burning. Of course, charcoal burns with ordinary
oxygen available in the surrounding air. But if the
oxygen for burning is supplied chemically, by an
intimate mixing with an oxidizer such as saltpeter,
the reaction happens far faster and with great gusto.
The sulfur, called brimstone by alchemists in the
Middle Ages, plays a dual role: it facilitates detonation
by lowering the temperature at which saltpeter ignites,
and then it increases the speed and intensity of the
ensuing chemical reaction.
Obtaining these three ingredients in sufficient
purity and quantity wasn’t a trivial effort in today’s
times, but it wasn’t overly difficult either. I would
guess that any maker of legal age and average capability would have little trouble doing so. A short time
on the internet visiting the websites of chemical
supply companies yielded many likely sources.
Once I procured the saltpeter and sulfur, the final
and most difficult step was obtaining the charcoal.
This may run counter to intuition since bags of
charcoal briquettes are piled up by the front door
of any grocery. But bagged briquettes won’t work,
adulterated as they are by chemical binders and
additives. No, I had to make my own charcoal to
obtain the purity required.
Roasting wood in the absence of air creates
charcoal. I found I could obtain all the charcoal I
needed by wrapping small hunks of willow wood in
airtight aluminum foil, and leaving them overnight
in the remains of the still-hot charcoal briquettes
from an earlier cookout.
So now I had everything I needed. It was time to
combine the three chemicals into the final stage
of the project: real, live black powder.
56 Make: Volume 13
IS THIS A SMART THING TO DO?
LEFT: Making black powder requires a
ball mill for proper mixing. RIGHT: Willow
branches make for good charcoal.
I can’t begin to tell you how many people laughed,
turned pale, and/or ran away when I explained my
intention to make gunpowder.
“That’s illegal!” they shouted.
“That’s what terrorists do!” they cried.
“That’s too dangerous!” they warned.
I beg to differ. In much of the United States and
many other countries, possessing small amounts
of black powder is assuredly not illegal. In most
places, if you’re old enough, you can buy much
larger quantities of higher-power, higher-quality
black powder at any sporting goods store than
you can make at home.
As for the terroristic potential of homemade
black powder, it’s nearly nonexistent. Even underage
delinquents have easier opportunities for finding
materials with which to cause trouble than to go
through the rather long and demanding processes
required to make a primitive explosive like this.
And as for danger, well, of course it’s dangerous
if you’re not careful. But so are driving a car and
mowing your lawn. By working carefully and limiting
quantities, I found I could reduce my risk to a level
with which I was comfortable.
Now, I would love to explain in detail the recipe
for black powder. And, I believe, so would MAKE
magazine’s editors and publisher. Heck, so would
the art director, the advertising staff, and the
interns. Everybody at MAKE is onboard, with one
exception: the company lawyer.
We live in a litigious society. Anybody can sue
anybody for any reason. So, to allay the fears of our
attorney, I’ll delve only into the procedure for the
manufacturing of high-quality charcoal. Making
your own charcoal is fun, easy, and worthwhile for
reasons beyond making gunpowder. You can cook
with it and you can draw with it. It’s worth doing
at least once.