Safety Concerns – Fractal Wood Burning and Wood Turning

This page contains some information on the dangers of electrocuted wood burning and woodturning.

Fractal burning creates designs called “Lichtenberg Figures” that appear to many like spider web / tree roots. Each piece is unique, as the patterns travel with the natural variation of the wood grain during the electrocution process.

Woodturning uses hand-held tools with a wood lathe to spin a piece of wood -enabling the artist to shape the piece symmetrically around its axis of rotation.

People die from this.

The fractal burning process requires electrical current from a high-voltage source. Do not try this without adequate knowledge and safety preparation. The dangers of electrocuting wood are life threatening. Here is a detailed look at a particular case of death by electrocuted wood burning, that represents what happens when safety is not taken seriously.

Woodturning requires rapidly spinning wood with one or two points of connection securing the piece. The dangers of woodturning are significant – people are seriously injured or die from this practice. Thousands are injured, some are killed, annually by lathes. You can see a list of the known cases from OSHA here – these are just a portion of workplace injuries, it does not account for hobbyist injuries – where there are a lot more amateur setups.

If you get within close proximity to a high-voltage source, it can cause serious injury or death.

Safety is paramount. Beware of videos you see online. Many DIY setups use overpowered unsafe home constructed burners. They often lack safety before and after the transformer, not to mention in the units their own personal safety gear and the burning space/environment. YouTube videos show people with bare hands and other lack of proper PPE touching probes, work surfaces not properly grounded, extremely dangerous home built machines from overpowered microwave transformers, etc. Flames and arcing are commonplace in these videos – this is extremely dangerous and deadly in many cases. There are commercial kits available – they may be “safer” and less powerful but they are not safe just because they are commercial – proper safety precautions are mandatory.

Safety is a system, not a single practice. For example, my safety system includes a focus on the circuitry itself before the burn unit, a lower powered professionally constructed burner, high voltage insulated gloves, arc-flash protective clothing, nonconductive work surface, face shield, smoke mask, deadmans switch, ventilation, and more measures.

If you get within close proximity to rapidly spinning wood, it can cause serious injury or death.

Again, safety is most important. There is a lot more skilled practitioners of woodturning than fractal burning and much more safety standards around lathe construction and use in the industry than with fractal burners, this is good news as there are more quality role models and resources to learn from.

Having said this, youtube has videos from “professionals” and amateurs alike who are making many errors in their practice, unnecessarily escalating risk. Youtube has many videos showing large pieces of wood flying off due to unsecured pieces, metal keys left in the chucks, tools balanced on the lathe falling into the spinning components, lights falling onto the machine, very heavy headstocks or tailstocks falling off, etc. Practitioners are often reaching into rapidly spinning objects with bare hands and loose fitting sleves – some videos show people getting caught and pulled into the lathe due to this error. Home made lathe equipment is very dangerous if not built by someone professionally trained in the mechanical engineering involved. The lack of proper PPE (basics such as gloves, face shields, masks, proper footware, lathe stabilization, etc) is evident in many videos, including by seasoned turners. Additionally, there is frequently unknowns in the wood being turned – imperfections lead to surprises such as chunks flying out due to no error by the operator, but nevertheless is often quite dangerous.

Safety is a system, not a single practice. For example, my safety system includes a clean and clutter free work environment (don’t want to trip onto the lathe), PPE such as snug fitting clothing, faceshield, dust mask, gloves, a properly secured professionally built lathe, good ventilation, a grounded professionally constructed electrical circuit, and more measures.

Stay safe.

I am not a trainer on how to fractal burn or wood turn properly. I am not a safety trainer. These are practices with significant risk. I am happy to share my experience, and I am very open to critical feedback especially as it relates to improving on the safety of these practices.