Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture (DIY Science) is a new book by Robert Thompson. The premise is simple. The coolest thing in the world is a home chemistry set like this one from Gilbert, which combined both chemistry and microscopy:

Chemistry Set Combine the sciences of Chemistry and Microscopy in one big laboratory set! Microscope has a magnification of 60 power, plus unique Polaroid device that shows the brilliant colors of specimens under the lens. Set includes “Fun With Gilbert Chemistry”, “Gilbert Microscope”, “Glass Blowing” manuals and dissecting stand. From the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop

But these chemistry sets are no longer available because the companies that made them (or would make them today) started paying attention to the memos from the Legal Department. True, there are chemistry sets, such as the CHEM C3000 Advanced Chemistry Experiment Kit, which attempt to replicate these wonderful vintage kits, but they are just not the same. (Thompson, the author of the book we are reviewing here, does claim that the C3000 is the best out there).


Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture (DIY Science)
Thompson grew up with these chemistry sets, and in his youth developed beyond what they had to offer, eventually making his own chemical workbench, then majoring in Chemistry in College, and eventually becoming a Chemist of sorts (and an Astronomer and a Computer Designer/Builder, and some other things). He is coauthor of Building the Perfect PC, Astronomy Hacks, and the Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders. so chances are you’ve at least seen his books on the shelf if not read some of them.

The Illustrated Guide is suitable for the serious hobbyist but it is also suitable for the Home Schooler. In fact, Thompson provides a very handy concordance indicating how one should use the lab sequence presented in the book to match various High School curricula, including AP Chemistry.

In the process of writing and developing lab manuals, I have reviewed all the major College chemistry labs (as well as life science labs) and I have to say that the layout and presentation, do-ability and clarity of the labs in this book is unsurpassed overall. I have not done any of the labs in this book, so I cannot verify any of them nor can I point out those funny glitches that happen in labs when they are actually implemented. Which sometimes are not so funny. If you do use this book, you may want to keep an eye on the Errata page. I am not suggesting that there will be a lot of mistakes in this volume, but there are a lot of labs, it is a new book, and it is Chemistry (boom!) so caution suggests that you do this.

How does Thompson deal with the issue that over the last 25 years Chemistry Sets have gone, sadly, away seemingly over safety concerns, but he has a book that tells you how to make bombs and rocket fuel?

Well, for starters, he is pretty clear that this book DOES NOT TELL YOU HOW TO MAKE BOMBS (or rocket fuel). However, the experiments as a whole are in fact dangerous. There is glass (that can cut) there is fire, and there are chemicals that you don’t wan in your eyes and that you certainly should not ingest.

Thomson takes a pragmatic approach to safety. He makes clear how important it is to take responsibility for your own safety and those in your environs when you are mucking around with Chemistry. and he provides safety information.

Getting back to content, one of the important differences between this volume and at least some college chem labs is the inclusion of many optional activities as well as additional information. However, this is not a Chemistry text. If you are going to use this book as the center piece for a home schooling chemistry course, you will also need a chemistry textbook. Thomson recommends Chemistry: The Central Science, which is very expensive unless you get a used or older edition.

Just as important as the labs themselves is the discussion on how to set up your home chemistry lab, where to get the equipment, what kind of equipment to get, and so on. I do think Thomson goes a little easy on you here in a way that I would not recommend. He says it is OK to use the student grade materials in most cases, and not to worry about it. I recommend that you worry a little. Make it part of your plan to upgrade to professional grade glassware over time, even if you must use student grade in the beginning. Most importantly, determine where the difference between student grade and pro is a matter of ease of use, sturdiness of equipment, or accuracy of measurement (like the measuring lines on the side of a beaker). Figure out what is important for you and purchase your stuff that way. You can make use of household materials and student grade products in many areas, thus saving money for that really good graduated cylinder that covers the size range you use a lot, for instance.

The book is 432 pages, weighs 2.2 pounds and is made of paper. (Hey, I’m just making basic physical observations, as recommended in the book). It costs less than 20 bucks, though the list price is of course higher.


  1. #1 Virgil Samms
    June 3, 2008
  2. #2 Greg Laden
    June 3, 2008

    Virgil: Not even little. Seriously.

  3. #3 JanieBelle
    June 3, 2008

    “Thomson recommends Chemistry: The Central Science, which is very expensive unless you get a used or older edition.”

    Heh. We own the sixth edition, and have had it since it was brand spanking new. (The Boy‘s, from his time at Marshall.)

  4. #4 Becca
    June 3, 2008

    How cool!
    Although, is it utterly bizarre that although I have all manner of lovely lab chemicals and microscopes (even access to a kickass confocal), I’m still a little jealous of the Gilbert set? It’s different to have your *own* set, at home.

  5. #5 Coturnix
    June 3, 2008

    I had a great set as a kid. I got the book and gave it to my Son to check out first. If he is interested, we’ll do some experiments – I’ll just buy some equipment and chemicals (I already have some good glassware at home).

  6. #6 Dawn
    June 3, 2008

    Thank you. You should submit this post to the next Carnival of Homeschooling…This is exactly the kind of thing a lot of secular homeschoolers are looking for.

    Just as a point of interest, there is a book floating around on the torrent sites called The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments (from the 60’s) that embodies the old spirit of chemistry for kids.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    June 3, 2008

    I have already submitted it to the HS carnival! (to a few different HS carnivals, actually, I’m not sure if everybody reads all of them.)

  8. #8 JL
    June 3, 2008

    I had a couple of the Gilbert chemistry sets when I was a kid. I figured out how to make gunpower from the chemicals in the set. Then I found out that in those days one could buy potassium chloride and sulfur, etc. in bulk from the local pharmacy. I nearly blew up/burned down the house a few times with my baby brother in it.

    It’s a good thing the internet wasn’t invented back then when you could get uranium via mail.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    June 3, 2008

    I remember something about a rocket going off in the back yard, then a large boom and blackness for a while. I think the neighbor’s fence caught on fire. …

  10. #10 killinchy
    June 3, 2008

    The neurologist, Oliver Sacks, has written a wonderful book about his childhood. It’s called “Uncle Tungsten” after an uncle who made a mint designing a light bulb.

    When he was a child, Oliver was an enthusiastic chemist. It’s a wonder he (or any member of his family) survived his experiments. I heartily recommend it.

  11. #11 JanieBelle
    June 3, 2008

    I was just thinking a while ago, “Why didn’t I spend my childhood doing cool chemistry experiments?”

    Then it occurred to me that in fact, I had. It was just a different kind of chemistry…

  12. #12 Dawn
    June 3, 2008

    LOL JanieBelle

    JL – My brothers loved gunpowder. they wouldn’t make it though. they’d buy reams of cap gun tape and carefully scrape it out until they had enough to do something exciting with.

    I had a cheap microscope kit as a kid. I think it probably discouraged me more then anything – miserable thing that it was. When I buy one for the kids it’ll be a good quality one.

  13. #13 Blind Squirrel FCD
    June 4, 2008

    Then there were the pre-Gilbert chemistry sets which managed to teach no chemistry at all. “mix magic solution A with magic solution B. You should get a blue color” Seriously.

  14. #14 yttrai
    June 5, 2008

    I owe you big for posting this! I shot off the amazon link to my BF in childlike glee, and this morning a shiny new amazon box sat on my porch, with said book within!

    AND i just thought of the best CSI “LARP” to run at the next local Gameday. You have been a huge inspiration and i commend you for that 🙂

  15. #15 Alasandra
    June 10, 2008

    Thanks for a very informative post. I found the post in the most recent Carnival of Homeschooling hosted at The Common Room.

  16. #16 ChristineMM
    June 10, 2008

    My husband has a memory of doing kits with his father when he was a child, for fun. Indeed while in my in-laws basement recently we found this set, they still had it. I was so surprised to see it there.

    Your post was very helpful. With the changes in the laws I was a bit baffled by how to do chemistry at home in the future when my kids are a little older.

    Thank you so much.

    I think I will link my blog readers here.

  17. #17 Beckie
    June 10, 2008

    COOL! We are big time science geeks over here, great addition to the Blog Carnival!

  18. #18 Rosemary
    June 17, 2008

    Thank you for submitting this to the Blog Carnival.