My recent post on glassknapping mentioned Kevin Dunn’s 2003 book Caveman Chemistry, and I’ve received many requests for a dedicated review. So here goes!

Caveman Chemistry came to my attention a few years ago through the Lindsay Technical Books catalog. I’m a chemist by profession and a hacker by calling, with a long-standing interest in garage science, so the book’s title was basically irresistible to me. I plunked down my nickel and twiddled my thumbs for a week while the snails carried it to my doorstep.First, it’s a big book, topping out at 410 pages, which is prodigious for a project-based book, and it follows the conventional format of one project/activity/subject per chapter. The topics are arranged in historico-chronological order from fire-making to plastics-making, giving a nice hands-on history of chemistry between two covers. Caveman Chemistry has 28 such chapters, which is rather more than the typical DIY book but also notably less than, say, Theo Gray’s Mad Science, which includes 50 projects over 240 pages. The implicit ratio is revealing: Caveman Chemistry has longish chapters, averaging about 15 pages each.

Unlike Mad Science, of course, all the projects in Caveman Chemistry are intended to be replicated by the reader. Besides detailed instructions and safety information, Dunn has also included discussion questions and notebook exercises for each chapter, which would make the book suitable for use as a student’s text, say in a home- or private-school environment, in a way that Mad Science simply is not. Also, the materials called for in each chapter are worthy of the “caveman” appellation, being widely available and very inexpensive, which further recommends the book for use in an educational setting.

Besides those mentioned above, the book’s activities include brewing, ceramics, wool-spinning, manufacture of potash, bronze-smelting, calcining, textile dying, glassmaking, paper-hanging, distillation of strong spirits, mixing of gunpowder, and home manufacture of sulfuric acid, which is a super-cool home project that I have not seen in any other book. Also included are saponification, crystal-growing, improvised batteries, aniline dye chemistry, silver nitrate photography, ammonia production, electrochemistry, and to top it all off, manufacture of the simple analgesic prodrug acetanilide.

Mr. Dunn has an engaging, conversational prose style, and his paragraphs are packed with the odd tidbits of information and anecdotes that can really bring a subject to life. For the sake of fairness, I should mention my opinon that Caveman Chemistry could perhaps benefit from the cruel attentions of a wrathful copy-editor. There’s a lot of extra verbiage that sometimes gets cumbersome, and the literary device of co-opting alchemical symbology and mysticism does not, in my opinion, serve the subject matter very well. But these are matters of taste, and one reader’s distraction is another’s accommodation.

All-in-all, then, Caveman Chemistry is a great resource. The outstanding collection of projects includes a few for the production of commodity chemicals that I particularly admire, for both their specific contents and their relatively unique pedagogical contribution. After all, the milestones of modern industrial society are chemical processes–such as those for the production of sulfuric acid, ammonia, and sodium sulfate–that most people neither understand nor appreciate, and there’s no better way I can imagine for coming to understand these crucial technologies than by replicating them yourself. Kevin Dunn’s book will show you how.