The Practical Pyromaniac: Build Fire Tornadoes, One-Candlepower Engines, Great Balls of Fire, and More Incendiary Devices

The Practical Pyromaniac: Build Fire Tornadoes, One-Candlepower Engines, Great Balls of Fire, and More Incendiary Devices

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by William Gurstelle

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The Practical Pyromaniac combines science, history, and DIY pyrotechnics to explain humankind’s most useful and paradoxical tool: fire. William Gurstelle, author of the bestselling Backyard Ballistics and frequent contributor to Popular Mechanics and Make magazine, presents 25 projects with instructions, diagrams, photos, and links to

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The Practical Pyromaniac combines science, history, and DIY pyrotechnics to explain humankind’s most useful and paradoxical tool: fire. William Gurstelle, author of the bestselling Backyard Ballistics and frequent contributor to Popular Mechanics and Make magazine, presents 25 projects with instructions, diagrams, photos, and links to video demonstrations that enable people of all ages (including young enthusiasts with proper supervision) to explore and safely play with fire.

From Franklin’s stove to Diesel’s engine, Gurstelle tells the explosive and fascinating tales of the great American and European pyromaniacs who scientifically revealed the mysteries of fire. Among them are hot-headed "Gunpowder" Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen, and Antoine Lavoisier, the father of chemistry who lost his head on the guillotine, as well as scientist and spy Count Rumford and dapper Humphrey Davy whose chemical discoveries and fiery inventions saved thousands of lives.

With The Practical Pyromaniac in hand readers can replicate these breakthrough scientists’ experiments and inventions, from the simply fascinating one-candle-power engine to the nearly magical fire piston and from a practical backpacker stove to an incredible tornado of fire.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"What a fun, totally engrossing book! Gurstelle’s projects—everything from a tiny single-candle engine to a flamethrower—are both easy to build and hard to resist. But along the way Gurstelle also weaves in a fascinating account of how the mysteries of fire were deciphered by some of history’s greatest scientists. Think of The Practical Pyromaniac as a cookbook for the budding scientist in each of us." —James Meigs, editor in chief of Popular Mechanics

"If only I had had a reference like William Gurstelle's terrific [book] ... provides no-nonsense walkthroughs of a host of excellent, intriguing and magical experiments (with plenty of very sage safety talk and advice)."  —Mythbusters' Adam Savage in his review for The Wall Street Journal

"William Gustelle is the bomb—as well as the blowtorch, the catapult, the guided missile, and now the fire tornado. His enthusiasm for just-shy-of-catastrophic chemistry is infectious and inspiring, and once again he’s proven that science can be bold, captivating, and fun for all." —Thomas Goetz, executive editor of Wired and author of The Decision Tree

"A recipe book packed with fun (and safe) fire projects, fit for science geeks, garage experimenters and casual weekend flame-throwers."  —

"When the zombie apocalypse comes, I want William Gurstelle’s books in my survival bunker. The Practical Pyromaniac delivers the history, science, and practical know-how needed to play safely with, and truly understand, Prometheus’s gift. To quote Beavis: ‘Fire. Heh. Heh. Fire!’" —Ken Denmead, publisher of and author of Geek Dad: Awesomely Geeky Projects and Activities for Dads and Kids to Share

"This book isn't just playtime for pyros ... [it is] full of cool things to build, sure enough, but it's also an educational and entertaining trip back through the history of science. This one deserves maximum exposure to both the build-it-yourself crowd and those fascinated by the cul-de-sacs of scientific history." —Booklist

"Simply stated directions and easy-to-follow illustrations usher readers through more than 15 incendiary projects ... The author renders otherwise dense and complicated scientific explanations imminently understandable." —Kirkus Reviews

“This book packs enough punch to fill a dozen weekends with high-powered hijinks that will amaze and delight the members of your secret garage science club.” —Mark Frauenfelder, editor in chief of MAKE

Kirkus Reviews

Learn to play and build with fire—and not get burned.

Gurstelle (Absinthe & Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously, 2009, etc.), pyrotechnic aficionado and professional engineer, releases a powderkeg in this book, which blends history and science education with fire-inspired DIY projects.Beginning with a well-researched examination of flames and heat, he provides simple exercises for readers unseasoned in the art of fire, offering tips that can be applied both practically and recreationally. Safety is of the utmost importance to Gurstelle, who enumerates a myriad of thorough and clear stated warnings and precautions. The author overlooks nothing (there's even a guide to the proper use of fire extinguishers), but a section on burns and their treatment would make a welcome addition. Readers are urged to proceed with caution and begin by designing a simple flame tube—candles that produce long-sustained musical tones—before moving on to more complicated projects like assembling a propane-fueled flamethrower. Instructions are woven through with pivotal moments in the history of fire, from its discovery by cavemen to the scientific stylings of 19th-century chemist and physicist Michael Faraday. Gurstelle's simply stated directions and easy-to-follow illustrations usher readers through more than 15 incendiary projects.

The author renders otherwise dense and complicated scientific explanations imminently understandable.

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Product Details

Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
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6.92(w) x 9.86(h) x 0.47(d)

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The Practical Pyromaniac

Build Fire Tornadoes, One-Candlepower Engines, Great Balls of Fire, and More Incendiary Devices

By William Gurstelle

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2011 William Gurstelle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-888-4


Keeping Safety in Mind

We've always been told to be careful around fire for good reason: fire can be dangerous! So, you may be wondering, "Doesn't this book advocate playing with fire?"

Indeed it does, but this type of play has both purpose and reason. The projects have been designed to be exciting and fun, and, very often, the result of a successfully rendered experiment is something catching on fire or an explosion. But there is a method to this madness, and what's described here is much different from foolishly playing with matches or causing destructive fires.

It's very important to note that if you don't follow the directions closely many of the projects in The Practical Pyromaniac could harm you or people around you. Always follow the project instructions closely. Don't make changes to the materials or construction techniques. This can lead to unexpected and unintended results. Further, be aware that some projects describe using materials in ways and under conditions that depart from the manufacturers' recommendations, so leaks, breaks, and other failures may be more likely to occur.

A Very Important Message

The projects described in the following pages have been designed with safety foremost in mind. However, as you try them out, there is still a possibility that something unexpected may occur. It is important that you understand that neither the author, the publisher, nor the bookseller can or will guarantee your safety. When you try the projects described here, you do so at your own risk.

Some of the projects have been popular for many years, while others are new and were designed specifically for this book. Unfortunately, even if you do everything correctly, something could still go wrong and cause damage to both property and people. The likelihood of such an occurrence is remote as long as you follow the directions, but things can still go wrong. Always use good common sense and remember that all experiments and projects are carried out at your own risk.

Be aware that each city, town, and municipality has its own rules and regulations, some of which may apply to projects described in The Practical Pyromaniac. Further, local authorities have wide latitude to interpret the law. Therefore, you should take time to understand the rules, regulations, and laws of the area in which you plan to carry out these projects. A check with local law enforcement can tell you whether the project is suitable for your area. If not, there are plenty of other places where all of the projects here can be undertaken safely and legally. If in doubt, be sure to check first!

General Safety Rules

The following are important general safety rules. Note that each chapter also provides specific safety instructions.

1. The experiments described here run the gamut from simple to somewhat complex. Some experiments involve the use of fire, volatile materials, and chemical reagents. The projects described here are designed for adults or, at a minimum, to be closely supervised by adults. Adult supervision is mandatory for all experiments and projects.

2. Read the entire project description carefully before beginning the experiment. Make sure you understand what the experiment is about and what you are trying to accomplish. If something is unclear, reread the directions until you fully comprehend the entire experiment.

3. Don't make substitutions for the chemical powders or liquids indicated for use in each experiment. Specificity counts. For example, substituting methanol for ethanol or a chlorate for a chloride could have serious consequences.

4. Use only the quantities of chemicals listed in the project instructions. Don't use more than specified.

5. Don't substitute materials or alter construction techniques. Don't take shortcuts.

6. Read and obey all product label directions, including the material safety data sheets that accompany chemicals. Acids and other chemicals must be handled appropriately as described on the container labels. Manufacturers are most familiar with how their products work, and their advice takes precedence.

7. Prior to performing any project, remove and safely store all cans or bottles containing flammable substances. Maintain a hazard-free radius of at least 50 feet around the area in which you plan to work.

8. Wear protective eyewear when indicated in the directions. Some experiments call for gloves, proper ventilation, and so forth. Always follow the safety guidelines given in the directions.

9. Visit prior to performing any project or experiment to check for safety updates and other important information.

10. Keep an all-purpose fire extinguisher ready and close by. All-purpose (often labeled A-B-C) fire extinguishers work on all types of fires. Choose a dry chemical extinguisher that is rated for multiple-purpose use. Widely available and inexpensive, dry chemical extinguishers contain a powdery extinguishing chemical and use a compressed, nonflammable gas as a propellant.

How to Use a Fire Extinguisher

Here's an easy acronym for fire extinguisher use:

P A S S Pull, Aim, Squeeze, and Sweep

PULL the pin at the top of the extinguisher that keeps the handle from being accidentally pressed.

AIM the nozzle toward the base of the fire.

STAND approximately 8 feet from the fire if you can and SQUEEZE the handle to discharge the extinguisher.

SWEEP the nozzle back and forth at the base of the fire.

Remember this: The instructions and information provided here are for your use without any guarantee of safety. Each project has been extensively tested in a variety of conditions. But variations, mistakes, and unforeseen circumstances can and do occur. Therefore, all projects and experiments are performed at your own risk! If you don't agree with this, then do not attempt any experiments or projects.

Finally, there is no substitute for common sense. If something doesn't seem right, stop and review what you are doing. You must take responsibility for your own safety and the safety of others around you.

Obtaining Supplies and Equipment

The projects in The Practical Pyromaniac have been designed to utilize common, inexpensive, and easy-to-find materials whenever possible. The materials and tools required for most projects can be purchased at retail establishments such as hardware stores, craft stores, artist supply stores, and lumberyards. Harder-to-find parts such as polycarbonate plastic or nichrome wire may be sourced from the large online retailer McMaster-Carr ( In addition, a large number of mail-order and online retailers, such as the following, sell chemicals and laboratory equipment that may be difficult to source locally.

United Nuclear
PO Box 851
Sandia Park, NM 87047

A wide variety of chemicals and laboratory supplies including many unusual items others often don't stock

The Science Company
95 Lincoln Street
Denver, CO 80203

Extensive selection of glassware, lab burners, chemicals, and safety equipment carried in a variety of sizes and quantities

Home Science Tools
665 Carbon Street
Billings, MT 59102

Caters to homeschoolers and provides a good selection of laboratory equipment and chemicals in reasonable quantities

In addition, links to sources of materials are provided for many projects. Look for:

Some items, such as pipes, pipe fittings, or lumber are too big to be shipped economically. They are commonly available locally at hardware, drug, or grocery stores.

A Note About Units

In most project descriptions, this book uses the American system of measurement of inches, feet, ounces, pounds, and so forth. However, in projects that are chemical in nature, such as the Oxygenizer and Exploding Bubbles, metric units are used. This is because most chemists use metric measurements and laboratory gear is scaled and graduated metrically.

A number of measurement converters are available for free on the Internet, including and


The Flame Tube

I propose to bring before you, in the course of these lectures, the Chemical History of a Candle. There is no better, there is no more open door by which you can enter into the study of science than by considering the physical phenomena of a candle. There is not a law under which any part of this universe is governed which does not come into play and is not touched upon by these phenomena.

— Michael Faraday, 1860, from the lecture "The Chemical History of a Candle"

Soon, we'll meet many of the great scientists of the past who first explored the nature of fire. Besides being intellectual giants, they had something else in common. These fellows who furthered our knowledge of the chemistry and physics of fire were, generally speaking, grumpy old men. John Dalton was widely known to be "stiff" and "gruff," Antoine Lavoisier could be authoritarian, Benjamin Thompson dyspeptic, George Manby an angry megalomaniac, and Henry Cavendish ... well, Cavendish was Cavendish.

If you were to go backward in time and meet them face to face, chances are you'd find the experience off-putting. It's a bit ironic that many of the men who explored heat and fire were a bit cold themselves.

On the other hand, if you could meet Michael Faraday, you'd find him warm and approachable. Faraday was easygoing, pleasant, and sociable. More importantly, he was perhaps the finest experimental scientist in the history of chemistry and physics. Faraday was a brilliant polymath responsible for a huge number of outstanding advances in the theory and application of magnetism, electricity, and chemistry. Through self-education, perseverance, and his own hard work, Michael Faraday, the son of an English blacksmith, became one of the most honored scientists in history.

Although he could have made a handsome salary working for industry, his goals were not fame and fortune but rather a hope that his discoveries would lead to a better life for all. Faraday spent nearly his entire life inhabiting a relatively small suite of rooms on the upper floors of the Royal Institution in London, where he worked in the facility's fine laboratory for a meager salary as director of its chemistry laboratory. But this arrangement suited him, as it allowed him to concentrate without distraction on his projects and experiments. His biographers wrote that Faraday "loved the labor far more than the wage."

Faraday employed splendid experimental technique, carefully applying the knowledge he learned from one experiment to the next. In so doing, he laid the foundation for an astonishing amount of the technology we use daily, including electrical power generation and many types of electrochemistry. Beyond that, he made several important discoveries in chemistry, metallurgy, and optics. It might not be too big an overstatement to declare that every time we flip a switch and a light goes on, the roots of the technology can be traced to Faraday's experiments in the laboratory at the Royal Institution.

A considerate and unpretentious man, Faraday did more than just labor in his laboratory. He found time for his wife and his church as well as for a few simple pleasures, such as taking nieces and nephews to the zoo or playing games or taking long walks. And he loved to introduce others, young and old alike, to the world of science in which he found such happiness.

* * *

By 1826, Faraday was well established in Europe's scientific community and had become keenly interested in teaching and encouraging young people toward scientific careers. He began a tradition in science education that continues to this day. Every December, a world-class scientist addresses a packed crowd made up mainly of young people at the Royal Institution in London's Mayfair neighborhood. The purpose is to provide insight and inspiration to the next generation of scientists and engineers. The Christmas Lectures, as they are called, are among the most important and well-known scientific discourses on the planet.

Faraday hoped his lectures would encourage his listeners to share his interest and awe in all things scientific and natural. Using as many of Isaac Watts's pillars of learning as possible, he hoped to inspire his audiences to move beyond reading and listening to personal observation and perhaps even to experimentation.

Under the scrutiny and analysis of Faraday's sparkling intellect, even everyday, commonplace phenomena and events, such as the flame of a candle or the swinging of a pendulum, became intriguing and worthy of deeper understanding and further investigation.

Let us now consider how wonderfully we stand upon the world. Here it is we are born, bred, and live, and yet we view these things with an almost entire absence of wonder to ourselves respecting the way in which all this happens. [Except for a] few enquiring minds, who have ascertained the very beautiful laws and conditions by which we do live and stand upon this earth, we should hardly be aware that there was anything wonderful in it.

— The beginning of Faraday's 1860 Christmas Lecture to young people at the Royal Institution

In 1860, Faraday ascended to the raised podium at the Royal Institution to give his final series of lectures there, this time entitled "The Chemical History of a Candle." As he lectured, Faraday animated his lessons with demonstrations, taking time to make his points logical and obvious to the assembled young people. By all accounts, Faraday was an enthralling speaker, neither talking down to his audience nor being in the least obtuse or obscure. He was, wrote an auditor, "the complete master of the situation. He had an irresistible eloquence, which compelled attention and insisted upon sympathy. ... A pleasant vein of humor accompanied his ardent imagination. His experiments [were] true illustration for his arguments."

Sitting halfway back in the Royal Institution's lecture hall on this occasion was William Crookes. Crookes was a preeminent science journalist of his day and would go on to become a world-class scientist in his own right. He discovered the element thallium and invented many scientific instruments, including a still-popular science toy called a Crookes Radiometer, a spinning armature in a glass bulb that is powered only by sunlight.

In 1860, the 28-year-old Crookes, with his long, pulled mustache and full beard, must have looked out of place among the children and teenagers in the audience. But he was there for a purpose. Crookes's goal in attending this science lecture was to write down every word that Faraday spoke and make sketches of the experiments he performed. Crookes well understood the importance of Faraday's lectures and wanted to save them for posterity.

How lucky for us that he did so. The six lectures that make up "The Chemical History of a Candle" series are among the clearest and most straightforward explanations of fire ever provided. Since 1860 and continuing to this day, scores of editions of Crookes's transcript of that important moment have provided illumination, motivation, and recreation for generations of nascent scientists and researchers.

But that's not to say that the information contained in Crookes's transcript is ideal for modern readers. The manner in which science is taught has changed considerably in the 150 years since Faraday. While the information in the lectures is still vital and important, there have been some refinements in pedagogy as well as considerable progress in instrumentation and the way experiments are carried out.

This section begins with updated versions of Faraday's classic demonstrations and projects and concludes with the exciting project known as the Rubens Flame Tube. The updates to the original Faraday projects are true to their scientific roots and in strict accord with the goal of his original lectures, but they differ from the originals in both presentation and scope.

The first purpose of updating the lectures is to present Faraday's brilliant experiments in a manner with which contemporary experimenters and students are familiar, using the modern inexpensive instruments and laboratory supplies available to us that were not available to Faraday. The second purpose relevant to his book is to focus on the information that helps us understand the true and basic nature of the phenomenon of fire. Faraday's Christmas Lectures dealt extensively with understanding the nature of fire, but he went far beyond that, explaining such topics as the chemical composition of the atmosphere and even the biology of animal respiration.

The original lecture series "The Chemical History of a Candle" consisted of six lectures, but it is the material from the first two, "A Candle: Sources of Flame" and "A Candle: Brightness of the Flame," that is used here.


Excerpted from The Practical Pyromaniac by William Gurstelle. Copyright © 2011 William Gurstelle. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

William Gurstelle is a professional engineer who has been researching and building model catapults and ballistic devices for more than 30 years. He is the author of Absinthe & Flamethrowers, The Art of the Catapult; the bestselling Backyard Ballistics; Building Bots, Whoosh, Boom, Splat; and Notes from the Technology Underground. He is a contributing editor at Make magazine and writes frequently for The Rake, Wired, and several other national magazines.

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