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Pokerwork, also known as pyrography, refers to a form of decoration involving burning designs into timber, leather or other materials with hot pokers or electrically heated tools. In terms of texture, the art form is similar to engraving.

Pokerwork has been around for 500 years in the world as a decorative element. It was in the late 19th century that painting, combined with pokerwork, became popular.

The main ornamental composition is drawn on a piece of leather or wood with a heated needle. The picture produced is then painted using simple or complex color schemes and coated with clear lacquer.

In China, the famous Nanyang pokerwork is said to have originated in the City of Nanyang in Central China's Henan Province at the end of the Western Han Dynasty (206BC-AD24), becoming popular in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Today, the art enjoys booming development and spreads its fame to the four corners of the earth as one of the three treasures of Nanyang (the other two are jade and "Chu Shi Biao" -- the first memorial for the northern expeditions written by politician, thinker and strategist of the Three Kingdoms Period , 220-280, Zhuge Liang).

Due to the chaos caused by famines and wars, the craftsmanship of Nanyang pokerwork was once lost. According to written records, in the third year of the Guangxu reign in the Qing Dynasty , a Nanyang native named Zhao Xingsan, who was a skilled painter, came up with the idea of creating pictures with a burning pipe when he was smoking opium. He then took great interest in creating pictures and made many such works to use as gifts. Later, pokerworks became the preferred gifts among intellectuals and high officials, and were even introduced into the imperial court as articles of tribute. In the 1820s, pokerwork became a special handicraft industry in Nanyang.

In the beginning, pokerworks mostly combined the techniques used in Chinese painting and folk painting. Thanks to continuous efforts made by pyrographers of later generations, some elements of western paintings were assimilated into pokerworks, achieving good artistic effects. Materials used ranged from bamboo and wood to xuanzhi (rice paper ) and silk tapestry. The works were as large as a 10-meter-long mural or as small as beads with a diameter of less than 1 centimeter.

Nanyang pokerworks mainly fall into eight categories and include more than 20 types. The painted pokerwork scrolls make use of such materials as silk tapestry, rice paper and resin cloth to create human figures, flowers and birds, water and mountain landscapes and calligraphy. Human figures that appear in Nanyang pokerworks are mostly taken from books, such as A Dream of Red Mansions, Journey to the West, Romance of the West Chamber and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, as well as murals at the Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes. Pokerworks created on wood include various kinds of frescos, folding screens, floor screens, plaques, and so on. In recent years, new products have emerged, such as pokerwork painted eggs, New Year cards, artistic ballpoint penholders, etc.

Nanyang pokerworks feature a novel style in terms of pattern design and ingeniously incorporate images of cultural and historical sites and celebrities. With lively scenes and lifelike human figures, many pokerworks have become national treasures or important gifts sent to foreign friends.

The Process

Pokerwork designs are almost always traced onto timber first -- so just about anyone can attempt it. Today's machines and nibs also allow great control in terms of color, depth and subtle shading variations.

Try decorating an old breadboard, rolling pin, wooden spoon, box or frame.

You'll need:
An item to be decorated (ie) pine log, 32x19cm
Enlarged design
Piece of old carbon paper
Old ballpoint pen or stylus; pencil
Pokerwork machine
Small screwdriver
Fine sandpaper
White watercolor paint; artist's brush; brush; sanding sealer; paintbrush; acrylic varnish; turpentine; razor blade; cotton gloves; damp cloth.


1. Enlarge the pattern to a desired size using a photocopier.

2. Lightly sand the surface of the timber and wipe back with damp cloth. Position the design on the timber and tape it down lightly either side.

3. Slip a piece of old, used carbon paper under the design and, using an old pen or stylus, trace the outline of the kookaburra and any other basic lines. Remove the paper and touch up your design with pencil if you wish.

4. Insert nib, tighten screws and heat machine.

5. Test the heat and adjust the temperature if necessary. Holding the nib of the pen at a 90-degree angle with the timber, burn the outlines, including the border and light shading areas using the edge of the nib. You will achieve the best results by pulling the pen gently towards you along this sharp edge, not across the flat surface of the nib. There is no need to use great pressure; be patient and let the heat do the work. Since wood grain varies, you'll find that burning between the grain is easier.

6. Refer to the photograph, turn the pen in your hand and use the flat surface of the nib to shade the rest of the picture. Beginning at the ends of the wing feathers, use soft feathery strokes, easing off the pressure before you finish a stroke. Shade the border in the same way.

Remove carbon build-up by wiping the nib across a piece of fine sandpaper.

7. To fill in the eye of the bird or any other subtly shaded area, switch to a very fine nib, turn the heat to low and gently work over the area several times, gradually building up the color and texture.

8. Use white watercolor to highlight some of the whitest feathers on the breast of the kookaburra and the flannel flowers; this will give an overall upgrade to your work.

9. Apply one coat of sanding sealer and allow it to dry. Lightly sand the surface with very fine sandpaper and wipe with a damp cloth.

10. If you intend to mount your finished piece, apply several coats of varnish, brushing each coat on a right angle to the previous one.

Use a photocopier to enlarge the kookaburra pattern to a desired size.

Tip: Although the pen's handle is insulated, it is a good idea to wear cotton gloves to protect your fingers from the heat, especially if you're working for an extended period of time.

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