Setting up a chemistry lab in your house
It’s not difficult to set up a chemistry lab. Chemistry equipment is quite affordable and more expensive equipment (i.e. > $30) can be purchased piece-by-piece until your home laboratory is complete. Below is everything you need to know about setting up a home chemistry lab including a complete list of suggested laboratory equipment for your chemistry lab, chemicals for your lab and how to obtain them, and how to safely organize and store chemicals in your lab.
Required chemistry lab equipment
Note that most chemistry container equipment is made of a special glass called borosilicate glass (often branded as Pyrex glass). This is a special type of glass made with silica and boron trioxide that is ideal for storing chemicals as well as heating and mixing. When purchasing chemical containers, beakers, stirring rods, etc., make sure they are made of borosilicate glass and not plastic or ordinary glass.
Some think wearing goggles is dorky but for hardcore experiments, they are a necessity. You *will* occasionally be splashed with chemicals and if splashed in the eyes, severe eye damage *will* occur – often irreparable damage. Always wear goggles – even when conducting the simplest of experiments.
As with protective goggles, a lab coat is a necessity, not just for protecting your clothes, but for protecting your arms. And they look cool too!
Sometimes called a ring stand, a retort stand is a heavy metal base and rod that can be used to attach clamps to hold test tubes, burettes, etc. This should be the first piece of equipment that you purchase for your home chemistry lab.
Boss Head (Bosshead or bosses)
Bosses are used for attaching the various clamps and rings to the Retort Stand. The boss attaches to the Retort Stand’s rod using a thumbscrew on one end of the Boss. The other end of the boss houses another thumbscrew which is used to attach burette or test tube clamps or support rings.
A Burette clamp is used to attach a burette or a thermometer to a Retort Stand. The Burette clamp attaches to the Retort stand rod using a thumbscrew. Springy mechanisms on each side of the clamp spread apart allowing placement of the burette in soft grips.
Test tube clamp
A test tube clamp is used to attach test tubes to the Retort Stand. Many come with the Bosshead already built in. If not, be sure to purchase a Bosshead too.
Support rings attach to the Retort Stand and are used to set bottles and other containers on. Make sure to purchase a Bosshead too so that the Support Ring can be attached to the Retort Stand.
Beaker tongs are tongs specially made to gently but securely pick up and hold wide beakers without breaking them. This lets you pick up hot beakers or beakers containing chemicals that could burn you.
Crucible tongs are tongs specially made to pick up and hold narrower glass containers.
A burette is a device used to dispense a variable, measured amount of a chemical solution. It attaches to the Retort Stand rod using a burette clamp. You turn a valve on the burette to allow a small stream of solution to drip down into a container placed beneath it.
Test tubes are used often in chemistry experiments. You should purchase two types of test tubes – disposable plastic test tubes and test tubes made of Borosilicate glass (which can be heated). You’ll likely want to purchase various sizes and a test tube holder too.
Test tube brush
Given their narrow opening, glass test tubes are notoriously difficult to clean (plastic test tubes are typically thrown away after use). A test tube brush makes cleaning test tubes a breeze.
A chemistry spatula (or test tube spatula) is a small metal spoon-like tool used to scoop up small amounts of chemicals.
Bunsen burners are often used in chemistry experiments to heat chemicals in a controlled manner. They are typically the most expensive piece of equipment in your lab. A Bunsen burner will also require purchasing a propane tank (the fuel), regulator, and hose.
A propane tank filled with fuel will be required to power your Bunsen burner. Make sure to purchase the appropriate type of fuel for your Bunsen burner (typically propane). Propane tanks used for campfire stoves will work and can be purchased from many outdoor and camping stores.
A regulator should be attached to the Bunsen burner propane tank. The Bunsen burner hose is then attached to the regulator rather than attached directly to the propane tank. As the name implies, a regulator regulates the pressure of the gas coming out of the tank and also provides a safe on/off valve.
Bunsen burner hose
A hose will need to be purchased to connect the propane tank and regulator to your Bunsen burner. Make sure you purchase the appropriate size for your regulator and Bunsen burner. Hose clamps are recommended to secure the hose and prevent leaks.
Clay triangles are used to support crucibles while heating over a Bunsen burner. The wires extending from the edges allowing it to be balanced upon a retort ring.
Almost all chemistry experiments will require precise measurement of chemicals. Balance scales are popular, but we prefer digital scales which are extremely accurate and affordable.
Weighing paper is used to place chemicals on before placing them on the scale. Never lay chemicals directly on the scale. Laying chemicals on your scale will not only damage your scale but contaminate the next material you place on the scale (or even worse, start a fire if the two chemicals react).
Beakers are used for mixing, transporting, and reacting chemicals.
Similar in function to a beaker, an Erlenmeyer flask is used to mix, transport, and react chemicals. Its narrow opening helps keep chemicals (and the reaction) inside the container.
Graduated cylinders are useful for measuring liquid volumes. If greater accuracy is needed, use a pipet or volumetric flask instead.
Glass stirring rods
Glass stirring rods are used to mix chemicals. Make sure you use glass rods made of borosilicate glass and not general-purpose glass, plastic, or wood stirring rods.
Glass funnels are useful for transporting chemicals to other containers. Often times the chemicals you purchase will come in bulk baggies. A glass funnel makes it easy to transport the chemicals to an appropriate container. They may also be used to pour liquids into a beaker’s narrow opening.
Petri dish (optional)
A Petri dish is often used for long-duration experiments in which the reaction takes place over hours or days. The Petri dish has a clear glass cover which lets you watch the reaction as it takes place.
Inoculating loop (optional)
Sometimes called a smear loop, an inoculating loop is a simple wire formed loop used in some chemistry experiments. Inoculating loops constructed from platinum will resist constant exposure to acid and flames better than a nichrome wire inoculating loop.
Florence boiling flasks (optional)
Florence boiling flasks look a little like an Erlenmeyer flash but with a much narrower opening. This makes them especially suitable for heating chemicals. Of course, as with your other chemistry glassware products, they must be made of heat-resistant borosilicate glass.
Mortar and pestle (optional)
A mortar and pestle are used to grind solid or granular chemicals into finer products (e.g., powder).
A crucible is a container that can withstand extremely high temperatures.
Dropper pipets are similar to eyedroppers but are often made of cheap disposable plastic. They are used to transport a measured volume of liquid to another container. Although plastic is not ideal for chemistry experiments (it may react with some chemicals), glass droppers are difficult to clean and reuse.
Evaporating dish (optional)
An evaporating dish is a ceramic dish in which liquids are heated over a flame so that they evaporate, leaving a solid residue. Their width and shallow depth make this possible.
Forceps are used to pick up solids which cannot be picked up by hand (because they are hot, dangerous, or reactive to your skin or gloves).
You will need special thermometers made specifically for chemistry labs. They are typically several inches long, much longer than a medical thermometer, and very resistant to heat. They are often attached to the Retort Stand using a Burette clamp.
Wash bottle (optional)
Wash bottles with small, curved nozzles are used to clean chemistry equipment and containers. Make sure you only use distilled water to clean your equipment and remember some chemicals are reactive to water (in which case, acetone or a similar solvent will be used instead).
Watch glasses (optional)
Watch glasses are similar to a petri dish but are shallower and allow for observations both above and below the reaction. They are also commonly used to cover beakers.
A variety of storage bottles will be needed to repackage bulk chemical supplies or to repackage chemicals in a higher quality container than the container they were shipped in.
Safety in a chemistry lab is extremely important and that means keeping incompatible chemical supplies properly separated. Label each chemical with a chemistry label that indicates the chemical’s category, name, date received, and date opened (see below).
Micro torch (optional)
Although Bunsen burners will suffice, it is sometimes easier to heat beakers or powder chemicals using a micro torch. Micro torches are butane powered and commonly used for cooking or jewelry making.
When mixing various chemicals during an experiment, it is common to measure all required chemicals before the experiment starts. You can use cheap plastic weigh boats to spoon a measured amount of chemical into.
Volumetric flask (optional)
Volumetric flasks are used for some chemistry experiments. They are calibrated to contain a precise volume at a particular temperature.
Chemicals for your home chemistry lab
Storage of chemicals can be dangerous. You must create an effective storage process and understand that chemicals must be catalogued and stored properly. The easiest way to do this is to carefully catalog all chemicals using color codes – then store chemicals according to their color code. Note however, that there are exceptions to the color code rule. Some chemicals must be stored separately regardless of their color code. You will have to read and understand the data sheets for each chemical to truly store them safely.
Obtaining chemicals for you home chemistry lab
Many chemicals are readily available under common names that differ from their technical chemical name. For instance, Acetic acid is commonly known as vinegar and Calcium Hydroxide is known as garden lime. Chemicals may be packaged under various names and sold for specific uses and thus, may be found in feed stores, garden stores, hardware stores, pool supply shops, drugstores, grocery stores, beauty supply shops, etc. Check Geek Slop’s big list of chemicals for alternate names for many chemicals.
If a chemical cannot be found in a drugstore, hardware store, etc., check online retailers such as Amazon and EBay. If all else fails, you may have to approach a chemical retailer. This is often difficult – most will not sell to individuals and some only sell to schools. In these instances, check with your chemistry teacher to see if they will order the chemicals for you.
Notable chemical suppliers
Below are a few notable chemical companies you should check out. We have dealt with each of these companies and can vouch that they offer quality, well-packaged products at affordable prices. Two notable companies are Loud Wolf and Frey Scientific. Loud Wolf sells a wide variety of chemicals at affordable prices from their website and an Amazon store. Frey Scientific is likely the best chemical supplier on the planet. Unfortunately, they only sell to educational institutions. Frey’s prices are hard to beat, and each product is packaged with color-coded lids, a chemical data sheet, and detailed product labels. They also have the widest variety of chemicals. If they will accept your order and set up an account for you, they’re hard to beat.
EBay Lab Chemicals http://www.ebay.com/sch/Lab-Chemicals
Frey Scientific https://store.schoolspecialty.com
High Quality Chems http://www.highqualitychems.com/
Hobby Chemical Supply https://www.hobbychemicalsupply.com/
Loud Wolf http://www.loudwolf.com
Skylighter Pyrotechnic Chemicals http://www.skylighter.coml
All about Chemical grades
Most chemicals are labelled with a “grade” which indicates how pure the chemical is. Purer chemicals of course, will be more expensive. However, for chemistry experiments, you can typically get by with Laboratory or technical-grade chemicals. Below are the most common chemical grades ranked from highest purity to lowest.
- A.C.S. (or Reagent ACS): the highest purity.
- Reagent: generally equal to ACS.
- USP: generally sufficient purity to meet or exceed requirements of the U.S. Pharmacopeia.
- NF: of sufficient purity to meet or exceed the requirements of the National Formulary.
- Laboratory or Lab: relatively high quality but with exact levels of impurities unknown. Typically suitable for laboratory purposes but not pure enough for food or medicinal use.
- Purified or practical grade: good quality chemicals but not good enough for food or medicinal use.
- Technical: good quality chemical grade for commercial and industrial purposes.
Remember too that for many chemicals, you can purchase higher concentrates and dilute them with distilled water to create the appropriately concentrated solution. However, higher-concentrate chemicals are often more dangerous to store and work with.
Safe storage of chemicals in your home chemistry lab
Chemicals are typically separated into categories: flammable, oxidizer, corrosive (acids and bases), reactivity, toxicity, and low hazard. Separating chemicals by category lets you store each type together with other chemicals of that same type and keep incompatible chemicals separated. For instance, flammable chemicals can be stored together in a flammable cabinet and kept separate from oxidizers (which could easily cause them to ignite). Corrosive materials are stored separately and in appropriate containers while toxic chemicals are stored and labeled indicating their danger.
Once your chemical supplies have been cataloged, the various categories of chemicals can be used to “buffer” each other during storage. For instance, chemicals in the oxidizer category (yellow label) can be stored between acids and bases. Chemicals in the flammable category can be stored between general chemicals and poisonous chemicals.
Below are the most common color codes used to identify chemicals by their type. You should purchase colored labels or Hazard Diamonds and label each chemical in your lab accordingly. Then store each chemical by color while paying attention to the many exceptions to the rule.
Corrosive. May be harmful to eyes, mucous membranes, and skin. Store separate from combustible and flammable chemicals.
Reactive/Oxidizer. May react violently with water, air, or other chemicals. Store separate from combustible and flammable reagents.
Flammable. Store separately only with other flammable chemicals.
Toxic. Chemicals are hazardous to health if ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. Store separately in a secure area.
General chemical storage. Presents no more than a moderate hazard in any category.
Used by Fisher instead of green.
Obsolete color code, replaced by green.
Incompatible with other reagents of the same color code. Store separately.
How to store chemicals by color codes
Isolate inorganics from organics using tubs. Store in flame resistant cabinet. Examples include: (organics) Xylenes, ethers, alcohols, halogenated hydrocarbons (some), ketones, acetic acid; (inorganics) potassium sulfide, hydrogen sulfide, carbon, aluminum metal, powdered metals, magnesium, calcium.
Flammable- (Red stripe)
Isolate from other flammables as they react with each other. Separate inorganics from organics. Examples include: (organics) acetaldehyde, phenol, acetic anhydride, acetyl chloride, benzene; (inorganics) sodium sulfide, potassium lump, phosphorus, iron powder, zinc, sodium lump, copper powder.
Isolate inorganics from organics. Segregate from other chemicals on separate shelf. Examples include: (organics) m-chloroperbenzoic acid; (inorganics) silver nitrate, lead nitrate, aluminum chloride, ammonium dichromate (ammonium nitrate needs to be stored separate from all chemicals).
Reactive- (Yellow stripe)
Isolate from other reactives as they react with each other. Separate inorganics from organics. Examples include: (organics) none; (inorganics) peroxide, periodic acid, mercuric nitrate, iodine monochloride, bromine.
Corrosive/Contact Hazard- (White)
Separate organics from inorganics. Separate acids (preferably in an acid cabinet) from bases (preferably in a corrosive cabinet). Examples include: (organics) bases: p-toluenesulfonyl chloride; acids: trichloroacetic acid, sulfamic acid, oxalic acid, Bouin’s solution; (inorganics) bases: tin, strontium, sodium hydroxide, soda lime, manganese-dilut, calcium-dilut; acids: sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, chromic acid, phosphoric acid, (nitric acid needs to be stored separate from all chemicals).
Corrosive/Contact Hazard- (White stripe)
Separate from other corrosive chemicals as they react together. Separate organics from inorganics. Separate acids (preferably in an acid cabinet) from bases (preferably in a corrosive cabinet. Examples include: (organics) bases: trifluoroacetic anhydride, tetrabutylammonium hydroxide, sebacoyl chloride; acids: lactic acid, chlorosulfonic acid; (inorganics) bases: potassium hydroxide, phosphorus oxychloride, lye, ascarite II, ammonium hydroxide; acids: none.
Toxic/Poisons/health hazard- (Blue)
Separate inorganics from organics. Separate from other chemicals on separate shelf or cabinet. A locked cabinet is preferred. Examples include: (organics) urethane, thioacetamide, toluene diisocyanate, saccharin sodium, halogenated hydrocarbons; (inorganics) wood’s metal, thallium, strontium, sodium cyanide, silver iodide.
General Chemicals- (Orange (obsolete) or Green)
These chemicals have slight or no hazards associated with them. Examples include: (organics) sorbic acid, stearic acid, succinic anhydride; (inorganics) sodium thiocyanate, stannous chloride, nickel, manganese oxide, calcium carbonate.
General rules for storage of laboratory chemicals
Be sure to follow these rules when storing laboratory chemicals in your home.
- Store only the minimum quantity needed for your experiment. For instance, a small container of Potassium Chlorate is much safer than large bag full of this sensitive oxidizer.
- Chemicals should be stored at the appropriate temperature and humidity level.
- Chemicals should be dated when received and when opened. Some chemicals change composition over time and become unsafe after prolonged storage (for instance, concentrated Hydrogen Peroxide degrades and builds up dangerous levels of oxygen).
- Inspect containers periodically. Make sure they are tightly capped to avoid vapors interacting with other chemicals. Note: flasks with cork, rubber, or glass stoppers are not adequate for storage of chemicals.
- Do not store chemicals over your benchtop. Only bring chemicals to your benchtop when are needed for the experiment you are conducting.
- Shelving should have raised lips to help contain any chemical spills.
- Never store chemicals on the floor – period.
Special safety note about peroxides
Peroxides are particularly unstable and therefore, the most hazardous substances found in a lab. Peroxide-forming chemicals, called peroxide formers, are chemicals that react with air or impurities to form peroxides. Organic peroxides are sensitive to sparks, heat, shock, and light. Some organics are even more sensitive than TNT.
Peroxide storage rules
Below are some general rules regarding peroxides.
- Do not store peroxide-forming materials in containers with screw caps nor in clear glass bottles that could allow exposure to light.
- Do not open the container if you suspect peroxide formation. The twist of the cap could be enough to cause an explosion. Inspect the peroxide-forming material for crystals or unusual thickness, particularly around the cap where evaporation has occurred.
- Date all peroxide forming materials with date received, date opened, and expected shelf life.
- Store all peroxide forming materials away from heat, sunlight, and sources of ignition.
- Make sure lids on peroxide-forming materials are tightly capped.
List of peroxide formers and their expected lifetime
Below is a list of common peroxide formers and their expected lifetime.
Peroxide formers that should be discarded after 3 months
- Divinyl acetylene
- Isopropyl ether
- Potassium amide
- Potassium metal
- Sodium amide
- Vinyldiene chloride
Peroxide formers that should be discarded after 1 year
- Benzyl alcohol
- Cumene (isopropylbenzene)
- Decahydronaphthalene (decalin)
- Diacetylene (butadiyne)
- Diethylene glycol dimethyl ether (diglyme)
- Ethyl ether
- Methyl acetylene
- Methyl-isobutyl ketone
- Vinyl ethers
- Other secondary alcohols
Peroxides that should be tested for peroxide formation every 6 months
- Vinyl acetate
- Vinyl acetylene
- Vinyl chloride
- Vinyl pyridine
- Vinyldiene chloride