Introduction: Woodburning With Electricity

Picture of Woodburning With Electricity

If you have ever tried woodburning, you know that it can be time consuming and rather uneventful. This instructable aims to change that. Let's create beautifully intricate fractals in seconds using high voltage electricity.

In order to create this design you will need the following:

  • Fan
  • Small Water Container
  • Brushes
  • Microwave Transformer(s)
  • Extension Cords (Optional)
  • Jumper Cables
  • Bucket or Stand
  • Electricity Supply
  • Wood
  • Water
  • Baking Soda or Salt

This instructable was inspired by The Backyard Scientist. Click this link for his great video.

Also, I am selling these figures on my Etsy Shop:

Disclaimer: I am not responsible in any way for damage done to you, others or any property. Using high voltage electricity comes with inherent risks, so be sure to wear all appropriate safety gear and never do this alone. This amount of electricity can kill you in seconds. This instructable was created with the sole purpose of educating the DIY community on Lichtenburg Figures.

Step 1: Saftey

I know what you are thinking, why does everyone have a boring safety section in their instructable? I get it, its not fun, but because this project is extremely dangerous this section is going to be one of the most important you will read.

In the words of jellymeister, "Naturally there is a lot of commenting that this is dangerous and you shouldn't do it... But this is Instructables - If you still want to here are a summary of possible risks you should be aware of:

Dismantling microwave: beware that if it has been powered recently (days?) anything attached to the big capacitor can kill you - remove this with excessive caution before anything else. Wiring: Unless you have 10+kV high voltage insulation on your wiring (not just mains) you need to think of your wires as bare copper. The insulation can and will burn through almost instantly. Hydrogen: do it outside and not under a canopy. You are likely to generate hydrogen in the vicinity of your sparky project. Hydrogen explodes. I have picked out the key risks that I think people might miss. Obviously there are many more risks that hopefully are more obvious (like high voltage will kill you if you touch it!). This system has plenty of power to kill someone trying to pull you away if you do electrocute yourself.?"

Please be aware of the inherent risks with this project, and make an informed decision on whether you should try it or not.

Step 2: Power Source

Picture of Power Source

Before we start any woodburning, we need a power souce. Any high voltage power source will work. I got mine from two old microwave transformers. If you want a video on how to salvage a transformer from a microwave, check out this great video. I use two transformers wired in parallel but it is possible to woodburn with only one. I would recommend using two for larger pieces as just one will not supply enough power. I have included a simple diagram on how to wire the transformers above.

Step 3: Finding the Right Wood

Picture of Finding the Right Wood

In order to create the best lightning figure possible, we need to find the right type of wood. Any kind of wood will work, but varying thickness, species, and grain direction will all result in different looks. Through my testing, and the results of the Backyard Scientist, I believe the best type of wood is thin plywood or underlayment. This is because only the thin layer of wood on the top and bottom(veneer) absorb the water solution, creating the burned pattern. Electricity will always travel on the path of least resistance(usually the grain) so keep this in mind when setting up your piece. Going against the grain can create mixed results.

Step 4: Increasing the Conductivity of the Wood

Picture of Increasing the Conductivity of the Wood

In order to allow the electricity to flow through the wood, we need to lower the resistance. This is done through a thin coating of water. Water alone is not a great conductor so we will need to add either baking soda or salt. I choose to use baking soda because of the chlorine component of salt. It is possible for this to become detached from the rest of the compound and create poisonous gas. I have found that using one tablespoon of baking soda per cup of water gives the best results. After adding baking soda to the water, apply a coating onto the wood. Your should aim to have your piece "saturated", not moist. Depending on how much water you add, there will be a different end result.

Step 5: Hooking Everything Up

Picture of Hooking Everything Up

Once you have brushed the solution onto the wood, its time too hook everything up. Connect the positive and negative leads from the transformers to each of the ends of the wood. Notice how the leads are connected so that the electricity follows the grain. A great idea from The Backyard Scientist was to hook up a fan to the electricity coming from your house. This not only puts out any fires that commonly start when burning, but also creates a way to visually see if the circuit is live.

Step 6: Plugging It In

Picture of Plugging It In

Now that all the setup is done, its time to fire it up. Plug in the transformers and you should start to see the electricity burning the wood. It will create cool "lightning" patterns. It is up to you when to turn it off, but I generally stop once the two figures from each of the leads meet. This is usually accompanied by the "main channel" that was burned catching on fire. Above are examples of a woodcarving before they are cleaned.

Step 7: Cleaning and Finishes

Picture of Cleaning and Finishes

After burning your wood, it probably looks a lot like the first picture above. If you take just a few minutes to clean it up, it will look a thousand times better. All you have to do is brush the charred material out from where it was burned. I do this using the flow from a garden hose and a scrub brush. Make sure that you have a constant flow of water over wherever you are cleaning or else the soot will be ground into the wood. If I am going to sell the piece, I will usually use a thin coat of polyurethane over the surface to seal everything together.

Step 8: Get Your Own!

If after reading this tutorial you have decided that its going to be just too much work to make your own, don't worry! I am selling these on my etsy shop! Please support this and help to fund future instructables by checking out my store. Don't be afraid to contact me either here or at my Etsy shop for a custom piece!


pcartier (author)2017-09-26

i had the same issue you have it wired wrong the ground comes off the casing the hot comes of the single lead on the output coil not the two leads side bye side

AdamK137 (author)2017-08-31

I knew a professional artist who did this for years and sold it. He died doing this. Left his wife who was 1 month pregnant. It looks interesting, but if it can kill that guy who obviously knew what he was doing and had been doing it for years, it can definitely kill me. Looks amazing, but I'm not going to mess with doing it on my own.

seanhodgins (author)AdamK1372017-09-24

Same logic can be applied to driving a car. Being careful and understanding the dangers will keep you safe.

JaredD8 (author)2015-11-28

Has ANYONE tried doing this with a welder?

MrMarkinator (author)JaredD82015-11-29

I personally have not. I know that lower amperage and higher voltage makes a better picture, but you are welcome to try.

JohnC430 (author)MrMarkinator2017-07-09

"I know that lower amperage and higher voltage makes a better picture"

does not make sense

AdamK137 (author)JohnC4302017-08-31

I imagine too low a voltage and too much amperage just results in all the wood around the nails burning and not producing the interesting patterns you get with super high voltages.

JohnC430 (author)AdamK1372017-09-01

try using Ohms law and repeating that to yourself. R=V/I

will 100uA to 1mA work

you are burning the surface of the wood. how much power do u need for that?

beeferer (author)2016-07-10

I have tried to do this, but as soon as I turn it on it trips a breaker. Perhaps I am not making the connections correctly. Can you show detailed connections for a single microwave transformer? Hey, thanksabunch!

MrMarkinator (author)beeferer2016-07-10

Before I add my two cents on why the problem could be occurring, I want to stress the dangers involved. If you do not have a background in electricity and/or do not know why simple problems are occurring, I HIGHLY suggest not attempting the project.

Assuming you know what you are doing, there are several things that could be causing the problem.
1. The leads are too close together. I usually have a piece 24-26 inches long.
2. There is too much water solution added. Wait a few minutes for some water to evaporate.
3. The transformer is not wired correctly. If you can upload a picture of your current setup I will work with you to diagnose the problem.

DavidM1449 (author)MrMarkinator2017-08-21

no room for assumption in this situation. don't help him get hurt .

JasonL203 (author)beeferer2016-08-01

For some reason your circuit is pulling too much power. The breaker is trying to protect you by preventing you from melting your wires into a smoking mess or dying. Not only will a small mistake here kill you, but IT WILL HURT THE WHOLE TIME YOU ARE DYING.

DavidM1449 (author)JasonL2032017-08-21

good reply ...its obvious that if someone has to ask then not qualified helping themn is more likely to kill them than not..

Andrewpovah (author)2017-01-12

How come you did not install dead man switch ahead of the transformer?

A simple normally open switch wired on the live/hot 120v wire would save your life if you were to screw up. You have to step on the switch to work the transformer. If you become part of the circuit, chances are your bodies convulsion and twitch would lift your foot from the switch. Which would stop the flow of electricity and potentially save your life.

I am all for trying and experimenting with new ideas and technologies, but doing them safely. Wear your PPE and do your hazard analysis before playing with electricity. Do not become a candidate for the next version of the Darwin Awards.

DavidM1449 (author)Andrewpovah2017-08-21

OK your the Guy who knows how industrial process are done safely...I've seen deadman switches used in all kinds of situations..The only way to make it reasonably safe...You still cant be a non electrician of some sort of real outside voltages to even think you should screw with thi8s shit... And If you don't find that Obvious then ..just go over there and stand next to darwin right? I've watched electricians die Fucking with higher voltages while following every safety protocall anyones ever came up with and the shit still just reached out and grabbed him just like thats what it was trying to do ....your always taking a chance......they should be charging alot more for those lol...

JohnC430 (author)2017-07-09

there are many youtube videos on how to make high voltage arcs. when u watch the videos u will notice that the experimenters dont seem to be very concerned with with either high voltages or high temperatures. these can also be used for this application. so MOT transformer is really not an absolute necessity.

Craig1238 (author)2017-01-27

Good Afternoon, I am presently building a food wagon and have used cedar shingles over plywood over the cargo wagon's metal exterior. It is all glued and screwed together. I came across your "Wood-burning with Electricity" article while looking for a unique design for the cedar exterior. Do you think I could buy a 2000 watt transformer, and attach it to separate cedar shingles to get different designs? What would be the risks? Thanks in advance for your help. Thanks for the idea. Craig

JohnC430 (author)Craig12382017-07-09

so what did u do? it needs 2000 Volts and not 2000 Watts. hope u did not waste money on a 2000 Watt transformer which can be any combination of voltage and current

Arfa Daily (author)2017-07-06

Having read some of the comments going back a couple of years, I can't believe the level of naivety of many of the posters who are considering having a go at this excellent, but extremely dangerous process. To all those asking about using low voltage high current sources such as arc welders as the power source, they are NOT suitable. This needs to be done with a high voltage source. The current capability need not be high. You could probably do it with an old car ignition coil driven from a simple power oscillator. This would be a lot less dangerous than MOTs, which are capable of supporting a couple of amps at the extremely high voltage that they produce. This will kill you. No ifs, buts or maybes. It WILL kill you. Secondly, to the person commenting about the transformers being in series versus in parallel. As shown, they are both. The primaries are correctly in parallel. The secondaries are in series to effectively double the voltage you would get from one transformer. So this will kill you twice over ... ! I'm not sure that I like the antiphase centre grounded approach. I would prefer to see those secondary windings completely floating with respect to any ground. That way, in order to get yourself killed, you would have to hold onto both winding ends. With the centre grounded, depending on how conductive the ground is, and how good a contact you are making with it through your feet, it might be possible to get at least a shock - and maybe a fatal one - touching just one winding end. To the person that asked about a fluorescent transformer, he may be talking about a neon sign transformer. That should work, but also a dangerous power source like an MOT. The transformer-y looking thing in a conventional fluorescent tube fitting (not one of the later electronic ones) is not a transformer. It is an iron cored choke that is there to produce a momentary high voltage to strike the tube, and secondarily, to provide a ballasting impedance to restrict and control the current in the tube once it has struck and the vapour inside has ionised, assuming a low impedance.

JohnC430 (author)Arfa Daily2017-07-09

"I'm not sure that I like the antiphase centre grounded approach." the secondaries are connected with one end to the transformer core and chassis. so only one end is available

XTL (author)2017-07-06

I wonder if an old Neon sign transformer would work better. 8,000 Volts and secondary is short circuit protected so shorting it will not cause a large current draw (magnetically coupled by design). Limited to 30 or 60mA. But probably still works.

JohnC430 (author)XTL2017-07-09

8KV will work. perhaps 30-60 mA may not do it, because the damp wood may overload the output and lower the voltage so u don't have 8KV anymore

michael.stalenberg (author)2017-07-06

This has had some new activity since it came out on the email promo. This is HIGHLY dangerous. At least 2 very experienced people have died doing this work in this way, not to mention the person in the comments who almost died.

Please watch this video to get an understanding of the risks and to see a better SAFER way to achieving the same results.

This is for your protection!

you are absolutely correct, hence the need for anyone trying this stunt to do it outdoors on the lawn or patio (earth ground) and to stay away from the area until power has been switched off; i.e. long wires to the switch it can be reached without accessing the high voltage area.

JohnC430 (author)2017-07-06

ok here is the training. first unplug the power. make the connections. switch on the power. when u have finished burning enough arcs. switch off the power. unplug the power. u can make more patterns by moving the clamps to another area. repeat the above procedure. make sure the switch is far enough away from the clamps. make sure the wood and clamps cannot fall over. everything needs to be properly anchored before plugging in the power and also u must have a switch.

treymartin82 (author)JohnC4302017-07-08

If you were to use your car battery just make sure to have a helper. Your switch would be someone turning on and off the ignition.

But I would suggest that for huge pieces of wood maybe.

JohnC430 (author)treymartin822017-07-09

how would u use ur car battery? for patterns like these u need a very high voltage streaking across and burning the wood i.e. high voltage and also high current capability. ur car battery 12V will not do squat for this application.

treymartin82 (author)2017-07-08

I've seen many different ways to make these but what is the best way to make the "lightening" go deeper into the wood and what would be the better kind of wood to maybe do that with?

rrb6699. (author)2017-07-07

can you show a video link? I'd like to see what it looks like while its happening. I may not have time to do this.

mindsurge (author)2017-07-06

Will this work using a car battery charger?

XTL (author)mindsurge2017-07-06

no thats 12 V - you need thousands of volts.

MichelleGriffith (author)2017-07-06

Would a car battery work?

JohnC430 (author)2017-07-06

an arc welder will not do this. the MOT is about 2KV and the arc welder is about 35V. these patterns are because the high voltage arcs across the wood. it has been made highly conductive and the arcing is like lightning. if u try to use a low voltage it will follow the pattern of ur hand which cannot make these random trace patterns.

ActionTekJackson (author)2016-08-23

No one ever did answer if a hobby Arc welder would be sufficient for such. would this indeed work?

I believe an arc welder would work, but wouldn't give a detailed pattern such as shown in the pictures. I would go for it, but only if you know what you are doing. As many comments have stated, this project is very dangerous and should not be attempted by an untrained person.

ldubia (author)MrMarkinator2017-07-06

There is NO TRAINING available.

RussellP32 (author)MrMarkinator2017-07-06

See my above comment as to why the Arc welder would nto work much at all.

reflektor (author)MrMarkinator2016-09-02

Isn't an arc welder only a few volts? You need high voltage to create these patterns. I'm pretty sure it wouldn't work. The wood has high resistance, when welding you have very low resistance. Two different applications.

The Arc welders do exactly opposite if the transformers. The Voltage is reduced, while the Amperage is increased. What the transformers are for is to produce higher Voltage. The Amps are actually what kills people. As for the idea of danger, anyone wanting to do this should actually figure it as dangerous, so have a switch on the power cord, to the fan, from the plug in. Do not turn on the switch until the system is assembled. That was one can be basically at a distance from the unit when they activate it.

As for the danger of transmitting the charge though the feet from standing there, you could get a rubber mat at the Harbor Freight store, like the mechanics use, for working on concrete to have a cushion. They are not expensive.

Yeah like switch said, the amperage is just waaaaay too high, MOTs are only a couple amps with 4 - 6 capacitors added, its more the voltage as well

So I set out to use my dads 225-Amp welder to put this to rest.
At this high of a current you simply blow up 2'x4's.
Be careful...

ldubia (author)2017-07-06

Very good instructable. These are becoming quite popular.

One thing to remember when using this type of item is safety. Two people have died using something similar to this. If you get shocked, you die and can OT be revived because the amount of amperage being pushed through your heart will fry it..

That being said, I also have one of these I have made from a neon sign using 15,000 volts. The usable range is from 12,000 to 15,000 volts output. Make sure the probes (part that touches the wood) are held there without your interference.

The lichtenburg figures (lightening pattern) can be really dramatic. It takes some experimenting to find what works for each person, wood, and solution/mix.

Have fun but be extrremely careful.

sundell1951 (author)2017-01-24

How about making a list and diagram of the project using NEW parts that one could buy at RadioShack to minimize the risk inherent in your project?

RobPaige (author)sundell19512017-07-06

RadioShack (assuming you can still find one) doesn't carry transformers powerful enough.

circumlocutus (author)RobPaige2017-07-06

ha, you'd be lucky to find a radio shack that carried simple resistors.

Stevens Workshop made it! (author)2017-06-25

I had a go at this using a microwave transformer. Great fun and great results... Very dangerous !!!

mukasas (author)2017-04-29

Really this is educative interesting demonstration to me and entire world thanks

About This Instructable




Bio: Etsy Shop with custom woodburnings:
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