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Cecil County Life

Wood-burning artist Carolyn Asti

Jun 01, 2016 09:03AM ● By Richard Gaw

Carolyn Asti uses one of her wood-burning tools.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

The sweet aroma of wood smoke has been a part of Carolyn Asti's life since 1968, when she got a wood-burning kit for Christmas and produced her first cartoonish drawing on wood.

Asti still has that first work, and the tool she used to produce it, but her love of pyrography (the term used to describe artists who work with wood-burning) has expanded far beyond what she could have imagined.

Carolyn Asti grew up in Elkton and has had a lifelong love of wood burning.

 Asti grew up in the Elkton area, when the nearest big town was Newark, Del. Her father, who worked for Dupont, was a musician who conducted and played in his own big band, the Moonlighters. He insisted that Carolyn and her siblings play an instrument. She dutifully took up the flute and French horn from fourth grade through high school, but her real love was making things.

Asti laughed as she recalled how her parents would send her to the workshop at 10 years old with her wood burning kit, leaving her unsupervised. “Basically, I'd just go down to my dad's workshop and use it. I had a bench down there and that's where I did my stuff. If I burned myself, oh well,” she said, laughing.

“I started out doing crafts. In school, I did not enjoy academic subjects. My best things were gym, art, home-ec, shop. That's where I excelled.”

Asti graduated from Elkton High School in 1977, went to a beauty school and worked in hair salons, worked in her father's music store for 13 years, raised two children who are now grown, and started her own cleaning and painting business. In 1976, she did a burned-wood farm scene for her mother, and in the 1980s, she designed and wood-burned hope chests built by her brother, Jeff, for her siblings.

“My sister asked me to copy a lath-work picture in 1986 that she had seen in a catalog,” Asti said. “Making that piece led to creating many more pieces of framed artwork.”

Rather than put together dozens of pieces of wood for a scene, she burned large single panels and then applied three-dimensional accent pieces, giving the works a striking depth and folky look. Several are hanging in her home today, where Asti lives with her other works, including an elaborately decorated wooden tissue box in her bathroom. Downstairs are her band saws and table saw, where she cuts large pieces into useable sizes and for frames. Upstairs is her work table, a large collection of stains and paints, and a wide range of burning tools and metal pens that are heated to create various lines and textures on wood.

The slow, contemplative nature of wood burning appeals to Asti, who doesn't draw out her designs on paper, but sketches them directly on what she's burning. A slip of the hot metal tip means a work can be ruined. Different woods react uniquely to the pressure of the metal tip, so Asti has become well versed in all of them. Sometimes, if she lingers on a spot too long, a flame darts up from the surface.

Asti returned to wood-burning seriously in 2010. When her work was picked up for sale at The Palette and the Page in Elkton, she started making smaller items that took less time to produce – wooden spoons and small boxes that are still elaborate, but easier to sell. She paints most of her creations, making the surfaces look like enamel work.

For ideas, “I look through magazines, or you can use stencils, or do them free hand,” she said. The designs change as she's working, “so I don't know exactly what it's going to look like until it's completed,” she said.

If she gets a design she likes, she creates a stencil of her own so she can duplicate the work later.

A small box can take four to six hours to complete, and a larger project – like a serving bowl – can take far longer. “I keep records. Every piece I've ever made is written down,” Asti explained. “I write down how I did it and the colors I used, so that if I ever have to go back and do another one, I'll know. The first time I'm designing and creating something, I put the timer on. That tells me how long it took me to do it.

“No two pieces are alike. I usually change something in it. I always look at it and think, 'I could do this part better the next time,'” she said.

Asti has just started making burned-wood earrings that have the delicacy and color of cloisonne pieces. They don't require as much time as a larger piece, and as far as Asti knows, they are a unique creation not available elsewhere.

At the beginning of the year, she completed a huge project – an electric guitar that's burned and painted both front and back with her own dazzling design. She got the guitar body from Jim Carra, who used to work in her father's music store in Elsmere, Del. He makes his own guitars, and supplied the Stratocaster body for Asti's contribution. The guitar is for sale online, and serves as a striking showpiece for Asti's ambitions.

She has also started burning and painting designs on leather guitar straps. “Burning leather is just like butter,” Asti said. “Until I found out that burning certain types of leather makes toxic fumes,” she added. “Now I only use vegetable-tanned leather.”

She can also accent guitar pick guards, giving a splash of color to any instrument. The new direction for her work could open up whole new avenues for her, “but we'll have to see where it goes,” Asti said with a smile.

For now, she is busy completing jewelry boxes and smaller items for The Palette and the Page, and Sarafina Art House in Elkton, both of which feature her work. She's unveiling a new website,, that will spotlight her work as well.

“As an artist, I'm always trying to come up with what I think people are going to enjoy,” Asti said. “I tell people I work with steel and fire.”

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email

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