June 16, 2011 at 8:09 AM ET
William Gurstelle, the master of DIY science experiments, is exploding on the scene with a seventh book bursting with garage projects and party tricks.
He's picked a hot topic this time: His new book, "The Practical Pyromaniac" is a recipe book packed with fun (and safe) fire projects, fit for science geeks, garage experimenters and casual weekend flame-throwers.
We spoke with the do-it-yourself wizard to find out what got him fired up about this project in the first place. Here's what he has to say.
What got you started?
The subject I write about is DIY technology and science history. And all my projects tend to have a little bit of an edge to them. They’re not what I would call out-and-out dangerous but they do give people credit for being able to follow directions. The idea that you have edgy science, or DIY science — things that go whoosh boom or splat — that’s something I’ve been interested in ever since I can remember.
What's your book about?
So, it wasn't until the year 1800 that fire really came to be understood for what it is: a high-temperature reaction between a hydrocarbon fuel and oxygen. That's a mouthful, but that doesn't explain to the average person what fire is. So I wrote this book to explain that. And I included a bunch of really cool hands-on experiments and projects, that allow a person to play around with fire — you know, get down and dirty with it, see what it’s all about. Not get burned, okay? But play with fire, have fun, and learn something from it.
What's one experiment you'd recommend someone would just have to try?
There's two that are really really good. The first is the fire tornado. That's an amazing project. I really, really love the fire tornado.
I also think the flame tube is really interesting.
Why is that?
It’s beautiful. Let me explain how it works. Basically you take a 4-inch long steel pipe and drill very small holes all along the length of it very close together. You pressurize the pipe with propane gas. At one end of the pipe you attach a loudspeaker. Then you put a steady frequency generator, and that’s easy to do. There’s a million apps on the internet that generate frequency.
If you put a tone of 440 Hertz through there, that sine wave is shown in fire. If you want to get fancier, you can put on your favorite rock music. And the flame will pulse to the beat of the music. It's really quite fantastic. It's like this sound visualizer ... where the visualization takes place in fire.
So, where does that spark of inspiration come from?
I get ideas from all over. I get a lot of emails from fans suggesting things. Sometimes the projects they suggest are quite wonderful and a lot of times they’re quite dangerous — and I have to write back to them saying, “You know, you shouldn’t do that. What you’re describing is a pipe bomb. That’s not a good thing.”
I have a great collection of old books from 1900 on. I’ve got a lot of old projects in there, and I have a germ of an idea and I update it, use modern materials to make it better.
In my first book, there’s one project called the Cincinnati Fire Kite. My neighbors from Cincinnati showed me how to do this. There’s a camp stove in [this book] that’s made out of soup cans. Some friends of mine who were hikers suggested this to me. The camping stove is basically made from recycled soup cans, and it’s ecologically sound, and it’s quite clever because you’re able to make something useful out of trash, basically.
What about safety?
Always use the safety gear recommended at the start of every chapter. Safety glasses are always a good idea — you can’t go wrong with safety glasses. Have a fire extinguisher handy, and when it calls for gloves use them. One project in there, the safety bubble — you can’t do that without ear plugs. It’s like shotgun blast. It’s so loud. It’s not very powerful, it’s just really loud.
The other thing is that people should use common sense. I tell people: You can’t just follow this stuff rote. You have to think about it, and ask yourself if what you’re doing makes sense to you.
Tell us your secret. How do you keep from setting your beard on fire?
Thanks for the question and it's a very good one. Every morning, I wash my face with a solution of hydrated potassium aluminum sulfate with a bit of boric acid. It makes my beard pretty much burn proof. It also keeps me youthful looking!
When he's not setting things on fire, William Gurstelle spends his time writing and speaking about living on the edge. From his other books, you can learn to build a ballistic device from potato chip tubes and duct tape, make a warrior robot, and chuck a pumpkin over a fence. All his books live on Amazon.com.
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