Even if you’re not interested in learning about the history, the patterns might give you some good ideas for your egg designs.
The word “pysanka” or “pysanky” comes from the Ukrainian word “pysaty” which translated means “to write.” Pysanky is plural for pysanka, so you can have one pysanka egg, or several pysanky eggs.
You can use any egg you can find, though the bigger eggs will require larger dunking tanks for the dye and the smaller ones will require more precise control when applying the wax. Some of the more experienced people use ostrich, emu, or goose eggs, but a beginner would be wise to not waste money on something like that. Just stick with regular old chicken eggs to begin with since they’re cheap and easily obtained. You can empty them out if you want, but then you’ll have to plug up the holes you used to drain it so dye doesn’t fill up the inside of the egg. You might also have a harder time keeping the egg submerged in the dye. Some people attach a piece of styro-foam to the lid of their dye to help push the egg into the dye bath. Others just put a stick or spoon into the bath to hold down the egg. I think most people start with whole eggs, though. This will give it greater strength during the handling process as well.
There is a huge assortment of different dye colors to choose from. Some require vinegar to be added to the mixture and some do not.
nails or brads through a little piece of plywood and attaching handles to
the ends. The nails should be close enough together to keep the eggs from
falling between them and touching the base. They're cheap to buy, though, so
I'd recommend doing that and saving a lot of time and energy.
The kistka is a little tool made from a tiny funnel attached to a stick with copper wire. The funnel is heated over a candle flame. The wire helps keep it warm longer. Some kistkas have a thick metal head on it so that the heat stays with them longer. They generally come in three different sizes: fine, medium and heavy, referring to how much wax they can lay down.
The handle is either wood or plastic. Wood is traditional and recommended for beginners, but plastic can be easier to clean.
Beeswax comes in blocks, sheets or strips. Blocks are generally for the traditional kistkas which you would scrape across the surface of the block to fill the funnel. Strips are generally for electric kistkas since you can easily feed it into the device. Sheets are easier to manipulate since they are more pliable and they can be used for either traditional or electric kistkas.
Usually people use a candle. If you’re a chemistry geek you can use a Bunsen burner. If you’re an outdoor enthusiast you can use a camp stove. Candles are simple, cheap and effective but the benefit of the latter two suggestions is that they don’t leave a carbon residue on the surface of the egg in case you hold your egg too close to the flame.
You’ll need to dip your egg into the dye somehow. You can use mason jars, plastic peanut-butter jars…etc. Jars with lids are most often used because once you are finished with the dye you want to be able to close the lid so it doesn’t spill. You can also store it - dye liquid can be stored indefinitely for use the next day or even future egg coloring.
Dye will of course stain anything it touches so it’s best to use something you don’t care about getting colored, or you will soon have a new set of “egg clothes” in your wardrobe.
Latex or vinyl gloves. Make sure you get something form-fitting to your hands so it won’t hinder your artistic talents (don’t use dish-washing gloves). Wearing gloves will also keep the oils from your fingers off the egg during the process. This oil can act like wax, impeding the dye’s ability to adhere to the surface.
Tissues: You’ll need lots of tissues to wipe the melted wax off the egg surface after all the coloring is done. It can also be useful in the case that you break your egg and you need to cry.
Here are some other things you may or may not choose to obtain. They are non-essential items.
Egg Lathe – (no I’m not joking - yes they actually make these) if you want absolutely really straight lines around the outside of your egg you can use one of these for $50 bucks! You must be pretty serious about this stuff if you have one of these. Of course you can also use a rubber-band around the egg and trace along the edge of that if you want a straight line.
Stands – You’ll want to display your egg in some way. You can use shot glasses, napkin rings, or if you’re making it for Christmas you can turn it into a tree ornament. You can also buy “egg stands” pretty cheap (a few dollars a piece). They come in wood, plastic and metal.
Kistka holders – kistkas hold liquid wax so a holder is a logical option to make sure they stay up-right, but if you’re creative you can just make your own out of an egg carton tray or something similar.
Take a look online at some of the links at the end of this project. There are thousands of designs for your viewing pleasure out there. You need to decide if you are going to draw a picture, use geometric or repeating patterns, or a combination of both. Repeating patterns are good for this art form since it can be adapted to any area of the egg and you don’t need to worry about running out of space as you go around the egg (you just stop repeating the pattern).
Drawing out a pattern for an egg is a pretty abstract idea since you’re trying to put a 2d image over an oblong 3d surface. You can get a good idea of your drawing surface, though, if you do the following:
- Find a string, or twine, or anything that can wrap around an egg.
- wrap it once around the egg marking where the string starts to overlap itself.
- hold that length of string over a piece of paper to get the width of your drawing surface.
- For your height of your drawing surface, just hold the egg over the top of the paper and mark where the top and bottom end.
- Now you have a rectangle which represents the available drawing area that you have to work with on your egg.
Keep in mind that you will be restricted to the mid-section of the drawing area. If you stray into the top or bottom of the egg you won’t have enough room for your design and that portion will come out looking squished.
Once you have your design picked out or sketched on paper you can move on to the next step. It is possible to use a pencil to LIGHTLY sketch an image onto the surface of the egg at this point. If you go this route just make sure you use a pencil with a very hard lead in it. This will minimize the amount of lead that is being deposited to the egg surface and it will be easier to draw very light lines that won’t be visible in the final product. You can see a lead hardness chart to the right. Use a hardness of 4H and up for best results.
Get all your supplies put in position so they are all ready to be used.
Newspaper: Lay down some newspaper where you plan on working and make sure you’re not working on a surface that will be stained with the dye (like a wood surface). If you have no choice, then just put down a sheet of plastic under the newspapers. You can buy large sheets of plastic from a hardware store. They’re used for covering painting surfaces and to seal windows for the winter.
Eggs: You can use already emptied eggs, but most people use whole (uncooked) eggs. Make sure they’re raw, or the egg will be rotten within a week. Take your eggs out of the refrigerator and allow it to get to room temperature before cleaning them. Don’t dunk them in warm water in order to get them to warm up because that dramatic change in temperature may create invisible fractures in the egg shell surface that will make the egg more fragile in its final state. It might also make the coloring texture on the egg surface inconsistent. If you need something to do while the eggs are warming up you can get your dye ready (see below).
After the eggs are roughly room temperature you can start cleaning off the surface with plain water. Eggs should be cleaned in warm water and dried before starting. Don't use detergent or soap. It can prevent the dye from evenly covering the egg. After the eggs are clean you should check for any visible cracks in the shell. If you have a crack in the shell then don’t use the egg.
Some people also choose to bleach their egg. This will get the egg shell surface to become a very intense white if it wasn’t already. This is generally only used for eggs that have a darker shell to them. To bleach the egg use one cup of water to 2 Tablespoons of bleach. Allow the egg to soak until it is white, then rinse it off with cool water and dab dry with tissues. There is a bleach-coloring method, but that will be discussed later.
Dyes: Create your dyes. The dye packets are mixed in boiling distilled water with a bit of vinegar added after it dissolves. Some don’t require you to add vinegar to the solution. Don’t mix them up and put vinegar in the wrong one or you can degrade certain colors. It’s best to just carefully follow the instructions on the packet of dye that you’re using. Cool the dye bath before starting.
Miscellaneous: Set your kistka down on a stand of some sort and lay out your wax to the side of that. Have your candle and drying rack ready to go also. Get some clean up supplies like paper towels in case you spill something. Other than that you’re ready to go.
The method used by most for the art of pysanky eggs, and what is detailed in this project, is the batik-type method. This method is sometimes referred to as a wax-resist process. You see, the wax acts as a mask which hides one area of the egg while allowing the rest of the egg to get colored. You start from the lightest color and progress to the darkest color when dying your eggs. This way the lightest colors are protected from discoloration by the wax applied on top of them. The darker colored dyes overpower the lighter colors so it takes on the appearance of the darker color instead.
You’ll start first with any lines that will be white. Heat the kistka over the flame until the metal is hot. While hot, you scrape some wax from the beeswax block. That melts in the funnel and comes out the point at the bottom. You can heat it over the flame some more if the wax is not melted fully. The wax is usually gray so you can see the lines you've drawn on your eggs.
Apply a bead of wax along any pattern that you wish to be white. For larger sections you wil
Once you have applied all the lines which will be white in your design you can start dying it. The egg is dipped in a dye bath after each application of wax lines for the desired color. Remember to apply the lightest of colors first. Since we just covered up the lines which will be white the first dye will probably be yellow, for example. You can use the chart to the right for a good idea of what sequence to do the colors:
Place the egg onto a big spoon and lower it into the dye bath. You can also use a wire loop made from a coat-hanger to lower it into the dye bath. Easter egg kits come with something similar to this, but it might be too small for you. Let it soak for about 15 minutes. Don’t let it sit in the dye for more than about 30 or 40 minutes since this will alter the surface of the egg.
Make sure the dye has coated the entire surface of the egg before bringing it out. You can move it around from time to time to make sure all the surfaces get coated but it is best to just make sure that it is completely submerged in the dye bath to begin with.
After the dye on the egg has dried you can repeat the process for the next color. Again apply wax wherever you want the last dye color to show up in the finished product. In the example I am describing, the last color was yellow. Wherever you apply your wax pattern to the surface of the egg at this stage will end up being the yellow parts. Continue repeating for all the colors you’re using until you get to the darkest color.
Remove the wax: Once you've finished decorating the egg, you'll heat it to melt off the wax. If you’re using a gas source of some kind you shouldn’t have to worry about carbon deposits, but if you’re using a candle make sure you only get the egg close to the side of the flame and do not apply the flame directly to the surface of the egg or you will apply a dark carbon residue from the flame. If you end up doing this you might be able to get most of it off by just cleaning it with water, but some of it will likely stick. Warm the egg up until the wax is glistening indicating that it is wet. At this point you take a clean (wax-free) tissue and wipe up as much wax as you can. It is important to use a clean tissue each time or you risk re-applying wax to the surface you’re cleaning. Continue heating, then wiping until the entire egg is wax free.
If you have bleached the shell of the egg during any step of this process you may find that the wax is harder to remove. Most people suggest using lighter fluid applied to the surface to help wipe off the wax.
There are other less traditional techniques for removing wax also. Some have had great success with blow-dryers and toaster ovens. However, if you’re using a toaster oven you’ll need to place some tinfoil underneath the egg to catch the wax. Also you need to keep it at the lowest bake setting and make sure it doesn’t get too hot or you’ll burn the wax and ruin your egg. It would be best to just warm up the toaster oven before placing the egg into it so you get past that initial high-heat phase.
Varnish for gloss: It is popular to varnish the outside of the egg to give it a glossy appearance. This will also protect the egg from getting dirty or smearing the dye if it comes in contact with cleaning agents. If you decide to do this you must first test out whatever varnish you are using on a small patch at the bottom of the egg. By doing this you can confirm that the particular varnish that you have chosen will not liquefy and smear the particular dye that you have used. Oil-based varnishes work best for this process and reduce the possibility of smearing. Use a spray-on varnish in a can to get an even light coat. If you’ve never used varnish before – keep in mind that you’ll want to make several very light coats or you’ll risk having the varnish run down the side and leave an ugly streak. When in doubt, just let the varnish dry and add another light coat later.
You now are faced with your finished product. You have an egg that has been colored and cleaned. The next question is this – do you want to keep the egg whole or empty out the insides? The traditional method is to keep it whole, but many choose to empty out the insides because it gives you more options for displaying the egg and you don’t have to worry about it blowing up and smelling up the house.
Emptying out the egg: you have a few options to choose from for this task.
You can get an egg blower from one of the links at the end of this project. Just follow the instructions that come with it.
You can get also use the syringe method. Here you use a needle to scrape a hole in the end of the egg, then break up the yolk inside with the same pin. Then use the syringe to extract the insides.
If you don’t want to get any equipment, just use a pin or jewelers file to scrape a little hole in each end and blow it out on your own. As you are blowing on one hole, the innards will flow out the other hole. Remember to break up the yolk with the pin also. This is a tough technique, though, and it sometimes results in broken eggs if you squeeze it too hard in the process.
Leaving the egg whole: This is a fairly easy process, but it requires weeks to finish. With this method you will decorate whole eggs with all the innards still there. After you are done with decorating, the eggs will sit out to dry. While they dry over a couple weeks you must remember to keep turning them regularly so the insides which are drying will evenly coat the inside of the eggshell. Once complete, the egg will be very light since most of the weight of the egg is from water that evaporates throughout the process. One benefit is that the egg is a little stronger once it dries. After the initial month, just flip it upside down every month for the next 6 months to ensure that any excess gasses built up inside are allowed to evenly distribute throughout the egg. Eventually the insides will be solid so you won’t have to worry about rotating it any more.
While mine were drying once, we had a horrible experience. During the middle of the night I was awakened by a tremendous stench. It seemed to be coming from elsewhere in the house, so I started walking around the house and narrowed it down to the kitchen where my eggs were drying. I turned on the lights and discovered that one of the eggs had exploded (and I mean EXPLODED) leaving smelly rotten egg product on the windows, counter, and floor for about a 6-foot radius from where the eggs were. It was horrible. I cleaned up the mess, but was pretty nervous about the rest of the eggs. I didn't turn them as often as I should've so they got a little lopsided by the weight of the dry egg inside.
There are a bunch of options to choose from for displaying your eggs. You can use a special egg ring from one of the supply links below, or you can make your own out of a napkin ring or something from the workshop floor. As long as it’s circular and the egg fits inside it then it will work. You can also use shot glasses or something similar.
If you want to convert your egg into a Christmas tree ornament, then you do the following:
- Hollow out your egg
- Add a hole on top if not already there.
- Take a small piece of toothpick (one half inch) and tie a piece of string to the mid-section
- You may also want to glue it in place, but don’t use hot-glue or it won’t fit through the hole. Use epoxy or super glue instead.
- Stick the toothpick through the hole with the thread trailing outside.
That’s it – optionally you can glue the string in place at the hole to make sure it doesn’t slip inside the egg.
Alternatively, you could just salvage something off one of those glass ball ornaments. Their tops usually come right off and they have metal pinchers that will fit through the hole at the top of the egg.
There are lots of books available with patterns and traditional symbols for Ukranian egg decorating. Usually they'll give you step-by-step details on which lines to apply first and which colors to use between each application of wax.
Learn Pysanky .com – all kinds of supplies, FAQs, steps, guides …etc
Good site for kits, supplies, books, designs…etc:
The all-in-one shop located in Minneapolis, MN:
This is the largest supplier of Pysanky supplies in the world!
History and Symbolism of pysanky eggs:
Lots of clever design techniques and example images:
Ohio artist’s site with a lot of good design examples:
Wikipedia on Ukrainian eggs – the usual plethora of random info and history that Wikipedia is so good at:
This site skimps on the design aspects quite a bit, but has lots of good design examples:
Good info on How-to techniques and the basic symbols used on these eggs:
Lots of supplies, kits and design examples:
Yahoo groups for pysanky eggs - from the site: “for those interested in learning or exchanging information on both traditional and contemporary pysanky decorated eggs.”
flickr.com group for pysanky eggs (hundreds of photos):
You can buy an electric kistka here:
or here: http://www.polartcenter.com/....
or an “Almost electric kistka” (heavier metal tip for longer heat retention):