Rocket Making for Amateurs - Another Living Dangerously Art

(Bill Gurstelle is guest blogging here on Boing Boing. He is the author of several books including Backyard Ballistics, and the recently published Absinthe and Flamethrowers. Twitter: @wmgurst)

Back in 1960, U.S. Army Captain Bertrand Brinley published the Rocket Manual for Amateurs, one of the greatest DIY books ever written. Its cover price reads 75 cents. Buying a copy today in a used bookstore could set you back more than $100. But it's that good. (I know, I have it.)

rocket manual boingboing.jpg

There is a considerable amount of information on rocket motor making in RMFA. The line drawings are excellent and the writing clear and straightforward. A lot of people bought this book back in the 50s and 60s, because making rocket motors was a fashionable pastime, and there were lots of clubs and societies that would tinker around making rocket engines.

But like any high energy hobby, things could and would go wrong and people got hurt. Rocket engines had a nasty habit of blowing up in the maker's face and causing injury. There is a part of the process where the propellant is rammed into a tube and that's pretty dangerous. (I personally know of a couple people who hurt themselves this way.) So, the activity changed, and rocket people were encouraged to buy commercial rocket motors instead of rolling their own.

That is indeed much safer. But I think you lose something when you give up the core part of the activity. That's why in Absinthe and Flamethrowers I provide instructions for creating a small but powerful rocket motor wholly out of stuff available at Home Depot or SuperTarget. There's just something so ... satisfying about homebrewing a rocket with stuff you got at Walmart.

Brinley's book contains instructions for making for "micrograin" rocket engines (pulverized zinc and sulfur ramrodded into a steel container.) I tried it and it burns like crazy. Whoa nelly, that's some hot stuff. Probably too dangerous for an amateur.


  1. c’mon, zinc dust and sulphur was October Sky (and the real Scienterrifc American amateur scientist article of yore – back when they had one)

  2. There are some really good reasons to use the pre made rocket motors, and not to use metal parts in your rocket. There are a number of (true) horror stories of people maiming and even killing themselves while rustling up a batch of rocket fuel.
    You never believe that it will happen to you until it actually does.

  3. yep, the risks are real. So is your capacity for intelligence. Not everyone can afford factory motors.

  4. I have a couple of copies of this book. Very clearly written and illustrated, with peculiar pre-IC electronics. (The blinky light circuit for night launch tracking that Brinley describes is mechanical!)

    But: Zinc Sulfur is crazy dangerous. The dust can waft about and form explosive clouds. Bad.

    Brinley, who also wrote The Mad Scientist Club YA novels, includes lots and lots of safety stuff, including a first aid section with instructions on how to handle belly wounds. The launch pad complex he shows uses lots and lots of sandbags.

    OTOH . . . while I only use commercial motors, amateurs CAN build very powerful motors using sugar based fuels (Maker Shed carries a book about that) or plastic-bound ammonium perchlorate fuel. These are stable fuels that are mixed in fluid form and cast. No metal dust or manual tamping required. There are lots of books and software tools out there to help you design safe and high-performing motors.

    As I recall, zinc-sulfur has an ISP of around 80 seconds. AP fuels, 200 seconds or so. Safer and more powerful!

    But if you see a copy of Brinley’s manual at a thrift sale, buy it!

  5. @takuan:

    With a C6-3 selling for a little over $2, how much cheaper is a comparable home-spun motor?

  6. #8: In describing the danger of dust clouds, Brinley actually describes a Exploding Flour accident that occurred on live TV! Someone tossed a bug of flour at a couple, one of whom was pretending to be a firecracker and the who had a match. (It’s been at least 20 years since I read that, but I remember it well!)

  7. Non-dairy creamer also produces impressive results when dropped from a height on an open flame.

    Seriously, Estes D-motors are all you need unless you’re looking at model rocketry as a lifestyle.

  8. Dust in the Workplace – An Explosive Topic

    Wood shavings, carbon dust, flour, custard powder, sugar, coffee, tea and aluminium dust are just some examples of highly combustible dusts.

    Dust explosions can have catastrophic consequences because the initial shock wave resulting from the explosion kicks up more dust, which triggers a chain reaction through the plant, often resulting in mass destruction of equipment and buildings, as well as causing possible death or injury to employees.

  9. yeah ZnS burns FAST, crazy fast – because it’s a powder it has an insane surface area and basically burns fractally – more of a controlled explosion than a rocket motor as such

    It’s also static sensitive – don’t make it at home, store it mixed, transport it – make it where you’ll use it VERY carefully

    Or better yet don’t make it at all AP, or NO2 are much more useful for home built stuff, safer too

  10. Recently I found an old Bering cigar tube left over from rocket-making days. The first time I ordered supplies, the company wrote back to my mother (her name was on the check and maybe my handwriting on the order letter looked young) suggesting that I was buying hazardous chemicals. My mom replied, the company relented, and I built rockets. Good book. Fun stuff. Dangerous? Perhaps. What do kids do now?

  11. Dear RetroJoe: You embody the spirit of freedom. I love you, man. BTW, sugar rockets are fun and fairly safe if you pay attention and treat them as if they weren’t safe. I suspect they will be outlawed in …3…2…1…

  12. If you enjoy Brinley’s book, I’d also recommend C.L. Stong’s June 1957 column in Scientific Ammerican. Stong, the longtime Amateur Scientist column writer, wrote about the field of amateur rocketry.

    This article, along with Brinley’s Mad Scientist Books, were incredibly influential to my childhood interest in science. My favorite part of the article was a description of how to build the earthen bunker to protect you in case of a catostrophic failure. In addition, the beautiful illustrations are by Roger Hayward, one of the best scientific illustrators ever. Highly recommended.

    You can find the article online at

  13. I have a fine book “somewhere” (apologies for not being able to cite the author or title :-( ) which might as well have been titled, “Things Your Parent Were Afraid You Would Make As a Teenager.”

    No rocket motors in that book, though.

    The book had electronic devices and lasers, at least some of which would definitely be dangerous.

    Example: a specialized power supply which could vaporize a resistor, possibly creating shrapnel.

  14. I’ve got a copy just like the picture!
    Been one of my fav’s since I was a kid.
    This book has it all and will excite you.
    I may sell it this week on Amazon or,
    ‘coz I need the dough!

  15. a high school friend was way into day he came to school with a narly looking bag on his arm…he somehow got gangrene when one of this chemical mixes exploded. this was during the early 60`s so i`m sure he had that book about rockets…

    today he`d been arrested for firing up his rockets

  16. Time machine roffle…

    “Back in 1960, U.S. Army Captain Bertrand Brinley published the Rocket Manual for Amateurs … A lot of people bought this book back in the 50s and 60s”

  17. I’m more of a D engine kind of guy. God I loved model rocketry! I’ve made nearly all of the Estes classics including the Saturn V, which was kind of a dud. Remember the Mosquito? “Featherweight Recovery.”

    Too bad NYC is not a rocketry-friendly kind of town.

  18. @23> Thank you :)

    Personally, I have always taken risks and done dangerous things on my own. I made a miniature rocket gun (as in hand gun) when I about 13. Total range was about 10-15 feet but it worked. It was powered by match head shavings. However, I never pointed it at anyone nor did I ever come close to setting anything on fire because I was a “smart” mad scientist.

    Do what you want just don’t destroy anyone or anything in the process.

  19. I remember in my high-school Physics class last year, the first project (after less than 3 months in) was to build a rocket out of only a few dollars of material. Things like a manila folder, paper, a small block of balsa wood, They were so easy to build and launch that even the most unenthusiastic students were able to fire their projects several stories into the sky and out of the stadium.

    Great times.

  20. #31: “Perfesser” McCreary is a great guy. His books are the place to start if you want to make composites.

    The Sleeter book is astounding; an incredibly detailed account of his R&D project to make Estes-like black powder motors. But once you comprehend the work that goes into making them safely, you realize you’re better off buying them. Composites give you more woosh for the buck and are safer to make on your own.

    #33: There are launches not too far upstate. Used to be on Long Island, but it’s getting crowded out there. FWIW, virtually all of the classic Estes and Centuri kits are offered by a few cottage industry outfits ( It’s harder to recreate plastic parts, but the balsa and paper kits of the 60s and 70s are very easily “cloned.” (Here’s me with a “Hustler,” made with parts I turned on my drill press:

  21. I love this book! It was given to me when I was about 10 years old by a friend of my dad who should probably remain nameless. Either he was clueless or he really didn’t like me.

  22. if i didn’t love my current job so much, i might want to try to make a living somehow with rockets. as a child, model rockets were my first otaku experience. sure, i liked hanging with my friends and jumping rope in 5th grade; but i LOVED rockets.

    what really got me hooked was the centuri model rocket designer’s manual. it was written so a 5th grader could understand it, and it included descriptions of all the major model rocket components.

    it was a very sad day when i heard that centuri went out of business. but.. it looks like someone scanned it; i’m assuming it’s fair use for reasons of abandonment, but IANAL.

    so… for novelty use only… check it out at

  23. $100? Cheap compared to the prices for Brinley’s third Mad Scientists book The Big Kerplop was getting before it was reprinted. I remember when I discovered that my local public library had a copy and was wondering whether to tell the librarians that their copy could fetch ~$450 on e-bay.

  24. Brinley also wrote the Mad Scientists’ Club series of books. The two I had (“The Mad Scientists’ Club” and “The New Adventures of…”) I read so many times growing up that my copies literally disintegrated. I could probably still recite paragraphs word for word. There was a third book in the series that I never got my hands on.

    I was thrilled to find a few years ago that they had all been reprinted (along with a fourth book that had never been published). See Naturally I bought the whole series, reread them all a few times, and can’t wait until I can pass them on to my own kid in a few years. (I still like the first two books best, but it was quite a treat to read the two “new” ones…)

    I *highly*, highly recommend these books for any child or adult.

    On topic, I’m glad to see someone has scanned “Rocket Manual for Amateurs.” I was planning to scan my copy and disseminate it Real Soon Now, now the pressure’s off :-)

  25. I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, when kids (boys only, really) were encouraged to engage in dangerous activities: shooting, archery, rocketry, chemistry, etc. We were expected to learn and employ proper safety procedures. If some kid didn’t, his grave or maimed and crippled body was pointed out to us by our parents as an example of what could happen to us if we didn’t follow the rules.

    It’s called ‘responsibility’, something that many kids don’t seem to be taught anymore.

  26. Oh … my … god! I owned this book when I was twelve! I’d been making smoke bombs with saltpeter and sugar and I wanted something with a little more … oomph.
    (Discovered the hard way it’s not a good idea to try melting sulphur and saltpeter over an open flame.)

  27. I heartily recommend Brinley’s Mad Scientist books. I remember sending a fan letter to Brinley when I was kid. If you liked Corey’s Big Brother you’ll love them. They are about the best juvenile literature I ever read. Great science, tech, DIY, themes–I can’t wait until I have kids to introduce them to these wonderful stories.

  28. This thread is pure GOLD! Grabbing the downloads as I write this. Boing Boing, all is forgiven…

  29. All this talk about the Mad Scientists club has reminded me of another book I read back in the 60s. It was titled _Blast Off_ or something like that. It was about a guy who started a high school rocket club and their rockets kept fizzling because they were lousy machinists. There was this other kid, who was a “bad” kid, a discipline problem, but he was a great machinist. The recruited him in the club and he helped them build the rocket. I particularly remember the description of him machining the rocket nozzle, it was the first time I had ever read anything like that. In the end there was some kind of crisis about the launch being banned by hyperactive parents group or something. I don’t remember. I think it all worked out finally. Anybody remember this one, or know the author? I would love to find a copy (or a download.) I’m sure it is _long_ out of print.

  30. Sounds like the book, “Rocket Boys” by Homer Hickam. Source for the movie “October Sky” (which is an anagram of Rocket Boys.)

    It’s in print, and you can get an autographed copy from Homer’s website.

  31. The Hickam book was published in 1998, I read this book in the late 1960s. It was a discarded library book and I’m guessing around 5-10 years old then.

  32. I have a copy of this book. The Zinc/Sulfer rockets he describes that are compared to modern estes engines in this thread are described in the book as “test” rockets to be used for various experiments (wind direction, addition of chemicals for colored smoke trails).

    The other rocketry experiments described in the book are not “toys”.

  33. CommieNeko, Oh, right. 1960. Yes, that WAS rather before “Rocket Boys” was published.

    Did some desultory Googling with no luck.

    Asked if anyone knew of it, based on your description, on a mailing list I’m on. If ANYONE could ID the book from your description, it’s them.

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