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MAKE Asks: is a weekly column where we ask you, our readers, for responses to maker-related questions. We hope the column sparks interesting conversation and is a way for us to get to know more about each other.

This week’s question: We all love to tinker around, and of course, our experiments can sometimes go wrong. What is the first time a project has exploded on you? What did you learn from it? Non-explosive incendiary events are also fair game.

When I was running a BBS off an old 286, I had a persnickety monitor. It would randomly switch to monochrome, but return to color with a good smack. Once this stopped working, I started keeping a rubber mallet on top of the monitor to do the job. One day I gave it a good whack and heard a funny noise coming from inside. I opened it up and discovered a three inch long electrical arc methodically melting the case and various components. Sometimes a hammer is not the right tool for the job!

Post your responses in the comments section.

Michael Colombo

In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens’ educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.


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Comments

  1. Bailey S. says:

    I was making a first attempt at flan, and while attempting to melt the sugar for the glaze, I turned on the wrong burner and spot heated my glass pan I was going to pour the flan into. We had a few friends over at the time, and it’s amazing no one was cut by the glass shrapnel we found all over the apartment.

  2. joelfinkle says:

    Many years ago, probably around age 10-12, I had a Radio Shack “20-in-1″ electronics kit: Little rectangular plastic blocks, each with its own component (transistor, capacitors, tuning coil… I don’t think there was a single IC in this ancient kit), connected together with jumper wires and metal clips. The most appealing circuit was a burglar alarm, to keep my annoying little brother out of my room… but the kit had only a high-impedance earphone. I tried a speaker, didn’t work, tried a buzzer from a salvaged AC alarm clock, which didn’t work either. I realized that it didn’t have the voltage, tried to wire it in with mains power… and when connected, the one transistor in the circuit went off with a bang, and the metal cap on it left a dent in my ceiling.

    Ooh, found a good pic of the kit: http://img1.etsystatic.com/009/0/7424534/il_570xN.435882945_10ux.jpg

  3. B. Patten says:

    (As a bonus exercise – count the total number of bad decisions.. :-)
    Not an explosion but the first time an etched a circuit board I didn’t realize that the thin, disposable pie pan into which I placed the board was also eaten away by the acid. I was so fascinated watching the board that I didn’t realize for a minute that the whole pie plate was boiling. Then I realized that doing this in a far corner of an unventilated basement without gloves wasn’t my best move. So not-so-bright 13 year old now has to, in a calm panic, pick up said boiling, thin pie plate, walk up the stairs, across the oriental carpet and then confront the shut door. The pie plate is too thin to hold by the edge with one hand so I slide one ungloved hand underneath and try to open the door with the other. I make it about half way across the yard before the whole bottom dissolves.

    Until we sold the house several years later, my dad could never figure out why grass wouldn’t grow in that one spot – no matter how much seed or fertilizer he used.

  4. I was experimenting with electroplating when I was in high school. in an attempt to speed up the process i increases the voltage and created an arc across the stopper i was using to hold the electrodes. because I used a stopper the gasses built up inside the flask. sure enough the arc ignited the gasses(presumably mostly hydrogen) and shattered the flask sending a nasty mix of glass and chemicals all over the workshop.

    I have not since done any electroplating.

  5. Uncle Ray says:

    Propane tank, propane leak, spark… the entire shop is engulfed in burning propane for a fraction of a second. No injuries.

  6. Travis says:

    I was putting together a PVC potato gun. I installed a couple of long bolts that would leave a spark gap at the center of the chamber. The intent was that they would arc when hooked to a grill ignitor. I had finished with the last solvent bond, and let it sit for a few hours to cure. It was stood up on end. I came back later to inspect, I clicked the ignitor a few times and looked into the chamber to see if there was a spark. Well… there was… and quite a big bang. The solvent fumes had pooled in the chamber, and were quite explosive. The PVC shot across the room one way, my glasses shot the other way. My eyebrow was singed into oblivion.

  7. MakerMike says:

    Not really an explosion, but lots of energy. I was about 8, unsupervised, and taking apart a old flip clock radio that the numbers had stopped flipping. I was playing around with the different components and wondered what would happen if I twisted the ends of the power cord together. To my “shock” it bit me and sent me across my bed, and then popped the breaker.

    Now, I try and stay away from high voltage/high amps.

  8. JT says:

    Burned Down my 2 Car Garage: I was cutting oilboards with my laser cutter and left a bunch of scrap on the bottom. I was in a rush to make some more projects and didn’t feel like cleaning out the scrap. I threw a piece of 1/8″ acrylic, with its plastic cover still on, into the laser and walked away. Turns out the bottom part of the plastic face sparked a small flame and dripped a flaming drop down to all the paper in the bottom of the laser. 10 Mins later my 2 car garage was in flames and burned to the ground. Luckily it was a detached garage and no one was hurt, but I lost all my tools, my laser and it damaged 2 cars.

    Lesson learned was ALWAYS clean up your scraps on the bottom of a Laser. If the scraps weren’t there, it would have dripped hot plastic to a cold metal bottom and extinguished.

  9. Dave Bell says:

    Oh, my… What an invitation! The longer we live, the more trouble we accumulate, right?

    1) The explosion was intended, but not the trajectory; Coffee tin with water, a rock of calcium carbide, a second tin inverted over it with a fuze. Done it MANY times, but this one demo sent the upper tin an inch past my uncle’s head, thirty feet away, instead up straight up.

    2) Years later, first (rented) house, very old, out in the mountains. Odd piece of 1.5″ pipe sticking up out of the driveway a few feet, with an old tin cup covering it. I just HAD to see what was down there one evening, so I dropped a burning magnesium strip down for light. The ancient gasoline fumes(!) in the buried tank blew a torch several feet out and took my eyebrows with it. Wife made me sleep on the couch that night, due to the smell of singed hair.

    3) Not mine, but from a high school friend, a well known pyro. He was working in his garage lab when a friend showed up, smoking. Bob yelled at him to put that damned thing out, NOW! He immediately tossed it into a bucket of dark gray sand on the floor. Of course, the “sand” was freshly screened black powder. The fireball put a hole in the garage roof, but miraculously, neither was injured.

  10. Steve G. says:

    Was at my brothers gym trying to figure out why one of his treadmills would stop in the middle of using it. Went to open up the power plate mounted in the floor and check the wires, but first had my brother turn off the power at the breaker. Asked him 3 times if it was off and he assured me it was. Removed the retaining screw and proceeded to use the screw driver to lift out the socket. A massive shower of sparks sent me on my butt, and it was a few moments before I realized the screw driver was no longer in my hand. My brother found it embedded in the wall missing the entire flat head tip nearly 30 feet from where I was located. After working off the adrenalin high in a donkey press I decided not to kill my brother with free weights.

  11. Rich says:

    I built an HHO (hydrogen) generator from a video that I saw on youtube. I must have watched quite a few videos because I must mixed two of them up in my head. I added a hose to it and tried to light it like the torch I saw in the video and kaboom!!!. The wife still brings that one up. Oh yea and I’m building the tesla coil now. What could possibly go wrong ?

  12. Sallygobangbang says:

    When I was about 17, I found an ancient calculator at the local Goodwill for a dollar. It was mechanical, with rows and rows of buttons, but had a motor and a switch to run all the mechanicals. Got it home, plugged it in, and turned it on. I could hear the motor groaning and none of the keys would engage. I figured, logically, it was jammed up. Got out my trusty can of WD-40 and sprayed nearly the entire can through the keyboard. After letting it sit for a few minutes, I flipped the switch. All I remember is a huge ball of orange light blasting out of the keyboard. I unplugged the thing then went to the bathroom mirror to inspect the damage. Both eyebrows gone and the front of my hair as well, which still had wisps of smoke coming off it. My face was a nice rosy red as if from a really bad sunburn.

  13. tonyv says:

    I still remember sticking a paper-clip in the electrical socket at age 3 or 4. Big bright Zap, but I was not hurt.

    Much later…I was rooming with a friend who had pet rats that she let out for ‘exercise’, despite my protests. One day when we were both around there was suddenly this huge ZAP, and the rat flew all the way across the room. It was all right too, but was no longer allowed to ‘exercise’ its jaws using our lamp cords.

  14. Aaron says:

    shop class at my rurle school. our instructor was teaching us about the oxacetalen torach, he fils a boolon with asetilen lites it bang, then procedes with a water bolon filed with oxygen and acetilen boom, my gears ternd hard and fast. the next day I brough a big bolun when instructors was in his office we filed it till it was about to burst. and with a looooong stick we hid behind a tool box and put the bolun into the torches flame. that’s how the shop lost all its windows, lokily our ears were ringing to much to hear the riping we receved. but the beatings we all got at home were a lessen learned. that is a outside project.

    1. dbarak says:

      Where exactly are you from?

  15. Steve Petersen says:

    Well, there was the time I tried to fill à dry cleaner bag with gas by holding it over a gas stove burner. as it started to lift, the bag full of gas decided to ignite via the pilot. Oops.

    But the first was probably the microphone I had read about somewhere. Was constructed by placing a pencil lead across two razor blades. Air vibrations aka sound would vibrate the pencil lead and modulating the DC causing the speaker to reproduce the sound. Might have worked if I had used a low voltage DC source rather than 12VAC. Chunks were blown out of the razor blades. Was about 10 then. At almost 60 now, I’m a senior member of IEEE. Keep with it, just remember to duck at the right moments!

    1. Steve Petersen says:

      Sorry, meant 120vac!

  16. CaptnCatfish says:

    Not to the speed of the above commenters but an old mix master went into hyperdrive with a very runny pancake batter being mixed up in it. In a galley style kitchen. Scraping that stuff off the ceiling, cabinets and everything in between for two months afterwards.
    Husband jury rigged a rotating skewer for the giant BBQ of doom and had a roll roast of pork to celebrate – the high temps melted something that was plastic outside the BBQ and then the stalled roll roast started an epic fat fire inside the BBQ threatening the neighbours new fence. Awesome photos were taken before putting out the fires. BBQ of doom has a new home far away from my husband too! (Roll roast was actually salvaged and finished slowly in the kitchen oven and was a delish meal with a unrepeatable smokey quality to it!

  17. dbarak says:

    Do IMplosions count? If so… Several years ago I was casting parts in resin and I wanted to try a vacuum chamber to suck bubbles out of the resin. I cut a hole in a plastic cereal bowl, inserted a flexible tube held in place with silicone grout, and hooked it up to a vacuum pump. After maybe 30 seconds to a minute, the bowl imploded. I don’t mean it collapsed – it threw shrapnel throughout the room, with a very loud bang. Aside from a lack of smoke and fire, it could easily have been mistaken for an explosion.

  18. lenny says:

    I had a car battery explode in my face 25 years ago. i was trying to boost it with a large charger,
    the temperature was -30 degrees and i didn`t know that a battery would freeze .
    i was testing the booster cable connection when the battery blew up all i heard was a woofing noise and for the next 3 hours a beeping noise. i still have a scar on my arm from where a shard of plastic shot up my sleeve. other than that i was only shook up because my heavy cold weather gear stopped all the other fragments.
    5 years before that i found out why you don`t hard solder steel parts together on concrete.

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