William Gurstelle explores his inner pyromaniac


Tucked back in a quiet suburban neighborhood in south Minneapolis, William Gurstelle has spent more than 30 years designing, building, and--most importantly--making things go whoosh, boom, and splat in his "barrage garage" behind his house.  Today, he's showing off some of his latest creations, all of which are included in his new book, The Practical Pyromaniac, a combination history/science/DIY guide to building everything from oil lamps to torches to flame throwers to fire vortexes. 

[jump] "I really like my 'Flame Tube'," he says.

The five-foot iron tube is resting on a wooden stand, filling with propane gas as Gurstelle hooks his iPod into a small amp wired through one of the ends. Next, he lights the top of the tube, setting off a trail of small flames. Things are going to get good.

He hits play on the iPod and the flames begin bouncing with the sound waves, creating a mini-light show for our audience of two.

While we take in the show that's happening in his garage, Gurstelle is explaining the history and science that goes into his project, much like he does throughout his latest book--his eighth thus far. It includes 25 projects with step-by-step instructions, diagrams, photos, and videos links all designed to help readers play with fire.

"This book caters to men who blew things up as kids," he explains. "It lets them explore these edgy types of science projects but in a safe way."


The inspiration for these projects comes from the scientists and inventors who first unlocked the mysteries of fire. "These guys are the real practical pyromaniacs. What I try and do is recreate their experiences."

With his penchant for fire, as well as other titles such as Backyard Ballistics and The Art of the Catapult to his credit, the casual observer would have to assume Gurstelle has had at least one major accident over the course of his experiments. Surprisingly, he says, it's the exact opposite.

"I've never had anything bad happen," he says. "To be honest, if anything goes wrong it's usually the other way around where I'll try something and say, 'That sucks.' No one is going to think that's any good."

Aside from starting fires and blowing things up Gurstelle keeps himself busy writing (he contributes regularly to both Popular Mechanics and MAKE magazine) speaking, and participating in book signings, like the one he'll be doing at Costco in St. Louis Park on July 9.

For his final project of the day, Gurstelle shows off The Fire Piston. This project is less visually impressive than the Flame Tube, but to Gurstelle it's much more exciting.

"This was the experiment that led to the creation of the Diesel engine," he explains. The long-and-short of it is that you take a piston, a tube, and a charcloth (a dried out cotton cloth that's been roasted or pyrolized in a high temperature in the absence of air, making it far more flammable), and create fire using only motion.

Gurstelle carefully threads the cloth into the tube and inserts the piston. After a few tries, he begins to lose hope for a flame. Then, on his final try, the charcloth catches.

"Look at that!" Gurstelle exclaims. "Yes! That came from nothing except motion. Now that's fucking cool!"

Can't argue with that.

For more information about the book and to see videos of his projects, visit