A Burning Desire to Create

In the world of woodburning, Dalmatians and freckles cost more, but bald people get a discount. Details matter and Jo Schwartz, a self-taught pyrography artist from Kansas, can create a variety of subjects with amazing realism. Having no formal art training before taking up the hobby in her 40s, Jo insists you don’t need art skills to obtain beautiful results like she does.

When I met Jo recently, she told me she started off woodburning with a “clunker” machine. After stumbling onto a website dedicated to pyrography, she became inspired to try burning some trees and mountains. “To this day, my mountains and trees are awful,” she said. But her portraits…that’s another story. Learning as she went, she received advice and feedback from the online community and gradually became an authority herself. 

As Jo got a little more versed in woodburning, her completed work started to accumulate. “I never knew anyone would like what I did. But my kids didn’t want to inherit all my projects, so I started showing my work on websites,” she said.

Now, she says, “I love to share how easy it is. You don’t have to be an artist. You just have to find a good photo.” 


In her new book, “Woodburning Realistic People” from Fox Chapel Publishing and now available at Woodcraft, Jo gives detailed instructions for creating perfect portraits, with a step-by-step section on each facial feature, as well as clothing and hair, and how to properly do shading for lifelike results. 

The creative process starts with a good, crisp photo, which she turns into a black and white pattern and transfers to the wood with graphite paper. Her wood of choice is typically basswood as it is soft and light in color with subtle grain and is easy to obtain. Though she feels pine is too “knotty,” she has used linden, birch, maple and pear wood. One could also burn onto leather, watercolor paper and natural fabrics. 

Her mantra of “touch, slide, lift” is a thought process she ingrains into her students’ heads when teaching them how to do woodburning. She always recommends using a very light, almost floating, touch. It takes longer to get results, but it is well worth it, she said. “Because I work in layers, many of the beginning stages look terrible! Try not to be discouraged. Once we add the layering and detailing, you will be thrilled with the outcome.

Jo is available to teach classes, even if some travel is required. She has taught at Fox Chapel Publishing, woodworking events and woodworker's clubs, and even does one-on-one instruction. You can find her schedule and contact info on her website

PHOTO: Greenville, SC, Woodcraft owner Brenda Patterson watches as Jo creates some shading on a portrait. 

A plate project she showed me can be completed with two simple shapes – an “s” and a nickel to make the circle. That pattern is repeated throughout the whole design and is great for practicing and experimenting. 

Another project was a Celtic hearts ring, which she showed me in three styles of completion. The bottom was how it would look traced onto the wood with a graphite pencil. The middle one shows how a beginner might be inclined to complete theirs – filling in each section of the design. It still looks good and can show degrees of darkness, but Jo likes to show the top example to share the amount of detail and variations of depth in color that can be achieved with woodburning. Shading, burnishing and layering in stages, all of which she talks about in her book, are what allow the details to really “pop” on a piece of wood. 

When it comes to portraiture, “It’s all in the eyes,” she said. She begins woodburning every portrait with the eyes, saying if they aren’t right, the whole piece won’t work. Creating shadows and light is done in stages, starting with soft burning, then going darker where necessary.

Calling herself a bit of a purist, Jo prefers her work in woodburned sepia tones and does not incorporate any paint or coloring to the wood. She might occasionally add a little gold in an eagle’s eye, for instance, but typically you will not see color in her projects. 


It doesn’t take much to get started in woodburning, Jo said, which makes it appealing to a lot of people with limited budgets and space.

First and foremost, you will need a woodburning unit. She uses the Razertip system and a small, inexpensive Walnut Hollow burner, each serving a different purpose. She typically uses just three nibs to do all her woodburning. Other than that, most other items needed to get started are probably already at your disposal or easily obtainable – a good light, sandpaper, graphite paper, masking tape, pen and pencil, to name a few. 

Next, get some practice boards and go to town!  Jo’s book teaches you how to create a heat sample, a value guide and a layer guide to show the effect of each of the heat settings on your machine as well as what layering looks like with each setting. It’s a good learning tool and serves as a reference guide for future woodburning projects


Jo’s work can be viewed and purchased through Burning Tree Art on her website www.JoSchwartz.net. She also displays in various galleries throughout the year, as well as selling from her home studio.

Want to learn more? Check out Jo’s book at your local Woodcraft store and ask about pyrography classes while you’re there.

We hope you’ll be inspired! 

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