Fractal burning has killed and could kill you.
As of December 2019, we know of twenty deaths caused using fractal, or Lichtenberg, burning. We only know of those deaths that are reported by the media and show up in internet searches; it is highly likely there are more.
The American Association of Woodturners has banned the use of this process at all of its events and has banned articles about use of a fractal burner in all of its publications.
The reported cases of fractal burning deaths range from hobbyist woodworkers through experienced woodworkers to an electrician with many years experience working with electricity. It only takes one small mistake and you are dead; not injured, dead. Some of those who died were experienced at using the process and some were not. What is common to all of them: fractal burning killed them.
High voltage electricity is an invisible killer; the user cannot see the danger. It is easy to see the danger of a spinning saw blade. It is very obvious that coming into contact with a moving blade will cause an injury, but in almost all cases a spinning blade will not kill you. With fractal burning, one small mistake and you are dead.
This is true whether you are using a homemade device or a manufactured one.
There are many ways to express your creativity. Do not use fractal burning. If you have a fractal burner, throw it away. If you are looking into fractal burning, stop right now and move on to something else. This could save your life.
—Rick Baker, Chair, AAW Safety Committee
Another Death Caused by Fractal Burning
Editor’s Note, American Woodturner, February 2019
Sadly, I have just learned of yet another preventable death from the dangerous practice of fractal burning, and my heart goes out to the victim’s family and friends. We know of at least six deaths from this cause since 2017, the latest being a retired high school art teacher. As with other fractal-burning-related deaths, this victim was using a homemade rig made using a transformer from a microwave oven. But the inherent risk of electrocution remains, regardless of the equipment used.
Many woodturners (and woodworkers) use fractal burning to embellish their projects, despite the AAW’s official warning statement about the dangers. The statement was published in the August 2017 issue of American Woodturner (page 5) and is available on the AAW website at tiny.cc/AAWfractal. Please take a few moments to read and consider this serious warning. Also, spread the word about the hidden dangers of this practice by warning others—you could save someone from an accidental but preventable death.
Lichtenberg, or “Fractal,” Burning: Be Aware of the Risks!
American Woodturner, August 2017
Lichtenberg, or “fractal,” burning is a relatively new embellishing technique that uses high-voltage electrical current to produce patterns on wood resembling lightning flashes. (Lichtenberg patterns were first documented by physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg in 1777; a “fractal” is a type of repeating pattern that sometimes looks like a Lichtenberg figure.) The technique’s popularity has grown rapidly among woodturners. YouTube has many videos demonstrating the technique, and it is easy to find instructions on the Internet for making Lichtenberg burners inexpensively at home.
While its use has been growing, knowledge of its dangers has not. Some of those YouTube videos show practices and equipment that can easily kill you. Use of under-rated components, improper insulation, absence of properly rated personal protection equipment (PPE), and lack of training in the handling of high-voltage apparatus highlight the multiple risks associated with the use of this technique. At least two people have died recently and others have been involved in high-risk incidents, apparently as a result of doing Lichtenberg burning.
As a response to these fatalities and incidents, and based on the recommendation of the chair of the AAW Safety Committee, the AAW Board of Directors adopted the following policy on May 17, 2017:
It is the policy of the American Association of Woodturners (AAW) that the process known as Fractal Burning is prohibited from being used in any AAW-sponsored events, including regional and national symposia, and that AAW-chartered chapters are strongly urged to refrain from demonstrating or featuring the process in chapter events. Further, the process of Fractal Burning shall not be featured in any written or online AAW publication, except for within articles that warn against its use. AAW publications will not accept advertisements for any products or supplies directly related to the process.
The AAW realizes that this new policy may need further clarification as it is implemented. While the AAW may prohibit the practice from being used during AAW National Symposia, it has no direct legal authority over regional events and cannot technically prohibit demonstrations at regional symposia. Further, chapters are not actually prohibited, but are strongly urged to refrain from featuring the process. While chapters are free to display pieces and/or publish photos of them in chapter newsletters, the AAW strongly urges chapters to refrain from encouraging the use of this highly dangerous process in any way. The AAW is an educational organization, not a regulatory body. In matters of judgment, the AAW must err on the side of safety when educating its members.
Why Lichtenberg burning is dangerous
Lichtenberg burning works by passing electricity at very high voltage between two electrodes while they are in contact with a piece of wood. An electrolyte (a solution that conducts electricity) is often placed on the wood to help the electricity move between the two electrodes. The electricity seeks the path of least resistance while generating heat along the wood surface and between the electrodes, burning the wood as it goes.
Electrocution happens when high-voltage electricity enters through any part of the body, passes across the heart, and then exits the body. If you grabbed one electrode of a Lichtenberg burner in each hand while the voltage is on, the electricity could flow from one hand, across your heart, and out the other hand. This could stop your heart and kill you. Accidental skin contact with an energized electrode, the electrolyte, a loose wire, or even standing on a conductive floor can all contribute to conditions causing electrocution.
In addition to voltage, the burner’s level of amperes, or “amps”—a measure of electrical current—is also important; the greater the amps, the greater the risk. Furthermore, the transformer, wire, insulators, and other components used to construct a Lichtenberg burner also contribute to the risks of using it if they are not properly rated. Simply getting a Lichtenberg burner with very low amperage and made from correctly rated, quality components may not be sufficient to protect the user. Even low-amperage current can stop a beating heart if it passes through at the wrong moment. If the burner is capable of burning Lichtenberg figures in wood, it is capable of hurting or killing the user.
This means, at minimum, that the user of a Lichtenberg burner needs to take extraordinary and unusual precautions, including wearing appropriately rated insulating protective gear, locating the wood on an insulating surface that is not grounded, and making sure the user’s body does not come into contact with the object being burned or anything that is grounded. Following these precautions, however, cannot guarantee safety.
In short, many variables exist when using this technique that can make the difference between a safe experience and pain or death. The AAW believes that those variables are not sufficiently understood or adequately controlled for Lichtenberg burning to be considered reasonably safe and therefore prohibits the demonstration of Lichtenberg burning techniques at its Symposia.
Lichtenberg burning vs. other risks
Since woodturning itself is inherently dangerous, some readers may question why the AAW has chosen to focus on the risks of Lichtenberg burning. Woodturning techniques have been developed over many, many years, allowing woodturners to learn a great deal about the things that put them at risk. That learning does not yet exist for Lichtenberg burning, which is quite new. While there are well-established procedures for handling high voltage and industry standards for the design of high-voltage electrical equipment, no specific safety standards exist for Lichtenberg burning, per se, and the use of high voltages related to decorative wood embellishing.
In regard to the risks related to turning wood, most are fairly well known, if not obvious. Few turners are not aware of the dangers of flying wood objects, toxic wood dust and other harmful materials, as well as the need for adequate PPE. The risks from Lichtenberg burning, on the other hand, are largely hidden and the standards for personal protection poorly understood. Incorrect assumptions can easily lead to injury or death.
Lichtenberg burning is not a core activity for the majority of woodturners; it is just one method of embellishing a turning or other wooden object. The AAW does not feel it has either the responsibility or the expertise to help develop adequate safety standards for Lichtenberg burning. The AAW therefore expects that this policy will remain as part of the general safety practice for its Symposia until validated standards and practices are in place.
If you engage in the activity of Lichtenberg burning despite these warnings, please research the technique and risks carefully, consult with people who have significant experience working with high-voltage electricity, wear adequate protective gear, choose your equipment and its components very carefully, and take extraordinary precautions. All of this will not be enough to guarantee your safety but may help reduce your risk.
The AAW Safety Committee and Board of Directors strongly recommend woodturners avoid the risk altogether, by refraining from the use of Lichtenberg burning techniques.
—John Ellis, AAW Board Member and Chair, AAW Safety Committee
—Rob Wallace, Former Chair, AAW Safety Committee
—Harvey Rogers, AAW Safety Committee