medium duty” that can cover a wide range of uses.  These pens have tips that are not TOO big or TOO small, and in the right hands, can accomplish a wide range of burning techniques.

Another consideration is whether to buy a fixed tip (tip permanently soldered into pen) or a replaceable tip (tips unplug from pen) style of burning pen.  A replaceable tip pen can be a less expensive initial investment if you want many different tip styles, but can possibly cause problems in the future as the connections get loose or corroded.  If you buy a fixed tip style, look for a high quality silver soldered “tip to pen” joint, for the best possible electrical connection.  Should this be your choice, you may want to check to insure that the manufacturer offers a tip replacement service so you don’t have to replace the whole pen when you wear out a tip.

When you buy a new woodburner, don’t waste a lot of money buying 20 different styles of burning pens!  Your salesman should steer you to 2 or 3 pens that fit the style of burning you wish to do.  Beware of the salesperson that tells you that you “need” a great many different styles or shapes of pens – you know whose benefit that sales pitch is for!  You will soon find that you are using two or three tips constantly, and any others are just special use tips that are used once or twice a year.  This illustrious advice coming from one who has to have two or three full sets – of everything!

There are many different ways to use a burning tool.  I know of one artist who creates beautiful flatwork (pyrography) pieces using only 2 different tip styles.  Trees, grass, fur, plants, shading, etc., all done with two tips!  She might use one upside down and backwards to achieve a certain effect of technique, so don’t be afraid to try something new!

A major consideration to any unit is the cord that runs between the control box and the burning pens.  Some units have stiff, clunky wires that can impede a smooth workflow.  Other units have very thin, flexible cords. The quality and size of wire used in these connecting cords varies greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer. Before you purchase a unit, try as many as you can so you get a better idea of what will best work for you.

If at all possible, test several different brands to find the unit that “works for you” in all categories – quality, economy, function, and feature.


Most burning can be done at lower temperatures…there is no reason for a lot of smoke (or fire!) to come off your work!  About 700 degrees F will give a nice “toast” to your work.  In some cases, if you burn too hot, paint adhesion can be a problem, as the pores in the wood are sealed shut.  Burning at a lower cooler temperature will also tend to avoid residue and build-up on your tips.

However, there may be situations where you will need extra heat (power) to undercut or relieve a carving detail and such a cut may require as much as 1500 degrees or more.  If you plan to do feather inserts, the unit has to deliver the extra power necessary to accomplish the deep slotted cuts required to accept the pre-shaped feather inserts.

To clean tips, use factory recommended methods, and stay away from coarse emery cloth or sandpaper, unless you wish to buy new tips – often!

One method used to clean and restore tips is a cleaner pad that has very fine abrasive (600/800) grit bonded to both sides of a foam core pad.  This is fine enough to clean your tip without removing metal, and is still enough to redress a dulled tip.

Another method is a leather strop to sharpen and buff out an edge.  The strop can be treated with a bit of Neat’s foot oil or a very small amount of polishing paste or extremely fine honing compound.  Use care, too little is better than too much when it comes to burning tips.  Work the tip cold, and with tip on its side, use gentle draw strokes with a finger lying over the upper side of the tip to support it.

As I burn, I keep a piece of old used denim trouser leg (faded) on a flat surface nearby and occasionally wipe my hot burning tip quickly from side to side on it, and this action keeps the pen clear and buffs as I work.  Don’t dawdle as you do this wiping action from side to side, or you will char the cloth, build up residue on the pen tip, and suffer the smell of burned cloth!


For control and accuracy, you must always establish a surface anchor or “fulcrum” with either the little finger or the side of the hand while you texture.  I use my little finger to the extent that I have developed callus in much the same way a guitarist or violinist develops a hardened or callused fingertip through contact with the strings of his instrument.  This contact with the carving surface is imperative to exercise the control necessary to place a stroke with respect to width, length, direction, and relationship to previously place strokes.  To better understand the need for this concept, try writing a check without any part of your hand touching the surface of the check.

If you feel no “pull” or friction on your stroke, chances are you are running at too high a heat setting.  You will know, because the surface will be more black (charred) than the middle brown (toast) color you should achieve.

If you feel an inordinate amount of “pull” or friction on your stroke, you are probably operating at too low a temperature setting.  If the resultant stroke is just a light brown mark where the stroke begins, and nothing more than a tool mark at the end of the stroke, you may want to consider an increase in your temperature setting.

Hold the pen (handpiece) at sufficient angle as you burn to keep the rising heat from going directly to the fingers – this gets uncomfortable very quickly.

Always have a scrap piece of wood (of the same kind used in the carving) at hand to check, adjust, correct, and practice your burning strokes – before you attempt any burning or texturing application to the carving!

Woodburner Use and Safety:

  1. Don’t use excessive pressure when texture burning – learn to adjust the heat setting to make it work you for instead of stressing the pen and tip.

  2. Check the owner’s manual or with the manufacturer to find out whether it is recommended that the unit be turned to full power to “condition” new tips or to burn off carbon – some recommend that you do, others recommend that you don’t.

  3. Use care and common sense in how you clean and/or resharpen the pen tips.  If you use a stone, sandpaper, or a harsh abrasive, you will wear out the tip prematurely, and in some cases, modify or hinder its former use.  Use a leather strop or bugging wheel with fine polishing rouge, and learn to work at the lowest temperature necessary to achieve the result you want.

  4. Always keep the unit out of the reach and away from children.  Tips are sharp and very hot, and will burn skin and flesh easier than wood.

  5. Whenever you burn, assume a comfortable and relaxed position, with respect given to arm, head, body and leg position.  For example, if you begin to feel stress in the back of your neck, change the angle you are holding the work, or adjust the heat of your seat to relieve the strain.

  6. Always work with sufficient quantity and quality of light.  Use a shadow light (a strong light to the left of the work – if you are right handed) that creates a shadow with each stroke, making it easier to place and register strokes.

  7. Turn the unit OFF whenever you leave it – not only will you avoid a fire hazard, but you will prolong the life of the burning tip.  Most burning units will heat the tip to operational temperature in less than thirty seconds – time well spent when considering the possible alternatives that could occur by not turning the unit off.

  8. If a unit begins to make noise or buzz, turn it off, allow the pen to cool, and change pens.  Usually, an occurrence such as this is indicative of a shorted pen.  If the noise continues with a new pen, you should contact the manufacturer to ascertain the cause of the problem and/or make arrangements to return the unit.

  9. Keep wood scraps available to check heat settings and to practice strokes.  To maintain uniformity, the test piece should be the same type of wood as the carving you are, or will be working on.


One major difference that can be found from one woodburner to the next is the method of connection between components – the control unit, the cord, and the pen.  Connections can make a great difference to the efficiency and effectiveness of a woodburning pen.  The two most common connections are both audio plug and jacks.  They are the standard headphone plug and jack, or the phone (RCA type) socket and jack.  Of the two, I prefer the RCA connector over the large headphone jack because the RCA connector has more actual surface contact for size than does the headphone connector.  Some manufacturers permanently affix (by mechanical or soldered connection) the cord to the power unit and connect the other end to the pen by means of an RCA/phone connector.

Whether texturing, clarifying details in hair, fur, feathers, fish scales, or just highlighting carving cuts, find a woodburning tool that feels comfortable and operates in a manner that produces the exact and/or desired result that you want.  Explain your requirements to woodcarving suppliers, salesmen, or vendors and ask for assistance to achieve what you desire as a result of your type and style of carving(s).

Talk with people who use woodburning tools to a greater extent than just casual or sporadic use – to include pyrographers (people who create decorative pictures and design with woodburning pens) as well as woodcarvers.  Wherever possible, try a burning tip or pen before purchase – what may come highly recommended by one may not be comfortable in grip or function for another.


Each of the units featured was connected to a digitized wattmeter to ascertain the amount of power the machine would generate with a burning tip turned to full power.  The wattmeter drew a constant 121 volts on the same circuit, so every unit was given exactly the same input.

I was not completely convinced that the manufacturer who claimed their unit produced more than 130 watts was entirely accurate when the machine seemed to function no better and no hotter than other machines I detailed or textured with.

I hate to go out on a limb, but I think wattage rating is nonsense!  All the units featured were within 3 watts from highest to lowest.  I would rather be told about features and function than be misled about power.  I don’t care what the rating, as long as the unit performs to the standard that my style of carving and texturing demand of it.  As a user/consumer, I am not concerned with claims of high power when I find that the measurement came from within the circuit, across components, or across the transformer leads.  As a user, I am interested in the capability of the unit to deliver to the tip o the burning pen the power necessary to accomplish what I am doing or want to do.

Unless the industry agrees to a standardized method of measuring all units – such as a wattmeter measurement using a standardized pen/tip, what good are comparative ratings?

Yes, if the same company manufactures several models, I would like to know the duty rating assigned to each by that company.  Such terminology as heavy duty, medium duty, or light duty would satisfy me completely, and I’m willing to be it would satisfy the majority of woodcarvers and pyrographers as well.

For the most part, (as can be seen by each of the wattmeter readings for those units tested) the units tested produced readings within one or two watts of each other.  So how does one select the best unit?  Consider the following when selecting a woodburning unit: Response of heat to the tip – the unit should bring the tip quickly to the level of heat that you desire.

Continuity of heat to the tip – every time you stroke with the pen, heat is drawn from its tip to the surface of the carving.  The unit you choose should produce a consistent and continual source of heat without high and low prolonged peaks of indiscriminate power which make the texturing process uneven and untidy.  Units like this make it virtually impossible to regulate and/or produce the detail in the extreme that today’s carvings demand.

Recovery of heat to the tip – should be as instantaneous as possible.  It makes texture burning a chore when the use must either continually pause or re-stroke because the unit doesn’t recover quickly enough to facilitate his stroke cadence.  (In fairness to any of today’s woodburners, the unit can usually be fitted to your stroke cadence by adjusting the heat setting – or as a last resort, you can adjust your cadence with faster or slower stroke movements.)

Power – sufficient to accomplish the extremes of cutting, detailing, or texturing that the user’s style of carving and burning dictates.

Comfort – with prolonged use, the burning pen should remain cool in the grip area, and afford comfort with respect to holding ability and size to the hand of the user.

Features – the three features that any unit must have are: a separate ON/OFF power switch, a well defined and divided temperature adjustment knob, and just as important, an indicator light that tells me if the unit is on or off.  If and when the telephone, grandchildren, visitors, or my dog interrupts me, I want to see at a glance that the unit is OFF.  The last thing I do after I have turned off the lights in the studio at the end of the day is to scan the work surfaces for a red or green pilot light that will tell me I have left a unit on.  All other features (depending on the manufacturer) are appreciated, and in most cases, gladly received conveniences.