Lightning Art




Introduction: Lightning Art

For my wife's birthday I wanted to make her something that combined both of our personalities. She's a bit artsy, I'm a bit sciencey This piece is a perfect marriage of both art and science.

In this Instructable I'll show you how to burn a Lichtenberg figure (lightning pattern) onto wood that can be framed and made into an electrifying (get it?) piece that will definitely be a conversation starter.

This project is very simple to make, but you will need a few things.

  • 8x10" piece of plywood (plywood works best, but any thin piece of wood will do)
  • High voltage transformer (the kind you might find in a recycled microwave. If your transformer IS a recycled microwave, call Optimus Prime. You just want the "hunk of iron with wire coils in it" type of transformer)
  • Electrical plug (also pulled from the microwave...more on this later)
  • 2 Tbsp Baking soda
  • 1 C. Water
  • 2 Alligator clips
  • Sponge
  • Wire brush

SAFETY NOTE: You will be working with high voltages in this project...Safety is a must! Please use gloves, safety glasses, a fire extinguisher, and never get close to exposed wiring while the electricity is on. If not treated with a healthy fear, attempting this project could summon the Reaper. Please be careful folks.

Step 1: Inspiration and a Video!

My wife and I met under circumstances that could only be described as one in a million...some may say destiny. This project was inspired by those odds.

Don't take my word for it, listen to Anthony Hopkins:

This is from the movie Meet Joe Black, one of my and my wife's favorites. I believe lightning struck the day I walked into that store at 4 AM and saw the girl I would one day marry. If you have someone in your life like that, or just want to celebrate the unpredictability and awesome power of lightning, this project is for you!

Step 2: Yet Another Video

Here's a clip of how to I completed this project. If you like this video, please consider subscribing to my channel, Jake Of All Trades. I make videos of my projects, and am open so suggestions/requests.

Step 3: Prepare Your Materials

I started out by cutting my 8x10" piece out of a plywood board I had from a previous project. You can cut out whatever size you like, I just used 8x10" because I wanted to use an 8X10" frame. The plywood was 1/2", but 3/4" would work fine as well.

You don't want to get too thick or too thin though. Too thin and the electricity will burn right through, too thick and you won't get a good pattern.

Next, you'll want to prepare your electrolyte. You need this to give your plank a conductive coating to help the electricity burn its path, otherwise your plank will just sit there and catch fire.

Mix your baking soda into the water and stir it well. Then use your sponge to soak up some electrolyte, and rub that sponge on your plank. Coat the wood completely and evenly, giving it a "wet" look.

Step 4: Microwave Sidebar

Microwaves have a tremendous amount of electronic goodies in them. If you're lucky enough to find one that's being recycled, you've just hit the motherload of things that could burn off your eyebrows. Here's a short list of things I've pulled from microwaves:

  • Transformer and electrical plug (both used in this Ible)
  • High voltage capacitor
  • Magnetron (more than meets the eye)
  • AC Fan
  • AC motor
  • Stepper Motor
  • Light Bulbs
  • Various capacitors, diodes, and switches
  • Sheet Metal
  • Much more!

All you really need is a screwdriver and some patience. Plus it's really fun taking things apart. These parts can be used for so many things, just use your imagination.

SAFETY NOTE: Be sure to discharge the high voltage capacitor with some insulated pliers before you mess with it, if it was charged when it was recycled it may still be charged, and it has enough power stored to kill you. So, be careful. Also, do not touch the ceramic insulator on the can identify it by it's pinkish color. It contains beryllium oxide, a carcinogen when it's in a dust form. If it appears chipped or broken, stay away from the magnetron.

Step 5: Transformer Sidebar

You need to make the 120 Volts coming from your wall outlet stronger, because wood isn't a good enough conductor to let 120V pass through it. Now 2000 Volts, that's got the potential to get the job done. So the electricity must be stepped up by a transformer.

A transformer takes your input electricity, runs it through wires that are coiled around an iron post, this is called the primary coil. This current coiled around metal an electromagnet. On the same iron post, there is another set of coils, called the secondary coil. Because the iron is now magnetized by the lower coil, there is a current "induced" into the secondary coil. Depending on the number of times the coils are wrapped, the input voltage is either stepped up or stepped down. Because the lower coil has less wraps than the upper coil, the voltage is stepped up.

Okay! Back to the project.

Step 6: Set It Up

Make sure there is nothing plugged in up to this point.

Now, Hook up your transformer to your electrical plug. You want the plug to hook into the primary coil, that is, the lower coil of the transformer. If you got your plug from a microwave, it should have spade connectors that will slide right onto the spade posts on the coil. Polarity doesn't matter here, so don't worry about which terminal is positive or negative. Keep the ground wire of the plug disconnected and out of the way.

Next, hook up the secondary coil of the transformer. There will be a spade post on the secondary (upper) coil, as well as the little post on the case of the transformer, just above the looks like a button. Hook up the alligator clips to those 2 points. The other ends of the alligator clips will go on opposite sides of the plank. Position them wherever you'd like on those sides. I chose to put clips on the left bottom side and the top right side to maximize the burnt area.

Step 7: Light It Up

You should be all set here, but just go through this checklist to be sure:

  • Wooden plank
  • Electrolyte on plank
  • Alligator clips on plank
  • Clips connected to secondary coil (coil and frame)
  • Plug connected to primary coil (both on coil)
  • Electrical plug in hand.
  • Fire extinguisher handy
  • Ventilation for smoke
  • Safety Equipment donned.

Check? Good.

Plug in your plug to a wall outlet a safe distance from you plank.

You should see, well, lightning on the plank. There will be branches coming from both clips. They will slowly crawl towards each other. When they meet it will get brighter and hotter. At this point, the electricity has found it's path to make a circuit, and will continue to burn on that path, so go ahead and unplug.

SAFETY NOTE: Don't worry about small flames, that's normal, but if they get out of hand immediately unplug and use your extinguisher. DO NOT, under any circumstances, touch the wood, transformer, or connections while it's plugged in.

Step 8: Clean It Up

Now that you've discovered your new Asgardian power and hit your plank with a couple of lightning bolts, you may want to clean out all of the stray burnt wood and ash.

Simply run the plank under some cold water while scrubbing out the gouges the electricity made. I used a light wire brass brush, but you could use anything mildly abrasive, even a toothbrush.

After the plank dried, I burnt in "Lightning Could Strike" with a wood burning tool to inspire my wife for her birthday.

Next, I decided to sand the surface down with some fine grit sandpaper to give it a more finished look.

To finish up, I put the plank in my 8x10 frame. I had to remove the glass to allow the plank to fit with the backing, but I actually think it looks better without the glass.

Thanks for reading Instructable! I hope you enjoyed it. Happy making, and remember to be safe.

1 Person Made This Project!


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5 years ago

Great Ibledanjiel! I've seen several Lichtenberg lightning figure ibles, admired them, wanted to try them but was uncomfortable d/t being scared of the transformer, but then when your clear, concise, easily understandable explanation and descriptions in this ible came along. I now feel I could do it safely. Don't know when I'll get a transformer but I will definitely be referring back here when I do. Thanks for including the info about all the other parts, dangerous and otherwise, when disassembling a microwave. Great Job, Thanks!!!