Why Homemade Fractal Woodworking Machines Are Dangerous
- Homemade ‘fractal wood burning’ hack is killing America’s do-it-yourselfers.
- It is an amateur rig consisting of a powerful microwave transformer transformed into a homemade third rail.
- An electrical engineer tells us why it’s so dangerous, and we also suggest alternatives.
In an alarming situation video Posted last week, Ann Reardon, food scientist and YouTube personality, discusses a dangerous homemade hack called “fractal wood burning,” which creates striking patterns in a slab of wood that look a bit like knocks. lightning. To do this, users drain a microwave, then use its transformer to plug directly into a damp piece of wood, forming a circuit with the wall outlet, she explains.
According to the American Association of Woodturners, at least 33 people died have been attempting fractal wood burning projects since 2016. As recently as April, two people death from electrocution using this method, people keep sharing this “hack” on YouTube and TikTok. Some have even devoted entire stores on Etsy or Amazon to selling their findings – for honestly far too little money, considering the ridiculous danger involved in the DIY method.
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If this all sounds crazy, you’re right. We spoke to an electrical engineer to clear up the dangers of this method, as well as some (safe) alternatives if you’re looking to create a similar effect without, you know, dying.
What is Fractal Wood Burning?
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Reardon discusses fractal wood burning in detail in the video above (skip to 7:20). First, people take a discarded microwave oven and remove the transformer from inside. Then they use a split plug to connect to the live ends of the transformer and use jumper cables to connect the other side of the transformer to a wet piece of wood. This forms a circuit and supplies voltage from the wall, through the transformer and into the wood. The power moves on the wet surface, which is conductive; then the dry wood underneath is burned as the electrical power increases the temperature.
What you get is basically a homemade Lichtenberg machine, a device used to embellish wood. To understand the dangers here, we spoke to Philippe Kerinresearch professor at the Grainger Center for Electric Machinery and Electromechanics in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois.
First, we wanted to know exactly what makes a transformer… a transformer. A transformer is a device that connects two electrical circuits. “The potential of the circuit – the voltage – is proportional to the number of turns of wire connected to this circuit”, explains Kerin. By varying the number of wire turns on both sides, we can connect devices that would otherwise be incompatible. We can also, for example, take the electrical current that arrives on the main urban power lines and “transform” it for domestic use so that all the houses in the world are not immediately burned out. (Imagine if the only water flow you had was the one you see coming out of an open fire hydrant!)
“The transformer in a microwave oven steps up the voltage to deliver a few thousand volts to the magnetron tube that generates the actual microwaves,” Kerin explains. “Most devices that connect to the grid also have transformers, including very small devices that drop the voltage to about 5 volts for charging cell phones, devices that step up the voltage for fluorescent tubes, and interfaces power in almost everything.”
Why are homemade woodworking machines dangerous?
The microwave transformer is also surprisingly powerful. “A transformer that can deliver several thousand volts at power levels up to 1,000 watts is extremely dangerous, which is why the power supply for a microwave oven is completely enclosed in metal and inaccessible. to a user,” says Kerin. “Some say ‘current kills’ in an electrical environment, and any electrician would agree that equipment with voltage well over 240 volts and power levels capable of delivering a fraction of an ampere is extremely dangerous and even deadly. A 2,000 volt transformer can force a lot of current through even the driest skin or the tiniest flaw in a pair of gloves.
It’s something that Reardon talks about in the video as well, because some people have waved their hands and says it’s safe if you use heat resistant gloves. But there are so many variables, including simple and obvious things like tripping and pressing your elbow or other body part against your setup. Or a child or pet might run into the room and surprise you. (Squirrels explodes fairly regularly entire power grid transformers.)
“At the voltage and power levels we’re talking about, the standards for “protection against electric arcs” come into force, with very extensive requirements for training, protective clothing and equipment, and procedures,” says Kerin. Arc flash is a special situation in which electrical current finds a non-ideal path to try and complete the circuit again, creating a dangerous, violent, ample “arc” of electricity. “It’s hard to imagine any American workplace would be willing to expose workers in the way shown in these craft kits. It’s mind-blowing to see this stuff for sale on Amazon,” says Kerin.
⚠️ Warning: Don’t buy fractal wood burning kits for sale online, even if their manufacturers promise they are safe alternatives.
Safe Alternatives for Wood Burning Projects
So what box what if you love the look of these fractal wood burning projects, but don’t want to die for them or support the cottage industry around them?
First, there’s a cool item you can buy, or possibly locate in a shared makerspace or even a public library near you. It’s called a PyroPrinter, and it may not even be the only such “engraving printer” available. This device uses a hot tip to engrave a design on a piece of wood, based on image files that you upload to the linked computer or Android device. It’s basically like an automated version of the “pen” or magic wand that you would use yourself. To find a design you’d like to download, try searching for images like thunderbolts or close-ups of vein patterns on leaves – other natural patterns that have fractal qualities. You can also use a photo of an existing fractal burnt piece to create a new pattern.
The second option is more disjointed, but it could still go down really well. You can find lots of wood burning kits online, but these markers chemically burn the wood. All you have to do is draw over a pencil drawing and trace it with the markers, which have multiple tips for different effects. Then you use a heat gun to set the material and etch the design. And again, you can start with lightning bolts or leaf veins, or a fractal burning image and manually transfer it to your piece of wood. It’s a bit laborious, but you’re practically in no danger.
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