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Couple electrocuted after attempting viral wood-burning art technique

The practice uses high-voltage electricity to create lightning-like patterns. At least 33 people have died attempting it since 2016, according to the American Association of Woodturners.
Lichtenberg machine for lightning wood
An example of a person using a Lichtenberg machine, which enables lightning effects to be burned into wood as decoration.Jokerbee12 / Getty Images/iStockphoto

A Wisconsin couple was electrocuted attempting a popular but dangerous wood-burning technique, law enforcement officials said.

The "fractal burning" technique creates lightning-like etchings by using jumper cables and disassembled microwave oven parts to run high-voltage electricity through a piece of wood soaked in a chemical solution. It yields patterns known as Lichtenberg figures, named after the physicist Georg Lichtenberg, who discovered them in 1777 as he was experimenting with static electricity.

The technique is gaining popularity through viral videos on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube, but woodworking experts caution that it is extremely dangerous and can be deadly.

Tanya Rodriguez, 44, and James Carolfi, 52, were found dead in a house fire April 6. Their bodies were in the garage of their home in Marathon County, Wisconsin.

The couple had died before the fire started, and the Marathon County Sheriff's Office initially described the cause of their deaths and the fire as "suspicious." The mysterious circumstances prompted weeks of arson and homicide investigation, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

The sheriff's office, fire marshals and the Wisconsin State Crime Laboratory found that Rodriguez and Carolfi died by accidental electrocution when they attempted the dangerous wood-burning technique. The couple used a disassembled microwave oven for a power supply. Authorities believe the equipment that caused the electrocutions also caused the fire, which started in the garage before it spread, the sheriff's office said in a statement last week.

"Foul play has been ruled out, and the deaths are found to be accidental in nature and believed to be caused by electrocution from fractal wood burning," Chief Deputy Chad Billeb said at a news conference Thursday.

Fractal burning DIY videos abound online. Some fractal burning art is crafted by professionals with experience as electricians and access to proper equipment. But many attempting the popular craft take apart microwaves or car batteries to use as power sources.

Even with proper equipment and experience, fractal burning carries risks. At least 33 people have died from fractal burning attempts since 2016, according to the American Association of Woodturners, including an experienced electrician. The group banned the use of fractal burning at all of its events and forbade articles about the practice from appearing in any of its publications to discourage attempts.

Phil McDonald, the executive director of the woodturners group, told Wisconsin Public Radio that he believes the "proliferation" of viral videos about fractal burning has contributed to rising numbers of injuries and deaths.

"The equipment can't be made safely, and the real issue here is that there are not enough safeguards once those home-based systems are built to ensure that they can be operated safely," McDonald said.

Billeb said that while the patterns created by fractal burning are "very pretty, quite frankly, the dangers of the craft cannot be ignored."

"Taking advice from YouTube or any other social media site in order to a do a craft ... is not safe when you're dealing with electricity," Billeb said.