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 fish scale 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 size. 

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


  • 16ga Nichrome Wire (available from
  • Zinc Chloride Soldering Acid
  • Silver Solder
  • 3/8” ID Phenalic Tube
  • 1/16” Brass Tube
  • RCA Jacks (for Optima style pen connections)
  • 1/4" Mono Plug (for Detail Master style pen connections)
  • 12ga Lamp Cord Wire (for Detail Master style pen connections)

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 during burning.

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 closer look

Step 1

Cut a 2” piece of nichrome wire.

Step 2

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.

Step 3

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 repeated.  

Step 4

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 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.

Step 5

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.

Step 6

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 burrs.

Step 7


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.

Step 8

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.

Step 9

Shape the other edge the same way and compare your final scale shape to your pattern and adjust if necessary.

Step 10

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 scale outline. 


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 making your own burning pens and start making your own pens for less than $3.00 ea!  


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