Sun Art

You only need a block of wood, a magnifying glass, the sun, and patience to make sun art.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
July/August 1979

Using a hand-held magnifying glass, focus the sun's rays on your outline.
JIM AND MELANIE HARLESS
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As more and more people realize that our planet's safest energy source is actually its nearest star, folks are beginning to use direct sun power to heat homes, distill fuel, and more. In fact, we recently learned that Jim Harless of Oak Ridge, Tennessee has developed an ingenious method of putting the clean "celestial" energy to work. Jim's clever idea has provided him with hundreds of hours of soothing, creative recreation. Yet we here at MOTHER EARTH NEWS can't help but think (without in any way meaning to criticize J.H.'s hobby-time habit) that the Tennessean's brainstorm could also be expanded into a nonstrenuous, profitable home business!

And exactly what is this "hot off the fire" potential pocket-stuffer? Why, it's the fine craft of sun art!

Jim's been carving art objects with sun power for over a year now,  and his "natural" etching has turned out to be the most relaxing and expressive craft he's ever tried. Mr. Harless has found solar wood-burning to be so pleasurable an activity for its own sake that he's just beginning to realize he can turn a nice profit by selling his artwork! (Some of his sun-burned scenes—which only took an hour to complete—have been snapped up for $8.00 apiece at various craft shows.)

Best of all, anyone can afford to try his or her hand at this solar-age art idea (for fun and/or for money!) because the Volunteer Stater's imaginative pastime requires absolutely no significant investment. Jim's entire "equipment set" consists of odds and ends of light-colored wood, a can of varnish, a soft lead pencil, a pair of polarized sunglasses, and an inexpensive hand-held magnifying glass!

How Wood Burning Art Works

As Jim describes it, the process of sun etching is simplicity itself. Just find yourself a sunny location, possibly some area where you can copy an attractive natural subject. Then sketch the outlines of your artwork in pencil on a block of lumber (the "canvas" needs to be one of the paler woods, like pine or fir so your dark etching lines will stand out by contrast), put on your eye-protecting sunglasses, and hold a three- to four-inch-diameter enlargin' lens above your wood piece so that all the sun's rays which pass through the glass disc get focused on one part of your sketch. Before long, a faint trail of smoke will begin to rise as the concentrated beams burn a smoldering "dent" in your wood block. When that pinpointed spot has been "carved" as deeply as you wish, simply move the lens slightly to "groove" more of your sketched-in line.

And that's it. You'll soon burn in your complete penciled pattern and have a beautiful, "natural-looking" work of art. The attractive design will combine the rough and rustic quality of a broad, sunburned line (close detail work is pretty much impossible) with whatever interesting form you've chosen to depict. Then you can put a couple of coats of varnish on top of your project, to help the finished piece endure and to prevent carbon smearing. (You may also wish to accent one or two areas of your graphic art with some colorful enamel paint.) By the time you finish your first scene, a new sun-carving idea will no doubt have popped into your head and you'll be eager to start in on your next piece!

Knot Good

One very nice feature of solar art is that the material you need—wood—is easy to obtain because a lot of folks discard pieces which you'll be glad to use. Mr. Harless has often gotten permission to collect board scraps at construction sites, or bought inexpensive damaged wood sections from building suppliers. And-conveniently enough some of these lumber rejects can be turned into the most interesting sun-etched art objects of all. For instance, Jim always incorporates any "bothersome" wood knots he finds into his animal and plant designs.

Anytime the Sun Shines

Admittedly, solar wood burning is no rainy day pastime. However, the enjoyable enterprise is definitely not limited to the sizzlin' summer. Any sunny day-even in the dead of winter-packs plenty of wood-singeing wallop. Simply bundle up in warm clothes when the weather is chilly. Or better yet, if you have a ray-catching south window in your home, just sit indoors and work in your shirt sleeves. Heck, Jim's even done wood burning in his car! (He did have to keep one window open for adequate ventilation, though.)

You don't have to "burn up"—along with your etching—during the "dog day" months, either. There's no reason why you can't wear a wide hat, set up an umbrella shield, or even sit in the shade yourself so long as you hold your work in the sun.

Mother Throws Down the Glove

Well, that about sums up the simple yet creative art of sun etching. Jim Harless turns out some mighty fine-looking objects, yet (since solar woodburners can "sketch" as quickly as folks who use store-bought burning tools) each piece takes him no more than an hour from block to varnish. Yep, Jim's developed a beautiful, inexpensive hobby that gives him plenty of artistic challenge. And his quiet, soothing pastime has all the potential of evolving into an unusual, lucrative means of income as well.

So ... we're going to offer a ground-breaker's challenge to all of MOTHER EARTH NEWS' readers. How about it, friend? Is anybody out there ready to develop a part or full-time moneymaker out of solar wood burning?

Tell us all about it if you do!


Solar Slogan Button

Although Jim Harless has certainly advanced the solar wood burning art, we have to admit that the Oak Ridger wasn't the first person to come up with the idea. Dick Van Hoosen wrote MOTHER about his own sun-etching experiences back in 1974! (There may even be some more star-powered woodburners out there in the wilderness ... you know how it is with an idea "whose time has come." This fellow's specialty was inscribing attractive cedar clip-on slogan buttons featuring such messages as "Yer Sumpin' Els", or "The Sunburn Kid", or "I Got Sol."

Dick got his start one idle afternoon in the days of Watergate, when he found an edge trimmed from an old door and—over a period of six hours—painfully etched: "When in the course of human events it becomes necessary ... IMPEACH!"

"That first attempt at wood burning was a grand experience," Dick wrote us. "Etching with sun power required calmer nerves and finer physical control than anything else I had ever done. I soon found myself eager to try it again." And by the time Van Hoosen started an 18,000-mile hitchhiking trip a few months later, he had done solar carving again ... and again and again. In fact, Dick was making such appealing sun-cut slogan buttons that he was able to barter the 3 1/2-inch-diameter discs to help keep his traveling expenses down to less than $300!

Dick only "set up shop" to sell his products for cash once during the journey. And on that occasion, he made and peddled five $2.00 buttons before an admiring sidewalk crowd in Hudson Bay, Canada in less than one hour!

Mr. Van Hoosen told us in his letter that he was planning to expand on the moneymaking possibilities of solar wood burning, but that was back in 1975. We haven't heard from him since. So readers, the "sun etch" field seems pretty wide open.

Any takers?


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