Fractal Wood Burning: What You Need to Know About TikTok’s Most Dangerous DIY Trend
While it may produce unique results, fractal wood burning can be deadly.
Recently, there’s been increased online interest in fractal wood burning, a process that uses electricity to burn patterns resembling fir trees or lightning bolts (otherwise known as Lichtenberg figures) into dampened wood.
A search for “fractal wood burning” on TikTok or YouTube yields hundreds of results, and the hashtag #fractalwoodburning has garnered hundreds of thousands of views on TikTok. Some of these videos are posted without any warnings of the dangers associated with the technique, potentially leading viewers to believe it’s safe to do at home. Unfortunately, fractal wood burning can be incredibly dangerous and has caused a number of deaths in recent years.
The American Association of Woodturners (AAW), has opted to ban fractal wood burning from all of its events. It has also chosen to not publish any content on fractal wood burning outside of articles dissuading readers from attempting it. Let’s explore what fractal wood burning is, why the technique is so dangerous, and what some safe alternatives are.
What Is Fractal Wood Burning?
Before outlining the dangers of this trend, let’s explore how fractal wood burning works. Simply put, fractal wood burning is a technique that involves using a high-voltage electrical current to burn patterns into wood.
As YouTuber Ann Reardon explains, the problem is that people are attempting to build their own fractal wood burning devices using microwave transformers. Users attach car jumper cables to the transformer and use metal spikes to make the actual imprints on dampened wood using electric currents. The circuit produces an extremely strong electrical current (approximately 2,000 volts), which can be deadly if users make contact with any wood or metal while using a homemade Lichtenberg machine.
Fractal Wood Burning Dangers
While fractal wood burning may produce unique and visually striking results, it’s a potentially lethal project to undertake. DIYers risk being electrified or killed when working with live electrical wires, and an imperceptible hole in a pair of gloves can be the difference between life and death. According to the AAW, there have been 33 confirmed deaths caused by fractal wood burning since 2017. There have likely been many more injuries and fractal wood burning deaths that have gone unreported. AAW Executive Director Phil McDonald states, “While the risks of woodturning are reasonably well known, the risks of fractal burning are largely hidden.”
There are no UL-rated fractal wood burning products available on the market due to the practice’s inherent dangers. The Electrical Safety Authority of Ontario warns that Lichtenberg machines may even be sold with counterfeit safety labels. “Regardless of whether the fractal burning equipment is homemade or manufactured, the inherent risks of serious injury or death remain,” says McDonald.
Safe Alternatives to Fractal Wood Burning
Looking for a fractal wood burning effect without the process’s associated dangers? Thankfully, there are plenty of wood burning tools on the market that are much safer to use. McDonald recommends pyrography as a safe alternative, explaining, “Pyrography, which is an embellishment technique for producing designs and textures by burning or scorching wood with a hot instrument, can be used to create designs similar to those created with fractal burning.”
Pyrography is typically done with a metal pen that conducts heat in order to burn script, patterns, or drawings onto wood. There are many wood burning pens and kits available which are UL-approved. The TRUArt Stage 1 Wood Pyrography Pen Set is our top pick for a wood burning kit that includes all the tools you need to get started, and the Tamehom 96-piece wood burning kit offers an even more extensive set of supplies.
While it’s still important to exercise caution when using a wood burning kit, the primary dangers are burns rather than electrocution. McDonald does offer caution, however. “The smoke from the pyrography process consists of fine dust particles and soot which if inhaled may cause respiratory issues,” he says. “Exposure to toxic woods can cause mild to severe health problems.” When wood burning, it’s recommended that you wear a sufficiently rated dust mask.
McDonald gives the following advice to beginner wood burners, which is relevant to any new DIY project: “When exploring any new technique, thoroughly educate yourself about the risks as well as appropriate safety protocols before taking the leap.”