Controlled Lichtenberg Figures

I like Fire and Light and Science, which I guess is why I bought a Glowforge to begin with. It’s also why I built a Lichtenberg figure generator. The basic premise is you use a high voltage to create lightning shaped burns into a piece of wood.

The first iteration, I made with a 2000V Neon sign transformer. It worked okay.

The problem was it was only making small traces. Channelling my inner Tool Man, I knew the answer was I needed MORE POWER!

I got a 9000V Neon Sign transform, which did the trick!

Now, wait a second Joe. This is the made on Glowforge Category! What does this have to do with the Glowforge?

I’m glad you asked, other Joe.

The way a Lichtenberg Figure generator works, you need to use a solution (I use baking soda and water) to wet the wood to get it conductive enough to form the figures. It will follow the path of least resistance to try to complete the circuit.

My hypothesis is that by etching a piece of wood beforehand, it will allow more of the solution to be absorbed, thereby directing the main branch of the Lichtenberg figure.

I got a couple of pieces of generic Baltic Birch Plywood that I had. I kept one as a control, and one with an etch in it. I also decided to etch a piece of PG Maple Ply. The BB didn’t have that great of a finish on it, so I wanted something with a better finish.

Here is the Baltic Birch Control. It worked rather well. The solution was absorbed rather well.

BB Etch Sample
Here is my test sample. An obscure image was used for the etch. :wink:

It did not work as I intended. At first I though it was following the etch, but then it veered off.

PG Maple Ply Sample
Here we had some interesting effects. First, the finish on the PG did not readily absorb the conductive solution, except in the etched areas. Second, I got some nice light shows.

First go, it was a very slow burn, but I only achieved that by having the probs directly on the etched pattern. I did not get any effect when placed on the unetched sections.

I added more solution, and got some nice arcs!

I added more solution, and re-positioned the probes a few times in this video. I apologize for my crappy camera work. SAFETY WARNING: I ALWAYS TURNED OFF THE POWER BEFORE GOING NEAR THE LEADS!

And one more with some nice arcing!

PG Maple Ply Sample2
I decided to try a slightly deeper etch. I was running short on time, so I made the :glowforge: slightly smaller as well. I got some promising results, but it was dark so the video wasn’t the best.

Not exactly what I thought was going to happen, but promising results. I have some more work to do, but I have guests visiting now, so no Glowforging for a bit.

ToDo List:

  • Clean current samples
  • Straight line tests
  • Hardwood instead of Ply
  • Score instead of engrave
  • Different Finishes

Thoughts, Comments, Suggestions?


Thoughts: You are nutso, and I dig that about you.

Comments: This is really cool, great work.

Suggestions: (bear in mind i have no idea what I am talking about) a thinner deeper dashed engrave might yield more “pure lightning” traces so it doesn’t look like you are putting lightning over a thicker line. My thinking is that the dashes would be obliterated or obscured by the burn. Likewise, a cut mask where you don’t engrave the wood at all, but just mask off the solution might yield a more “invisible laser work” situation.


Nutso? This is insane man…do not fry yourself! You have a baby to take care of! :neutral_face:
(Okay, mandatory girly warning over…Cool results.) :smile:


I. I. I. Alwaaaaays tur tur turn off the poooow er between attempts…

The thing with using high power transformers is sometimes when they get massive enough, you don’t have to actually touch them. I would say the 10k spark is just the other side of playable, and you start having to stay far away from the wires on the high voltage side also.
I have seen a few people zapped while making and testing Jacobs Ladders for various science and Halloween events. It is something you tend to do only once.

Always loved the results this stuff gives though, just seems organic, when it is really just a moisture track (or ionized air with a jacobs).

Knowing that, I would assume a soft wood would suck up dampness better than a hardwood and possibly give more tracks to work with before it runs out of electrical shorts to follow.
Much like the difference you saw between finished and raw woods.


Ha, I know, right. I diligently follow the one hand rule when dealing with electricity. I also went with a Neon Sign Transformer because its at 35mA. I’m considering adding a dead man’s switch to my setup as well.

Fun Fact: I put my leads too close together at one point and accidentally made a mini Jacobs Ladder.


Stay with low amp things like furnace spark transformers and you will be ok.

People trying to re-purpose high charge items, like a micro-wave transformer, are just asking to be buried or sued for manslaughter.


Love the concept! Cool results so far.

Even if you can’t get the ‘natural’ burn to follow along a predetermined path (by the etch), I think this can really make a great piece with the natural sparks flying out of the image. Be that image a logo, or a wizard’s staff.

I love this method, but way too scary for me. One of those, “This will kill you and it will hurt the entire time you’re dying.”

Looking forward to more of your creations! Be safe!


A couple of points perhaps. A small arc welder is low volts high amps and I suspect would burn all the more for that reason. As it burned it would dry out and perhaps even lose connection before turning the wood to a puff of smoke.

Unrelated point. Glowforge plywoods are MDF centered and thus have no grain below the surface wood. Not sure if this were a good or bad thing but it wood be different from the birch for that reason, and if a good thing solid MDF might be better.

Third thing long soaks in your solutions will get more connections further into the wood, it will also make MDF swell up and make a mess, but with actual dry wood the liquid will travel the paths it did when the wood was living, and it was my understanding that some of the nicest Lichtenberg pieces were because of exactly that. If that were the goal, oak would be my first go to as it has the biggest pathways through solid wood.

Another separate point might be to have a wet sponge at each end giving a widest possible point of entry and exit for the electricity but concentrating as it found few paths through the wood the laser cuts on wood sprayed with clear acrylic so the cuts were the only point of entry for the salt solution (I would think a bit of vinegar in the bicarbonate before soaking would make a better conductor, I could see good reasons not to use something the would create chloride or sulphur fumes but sodium acetate should be reasonable)

Last thing - all of the above is IMHO only and any actual use of them third hand scuttlebutt at best.


Just don’t do a google image search on “Lichtenberg burns”.

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My first degree was in electrical engineering. Almost all of those memory spaces have long since been overwritten with psychopharmacology-related information, but the one that says “IT’S THE AMPS THAT KILL YOU” is still intact!

So, yeah – BE CAREFUL, @joe! (And also, ooooooh!)


Good drugs I hope :slight_smile:

What I was thinking was far less up close and personal than if used as an arc welder. the lower voltages just mean it can not jump a huge gap to do you in.

A good friend in college got his PhD in psychopharmacology initially more about the political than the personal noting all the species that were ignored while the hype and laws were focused on better known but less potent members of the same genus.

of course it is the Amps that count with Lichtenberg as well as that is what burn the wood.

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I only prescribe the good ones. :wink:

It’s really not that different than my software dev days, only dealing with neurotransmitters rather than bits and bytes. I’m still always looking for the most effective way to achieve the optimal outcome using the fewest lines of code and system resources while minimizing any negative impact on the CPU.


Also? Those are my special favorites. :slight_smile:

On that note, I may have found a use for all those Spring Feathers…dropped in to check on one of my chronically mentally ill clients last night. She’s a feisty one, and I’m a little proud of that because when I first took over her psych prescribing she was pretty much a drooling lump of flesh with a horrendous laundry list of meds. Now if I manage to catch her at home and not out at the dollar store or Goodwill, she’s giving her roommate pedicures or organizing the other residents to do household chores or just in general running the caregivers ragged. :wink: She hates going to dialysis and keeps skipping it, and won’t use her oxygen because “I don’t want to get addicted!”

She was admiring my feather earrings yesterday, so I told her that if she didn’t skip dialysis for a whole week, I’d make her a pair, and she looked pained because she really wanted some but she said she didn’t want to “give in to no bribes.” Her housemates started chiming in about how they try to get her to go and she won’t listen to them, so I told them if she goes for a whole week I’ll make them ALL feather earrings.

I’m not above leveraging a little peer pressure. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: Guess I’d better start on some earrings…


Another good friend indeed also had her previous knowledge overwritten by Klonopin to the point that despite her masters degree in Microbiology didn’t get the joke about somebody riding a Kreb’s cycle, vaguely recognising the word. Now off of that at least she is a new (or rather her old) person again.

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Yep. I call it “beer in a pill.” Hate the stuff, although it does have its place (short term). I tell my patients if they still need benzos then my job isn’t done yet. It’s like “fixing” a broken leg with pain meds. Might feel better, but it hasn’t done anything to address the real issue. :confused:


But meat-circuits are so unpredictable :slight_smile:


Which is both beautiful and incredibly frustrating. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:


Probably everyone here has seen it but …


Thanks for posting, I had never seen it!


Reminds me of “Liquid Sky”! and “Repo Man”