Fractal woodworker: Don’t try this at home
By Mike Warren
MARSHFIELD – A Marshfield business specializing in fractal burning is now warning others about the dangers of the woodworking art form that left a Marathon County couple dead.
Ben and Sarah Wolf own and operate Electrocuted Wood at 1915 S. Central Ave., Marshfield, across from Marshfield Utilities. Ben is a Marshfield native and graduated from UW-Stout with a computer electrical engineering degree. Sarah grew up in the Appleton area and moved to Marshfield in 2009 after graduating from UW-Stevens Point with degrees in biology and art.
Now the couple is trying to prevent others from making the same mistakes an Auburndale-area couple made when they attempted a fractal burn.
“Like anything, (people) can choose to take any route they want, but with us it would be preferred that you go to a professional,” says Ben Wolf, a former software engineer for PreventionGenetics.
After he started going to art shows for Sarah, Ben wanted to create something of his own. He already had a woodworking background having grown up in the Wolf family, and now wanted to create something functional that people could buy at the same shows and festivals that Sarah was taking her artwork to. He did some research on fractal burning, and put his electrical engineering degree to work, creating coat racks at first.
He officially launched Electrocuted Wood in January 2020. Fractal wood burning has become one of the latest trends and made even more popular through numerous videos on social media. But experts say there are some YouTube and TikTok trends you should not try at home.
Fractal burning is a practice that uses high-voltage electricity to burn lightning and tree-like patterns into wood that has been soaked in a chemical solution.
The practice recently cost a central Wisconsin couple their lives.
“We initially treated the incident as a homicide until we had further information”, said Marathon County Sheriff’s Department Captain Jeff Stefonek, during an April 21 news conference.
A three-week investigation showed James K. Carolfi, 52, and Tanya M. Rodriguez, 44, died by electrocution even before the April 6 fire started in the couple’s garage before spreading to their home, located on Rangeline Road in the Marathon County town of Day.
“We believe that the fractal wood burning equipment that caused electrocutions likely started the fire,” Stefonek added.
Experts, like Ben Wolf, caution that dealing with electrical current is not something you should ever try, unless you’ve had the education and training he has received over many years.
“Like any profession, a great deal of knowledge is required to even attempt a process like this,” say Ben and Sarah. “We like to remind our followers and others out there with interest in fractal burning the dangers of what we call ‘electrocuting wood’, better known as fractal burning or Lichtenberg figures. This process is highly dangerous.”
Ben first studied electricity in high school, then added to his knowledge base in college.
“I took several courses in calculating electricity and working with transformers in a lab and building them and manipulating them and learning how electricity can be dangerous”, he adds. “It scares me, really. So, knowing the danger, the fear will keep you away from it. I’ve had several people come in and say ‘You do touch it while you work on this?’ I absolutely do not. I never touch electricity. I’m not even by it. I’m 15-20 feet away from it.”
“This is why we offer our electrocuting services to people; not to show them how to do it, but to actually electrocute a piece of wood for them – even if it’s for them to resell it and create their own business. We promote helping other artisans in the area”, adds Sarah.
“We are more than happy to help out because of that danger.”
The American Association of Wood Burners said in a recent statement, “High-voltage electricity is an invisible killer. If you are looking into fractal burning, stop right now and move on to something else. This could save your life.”
Ben and Sarah’s work can be seen in the tabletops at The Lumberyard Bar & Grill in Marshfield, and they’ve done some electrocuting for Marshfield Furniture as well. The couple is tentatively planning a ribbon-cutting celebration for their retail outlet for some time in August.