Woodburning With Electricity

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Introduction: Woodburning With Electricity

About: Etsy Shop with custom woodburnings: https://www.etsy.com/shop/ElectricalWoodburing

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: https://www.etsy.com/shop/ElectricalWoodburing

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: Safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

6 People Made This Project!

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193 Discussions

my best friend past away a week ago because of his complacency with high voltage. I recommend not to do it unless all proper PPE is worn and a clear understanding of how electricity works. You guys don't be the next victim to fractal burning. Know the do and don't and remember don't be "shocked" if u make a mistake..because it will be your last.RIP Aaron Phillips

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.

3 replies

I personally prefer the grounded center, because it allows a build where I can engage 1 or 2 transformers, depending on the size of the burning. With 1 transformer, I work between ground and one hot. With 2 transformers, I work with both hots. My setup is fully encased and a fair bit more complicated than this setup, and makes this a matter of flipping switches and changing a connection on a panel.

I've seen video of NSTs working fine for this, and their maximum current is much lower (and their voltage is higher), making them slightly less dangerous. So yeah, totally on regarding that.

"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

You can detach the ends from the cores, attach connectors or a longer wire, and epoxy or glue them down right on the coil insulation. I did it in my build.

let me tell you this. when doing it pay attention do NOT have any distractions.... i was burning a table leg for my Daughter in college . the wife called i set the cord down and took the call in the mean time the clip came off one side, i finished the call and saw that the burn was stopped so i grabbed the clip to put it back on and start the burn again but i totally forgot is was still plugged in. when i grabbed the wood and it completed the ground bammmmmm that shit hurt and i am glad to be here to tell you all this be very careful, i have since added a foot pedal and put the leads on pvc pipe with spikes tio touch the wood and added rubber bicycle handle grips and i use rubber gloves . :)

1 reply

A pedal/deadman switch was one of my first additions I made when designing my HV power supply (for burning and other things). Smart choice.

My Grandson, a certified electrician, was killed on March 4, 2018 leaving a wife and three small children while doing this. This should be taken off of Utube. He knew what he was doing. Young people will watch this and think it looks great and will try it and ultimately be killed I will work in every way that I can to have this banned. Be responsible and take it off.

1 reply

I'm sorry to hear about your grandson's passing. My condolences. It is why this is considered dangerous. It is also a good reminder to take extensive safety precautions, and to build safer equipment. This is why more information about safety is important.

HV electricity is always potentially lethal.

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Frank TB

Question 3 months ago

I've gotten into fractal burning
recently and have produced some nice burn patterns. I'm using a
baking soda/water solution as a conduit and have noticed a grayish
discoloration on the wood from this. Has anyone else had this problem
and what have you done to correct it.

1 more answer

Some woods take on a somewhat greenish tinge from a chemical change that can't be avoided, but can be sanded down some. The burning creates carbon. Both spreading more solution on and washing it off with water and a scrub brush can spread this and even embed it deeper in the wood grain. Reusing a brush without cleaning makes this worse. Same with using dirty water. Some types and roughness of wood just suck up the dirt carbon too well to avoid this much.

One alternative to using water and a scrub brush is to use a wire brush and an air compressor or vacuum. I've had varying success with this method.

This is incredible!! I have a coffee table that this technique would just be perfect for. Unfortunately, I am a big chicken when it comes to electricity. Too much "magic" going on for me. Very beautiful pieces and each one unique. Keep up the good work and please be careful.

1 reply

I've done some table tops, and they look amazing. Solid wood table tops can burn deeply, then be filled with epoxy to give you the beauty and a flat surface.

That said, if you don't feel safe or informed about the workings of electricity, you're making a smart decision. I initially made my equipment (with a LOT more safety features than this design) because a friend was interested in this, but not comfortable with electrical work. Better safe than in cardiac arrest!

You sure can. Some types of wood work better than others. Some, like oak, will change color after being washed with baking soda and electrified, even on parts that don't burn. Cedar burns nicely. The roughness of the wood drastically changes how a piece will burn.

ok my son has a 20.000 volt welder? can it be used in a fractile burn?

This a technique I've literally never heard of, but sounds like something that'd blow my face off. In other words, EPIC!!!

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

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.

1 reply

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