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Using Heat Guns with Encaustic 101

Using Heat Guns with Encaustic for Beginners

It’s funny how, once we have seemingly mastered the basics about working in Encaustic, we forget how challenging they were to learn. I’m speaking specifically of using heat guns with encaustic. You experts out there may be smirking to yourselves, knowing, as I do, that ‘mastering’ a tool/device is an occasionally ephemeral glory, sometimes dematerializing before our very eyes, putting into question our own supposed abilities as artists!!

The use of the heat gun can be a fickle, sometimes frustrating, sometimes fantastic thing to grow accustomed to. At my Encaustic workshops, I always introduce its use by stating it is not only the device with which to warm our substrates and fuse our layers of Encaustic, but also my favourite brush, but herein lies the rub: this brush, to loosely quote Dirty Harry, can blow your wax clean off!

But enough of my mixed metaphors.

Choosing a heat gun for encaustic art

Select a heat gun with variable temperature controls, some include various deflector nozzles or pick up an embossing heat tool, it is a gentle heat gun.

How to use a heat gun in encaustic art

These pointers are aimed at emerging encaustic artists developing a relationship with the heat gun as used with Encaustic:

1. Don’t use the heat gun on high
The only time the heat gun should be used on the ‘high’ heat setting, is when you are warming your substrate before the initial ‘priming’ layer of beeswax is applied. The hot air blows at too high a temperature on the ‘high’  setting and with too strong of an intensity for fusing.

2. Keep it moving
Do not hold the heat gun immobile over your wax. It will create crater-like areas of no wax, again, by blowing the melted wax away!

3. Not too close
The heat gun ‘blows’ the heat via a fan mechanism, so if you hold the heat gun either too close or in an immobile position to your Encaustic artwork, you will melt it right off of the surface. I tell students at my classes to hold the blowing end of the gun, set at the low setting, approximately the length of a business card from the surface, thus 3.5″/9cm or a bit further from your Encaustic artwork and keep the gun moving in a slow, circular movement.

As soon as the wax begins to melt again, move that circular action away and to another unfused area. If you hold it there too long (even just a second too long), you can blow the work you’ve created right off of the substrate. I liken this action to the film, Poltergeist’s ghost/spirit exorcist’s statement, “Move away from the light!”, in this case, from the melted beeswax!

4. Keep your substrate flat
When you are fusing, make sure your substrate is parallel to the floor, otherwise, you’ll create bare areas and lumps and bumps of  wax as it flows in the melted state across the angled surface. You can put your work on a surface to do this, or get used to holding it level, as I have.

5. Hold the heat gun perpendicular
Hold your heat gun perpendicular to your surface when fusing, otherwise, the blowing action created by the heated, fanned air will blow the melted wax out of its place, not unlike holding the substrate at an angle, causing the wax to flow into bumps or waves on the surface.

6. Pay attention to where you are fusing
Make sure you have a good view of your surface when you fuse so you can see when it becomes liquid (glossy, vs matte, when dry), thus knowing when to move away from that area and stop fusing it.

7.  Fuse thoroughly
Don’t ignore the corners of your substrate when fusing—fuse the entire layer. The idea is to re-melt the wax you’ve applied to create a smooth surface for your Encaustic artworks.

8. Be careful that you don’t burn yourself
Never, ever, ever – that’s – NEVER EVER, EVER – grab the heat gun by the metal end, out of which that hot air blows! You will burn yourself —possibly badly! I’ve done it. It’s awful, painful, embarrassing and I never did it again – because it really hurt (scabs for weeks, etc)! This is not a blow dryer. I stripped hundreds of feet of decades-old layers of paint with this tool in my last house. Even if it’s cool, get used to never EVER touching that metal end of the tool.

9. Don’t over-fuse
On a brighter note, the heat gun, because of the fan forcing the hot air out of the tool, can, very serendipitously, be used to gently manipulate the wax in it’s liquid, melted state. The air can softly blow the wax around, creating cosmos-like patterning, especially if you’ve got a few layers of translucent Encaustic colours. Gently heat with your heat gun, moving constantly and slowly until all of the striation marks left by your brush strokes are gone. The keyword here is “gentle” — keep the heat gun a bit further away than I suggested for fusing, that is approximately 5 or so inches away—don’t over-fuse!

Do you have questions about using a heat gun with encaustic?

So, there you have it—my verbose post “Encaustic Heat Guns 101”. Now go forth and blow that wax—but not too hard— and be careful!♥

If you have any questions that I haven’t covered, please ask in the comments section below.

About Victoria Wallace

Victoria Wallace is a Canadian visual artist working, exhibiting and conducting workshops in acrylic, encaustic, and sculptural media. Victoria’s paintings reference trompe l’oeil techniques mastered through 25 years of operating her mural and specialty paint finish company in Toronto, which included work for television, film, theatre, restaurants, businesses and private collections across Canada and internationally. Infused with luminance, subjects range from high realism to abstraction; painting to sculpture.

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9 thoughts on “Using Heat Guns with Encaustic for Beginners”

  1. I love the texture that the wax leaves as it begins to cool and I’m still dragging my wide brush. Then I almost “dry brush” my next layer onto the peeks of the texture really bringing it out. How would you recommend sealing/ preserving this so that I may keep enjoying the natural texture that has formed?

    1. Hi Maria,
      No, canvas boards aren’t recommended.

      1. For encaustic you need a rigid substrate, canvas will flex and crack the wax
      2. Most commercial canvas is primed with acrylic gesso, you would need to paint over it with encaustic gesso

      It is fine to cover a wood panel with canvas that has been coated with encaustic gesso.

    1. Hi Maria. If you are talking about those inexpensive rigid cardboard boards with the canvas glued on, yes, you can use them. Just use an encaustic gesso on top of the gesso they come applied with.
      If you want to use encaustic on canvas, you can as long as you adhere the canvas to a hard surface first, like a thicker cardboard, wood, mdf, masonite, etc.

  2. I received a heat gun from a lady this week, never used one before but tried it on a chip bag I had. I slit it open and laid it on a heat resistant mat. And as it crinkled up I could see so many possibilities!! I want to explore many other ideas I’ve had kickin around in my brain!!

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