Monday, May 30, 2022

Fractal Woodburning: Don't Try This At Home—Or Anywhere Else


Some topics are so intrinsically hazardous that one hesitates to write about them, on the off chance that someone who never heard about the subject before will get the idea to try it anyway, despite being warned not to.  I will compliment my readers by saying that you are all smart enough not to do that in this case.  But if you do, don't say you weren't warned.


The topic is something called "fractal woodburning."  Fractals are mathematical objects that show up in a variety of natural situations, from coastlines to lightning bolts to the lightning-shaped patterns called Lichtenberg figures, first described by Georg Lichtenberg, an 18th-century physicist who obtained them from early static-electricity generators.  Fractal woodburning amounts to creating Lichtenberg figures on the surface of wood. 


Now woodburning as a craft is a well-established hobby, and while it involves high enough temperatures to char wood, if the temperature is produced by a safely designed woodburning tool, the process is no more dangerous than using a soldering iron.  I've used soldering irons for almost sixty years and never started a fire with one or seriously injured myself, so nothing in this column should be taken as a criticism of conventional woodburning.


But fractal woodburning is another matter altogether.  An Internet search reveals that the typical fractal woodburner, assuming he has survived, has disassembled an old microwave oven to obtain the transformer.  Then he took a piece of wood and soaked it in a conductive solution such as salt water.  Then he connected one wire from the transformer to the wood and plugged the transformer into a wall socket.  He then held the other wire somehow and touched it to the piece of wood, whereupon a spark jumped around on the wood surface and made a pretty fractal pattern, if he was lucky.


If he's not so lucky, one or more of a number of things can go wrong:


1.  The wood can catch fire.  It has to burn some anyway to make the pattern, and wood has a nasty habit of just burning up completely despite the artist's intentions for it to do otherwise.  This fire can spread to the table, the floor, the ceiling, and end up totalling your house.


2.  Even more exciting, the insulation (if any) between the burning wire and the person holding it can break down.  Microwave oven transformers put out about 2,000 volts AC at a peak current of several amps, which is just about exactly the power used in electric chairs (they also use salt water to improve conductivity through the skin).  Yes, a person with a fractal woodburning set has made their own homebrew electric chair without knowing it.  The American Association of Woodturners has a list on their website of 34 people, names and dates included, who have died while trying to do fractal woodburning.  That's more than the number of people who have been executed by means of the electric chair in the U. S. since 2015.  And none of those people doing the fractal woodburning had done anything deserving of death that I know of, but it caught up with them anyway.


3.  You may actually avoid the first two hazards and live to show your fractal woodburning efforts to others, thus attracting them to this deadly hobby.  In a way, this is a worse outcome than the first two, because burning your house down or dying as a result of fractal woodburning is pretty well guaranteed to turn you off from the hobby and keep others away from it too.  Whereas, a successful effort is likely to give you the faulty impression that there's nothing dangerous about it, and you'll want to get others involved, to their peril. 


During COVID-19, a lot of people had more time on their hands than usual, and perhaps fractal woodburning got a boost when bored individuals stumbled across it on the Internet.  It's hard to imagine such a practice getting established without the Internet, because no brick-and-mortar store or responsible publisher of hard-copy materials—in other words, nobody with anything substantial to lose—would promote or endorse such a dangerous pastime, for fear of getting their socks sued off.  But our ultra-democratic Internet lets anyone who can type and do stupid things tell others about how they got away with it, and so you end up with the phenomenon of fractal woodburning.


Can fractal woodburning be done safely?  I don't see how.  I've gotten to be an old electrical engineer by being very careful around high voltages.  I will admit to having disassembled a microwave oven for purposes other than those for which it was designed, but the piece of lab equipment I built with it was protected with interlock switches and other safety features.  Nevertheless, it did cause a fire inside a metal test chamber.  To put out the fire, I was obliged to use a dry-chemical fire extinguisher on it, and we spent the next two days cleaning up after that little incident. 


If you are just dying to have something pretty and fractal to look at, there are responsible outfits such as Captured Lightning ( which use electron-beam equipment (behind layers of lead and concrete shielding) to create beautiful lightning-like patterns in acrylic plastic blocks.  True, you can't say you made it yourself, but at least you're still around to show it to other people. 


There are those who would say we should suppress information on the Internet that is so dangerous there's no way people can do it safely, including websites that encourage folks to try fractal woodburning.  I'm not sure I would go that far.  After all, there are many dangerous and foolish things people can do with their time, and at some point you have to assume folks will just use common sense.  By now there are at least as many warnings out there against fractal woodburning as there are sites promoting it, and only the most determined self-immolators are going to ignore all the good advice out there against fooling with it (now including this blog) and try it anyway. 


Sources:  I referred to an article in the Washington Post about a couple in Wisconsin who electrocuted themselves and burned their house down with fractal woodburning at  The American Association of Woodturners warns against fractal woodburning at  Information about the power supply to electric chairs is from, and statistics on deaths by execution are at  Texas does not use the electric chair, or else the numbers would be even higher. 

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