Couple killed after viral DIY TikTok trend goes horribly wrong: 'Highly dangerous'

A couple died while attempting fractal wood-burning, a dangerous woodwork trend that's recently gained popularity on TikTok.

The bodies of Tanya Rodriguez, 44, and James Carolfi, 52, from Wisconsin, in the US, were found following a house fire at their property on April 6.

The couple had died before the fire started, and were found to be electrocuted, local police said. This led authorities to believe the fire was suspicious at first.

TikTok video showing woodburning technique with tree art on wood
The wood art technique has boomed in popularity thanks to viralTikTok videos, but authorities have warned that it's dangerous. Source: TikTok

Firefighters found "evidence of foul play", a statement from Marathon County Sheriff’s Office said at the time, which prompted weeks of arson and homicide investigations, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

However, at a press conference on Thursday, Chief Deputy Chad Billeb from the Marathon County Sheriff’s Office confirmed the deaths were found to be caused by the wood-burning process.

"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.

"We believe the fractal wood-burning equipment that caused the electrocutions likely caused the structural fire."

'Highly dangerous process'

The controversial technique uses high-voltage electricity to burn lightning or tree-like patterns into wood that's been soaked in a chemical solution.

Jumper cables are often used to run a high-voltage electric current from a disassembled microwave, and US authorities believe this is what caused the couple's death.

"This process is highly dangerous and should only be done by experienced professionals," police warned.

To date, at least 33 people have died in America as a result of fractal burning, also known as Lichtenberg burning, according to the American Association of Woodturners, including an experienced electrician.

In 2020, Worksafe New Zealand reported two fatal incidents caused by fractal burning – both of which electrocution was involved.

In that same year, a man from Western Australia tragically died from electric shock after handling a homemade device used during the DIY process, according to the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety.

Another man who made the device was prosecuted after admitting he'd watched "internet videos and used microwave parts and jumper leads to make a DIY electrical device" which he loaned to a friend of the man who died.

A similar wood art burning device is also believed to have caused the death of a South Australian man in 2018.

Videos of the process have gone viral on social media platforms including TikTok, with #woodturning, #woodburningart #woodburning, and other similar hashtags, attracting hundreds of millions of views.

Phil McDonald, the executive director of the American Association of Woodturners, told Wisconsin Public Radio that he believes the “proliferation” of popular videos about the artform 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," Mr McDonald said.

DIT woodburning device creating tree-like art on wood
A couple recently died from being electrocuted while attempting to use a homemade device designed for the burning technique. Source: Wisconsin Public Radio

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