Wood Burning with Ammonium Chloride: Experiment

Today we’re focussing in on our process by testing out wood burning with ammonium chloride. It’s a great opportunity to take you through the trials and tribulations of a potential project in the making!

Hubs and I do a lot of hands on research before we even ‘start’ a project and wood burning with ammonium chloride is no exception. If you think our instructions have a lot of detail, you should see all the behind the scenes work that goes into perfecting each step! That’s so we can be assured you’ll get the same outcome if you try one of our projects yourself 😉.

Use Quality Materials

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I started with a piece of shelf liner from the dollar store as my vinyl sticker and cabinet grade plywood.

Cut Stencil

You could use a Cricut vinyl cutting machine to cut your stencil. But I thought cutting by hand into the wood itself would eliminate the possibility of seepage underneath the vinyl. Again, I think a better quality vinyl might be key – and using a Cricut will save time!

Once the design (our logo) was cut we took it outside to spray with a clear sealer.

Seal with Clear Coat

Two light coats of waterbased exterior clear coat was applied. Then we let it dry.

Wood Burning with Ammonium Chloride

Although ammonium chloride is used as a food additive in ‘salty liquorice’, it’s mildly acidic so can cause eye, skin, and respiratory system irritation. We recommend doing this outdoors in a well ventilated area and using gloves, goggles and even a respirator if you are sensitive.

Online research shows that most people are using a ratio of 1 tablespoon of ammonium chloride to half a cup of water. I used warm water and only half the amounts noted because we were only doing a small test. I find a little goes a long way.

Additional Additive

Many complained of bleeding with this technique so one blogger added a scoop of ‘Thicken Up‘ to the mix. I figure that’s about 1/4 teaspoon for the full strength mix (or 1/8 tsp here).

Thicken Up is a great buy in the States at under $10, but in Canada it’s a whopping $30 on Amazon. No thank you! So I substituted Xanthan gum which is a thickener we use in our gluten free recipes. However, Xanthan gum does not dissolve well in liquid and it just got lumpy. I shook it, stirred it and let it sit to absorb. It didn’t get as thick as I would have liked to prevent runs.

I have an idea to solve both the lumpiness and the viscosity of the liquid in our next experiment, which I’ll share with you then.

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Once the xanthan gum is well dissolved, grab a detail brush

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… and a heat gun.

Brush On

Brush the solution onto the parts that are still bare wood and let dry.

I set the heat gun to the highest setting (4).

Keep the gun moving around; don’t keep it in any one spot for too long.

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I could have stopped with just a light shade. But I continued and got a great dark effect. However, you can also see a fair amount of bleeding along the grain of the wood. If this was a ‘real’ project and not just a test, I’d be disappointed about that.

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Lessons Learned

Here are a few suggestions based on our first time using Ammonium chloride:

  1. Always test a sample of the wood you intend to use.
  2. Use a light touch with the heat gun. Darker shades tend to bleed more. Or at least, it’s more noticeable!
  3. Experiment with different woods to see if one works better than another.

Trial and Error Wood Burning with Ammonium Chloride

I found that there was more error than success in wood burning with ammonium chloride. As a matter of fact, I would consider the technique a complete fail if we didn’t learn so much along the way! Stick with us and hopefully we’ll improve it to the point that it’s good enough for one of our projects! No guarantees, but we’ll give it the ‘ol college try at some point and see what happens!

Watch the Video (and subscribe)

Have a look at our quick video to see it all unfold in real time!

Blogger Laura Kampf had great success with her logo but she definitely used a better quality vinyl than I tested and also cut hers with a vinyl cutter. Perhaps the type of wood she uses makes a difference too.

Laura’s logo is a negative stencil and has thicker lettering. Those factors probably helped make it more legible after using the ammonium chloride solution.

We’re excited by the possibilities so we’re not going to give up! Below you can see three other samples we did on bare wood, with a coat of clear coat and with some dry brushed white paint plus a clear coat. All these samples used the same dollar store shelf liner and liquid solution mixed for our logo. As you can see, the last one looks pretty good with hardly any bleed at all.

It’s really hard to say definitively why some samples worked but the logo didn’t! More testing will hopefully help resolve some of those lingering questions.

Lessons Learned Wood Burning with Ammonium Chloride

Hindsight is 20/20, so what would I do differently? Use the best quality vinyl. It may help prevent seepage in subsequent steps, like when we spray a top coat to seal. Also, if you leave the sticker on too long, the adhesive backing might contribute to resisting the ammonium chloride solution. The stickers on the first two were left a few days. The last sample didn’t sit for too long – about a day while the clear coat dried.

I suspect the type and grain of wood factors into the mix! The first board almost looks ‘striped’. My guess it that the liquid didn’t soak into the wood properly because of the uneven grain. On the other hand, the second board appears to have a medium grain and the last board a tighter grain. I believe each sample came from different pallets so you never know what you’re gonna get with salvaged wood!

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I’m glad we didn’t go straight to a project-in-progress. As this test proves, it pays to take the time to make samples boards first. For our next trial, I’m going to do a better job of thickening the mixture and use a better vinyl.

One Small Success with Transferring to Wood

My one success for the week was transferring a (reverse image) paper printout of our logo to wood using a clear coat to adhere it. We spray the front of the paper with the clear coat, then applied it onto the wood. After letting it dry over night, I wet the paper and then rubbed it away.

I’m happy with how well it turned out. Save for the trace bits of paper I didn’t have the patience to rub off before photographing it, and the build up of clear coat around the edges, I’m pretty happy with the outcome!

This image transfer technique is perfectly suitable for images with finer details, like the wording of our logo 🙂

We Love Hearing from You

If you play with this chemical wood burning and/or transfer technique, or have in the past, we’d love to hear about it. Leave us a comment so we can all benefit from the feedback 🙂

Do you have any less than successful projects you’re determined to improve on next year too? Tell us about it in the comments!

Luckily all is not lost because 99.9% of our projects do work out! You can check them out on our Homepage.

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6 thoughts on “Wood Burning with Ammonium Chloride: Experiment

  1. So glad you shared this Sara. We’ve been wanting to play around with Ammonium chloride for the longest time. I’m looking forward to see the improvements you make as you experiment. We can’t get Thicken Up here in South Africa. I wonder how pure cornstarch would work? Or maybe even gelatin?

    • I think those are both great ideas! We can get it, but I refuse to pay ridiculous amounts of money just to experiment 🙂 I just did a thicken test yesterday with Xanthan gum again but mixed it with Inulin (which is a dietary fibre). It took care of the clumping problem and I got the same consistency as the Thicken Up but haven’t mixed it into the ammonium yet. I am excited to try it out to see if it will mix well. I’ve got some new samples drying with clear coat now and can’t wait to see if there’s any improvement!

    • Thank you Linda – you and me both! It’s definitely better as a warm weather project to do outside so I’ll have to wait patiently until Spring – lol

  2. Great post Sara. I did i similar project using the scorch pen and my test project got the same results. When I held the heat gun further away and only did short bursts at a time it worked great.

    • I think that scorch pen is basically the same thing; so much cheaper to make it yourself if you plan to do more projects. Thanks for that advice; when we try our next project I’m definitely going to keep that in mind!

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