Kits Today: Wimpified
Compared to their robust ancestors, chemistry
sets today are wimpy. They revolve around low-energy reactions and the quiet creation of crystals
and polymers. The average set from the mall has
no burner to provide a flame, no chemicals that
go bang. It’ll let you prepare solutions that change
colors or glow like a light stick, but that’s about it
Why? It’s common sense to delete highly toxic
compounds, and we’re certainly more focused
these days on insulating kids from risk.
But mostly it’s fear: of liability, of terrorists, of
the neighbors. Overreacting to methamphetamine
trafficking, Texas has outlawed the Ehrlenmeyer
flask. In August, panicky Massachusetts police ransacked the basement lab of retired chemist Victor
Deeb, who was simply fiddling with experiments in
A Few Good Kits
But not every kit maker has chickened out. Thames
and Kosmos of Portsmouth, R.I., sells the Chem
C3000, a tolerably well-stocked set with extra
bottles for risky stuff like hydrochloric acid and
sodium hydroxide, which you’re encouraged to
But if you really want to do chemistry at home,
you’ll want to make your own DIY chemistry set.
Elemental Scientific sells kits of chemicals, glassware, and lab equipment selected specifically to
accompany MAKE author Robert Bruce Thompson’s
Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments.
To learn more, get the book at
Keith Hammond is copy chief of MAKE and CRAF T magazines.
He fondly recalls reading Scientific American and experimenting with his first chemistry set as a kid in the 1970s.
DIY CHEMISTRY: Then and Now
Photography courtesy of Chemical Heritage Foundation
We asked author Robert Bruce Thompson about the powerful stuff in classic chemistry sets that’s missing
today — and where you can get it. (You can see more photos at
“Iodine is now a Drug Enforcement Administration
List I material, which means it’s no longer readily
available, and paperwork is required,” says Thompson. The only exception is for 1 fluid ounce or less of
iodine solution that contains 2.2% or less of iodine.
»DIY: “You can make your own iodine crystals from
potassium iodide (KI), which is the subject of our
first how-to video at
Mr. Wizard’s Experiments in
Chemistry, Set MW-073
Owens-Illinois, Inc., Toledo, Ohio, 1973
“Exciting and Fun”
This was reportedly sucrose and acetylsalicylic acid,
i.e. sugar and aspirin.
A toxic ingredient in herbicides and pesticides, it’s
a suspected carcinogen and endocrine disruptor.
“A common precursor for industrial-scale syntheses,
it’s a chemical with few or no uses in a home lab,”
»DIY: It’s a mystery.
M ake: 39