Burn After Reading

DIY dynamo Bill Gurstelle’s new book on playing with fire

Bll gurstelle wants to show off the flame-thrower. But morning sunlight is flooding the alley behind his south Minneapolis home, and he worries that the brightness might mute the spectacle. Plus, he says, “It can freak out the neighbors.”

Instead, Gurstelle ducks into his workshop—the “barrage garage,” as he calls it—his testing ground for hot-dog launchers, catapults, potato guns, and, yes, flamethrowers that over the last decade have propelled him from mild-mannered mechanical engineer to the DIY movement’s patron saint of mischief.

In 2001, finally indulging a lifelong fascination with “things that go whoosh, boom, and splat,” Gurstelle published Backyard Ballistics, a playful guide to building small-scale artillery from everyday clutter. When that book, er, exploded, Gurstelle quit his day job in telecommunications and became a full-time author. Six books later, he’s brought more meaning to his mischief, demystifying physics while advocating for reasonable risk in our play-it-safe society. After all, he says, without scientists playing with fire in the 18th century, we might still be in the dark.

His latest project is his most incendiary, which is why he’s keeping the garage door closed this morning. Gurstelle needs darkness to demonstrate the “flame tornado”—one of 25 experiments showcased in The Practical Pyromaniac (Chicago Review Press, $14), a how-to guide to understanding fire.

“I love kerosene,” he says, dousing a rag, torching it, and dropping it into an empty teacup. He places the flaming cup in the center of a souped-up old turntable. “If you did this with gasoline,” he says, “you’d kill yourself.” Then he fits a column of wire mesh around the teacup and speeds up the record player. The flames suddenly twist and elongate, braiding together into a devilish rope that rises as though at a snake charmer’s command.

His face glowing, Gurstelle offers an impromptu physics lesson—something about inverse tornado currents—but is soon distracted by his own experiment. “God, isn’t it awesome?” he asks. “I freaking love this stuff!”


1. He regularly writes how-to articles for Make and Popular Mechanics magazines.
2. He “grills out” with a homemade solar oven, which heats up to 350 degrees.
3. His wife, Karen Hansen, plays clarinet with the Rochester Symphony Orchestra.
4. He’s an on-air presenter for the PBS series MAKE: television, demonstrating inventions.
5. He made Wired’s 2009 “Smart List: 12 Shocking Ideas that Could Change the World.”

Read excerpts from Gurstelle’s new book at MNMO.com/pyro.