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Photograph by Noah Weinstein

Teen firebug Billy Gordon knew what to do when he saw matches on sale at the supermarket. Buy 20,000 of them. And when he got them home? Use them to build one gigantic, strike-anywhere match.

He measured an ordinary 2¼-inch kitchen match with digital calipers, then scaled it up precisely to 8 feet. That meant he needed an explosive match head 7 inches long, laid on 1 inch thick.

“I’ve been doing pyrotechnical projects my entire life,” says Gordon. At age 8 he dismantled fireworks and concocted new ones under parental supervision. By his teens he had taught himself to breathe fire, using kerosene or paraffin. His recent Instructables projects (screen name: Tetranitrate) include flash powder, thermite, exploding paint, an egg-timer detonator, “fire shaving” (mmm, burnt hair), and a really-not-advisable laser tattoo (mmm, burnt flesh).

Now 20, Gordon splits his time between his intern gig at Instructables HQ in San Francisco and NYU’s Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn, N. Y., where his studies in electrical engineering have sparked nonflammable projects like an LED chess set, hand-cranked Lego USB charger, and spy camera shirt.

To make the mighty match head, he spent weeks cutting the heads off 15,000 cardboard safety matches. He mixed in 30 ping-pong balls dissolved with acetone to make nitrocellulose glue, then glommed it all onto a 4× 4 post. For the giant strike-anywhere tip, he snipped 250 wooden kitchen matches and glued those on top, one by one — risky business, as the slightest impact could have set the whole thing off. A little paint to brighten it up, and it was showtime.

When igniting the giant match, Gordon didn’t actually singe off his eyebrows, but at least one reader felt compelled to ask. At a show-and-tell night for Instructables users, he swung the colossal firestarter against a sandpaper striker, detonating an unexpected 6-foot fireball that nearly forced him to drop the hot potato.

“For about a half-second I was thinking, ‘Great, this works,’ then it quickly went to, ‘Crap, I might burn myself!'”

How-to and Video: instructables.com/id/giant-match

From the column Made on EarthMAKE 15, page 24 – Keith Hammond.