How To Make Ukrainian Pysanky Eggs (For Beginners!)

Today we have a step by step picture tutorial for starting with pysanky egg decorating! This is perfect for Pascha (or Easter). Beginning with something like this can be intimidating if you don’t understand the process, but this post is full of tips and tricks for beginners so you can be successful right away! We will cover the supplies you need for pysanky eggs, what kind of eggs to use, what order the colors go in, how to get the wax off the eggs, how long the eggs last, and more. Let’s take a look at how to make Ukrainian pysanky eggs for beginners.

Sharing this beautiful Ukrainian tradition with us today is contributing writer Carrie Chuff, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic mom and contributing writer at Catholic Icing. 

What are Pysanky?

Have you ever seen intricately designed Easter eggs in vibrant, rich colors?

These beautiful eggs are called pysanky (usually pronounced in English like “peh-sahn-kee,” the singular is a “pysanka”), the Ukrainian Easter eggs made with a wax-resist method of applying wax to eggs and then dyeing them different colors.

How Did The Pysanky Tradition Start? 

Pysanky have been made in Slavic cultures for centuries, even before the acceptance of Christianity in Kyivan-Rus’. The word “pysanka” comes from the word “pysata,” which means “to write,” since the designs are not painted on the eggs, but rather written or “inscribed” with wax.

Once the Slavic peoples became Christian, the symbolism of the eggs fit so well with the Resurrection, that pysanky have become an enduring part of Slavic Pascha celebrations ever since. These beautiful eggs have colors, symbols, and designs that have specific meanings associated with them. They are usually made during the Lenten season, so that they can be placed in families’ Pascha baskets, which are filled with the foods that are abstained from during Lent. These baskets are taken to church on Easter morning and blessed by the priest. Pascha baskets are common not only in Slavic Greek-Catholic (Byzantine Rite) churches, but also some Slavic Roman Catholic churches, as well, such as those in Poland and Slovakia. (You can find a post about this Easter basket tradition for Polish Byzantine Catholics here.)

Pysanky Process- Don’t Be Intimidated! 

Although many people are intimidated by the process of writing pysanky, it’s actually pretty simple and straightforward, and certainly something you can do with your whole family (though with adult supervision for the younger children). There are some slightly different methods for writing pysanky. If you know of a different way, that’s ok! However, this is the way I was taught over 20 years ago, and I’d love to share it with you!

What Ages Of Kids Can Make Pysanky Eggs?

These eggs can be made by children as young as 3-4 year old depending on the maturity of the child, as long as they are supervised. Our girls have made them at that age. The designs are just scribbles when they’re that age, and of course the wax will need to be melted over the flam by an adult, but it is possible! Our deacon, who teaches pysanky classes, always tells people that young kids should always be welcome to try as much as they can if they express interest. I would say ages 7 and up would definitely be capable.

Here are some examples of eggs my young children have made:

How Long Does It Take To Make A Pysanky Egg?

Depending on the design, an egg can be completed in an hour or two. Sometimes you will work on the egg for the time you have (half an hour, an hour, etc.) and then leave the egg for a day or 2 until you have more time again. You can leave the egg to sit out at room temperature for as long as you need. If you leave it out TOO long though, it will smell bad when you empty the insides. 

Intro Video Of How To Make Pysanky

Here is a video of me going through the whole process in quickly in 1 minute if you would like a little overview. Either way, keep scrolling to see the step by step picture tutorial with all the insider tips you need so you don’t have to go through the trial and error process yourself 😉 

 

@carriechuff How to make #pysanky ♬ Up – Movie Theme – Giampaolo Pasquile

Supplies Needed For Making Pysanky Eggs

There are lots of different tools that people use nowadays for pysanky. I’ll focus on the ones that I use:

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  • Clean raw eggs at room temperature. Store-bought chicken eggs are fine. The shells can be a little thinner than farm fresh
    eggs, so you may want to make sure you’re extra careful when handling the eggs. Before you begin using them for pysanky, make sure the eggs have no cracks or visible weak spots. Particularly if they’re farm fresh eggs, make sure they are washed with water. Using detergents to wash the eggs can affect how well the dyes will take.
  • Beeswax, often sold in small blocks or sheets. This can be purchased online, preferably beeswax sold specifically for pysanky. It should be 100% beeswax, because other forms of wax don’t adhere to the egg the same way, and beeswax darkens when heated, which is beneficial for seeing where it is placed on your egg. Pure beeswax from an apiary may not be filtered well enough; the debris in unfiltered beeswax can clog up your kistka tool. If you purchase beeswax from an apiary or craft store, make sure that it’s been filtered properly! (Dark wax is helpful but not needed; the natural yellow wax does darken when it’s heated.) Here is some good beeswax to use, and here is a dark option.
  • A source of flame, such as a candle. I like to use tall taper candles, and I’ll explain why a little later. This candle doesn’t need to be pure beeswax; the flame is all you need here.
  • A kistka (plural is kistky), also known as a “stylus.” This is a special tool with a handle and a small funnel at the end. These tools can be purchased online. I like to use Ukrainian Gift Shop, but there are many other sources for pysanky supplies! There are a few different types of kistky; a traditional kistka has a wooden stick with a metal funnel attached at the end, and you can find a variety set of those here. Delrin kistky are also common; these do not risk burning the way the wooden- handled ones do. You can see a set of the derin kistky here. There are also electric kistky, which are more expensive, but don’t need a source of flame because they plug right into an outlet to stay warm!
  • Egg dyes. Pysanky dyes are not the same as the dyes used in typical Easter egg kits. They are usually NOT edible, so please keep this in mind; if you empty your eggs after dyeing, you will not be able to use the contents of the egg for eating. Here is the set I like to use that will start you with the 5 traditional colors. 
  • White vinegar. This is needed for adding to your pysanky dyes. The vinegar helps the dye adhere to the egg. You’ll only need a small amount, about a Tablespoon for each jar of dye. You can pick this up at the grocery store or order some here.
  • Jars. I like to use regular mason jars with lids, but you can use whatever you like. Just make sure the opening is wide enough to comfortably add an egg and take it out again, and that it’s not too wide for the egg to stay submerged in the dye. You can get these at the Dollar Tree, or here are some mason jars you can order. 
  • Spoons. This is for putting your egg in and out of the dye jars. Many people prefer a slotted spoon, but I also use regular kitchen spoons, just making sure to be extra careful so that the dye that the spoon collects doesn’t spill, and that I add it back to the jar.
  • Paper towels or rags. You’ll need an assortment of paper towels or rags for various purposes: wiping off mistakes you might make on your egg, cleaning up any wax drips, wiping off the dye on the eggs, wiping off the wax at the end, etc.
  • Pencils. If you’d like to draw a design on your egg, a pencil is what you’ll need!
  • Drying rack. Some people use a small board with long nails driven through it. But you can make do with what you have at home! I use long toothpicks poked into leftover cardboard snack boxes, and that has worked fine for me!
  • Egg blowing tools. These are used by those who wish to empty their pysanky. Egg blowing kits come in different types that can be purchased online; usually they are comprised of a tool to make a small hole in the egg (though I have also used nails or small drill bits for the same purpose) and a tool to blow air into the egg and force out the insides of the egg. A large syringe can be used for this purpose, too. Here is a simple tool you can order for this. 
  • Varnish. You CANNOT use s water based varnish because it will cause your dye to run. I usually get spray on (such as Rustoleum or Krylon) but some people use brush on as well. I prefer a high gloss varnish, but there are plenty of kinds out there. The actual type doesn’t matter too much, it’s just a way to protect your designs.

If you’re looking for a simple starter kit, check out this one. It will get you the basics. 

Beginning Your Pysanky Design

When you begin your design, make sure your egg is room-temperature. Cold eggs will “sweat,” and the dyes won’t adhere properly to them.

Some people like to jump right in with applying wax onto a bare egg, without drawing a design first. Others like to draw their design on the egg beforehand, so they know where to place the wax. I prefer to draw the design with a pencil when I’m making a more intricate design. I’d recommend starting with drawing your designs!

You should draw your designs very lightly with a pencil, and handle your egg very gently. If your pencil marks are too dark, it might be difficult for them to come off later on in the process, and they’ll likely stay visible at the end. If you make mistakes with your pencil marks, no worries! You can gently erase the marks with a little bit of water or white vinegar. However, you can also leave the marks and just draw over or around them as needed; once the wax is removed at the end, the lightly-drawn pencil marks will usually come off along with it.

 

Pysanky Designs And Symbolism

The design possibilities are endless! There are many pysanky design books available to purchase, to give you an idea of the traditional types of designs that are common. They often show you, step by step, how to achieve that design.

The shape of an egg lends itself to symmetrical patterns, so these types of designs are the most common, traditionally. There are lots of different symbols incorporated into pysanky designs. Here are a few:

  • Flowers, which symbolize love and charity.
  • Evergreen trees, which symbolize youth and good health.
  • Wheat, which symbolizes good health and hopes for a good harvest.
  • Other plant motifs, such as vines, branches, leaves, grapes, etc.
  • Animals such as deer, fish, and chickens. Chickens symbolize fertility, and pysanky with chicken designs were often given to new brides, as a sign of the giver’s hope for their new family to be blessed with children.
  • Rakes, ladders, and windmills, the tools which Slavic peoples used for their crops, and which symbolize hopes for prosperity and a good harvest.
  • Crown of thorns, to signify the crown of thorns that Jesus wore on the Cross.
  • Dots, often symbolizing the tears of the Blessed Mother as she wept for Jesus on the Cross. Sometimes many small dots together can symbolize the stars.
  • Triangles, to symbolize the Holy Trinity.
  • Netting, a criss-cross design often used to symbolize fishing nets, as when Jesus said in the Gospels that we are to be “fishers of men.”
  • Sun and stars, used to symbolize life, growth, and wishes for good fortune.
  • Crosses, used to remind us of Christ’s victory over death.
  • Geometric lines and ribbons, often extending entirely around the egg. Some of these are made in wave designs, others with dots and shapes. They often symbolize everlasting life.

Together, these designs make a harmonious, aesthetically pleasing look that also symbolize themes surrounding our Faith in Christ and the Resurrection.

Is The Egg Emptied For Pysanky? 

I will mention here that I was taught to design and dye an un-emptied egg. Traditionally, the pysanky eggs are not emptied. Rather, they are kept whole, and eventually, over time, the contents of the egg will dry up, until only a small dried yolk is left inside. However, there is a risk that the egg will crack during that process, and if it does, you may have rotten egg contents to clean up. I learned this the hard way!

Because of the chemical reactions going on inside the egg as it dries, sometimes the pressure causes the egg to burst. This is likely when the pores of the egg are too clogged; you CANNOT varnish an un-emptied egg, because the clogged pores will ensure that the egg will explode! If eggs are left whole, you can simply leave them with the design unprotected, or rub some oil on the egg at the end. However,
oil does not protect the design on the egg as well as varnish does. For this reason, I prefer to empty my eggs. They are a little less delicate when they are emptied, and you don’t risk rotten eggs exploding!

Below is an example of why I like to empty and varnish my pysanky; this one accidentally got water on it, and the dyes started to run.

Empty The Pysanky Egg Before Or After Dying?

Some people ask me why I don’t empty the egg BEFORE I dye them, and there are a few reasons for that. Firstly, this is the way I was taught! The weight of a full egg will sink in the jar of dye, and the dye can cover it more uniformly than if it was emptied and floating on top of the dye. You do risk the potential for cracking the egg along the way, and that is a downside. However, this is still a risk with emptied eggs, too, and I personally find the dyeing process to be more pleasant and straightforward when my egg is whole. That being said, many people DO empty their eggs before they dye them, and prefer it this way. It’s just a preferential decision!

Pysanky Dye Color Order

The dyeing process for pysanky is a specific one. Because it is a wax resist method similar to batik, you start with the lightest colors, and progress to the darkest ones. Traditionally, the progression of dyes goes from white (no dye), to yellow, to orange, to red, and then, lastly, to black. However, there are many other color dyes that can be used. Usually one would keep to the same color scheme, so that no dyes would clash with the colors already placed on the egg. But there are ways to incorporate different color schemes on the same egg!

Please note that these dyes will stain your fingers. If you’re making them with your kids, you’ll want to be aware of that. Personally, I have found that the dyes don’t really stay on my hands much longer than a day or so, so it’s not TOO bad. But it is something to be aware of!

Beginning The Pysanky Process- How To Use The Kistka 

How to put wax in your kistka: First heat the funnel of your kistka over the candle a bit. Once it’s warm, you can just touch it to the wax, and the wax will basically just melt right into the funnel. 

Place the kistka over the candle flame and warm the wax until it becomes liquid.

Then use the kistka to place wax on parts of your design that you to stay white colored. You will need to return the kistka to the flame in order to warm up the wax as it hardens up again inside the kistka, and you may need to wipe off excess wax with a cloth every now and then as you go along. You will also eventually need to add some more wax to the kistka. 

Be sure not to heat the kistka TOO much; this can cause the wax to come out in globs, which could compromise your design. As you begin the process, you’ll soon learn what you need to do in order to keep the wax flowing at a steady rate! Sometimes it takes a little trial and error.

Yellow Dye

After you’re finished placing wax on all the areas of your egg that you want to keep white, place the egg in the yellow dye with a spoon, VERY GENTLY. This is where the egg can crack, and a cracked egg will not only ruin your design, but it can ruin the dye, too. Usually it only takes a few minutes, maybe 10-15, for the egg to be dyed a nice, rich color, but some people like to leave their eggs in the dye for longer.

You can check on it every few minutes to decide if the color is what you want. The color and richness of the dye will depend on the brand, its age, the amount of vinegar included, etc. Once the egg is as yellow as you want it to be, you can remove it with a spoon, and wipe off the excess dye with a cloth or paper towel.

Now, you will warm up the kistka again, and place wax on the parts of the egg that you want to keep yellow. After you’re finished with that, you will place the egg VERY GENTLY into the orange dye.


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Orange dye

But first, a little bit about the orange dye. Often, orange pysanky dye is considered a “wash.” This means that it will wash off any dyes on the egg that are exposed, and leave behind orange in its place.

People use this to their advantage when creating pysanky with lots of different colors, particularly those that don’t follow the same color scheme. If I want to use the color green AFTER orange, for example, the colors would clash and I wouldn’t end up with green. However, if I use the color green, cover the parts I want to keep green with wax, and THEN place it in the orange dye, the excess green will wash off, and then I can continue down a different color scheme, for example, adding red after orange.

To show you a little bit of this, I decided to add some green to my sample egg. Because it is a very small part of the egg, I just dabbed a little bit of green dye on the egg with a Q-tip, kept it there for a couple minutes, then wiped it off.

Then I placed some wax over the part that is green. None of the green dye bled to any parts outside of the area I wanted to keep green in this sample; however, that’s not an unusual thing to happen. But that’s where the orange wash comes in! If any green bleeds into parts you didn’t want to make green, placing it in the orange dye will wash off the green dye and leave orange in its place.

Red Dye

After retrieving the egg from the orange dye, continue with the process of applying wax to the parts you want to keep orange.

Then, add your egg to the red dye. After the egg is dyed a satisfactory shade of red, take it out, wipe it off, then add wax to the parts you want to keep red.

Black Dye

At the very end of the process, your final color will be black. Place your egg into the black dye, leave it for several minutes, and
then retrieve it.

 

Pysanky: How To Remove The Wax

Particularly after retrieving your egg from the black dye, you’ll be able to see most of your design under the wax! This is the point in time that you will warm the wax and remove it from the egg to reveal your design.

 

This is why I prefer using a taper candle; it is better to warm the wax by placing the egg BESIDE the flame, not directly above it. If the egg is placed ABOVE the flame, that can more easily lead to black soot from the candle getting on the egg. You’ll want to be sure to warm the wax enough for it to become liquid, but not too long so that soot accumulates on your egg. Be sure to wipe the wax VERY gently. This will take some time, as you can only do little spots at a time, and sometimes, depending on how much wax you placed on the egg, you’ll have to do one spot multiple times. That’s ok! Be patient. It will come off eventually.

In order to liquify and remove the wax more efficiently, some people will use hair dryers, heat guns, heated cloths, chemical applications, or even an oven on a very low setting. Those are all possibilities, but they have pros and cons. Because using a candle flame is simple, accessible, and works well, even if it takes a bit longer, it’s what I recommend using for your first time.

Pysanky: How To Empty The Egg

After the wax has been removed and your design is revealed, it’s time to empty your egg, if you decide you want to do so. Some people like to varnish their eggs before emptying, so as to protect the design from the contents inside the egg, which WILL cause the dye to run and bleed if it comes in contact with the dye.

This is fine! Just remember that you CANNOT leave a varnished egg unemptied, or it will eventually explode!

I prefer to empty the egg before varnishing, because I don’t like to handle the egg much after varnishing, and I don’t like to wait for the varnish to dry. Whatever you prefer is fine, but let me show you how I do it.

I add a big round glob of wax to the bottom of the egg where I will make the hole. This helps protect the dye a little, since, as mentioned above, the insides of the egg will cause the dye to run if it gets in contact with it. This wax will be removed later. The reason why I don’t empty the egg BEFORE I take the wax off the entire egg is because repeatedly placing an emptied egg against a flame, then repeatedly
wiping it off, can more easily lead to cracks and damage to the egg.

Then I place a small hole in the bottom of the egg. There is a special tool for this purpose, but I often use a very small drill bit (by hand, not attached to a drill).

This part can be a bit precarious. You may notice that when making the hole in this egg, I made a few cracks in the egg. Oops! That’s ok. Many times, the cracks in the egg can be hidden, or can be placed back together. Don’t lose all hope if you crack the egg here.

I then place the blowing tool inside the hole to try and break up the yolk as much as I can. It’s much easier to get the contents out when the yolk is already broken up; otherwise it can put too much pressure against the hole and cause cracks.

EVER SO GENTLY, use the blowing tool to add air to the inside of the egg and release the contents of the egg. Watch your egg for too much pressure, and ease up the tool if you think it’s about to break. Take your time; it’s not a race!

Eventually you will know when most of the contents of the egg are gone. At this point, some people use a syringe to wash the inside of the egg out with water. I usually don’t do this, and the reason is that I have found the water to be excessively messy. If the egg is not already varnished, then the water will cause the dye to run. So I just empty the egg as much as possible, then leave it on an egg stand for
gravity to bring any leftovers out.

After the egg has dried satisfactorily, I use the candle flame to remove the glob of wax I placed at the bottom of the egg, where the hole was made.

Then, I varnish the eggs. DO NOT USE A WATER BASED VARNISH! This will cause the dye to run. Some people use paint-on varnish, I tend to use a spray varnish, like Krylon or Rustoleum.  I prefer a high gloss varnish, but there are plenty of kinds out there. The actual type doesn’t matter too much, it’s just a way to protect your designs.

As a makeshift egg rack, you can place long toothpicks (they have to be the kind that are longer than average!) into a leftover carboard snack box. This has worked very well for me over the years! Place the egg on the toothpick, then spray the varnish all around the egg. If you need more coats after the first coat has dried, you can do so.

And now you have a BEAUTIFUL hand-written pysanka, ready for display in your Pascha basket!

More Resources:

You can find all of the Catholic Icing resources about Lent here and more ways to decorate Easter eggs here.

You can find more resources for Byzantine moms here

About Carrie:

Carrie Chuff is a wife and homeschooling mother of six children. As a young woman, she spent five years of formation in a Roman Catholic convent of active/contemplative religious Sisters whose apostolate included retreats and catechesis. After realizing God had other plans, she left and later met and married her husband, Derek. Eventually, they both rediscovered their Eastern Catholic heritage and embraced it fully as members of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, a Byzantine Rite Eastern Catholic Church which is in full Communion with Rome. She resides with her family in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania.

You can find Carrie’s charming videos about her time in the convent and more on her TikTok page and you can follow her Instagram here.

Comments

  1. To get the dyes off your fingers, I’ve found that wetting your hands and rubbing with a little baking soda works really well.

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