Lichtenberg process

Discussion in 'Woodturning Health & Safety' started by Jerry Maske, Aug 12, 2017.

  1. Jerry Maske

    Jerry Maske

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    I understand the AAW has taken a negative stand on using this process but I can't find anything definitive about their perspective. Could someone point me in the right direction?
     
  2. hockenbery

    hockenbery AAW Advisor Staff Member

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    What you are seeking is on Page 5 of the August American woodturner.
    A similarly worded letter was sent to all AAW chapters a couple of months ago.

    I copied it here but the formatting is all off.


    Lichtenberg, or “Fractal,” Burning: Be Aware of the Risks! 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 underrated 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. AAW’s response 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 highvoltage 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 lowamperage 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

    WS Lichtenberg Burning, continued 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 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. 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


    — John Ellis, AAW Board Member and Chair, AAW Safety Committee — Rob Wallace, Former Chair, AAW Safety Committee — Harvey Rogers, AAW Safety Committee Member
     
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  3. Bill Boehme

    Bill Boehme Administrator Staff Member

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    Something that I don't believe has been mentioned is X-rays produced by a phenomenon known as runaway breakdown caused by very high voltage ionization. I don't know if the voltages used for this burning process poses a serious risk, but I do remember the danger presented by the high voltage flyback transformer assemblies used way back in the vacuum tube era of television receivers. The high voltage assemblies were enclosed in shielding and there were X-ray warning labels attached. B/W televisions had voltages in the range of 10 - 15 kV and up to 25 kV for color televisions.
     
  4. Jerry Maske

    Jerry Maske

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    Okay, the Lichtenberg process is dangerous. Knowing that, anyone using the process will, most likely, research it enough to be comfortable handling high voltages. Two people have died? Hadn't heard that before. How many die from Smoking? They knew the dangers and still chose to proceed. How many die from car accidents, especially when booze is involved? Yet, we continue to behave stupidly and kill each other.

    My opinion, and that's all it is, is that the AAW could ask for volunteers to research the process and make recommendations about how it should be used. Otherwise, they should ban smoking and driving! How would that work out? I use the process regularly, teach it, do demos and, so far, have not had any problems. But I quit smoking and never drive when I've been drinking either. When I see something is dangerous, I don't do it without proper precautions. Lichtenberg processing is dangerous but nowhere near as dangerous as smoking or drunk driving.

    Jerry
     
  5. Bruce Schoenleber

    Bruce Schoenleber

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    I like to smoke and drink when I Lichtenberg.

    Seriously, who cares if the AAW does or does not support something. They are not going to send the police to your shop and confiscate your lathe tools.
    As one of those redneck comedians has said, "you can't fix stupid". Though apparently high enough voltage can.
    -bruce
     
  6. Owen Lowe

    Owen Lowe

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    That’s the bottom line here and something the home organization has implied all along. What you decide to do is your choice. Just don’t look for a how-to or any photo gallery pieces on the AAW's printed or electronic pages.
     
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  7. stu senator

    stu senator

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    And if you do it wrong (correctly) you could win the Darwin Award.

    Stu
     
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  8. Bill Boehme

    Bill Boehme Administrator Staff Member

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    So you're citing the use of bad judgement as rationale in support of doing something dangerous?

    Maybe some people will go to the effort to make certain that their set-up and procedures are safe, but of those currently using the the process I think that very few have bothered learning anything outside of what they may have gathered from a YouTube video, a friend, or similar basic source of "how to" instructions.
     
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  9. john lucas

    john lucas

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    I think Bill covered it. Many people are totally ignorant about electricity and how dangerous it can be. I do think the process can be done safely but should be taught so someone isn't building a set up without knowing what they are doing. One simple mistake is all it takes. Smoking can kill you and sure enough my uncle who smoked his entire life died at 86. Don't mean to make light of that but that analogy just isn't the same. Using high voltage without proper instruction is like taking your hand and seeing how close you can get to the wire before it arcs. Obviously once you find out it's too late. As was stated before the AAW isn't telling you that you can't do it. They are just saying that until really good instructions and safety are implemented they aren't going to promote it or teach it.
     
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  10. JeffSmith

    JeffSmith

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    The first time I saw the results of the process, I found it interesting. But it's kind of like watching a fractal generator - while it's never the same twice, and it's constantly changing, unless you can control the process, rather than being a victim of where nature wants to take you, I just can't see the value. The whole point of craft is to be repeatable so you can build on your successes.
    I'm no electrical engineer (although I did have to take a few classes in electronics over the years) and I find the potential for injury due to ignorance keeps me from all but the simplest wiring chores - and even then only after a bit of research. After reading of the parts and pieces to setup one of these systems, it just seems like a total crap shoot to me. The results don't justify the risks.

    Thanks to the AAW for voicing a rational policy.
     
  11. Bill Boehme

    Bill Boehme Administrator Staff Member

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    When I was a beginner, I often proclaimed that I just "let the wood speak to me" instead of starting with a definite plan in mind. Of course, that was just beginner-speak for, "I lack the skill to be in control of whatever tool happened to be in my hands, so I'm just going along for the ride to see what happens". Just as it is with learning to use turning tools skillfully, I am sure that some gifted turners will become able to exercise a high level of control over the Lichtenberg burning process. However, nearly every example of high voltage burning that I have seen so far falls in the same "along for the ride" category where the process is left to speak for itself.

    I'm not completely dissing the process, but I believe there needs to be a recognition that there is more to it than just zapping wood. In order to get legs, I think that the following are essential: a fail-safe hardware set up (in other words, fails to a safe condition in case of a fault condition), safe operator practices, sufficient education, inspired control over using the process to incorporate it into an artistic statement, and an audience that is receptive to the end product.
     
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