Element Collection

Element Collection

Friday, March 28, 2014

Getting Started With Home Chemistry

As a part of my participation in the Gulf Coast MakerCon, I wanted to write a short article to cover the basics of home chemistry, for those that want to know more. We'll go over where to start, how to find supplies, and a few excellent resources I use in my own experimental pursuits.

First and foremost...

What is Home Chemistry?
Amateur chemistry is an amazing exploration of the world around you through the science of chemistry. Learning how things react together and how to separate them back into their components is a great way to learn about the natural world. Home chemistry doesn’t necessarily need expensive glassware and equipment – many amateur chemists are perfectly happy working with measuring cups and mason jars. Others prefer the accuracy and quality of real lab glass. Regardless, home chemists all share an inquisitive spirit and an appreciation for science.

In the media, chemistry has unfortunately been stereotyped as only being good for making drugs and explosives. The truth is that there is much, much more to the subject and far more interesting and safe things than these can be done at home. Personally, I don't work with energetic materials in particular because I don't believe the payoff is worth the risk. Making something just to "blow something up" doesn't appeal to me at all. I feel even more strongly against any kind of drug manufacture. I much prefer reactions with beautiful colors, state changes, or elemental syntheses.

Where to Start?
Because of the vast scope of the science of chemistry, deciding where to start can be daunting. It is best to do some research first and try to decide what subject interests you the most. Organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, aqueous reactions, electrolysis experiments, isolating elements from their compounds, and crystal-growing are just a few areas of study. Next, I highly encourage you to find an experiment that you would like to try, and acquire the equipment and chemicals necessary for that one experiment. By doing this over and over again, a very versatile lab can be slowly built over time. This way, you don't spend a lot of money on things you may not use for a very long time, if ever, and avoid cluttering up your work space. This is how I built and continue to build my lab.

A great place to start is copper chemistry. There are many different and beautifully colored compounds of copper that can be created very easily at home. Copper sulfate grows beautiful deep blue crystals and is easily obtainable as a root killer in the plumbing section of your local hardware store. I made a very interesting and unique red copper compound in this post. You can even start from copper wire, which is hard not to find, if you've got the right materials to dissolve it.

Acquiring Supplies
At first glance, this the hardest part of practicing chemistry at home – finding the chemicals you need. However, treasures can still be found locally and online with perseverance. Home chemists tend to become compulsive label-readers; looking at every bottle to find out what it contains and thinking about how it could be used. Hardware stores can be a great source. Learning how to purify over-the-counter (OTC) materials is a very important skill to develop. I have a playlist of videos on this subject on my YouTube channel.

There are also a surprising number of online retailers. The big chemical companies like Alfa Aesar and Sigma Aldrich will not sell to individuals, but there are many others that cater to them specifically. United Nuclear, HMS Beagle, bio-diesel and soap-making warehouses, and even eBay are great places to start.
Finally, be sure to consult state and local regulations regarding possession of chemicals and chemistry equipment and glassware. Some areas are more draconian with regards to what you legally can and cannot have. I've heard (but not verified myself) that Texas is about the worst state for chemistry in the US, going so far as to restrict the use of simple glassware!

Essential Supplies
There are many different paths to choose when practicing chemistry, and each has its own specialized equipment. In general, though, this is a short list of some of the most useful tools and chemicals you can have in your lab:
  • Gram-weight scale
  • Hot plate or burner (alcohol or butane)
  • Stir plate and stir bars
  • Mortar and pestle
  • Test tubes
  • Acids (HCl, H2SO4, etc.)
  • Bases (NaOH, NH3, etc.)
  • Testing reagents (acid/base indicators, AgNO3, BaCl2, etc.)

Safety First!
Home-chemistry can be very interesting and rewarding but this comes with risks, both in storing chemicals and experimenting with them. Safety must always be the top priority in every experiment. Proper gloves, goggles, and protective clothing are essential. Read the MSDS for each chemical before you handle it. Store each chemical properly according to category (i.e. do not put acids and bases in the same cabinet). Though they can be dangerous, as long as chemicals are treated with great respect the hobby can be enjoyed safely. Remember to consider not only yourself, but your neighbors and the environment too. Never pour chemicals down the drain unless they have been properly neutralized and contain no chemicals harmful to the environment (heavy metals, carcinogens, etc.). Always keep a large amount of baking soda and vinegar handy to neutralize acid and base spills, respectively. Think of the "worst-case scenario," and plan and prepare for it accordingly. Many landfills will gladly accept any chemical waste as “household hazardous waste.” Finally, be sure to consult state and local regulations for proper disposal of chemical waste products in your area.

Additional Resources
Here are some excellent websites that can be visited to learn much more about the subject:
  • Science Made Alive
    • Wilco Oelen hosts an amazing site with lots of great experiments. Follow the link to info on starting up your own lab.
  • Science Madness Forum
    • Arguably the best English-language amateur chemistry discussion board on the internet. The discussions are very advanced, but the wealth of knowledge among the members is staggering.
  • Chemical Storage Guidelines
    • An excellent overview of the proper way to store your chemicals.

I hope this information has been helpful to you. If you plan on starting up your own home lab, and delving into the exciting world of home chemistry, I wish you the best of luck! Always remember to consider the safety of yourself and those around you, and enjoy the ride!


  1. Great post! Just a note to people there's a myriad of threads on sciencemadness on the subject of starting chemistry.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Great initiative!
    Home chemistry is the most rewarding sparetime occupation.
    I started in 1970 Building my own lab. I was 13 at the time - and I still just love chemistry. Just reading about chemistry has no meaning. Hands on is absolutely essential

  4. Is it possible ----
    to create SALTPETRE ( Potassium nitrate)
    by adding WOOD ASH ---TO NITRIC ACID ( DILUTE)?

    cAN ANYONE analyse roughly what products /by products
    or anything else --can be obtained from such a reaction ?

    Sounds rather crude --but I have tried urea & animal dung mixed with wood ash & guano --stored in 100 l plastic drum -
    --for 10 MONTHS --
    bOILING the liquor --achieved ZERO SALTPETRE CRYSTALS !

    Hence the direct Nitric acid /wood ash combo --will it work ? --just an idea ---require KNO3 for gunpowder --(flintlock )
    THANYOU --- C a Winter