Introduction: Wood Burning Lichtenberg Figures

Picture of Wood Burning Lichtenberg Figures

Wood burning can add a unique element to your wooden creations. But using a simple wood burning pen set can be challenging unless you have lots of artistic talent (I do not that's for sure). Wood burning with high voltage is a unique way to mark your projects and add a bit of flair. The Lichtenberg figures are sure to make your piece stand out. Whether the figures are the main attraction of the piece or just an accent, it's totally up to you.

In this Instructable I'll detail:

  • Risks
  • Materials
  • Process

I'll tell you everything I know, but this is by far not a defined science. Once you've gotten the hang of it, feel free to safely experiment with different types of wood and concentrations. Regardless of your familiarity with wood burning with high voltage, please watch Doublereno's videos on Youtube(www.youtube.com/doublereno). He is safe and does an excellent job with explaining his process. Additionally, please read through this whole Instructable before starting so you know where the steps are leading to.

Let's get started!

Step 1: Understand the Risks

THIS PROJECT IS DANGEROUS.

THIS PROJECT IS DANGEROUS.

THIS PROJECT IS DANGEROUS.

Please do not attempt this project until you are fully aware of the dangers and necessary safety measures. People have been seriously injured and killed by doing this. Electricity is no joke, 12,000V and 35mA produces a painful shock and can lead to serious consequences.

Because of this, I follow, and advise you to follow these safety precautions:

1: Do not burn alone. If something happens, it is vital that someone else is there to help you in case you've been hurt.

2: Place wood on an insulated surface. This will ensure that the electricity flows only through the wood.

3: Wear insulated gloves. You always want to limit how much you touch the rig whether its on or off, but when you do, wear protective equipment just in case.

If you have any health problems, a shock of electricity could turn into something deadly. Please do not attempt this project unless you know the risks.

Step 2: Gathering the Materials

Picture of Gathering the Materials

I'll assume you don't know too much about wood burning with Lichtenberg figures, but I'll spare you the science. I'll spell out the process quickly here so you know what the materials are for, but don't worry, I'll explain it in detail when we get to the process.

1: Neon Sign Transformer (NST)

NSTs are used to provide the high voltage needed to burn across the surface of the wood. The electricity from one probe is trying to reach the other probe and burns across the surface as it tries to find the path of least resistance.

I used an Allanson SS1235ICH 12000V 35mA NST. High voltage will create more branches and better looking figures and the lower amperage will help keep you safe.

2: Alligator Clips

These are used to help transfer electricity to the probes and give you something safe to hold. Beware that at such high voltages, the current can jump the alligator clips. That's why its incredibly important to use proper safety measures.

3: Probes

I used brass rod which I sanded down to a point as well as copper coated nails. In a few tests I couldn't tell any performance difference, but many people use brass rod.

4: Insulating Gloves

When handling the alligator clips I used 12,000 volt insulating gloves just in case. I would highly recommend you do the same. Though they can be uncomfortable, they can save you from a dangerous shock.

5: Prep Materials

You'll need baking soda, a table spoon, measuring cup, a mixing cup. And a paint brush, I would recommend about 1.5" brush.

6: Clean-up Materials

You'll need paper towels handy, as well as a hard bristle brush and some sandpaper (between 600-1500 grit).

7: Wood

Of course, you'll need the piece you plan on burning. Before you burn anything nice that you've made, I would find some scrap of the same wood and test the burning to make sure you work out the kinks before charring and ruining a piece you've made. When it comes to wood, a solid choice is Poplar. Most soft woods will work well, but the grain tightness and other factors may change how the wood reacts to the mixture and high voltage.

Step 3: Prep the Wood

Picture of Prep the Wood

We're getting closer to the fun stuff, I promise. But these steps will determine how well the wood burning turns out so follow them carefully.

1: Sand the wood. Once you burn, you're going to want to limit the amount of sanding in order to preserve the detail of the figure. The grit is up to you, but I normally sand to around 800 grit.

2: Mix the solution. Dry wood itself will not conduct electricity, so we have to make a conducting solution for the surface of the wood. Stir and dissolve 1 Tablespoon of baking soda to 1 Cup of warm water. This ratio is flexible, experiment with your scrap piece and see what works best.

3: Apply the solution. With the solution fully mixed, dip the paint brush in and apply the solution to the surface of the wood. The wood doesn't need to be swimming in the solution, apply it, gently dab the wood to soak up any excess. Leave the wood for about 5 mins to soak up the solution. Right before you're ready to burn, apply a light coat of the solution and wipe up the excess, now we're ready to burn!

Step 4: Burn the Wood

Picture of Burn the Wood


BEFORE BURNING, PLEASE WATCH SOME OF THIS VIDEO:

^BEFORE BURNING, PLEASE WATCH SOME OF THIS VIDEO^

This was made by the excellent "doublereno" and though some details in his burning rig are different then mine, his process is exactly the same. If any part of my written explanation is unclear, doublereno's videos are a great resource.

Here's the fun part. It's also the dangerous part so please be careful.

Place your probes a few inches apart, turn on your NST, and watch the figures burn and crawl towards each other. Rest the alligator clips on dry pieces of wood to balance the probes so you don't have to hold them while the electricity is coursing through. Feel free to turn off the NST, and move the probes to create a different branch.

The heat from the burns will begin to dry out the wood, once the NST is turned off, apply a light coat of the mixture to keep the figures crawling at the right speed. Too slow and the figures will be too crowded and just look scorched, too fast and it won't branch. Keep practicing and experimenting to find the perfect mixture and amount to apply. If the wood is too dry, it won't burn. If it's excessively wet, it won't burn. And somewhere in between there's the happy medium where the wood, concentration, and application of the mixture create the perfect burn speed. Its tough to get it right the first time so definitely plan on using some practice pieces.

Step 5: Clean the Figures

Picture of Clean the Figures

Once you're done burning, take the wood to a hose or deep sink to clean out the figures. Use the hard bristle brush and the flowing water to scrub the figures, removing char and showing more detail in the figures. Keep scrubbing the figures until no more char is removed.

Let the wood dry a bit and take sandpaper between 400-1000 grit and sand any burns. Be careful not to sand the figures or you risk sanding away the fine details of the burn.

Step 6: Enjoy!

Enjoy what you just made! Please feel free to comment on this Instructable with questions, successes, or info you'd like to share. This is also my first Instructable so let me know how I can improve for future projects, thanks!

I'd like to thank the Georgia Tech Invention Studio for helping with this project. As the largest student-run maker space in the country, they supplied miscellaneous items, space, and funds for this project. As a student at Georgia Tech, they've allowed me to pursue my passions and create some really amazing things. I highly recommend anyone in high school to look into GT because of the incredible maker culture they have. If this is a project you love, the Invention Studio is a place you'd love to be.

Comments

brad ley (author)2017-12-12

I did this for the first time last week with a microwave transformer. I was building a copper coffee pour over stand and wanted the burned wood as a base. This is so addictive!!!
Can anyone tell me the process for bleaching the wood that the gentleman in the video referred to?
Thanks in advance...

sld7531 (author)brad ley2017-12-12

Wow!!!! Thanks for sharing that looks incredible!

True to fashion I'll default to DoubleReno. The process doesn't look too complicated but provides some really nice results. I'm sure a bleach and then stain would both clean up the figures and bring out the color of the wood. Not sure what its effectiveness is on dark wood vs light wood but worth a shot. Let me know how it goes!

brad ley (author)sld75312017-12-12

Thanks for the quick reply. Looking forward to doing a lot more of these. So much fun!!!

treymartin82 (author)2017-12-07

I gave a really good question for you, I have a large cross section of a tree that I would like to do this too with the burns stretching from the center out to the edges. How would I accomplish this or would your method not work? Another question also, when doing this does the burning leave deep troughs in the wood that I could fill with glow powder or colored epoxy?

bpark1000 (author)treymartin822017-12-07

First problem you need to worry about is when making tree cross-sections, that the wood will split when it dries. The wood needs to be treated with a chemical called polyethylene glycol, preferably immediately after cutting. This is sold by wood working outlets.

http://www.rockler.com/polyethylene-glycol-peg-gre...

If your section has dried, soak it in water until the cracks close, then treat in PEG solution. Soak time is function of wood thickness, species, temperature, and solution concentration. After treatment dry the wood, and cut to final dimensions. Wood will be a bit "waxy" but there is no reason why the high voltage process shouldn't work. Experiment on scrap pieces.

sld7531 (author)bpark10002017-12-08

I'll defer to your expertise. I haven't heard of needing to do that before but you obviously know more than I do about working with cross-sections! I will add that what you say about the wood being "waxy" might prevent the solution from soaking in because its hydrophobic, which may hinder the burn. Like you said though, definitely try it with scrap and let us know- it will be good information for others to have. Thanks for the comment!

sld7531 (author)treymartin822017-12-07

For your first question: yes it can definitely be done. It will basically be the same steps, with a few minor differences. Because you're burning on end grain, the absorption of the solution and type of figure growth(burn speed, depth, branching, etc.) may be slightly different. The first photo in this Instructable has figures on the end grain, and the video I linked also shows end grain burns. It is 100% do-able, just give it a practice run on some spare end grain so you have a good idea of how to make it look best.

Secondly, yes it definitely can. It depends on the softness of the wood, power of the transformer, and how strong the burn is. Once the char is cleaned out, the main channels of the figure are usually deep enough to use some sort of resin. You'll have trouble getting anything into the super fine details where the burn is mostly on the surface, but I've definitely seen resin in the larger channels. Attached are some pictures of resin pours that other people have done.

Hope I helped, Trey- let me know if you have any other questions! Sounds like you have some really amazing ideas, I'd love to see some pictures when you're done :)

treymartin82 (author)sld75312017-12-07

That is exactly what I’m looking to do. The piece I have measures about 2 1/2 foot around and I’m really excited to do this now all I have to do is round up the pieces and parts and make it happen Captain!

sld7531 (author)treymartin822017-12-07

That is so so cool, Trey. Make it happen captain is right!

Be safe, have fun!!

BarbaraP85 (author)2017-12-07

I love this. If the grooves are deep enough, I can see decorative stone filler glued into them and sealed with a clear sealer. Good work.

sld7531 (author)BarbaraP852017-12-07

Barbara you are spot on- a common addition is some sort of colored resin or filler like you mentioned. I'd love to try that with a piece, I'll certainly show you if I do!

charlessenf-gm (author)2017-12-07

Am I missing something?

It appears you show the equipment and finished art, write about the process generally, but neither show nor describe how the burning is actually accomplished.

Also "Wood itself will not conduct electricity, so we have to make an insulating solution. Stir and dissolve 1 Tablespoon of baking soda to 1 Cup of warm water."

I believe the wood is the insulator and the solution is to create a conducting solution - e.g. your water and Baking Soda solution.

"Acids and bases also break down to form ions when dissolved in water. Therefore, a solution of an acid or a base conducts electricity. ... Citric acid and acetic acid (in vinegar) are weak acids. Baking soda and ammonia are weak bases."

sld7531 (author)charlessenf-gm2017-12-07

Charles,

Great catch. It should say we need to make a conducting solution! I fixed that part, thanks.

As for the demonstration, I didn't have any great videos that I took and found the process confusing when explained with words. I'll link a video and try to add some more explanation.

I appreciate the feedback!!

spazhands (author)2017-12-07

I will definitely be doing this to a guitar body soon. This is a really cool effect. Thanks for sharing!

sld7531 (author)spazhands2017-12-07

Sure thing! Can't wait to see how it looks. Make sure to practice on a scrap piece so you don't mess up the guitar :)

jpmarth (author)2017-12-06

Cool looking! Can you apply this to large surface areas, like a desk or counter top? Would be cool to see it on a finished cutting board or coffee table.

sld7531 made it! (author)jpmarth2017-12-06

Certainly! There is a limitation to how far the the electricity can travel, but you can always pick up and move the probes along the same line if you wanted a continuous branch(see photo attached). Additionally, you'll most likely have to apply your solution as you go so the wood doesn't dry out. If you try it I'd love to see pictures.

Because of the char, I've mostly seen them on serving boards. Canadian Woodworks (https://canadian-woodworks.myshopify.com/) sells some really nice Walnut ones, though I'm inclined to make my own :)

Swansong (author)2017-12-05

I love this effect, those look so cool!

sld7531 (author)Swansong2017-12-05

Thanks- If you try it let me know!

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