Using high voltage electricity to burn Lichtenberg figures, sometimes called fractal patterns, in wood is an unusual and interesting hobby that's easy to do and amazes everyone who sees it. This page provides all the information needed to get started.
Connect two high voltage wires to a piece of wood, paint it with a little salt solution, turn on the power and anyone can create images like the following:
While it sounds simple, the fact is that there are many interrelated variables that can make getting consistent results frustrating. What power supply works best? Which wood produces the best results? How much conduction solution should be used? How do different electrolytes compare? What concentration ratio works best? How can arcs be controlled to produce the best images?
Fortunately, this page provides answers to all those questions, so let's get started!
The two most common power supplies used for burning Lichtenberg figures into wood are neon sign transformers and microwave oven transformers. Both are plugged directly into standard house current and step up the voltage into a useful range.
On the left is a 12,000 volt neon sign transformer and on the right a 2,000 volt microwave oven transformer.
Both of these transformers produce voltages and currents sufficient to kill someone. Safety procedures must be carefully followed or a fatal accident can happen. As a minimum, I recommend the following:
1. Never work alone. Always have someone watching that can get help if you get shocked.
2. Always wear insulated footwear and gloves.
3. Always check and then double check that the transformer is disconnected before touching a lead. Do not trust switches. It's too easy to forget to turn one off. Always disconnect the transformer by unplugging it.
4. Most important of all: Always, ALWAYS, use only one hand when touching a lead. Even if you know the transformer is unplugged still follow this rule. Your other hand should be carefully tucked behind your back. If a mistake is made and only one hand is touching a hot wire, that hand may be burned but the current is less likely to travel through your heart, which it could easily do if you grabbed a lead in each hand.
I found I got better results using the higher voltage neon sign transformer. It is also easier to use because it comes wired and ready to go. Microwave oven transformers have to be rewired to work. It's also considerably safer. In the following image, the current forming Lichtenberg figure is allowed to make contact all the way across the piece of wood:
All that happens is that a glowing red channel forms.
On the other hand, look at what occurs when the same thing happens using the higher current microwave transformer:
As the two paths get close a large arc jumps the gap between them...
...and the entire length of the conduction path explodes in flame. The board can catch on fire and the short circuit can blow fuses or trip circuit breakers. Clearly, the neon transformer is the better way to go, which is fortunate because it also produces better looking fractal patterns.
In the image above, the fractal pattern on the left was created by the neon sign transformer, the one on the right by a microwave transformer. The one one the left shows more detail and is more interesting. It looks like a tree, where as the one on the right looks like a tree in pain. Personal preferences vary, so use this example to guide your choice.
One downside to the neon transformer is that they cost around $100.00. Microwave transformers can obtained for as little as $40.00 by purchasing a cheap microwave and removing its transformer. They can sometimes by purchased for a few dollars at swap meets.
Next: What wood should be used?
Almost any wood can be used, though lighter woods will show off the Lichtenberg patterns more clearly than darker woods. After testing many types, I found two that performed the best: fine grain fiber board and plywood with a very thin facing veneer.
Fiber board on the bottom, plywood above.
Fiber board is half the price and produces the greatest detail, but it looks cheap and doesn't take a finish very well. The biggest problem is that it's so absorbent that it's difficult to maintain the right amount of conducting solution on it so the the arcs that create the fractal patterns can travel through it. Plywood costs twice as much but the glue layer under the veneer creates a waterproof barrier so absorption is not an issue. It can also be finished to produce artwork good enough to frame. Its problem is that sometimes the arcs follow the grain, weakening the organic appearance of the fractal pattern. The following image compares the two:
Fiber board above, plywood below.
Even with 12,000 volts, wood isn't conducting enough to support an arc. To correct this the wood needs to be painted with a conducting solution of water and salt. I experimented with table salt, Epsom salt and baking soda. Baking soda worked the best.
In this image,
table salt was used and it worked too well, producing many large arcs
It can be made to work, but is much harder to control.
Epsom salt had similar problems.
On the other
hand, it was much easier to maintain small, fine arcs like above
using baking soda.
These are the types of arcs required to produce Lichtenberg figures with the finest detail.
Comparing solutions ranging from one teaspoon baking soda per cup of water to three tablespoons per cup, I found one tablespoon per cup worked the best. I also tried mixing in extra baking soda and dipping the applicator sponge into it before the undissolved soda fell to the bottom of the glass. The idea was to coat the surface with both dissolved and undissolved baking soda. It didn't work any better than the one tablespoon per cup solution.
The final issue that needs to be addressed is how much to use. Too little and it won't conduct enough current to burn the wood. Too much and the current will flow so freely through it that not enough heat is created to burn the wood.
For plywood the answer is simple: Use one light swipe with a damp sponge. The surface only needs to be barely damp. For fiber board the solution is much more difficult.
Because fiber board is absorbent, it tends to soak up the solution leaving the surface too dry. I find two swipes with a wet sponge usually works well. But, if the board is extra dry and the humidity is low three may be needed. The exact amount can only be determined by trial and error for your particular conditions. I've had days when two light swipes were perfect at 8 AM but an hour later when it started warming up it took three heavy swipes to work.
If you use too much, just wait a few minutes. Evaporation will reduce the conductivity of the solution and the arcs will start to appear. One clue that there's too much is seeing liquid clinging to the electrode where it touches the wood.
The conducting solution stains the wood very slightly, so if you plan on displaying it I recommend coating the entire piece so that the background color is uniform.
A Useful Tool:
I found that a small, fine mist spritzer is a powerful tool for burning Lichtenberg figures in wood with electricity.
I got this one in the cosmetics section of Walmart for $1.00.
If an arc starts burning too aggressively, a spritz or two will quickly tame it. If an area of the wood starts drying out a spray will get things burning again. If the humidity is so low that the surface keeps drying, stand back and mist the area over the board every few seconds to maintain the conduction layer. Best of all, it can be used to direct the direction the fractal pattern grows.
In this image, the fractal pattern is heavy on the top.
Lightly spraying the lower part of the figure encouraged the arcs downward to create a more balanced appearance.
This technique isn't foolproof. Burning Lichtenberg figures into wood with electricity is a lot like growing a bonsai tree. It wants to do one thing while you want it to do something else. In the end you both settle on a compromise. But in a way, that's part of the charm of these fractal patterns: you never know what you're going to end up with.
Once you've created a Lichtenberg figure, scrub it under flowing water using a tooth brush. This will wash away all the loose carbon to reveal the figure's hidden beauty.
The same figure before and after scrubbing.
Here are two more samples.
Are These Really Fractal Patterns?
No. A fractal pattern is a mathematical construction so designed that it looks the same at any scale. Consider the following true fractal pattern:
Zooming in or zooming out does not change the image. The area in red looks the same zoomed in as the area in cyan and also the same as the even smaller area in green. The only difference is orientation. The Lichtenberg figures created by burning wood with electricity do not have this characteristic so they are not true fractals. But, because fractals look a little like lightning and trees and Lichtenberg figures look a little like lightning and trees, in common culture they have become associated with each other; so much so that "fractal patterns" have become a prime keyword for burning lichtenberg figures into wood. Consequently I used it in the title and body of this page to improve the page's search engine ranking.
Visitors wanting to see Lichtenberg figures being burned in wood in live action, can do so by clicking on the following YouTube video:
Burning Lichtenberg figures, or fractal patterns if you prefer, in wood wood using high voltage electricity is an interesting pastime. I hope you found this page helpful if you decide to try it. Thank you for stopping by.
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