I am never happier than when I have time to explore my favorite passions of wood carving, whittling, wood turning and wood burning. That’s because I love searching for ideas and technologies to share with friends here. However I felt a jolt like electricity traveling up my spine when I stumbled over a report detailing just how dangerous fractal wood burning really is. Did you know there have been a significant number of fractal wood burning deaths?
Are Lichtenburg and Fractal Wood Burning the Same Thing?
Yes they are. German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was working with primitive electrical devices in the year 1777 when he discovered patterns of electrical discharge. He learned to sprinkle powdered materials over them, so he could etch the pattern onto a sheet of paper. If you played with a magnet and iron filings at school then you know what it’s about at a basic level.
Brief History of Lichtenberg Wood Burning
- 18th Century Physicist, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) creates the first “dust particle figures”.
- Georg uses electrically charged resin plates in his laboratory and passes excessive voltage over the plates
- Observes “Lichtenberg Burning” patterns formed from the excess voltage discharging across, or through the plates (insulating materials called dielectrics in physics)
- The patterns are not “true fractals”. True fractals are precise mathematical patterns discovered by Benoit Mandelbrot much later in 1975. 200 years later! The lichtenberg burning patterns do indeed have a very similar tree-like or lightning structure to fractals.
- Did you know Georg Lichtenberg’s experiments formed the basis for the inception of the Xerox copy machine?
Did you know Lichtenberg Wood Burning is incredibly dangerous and many people have died attempting it? This is what happens when a bolt of electricity has burned your skin. The one below is from a lightning strike. Same stuff, electricity at high voltage.
Birth of Pyrography: Mother of Lichtenberg Wood Burning
The general idea of burning impressions into wood is actually nothing new. In fact, there is evidence Ancient Egyptians and some African tribes practiced the technique early in known human history. Hot pokers, even sunlight through a magnifying glass can create images in woods such as sycamore, bass, beech and birch.
However Amateur Lichtenberg Fractal Burning is Dangerous
The report into the dangers of fractal wood burning we mentioned earlier, appeared in the Journal of Burn Care and Research on March 30, 2020. The authors described injuries suffered by an amateur after they trialed lichtenberg wood burning using a discarded microwave cooker.
However, low voltage fractal wood burning with a car battery may be safer. Consider this aspect carefully when you consider a Lichtenburg wood burning machine for sale on sites like ETSY or Amazon.
However, the unfortunate person in the medical report suffered a 2,000 volt shock from their ‘lichtenburg machine’. This delivered ‘full-thickness electrical burns to their neck, chest, and bilateral upper extremities’, as it followed lines of least resistance internally. Multiple surgeries followed to restore their appearance to a semblance of normality.
But They Were Not the Only Victim of Electric Wood Burning
The researchers who prepared the report in Journal of Burn Care and Research, decided to find out whether this was an isolated incident. To their horror they discovered another 21 incidents simply by scrolling through news reports.
- There were 17 deaths (80.1%) and four serious injuries (19.9%).
- The incidents occurred over three years (July 2016 to July 2019).
- The victim’s ages ranged from 17 upwards. Most were males under 50.
Three of the survivors had significant upper extremity injuries leaving them scarred for life. Two of them suffered cardiac arrest resulting in permanent damage to their hearts.
The researchers ended their report by observing fractal wood burning is associated with devastating high-voltage electrical injuries and death. Prevention efforts should be focused on the potential risks of this art form,’ they recommended strongly.
Do we have your attention now? No? Then read on….. other reports we found during our research suggested more than 60 people in 2019 alone, had died from practicing electrical wood burning around the world. That’s one year and alot of electrocutions and painful burns. Can you imagine how many more are severely injured each year worldwide?
Furthermore, some of these fractal wood burning deaths were from wood working experts. Worse still, one death was a professional electrician with 10+ years of experience.
What are the Major Causes of Death from Lichtenberg Wood Burning?
The research studies and news articles we reviewed on the incidents of fractal burning fatalities had these most common factors:
- Fractal Burning Machines with poor manufacture or amateur builds
- No or poor use of Personal Electrical and Burning Safety Equipment
- Not enough knowledge, experience and/or training with High Voltage Equipment
- Accidents. No doubt with any combination of the above as contributing factors.
- Use of Microwave Transformers
- Use of Neon Sign Transformers (often reported as being safer, this may be a reason why only 10% of the deaths are with these)
That’s why I posted this article to alert you to the possibility of high voltage fractal wood burning deaths. I dedicate the rest of this post to exploring one of my favorite hobbies, safe wood burning art AKA pyrography which I encourage you to try.
Are Lichtenberg Machines Legal in U.S. UK and Canada?
Government regulations generally control electrical networks in buildings wired directly to mains supply. Hence plug-in devices generally fall outside these rules, although there are consumer standards. However, the internet exists outside of this network, and you have to rely on the reputation of supplier and brand.
- The American Association of Woodturners banned fractal burning on its website after hearing of several fractal wood burning deaths.
- The Association of Woodturners of Great Britain decided not to promote the practice because there are no safety standards.
- Electrical Associations in Canada are following Ontario’s warning it is extremely dangerous to use high voltage lichtenburg generators.
How Do You Burn Lichtenburg Wood Safely?
As we have seen above, the core problem lies with the high voltage of some equipment and the skills (or lack of) of the user in high voltage environments. However, a fractal wood transformer might make lichtenburg wood burning safer, without the risk of a fractal wood burning death. That way you could be able to produce stunning fractal wood burns so gorgeous your friends queue up to find how you did it.
Based on the feedback from our readers, and additional research, we do have these safety tips. If you don’t know why these are potentially safer practices, you’re not ready to do fractal wood burning:
- Consider a metal electrical table work surface with it’s own stray charge return clamp to the fractal machine generator.
- Don’t hold the probes directly with your hands. Even if they are PVC insulated, don’t do it while the power is on.
- Use dual safety switches. A finger operated hand held safety switch AND a foot operated power cutout.
- Use High Voltage Wires on the High Voltage side of the transformer.
What is Needed For Lichtenburg Wood Burning?
Would you like to give safer fractal wood burning a try? If so we recommend the following tools and materials as a starting point:
- Safety training with high voltage equipment from an accredited professional like these courses from General Electric.
- Non-conductive working surface OR a metal table with a charge return clamp to the fractal machine generator (If you’re an electrical engineer you’ll perhaps understand why either may be a better choice)
- Electric or MIG Welding gloves,
- electrical insulated rubber safety footwear
- electrical welder face mask with balaclava or hood and a leather welding apron
- A commercial lichtenburg wood burner with safety certificate. We strongly recommend one with two (dual) safety switches. A power cutoff foot switch and a hand held momentary safety switch.
- Two table spoons of baking soda mixed per quart of water (although experimentation is needed here as it depends on alot of factors)
Do not attempt to modify or adapt the word burner. Arrange your work with the probes safely in their stands, and the foot controller on the floor below. Spread the liquid solution across the wood lightly with a paint brush.
Experiment with the electrical probes until you have the desired effect. Unplug the electrical burner before you remove your welding gloves, insulated rubber shoes and face mask.
What is the Best Wood to use for Lichtenberg Fractal Wood Burning?
Whilst any wood can be used to create your fractal wood art, your choices will largely depend on how you want your lictenberg pattern to appear in the end product.
Best Wood for a High Contrast and Fine Hair-threads in the fractal?
- Plywood (veneer grade)
- Particle Board (high density)
- Any wood with light colour and tight grain’
These wood choices won’t produce the fine fractal detail in the burn of those above:
- Green wood
- High moisture content (above 15%)
Where to buy a Good Fractal Wood Burning Kit?
The highest quality Fractal Wood Burning Kit we have used is the Deluxe Products 2021 model designed by Donald Wehmeyer. As we understand it, Donald is a PhD in Electrical Engineering with extensive experience both in High Voltage Equipment. He also has an extensive commitment to “safety first” when it comes to Lichtenberg wood burning and his customers.
Donald has a wide range of equipment from complete fractal burning machines and kits to spare parts for the safety conscious enthusiast.
Now, if you really want to go the Amazon route to build your own fractal wood burning machine, then checkout the range from Coolneon. They don’t sell it as a complete kit at the time of writing, but it is easy to see how you can assemble it from the parts below:
Pair these with some copper rods:
Add, say a Foot Switch for your safety (please make sure you know what you’re doing and please be highly trained);
Grab yourself a Neon Sign Transformer like the one below. Remember, we don’t advise this as 10% of deaths are from using these neon transformers, remember?
Grab some of the electrical insulated safety gloves. Please know these won’t protect you if you don’t know what you are doing and haven’t had high voltage training. People die doing this!
Ok, so we’ve given you enough to get you started. Again, please just go and buy the complete lichtenberg burning kit from Donald shown above. And get some training in high voltage. If you do survive, please send us some pictures of your art in the comments section.
Wood Burning Art Versus Fractal Wood Burning
Fractal wood burning is random, aggressive, and can be downright dangerous in terms of the evidence we found. Wood burning art AKA true pyrography appeals to our creative instincts instead. It is safe fun provided you take sensible precautions.
We have loads of examples and guides showing how you could start doing wood burning art safely and quickly. Catch up on neat ideas for Christmas gifts here. Follow your heart with crazy animal ideas while having fun. And when you are really flying after leaving fractal wood burning behind, how about something as ambitious as this following the wood grain.
Mike Bishop says
All people that die or get injured from this do so because they are doing one of the following:
-Holding the probes with their hands – Never do this
-Ground the high voltage transformer – Which creates a high voltage potential between the HV transformer output and ground, ie through your leg
– Place your work on an electrically isolated surface
– Wear rubber sole shoes
– Use HV wires on the HV side of the transformer
– Utilize a momentary finger operated contact switch
Excellent advice Mike. Thankyou so kindly for taking the time to respond to inform our other readers.
It sounds like you have significant personal experience with the Lichtenburg HV wood burning method?
J Scott says
Confused!! Only the first item seems to be something that should not be done. Others appear to be things you Should do. Explain please.
Phil D says
I thought the same thing, but the first 2 are DO NOTs, the rest are MUST DO..
With regard to the transformer, if it’s grounded, then a potential for an electrical circuit could be made to ground through the person. Without the grounding, then the current can only flow through from one terminal to the other, hence the person must grab both ends to get a shock. Typical practice for an isolation transformer.
Don’t hold the probes directly with your hands, should be very obvious, if you don’t understand why this is a bad idea, just immediately give up on the idea of this.
Grounding the transformer has both good and bad effects depending on the circumstances, obviously grounding home electronics is good in most cases, if something goes wrong internally it provides a path to ground that isn’t you or your home, however this is an external use of electricity and as Mike pointed out tying the transformer to ground ensures that the voltage difference is a difference from ground (which you are presumably standing on) whereas if the transformer were electrically isolated from ground then the voltage it produces *might* be less dangerous to the user, if they were to be electrocuted. This was something we did during my electrical engineering classes when working with higher voltages in the lab. The basic idea is that the electrical difference in the generator is one thing, but ground is a common reference point for connected electronics, i.e. ground to 200V is 200V but in an ungrounded transformer that 200V may actually be generated as -110V to +90V relative to ground. It’s not necessarily that exact range, but the idea is if you get shocked it isn’t a guaranteed 200V flowing through you to the ground.
Placing the work on an electrically isolated work table ensures that the easiest path for stray charge is THROUGH YOU rather than say through a metal table to elsewhere. A metal table with it’s own return clamp would more easily allow a stray charge to pass through it and back to the generator rather than through you to ground. …or say through part of your arm then into the table you are leaning on rather than all the way through you to ground, it’d still make for a bad day, but a shock just passing through an arm is better than your whole body.
Using a finger operated switch, whether part of the generator or not, puts you in close contact with electrical circuits and if you are still holding one of the probes, close contact might be close enough for that HV charge to jump across, then you end up providing a path for electricity to flow…through you…to elsewhere.
As for the shoes and wires things, I’m not certain. The wires thing certainly sounds like a good idea, I’ve never worked with HV generators so I’m sure of the reasoning, that said, I would guess it has something to do with creating short circuits from things accidentally touching. On the other hand, I totally don’t get the shoes thing, unless they mean wearing “rubber” soled sports shoes instead of actual electrically isolating shoes?
I have a neighbor who wants to start a business out of his home making fractal wood-burning crafts. Should I be concerned about the noise made by preparing the wood and the particles floating about. Also is there the potential for him to start a fire?
thanks for reading and your question.
Noise? It depends on the workshop construction, the materials being used and the machinery used to create. And your distance from the workshop area. If you’re close you might hear the process, but it is generally quite short and not incredibly loud in most cases.
Particulates? Mostly not, although it will depend on the wood and if any chemical treatment has occured.
Fire is most certainly a risk and people have died using the technique. From every case I’ve seen, they were poorly informed and didn’t follow strict safety practices. It certainly can be very dangerous. Again it will depend on the expertise and safety practices of your neighbour.
I know this sounds like an “it depends” answer. And it is. There are just so many different ways this could go right, and wrong.
Good luck. Perhaps examine your local municipal safety codes for businesses like this from home?
Goober Mcbrandon says
The famous last words of any redneck: ‘ hey y’all, watch this’
What about radiation
Does it put off any?
Like when you’re inside a metal shed or something, wouldn’t that be like a big microwave