Since you clicked in and decided to learn how to make your own
fish scale wood burning tips and
wood burning pens I will assume your fish knowledge and carving skills have reached a level
of quality that cookie cutter scale pens are no longer a part of your detailing
methods. If this is true....Congratulations! Many carvers spend years carving
fish before they realize fish scales in nature don't come in just three sizes, and they
are not in the shape of a 180° arc. Scales come in hundreds of sizes and
shapes, and sometimes all on the same fish!
Over the years many scale wood burning systems have surfaced, from simple wire
arcs to stamped metal scales soldered to wire burning tips. One thing they all
have in common is a “cookie cutter” look on your finished carving and an
unnatural sterile appearance.
Many of the fish scale shaped stampings on the market today burn an inverted
fish scale, the exact opposite in appearance of a real fish scale. These metal
shaped pen tips burn the scale shape into the wood surface leaving the scale
impression lower than the surrounding surface. Leaving the surface of your
carving often looking like a eaten ear of corn. Scales are the armor
plating that protects a fishes skin. If these scales were below the skin surface
what purpose would they serve in nature? And to make matters worse the
various sizes of scales available are patterned from totally different fish!
A small scale tip may have been patterned from a trout, a medium scale tip from
a bluegill and a large from a bass. So if you are carving a 1/2 scale or
smaller bass you are forced to use a trout scale replica tip to scale your bass.
Trout scales and largemouth scales are totally different in shape, regardless of
There is no such thing as a universal scale shape in nature. A brook
trout scale is different than a largemouth bass scale. A walleye scale is
different than a bluegill scale. The scale shape of a young largemouth bass
doesn't look at all like the veteran armor of an adult largemouth. They
are all different in one way or another, age, species, diet, and genes all
factor in. Commercial scale tip manufacturers don't want to offer a
hundred different sizes and shapes so they chose a dozen vanilla scales and hope
you never learn the difference.
Burned properly the scale should have a raised layered look, the appearance
of each row overlapping the next. The shape of each scale will vary with body
location, scales across the back are generally uniform in shape and appearance,
scales covering the sides are odd shapes and sizes, often larger and bolder,
scales along the belly are finer and rounder in appearance. This alone is the
reason for many different shapes and sizes in your burning arsenal, to date I
have made and used 60 different sizes and shapes. Some fish use as few as three
tips and some as many as twelve.
Once you learn how to make your own tips and pens you will never buy a
commercial tip again. Not only are they easy to make, it's fun to
do. And if you are into competition, I guarantee your carvings will stand
out over the others using universal tips.
So lets take a quick look at just some of the information covered in
my new DVD video course on making scale tips and pens.
First off, the tools you will need:
- Small Ball Peen Hammer
- Steel Slug or Large Ball Peen Hammer
- Needle-nose Pliers
- Wire Cutters
- Rotary Carving Tool
- Cone Shaped Stone Burr
- Soldering Gun
- Fine Sandpaper 220 grit
style pen connections)
1/4" Mono Plug (for
Detail Master style pen connections)
12ga Lamp Cord Wire (for
Detail Master style pen connections)
- 16ga Nichrome Wire (available from
- Zinc Chloride Soldering Acid
- Silver Solder
- 3/8” ID Phenalic Tube
- 1/16” Brass Tube
- RCA Jacks
To make patterns for making scale tips thoroughly wash the slime from a
reference fish, towel it dry and freeze it solid. Once frozen, remove it from
the freezer and place a piece of white wax paper, wax side down, on the skin
surface and lightly rub the surface with a soft pencil to highlight the scale
outlines. Do this in several places around the fish and note the locations on
the paper. Wax paper holds up well against a wet skin while you rub out a
few patterns. This paper pattern will become your scale making pattern to
use in shaping the scales necessary to detail that particular fish. Scale
patterns can also be pulled from study casts in the same manner.
The Mechanics of it......
Before you begin making a burning tip you must first understand how it
works. Electricity produces heat at the thinnest point of the circuit,
which should be at the tip of the burning pen. A woodburner is nothing more than
a controlled electrical short. A small amount of electricity is allowed to pass
through the controller and down the power cord to the burning pen where it will
meet it’s opposite at the tip. If the tip is the thinnest point in the circuit
heat will be generated there and controlled by regulating the power in the
circuit. No part of the circuit can be thinner than the tip, if the wire used in
the power cord is small in diameter than the tip it will heat up instead of the
tip once power is supplied and possibly cause a fire. If the connection where
the tip plugs into the pen is corroded and making poor contact then that area
will generate heat easier than the tip, causing discomfort while holding the pen
All metals conduct electricity differently, and all handle extreme heat
differently. For the tip a special metal wire is used known as nichrome wire.
Nichrome wire is used for heating elements in all types of electrical heating
appliances. It can withstand long term heat without distortion or corrosion
problems. Any other metal used in this application may damage your burning
unit and / or cause personal injury. Nichrome wire can be purchased from
many sources, however not all nichrome is the same. It comes in different
blends for different applications. It took me years to find the perfect
combination of nickel and chrome that allowed me to hammer a paper thin edge
without cracking and once heated self tempers to retain the shape under
pressure. I sell 36" rolls of this special blend for $6.00, which is
enough for 18-20 tips. You can order it by calling 989-619-6002
Nichrome wire requires a special soldering flux that contains Zinc Chloride
to allow silver solder to bond to the wire making a secure connection to the
pen. Most any hardware stores can assist you with this type of flux and
solder. Jewelers also use a special alloy blend to solder jewelry that
works excellent for soldering nichrome, so if you know a jeweler ask about the
solders they use.
Lets get started.
Click any of the images for a
Cut a 2” piece of nichrome wire.
Using a pair of needle-nose pliers bend the wire to shape,
slightly narrower than the the width of the desired scale. Keep the bends as
square as possible. This is best accomplished by using the needle nose pliers to
clamp the wire as you hammer both ends down, the tapered nose of the pliers
works as a gauge for scale width as you form the bends.
Shaping of the tip is done by hammering the wire flat using a
steel slug and a small ball peen hammer. This is a technique that will require a
little practice. You will need to stretch the metal in both corners outward to
form the scale shape, this is done by hammering at an angle dragging the metal
out. Work slowly and hammer lightly, the wire will flatten easily. It will
take a tip or two to get the hang of this, but once learned is easily
Stop when you feel you have enough metal pulled from the corner
to shape half the scale. You will be surprised how thin this wire will hammer
out too. Try to only work the tip, remember the thinnest point gets the
hottest......you don't want heat weakening the legs of the tip causing it to
bend as you are burning scales. The
thinner the working area of the tip is the less power you will need to produce
high temperatures, the less power you need the cooler the pen will operate.
Hammer the other side of the tip to shape, stopping when you
have enough metal to shape a scale from. For larger scales it will be necessary
to flip the tip over as you flatten it and work both sides to prevent curling
and possible cracking from stressing only one side with the hammer.
Install a small cone shaped stone burr in a rotary tool. The
cone shaped burr allows you to grind several sizes without having to change
PUT ON SAFETY GLASSES!!!
Working in the center of the tip remove metal with the stone
burr to shape the outer edge and depth of the scale. Grind squarely into the
wire, do not round the sharp edge left after shaping the scale. Maintaining a
sharp edge is essential to creating light crisp scales. A dull edge will require
you to burn deeper to show scale definition making your scales look too bold.
Using the tip of the stone burr grind away enough metal to shape
the scale tips to a dull point. Remove no more metal than necessary to shape the
scale, try and keep the wire width even across the face of the scale tip.
Grinding away too much metal will create a thin area in the tip and cause a hot
spot that will over burn every scale in that spot. This procedure is best shown
on my video "Making Scale Tips"
where I show you how to balance the heat and fine tune the tip at this
point. A series of steps that cannot be described in a few still images.
Shape the other edge the same way and compare your final scale
shape to your pattern and adjust if necessary.
Using wet sandpaper (320 grit) polish the working surface of the
tip for a clean burn. Again, be careful not to remove the crisp edge of the
And there you have it. A very quick digest overview of how tips are
made. For a detailed step by step demonstration of the process and
information on how to fine tune and harden the tips, make your own pens, make a
raised lateral line burner and how to burn the scales I have a
3 DVD video course
demonstrating the entire process. Visit the online
store for more details. We also carry a full line of materials
needed to make your own pens and tips as shown in the video.
Download a free set of plans for
your own burning pens and start making your own pens for less than $3.00 ea!
DVD Courses Home Page