William Gurstelle has a knack for building highly kinetic things. He often explores subjects that seem dangerous from a distance — like cannons and catapults — but are safe so long as you understand the science.
He is the author of bestselling book Backyard Ballistics, which details a variety of projectile-flinging DIY projects, as well as other books like Absinthe and Flamethrowers, a personal favourite that advocates getting your hands a little dirty and living dangerously (well, to a point). He also writes in magazines like Make and Popular Science, and has appeared on the Discovery and History Channels as a communicator of science.
His latest book is Ready the Cannons! Getting back to ballistics, Gurstelle explores various types of projectile launchers and their context in history. Of course, he also explains how to make your own miniature versions. They range from marshmallow guns to steel rubber band shooters, as well as larger projects that are pretty much real cannons — real, even if the ammo is a potato. Safety is always a priority, of course; after all, you should never turn your back on a loaded potato.
We spoke with Gurstelle to learn about how he works.
Location: I’m in St Paul, Minnesota. My home office and workshop are on an overlook on the only deep river gorge on the entire length of the Mississippi River.
Current Gig: I’m a writer and I also do a lot of professional speaking on risk taking and creativity as well. I specialise in science and history, with a special emphasis on including do-it-yourself projects in the mix. My dozen or so books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. I’m also a contributing editor at Popular Science and at Make Magazine.
One word that best describes how you work: “Connections.” When I write, I love finding connections between ideas. When the connections are plentiful and strong, then I know it’s a pretty good subject to write about.
Current mobile device: iPhone 5, and an older iPad
Current computer: It’s an older HP laptop. So far, it’s doing everything asked of it. It weighs a ton though.
What apps, software or tools can’t you live without?
What’s your workspace setup like?
I have a large standalone workshop on the back of my property where I prototype and build stuff. It’s bright, roomy and has a giant door so it’s easy to bring projects in or out. Perhaps of interest for Lifehacker readers are the interior walls which are made from 1.27cm plywood outfitted with “French cleats“. This is basically a beefy, flexible and oh-so-cheap DIY storage system that allows me to easily store and position heavy stuff about any place in the shop I need to.
In my home office, I built a custom sit-stand desk to which I connected a big, kidney shaped glass top which I got for cheap at IKEA. Kidney-shaped desk tops are, I think, the most efficient of all possible desk shapes. Everything is within arm’s reach, and there aren’t any far away corners to collect clutter.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
I use a variety of lists. For simple stuff and due in the short term, there’s an app called MomoNote that’s pretty good. It doesn’t have many features, but whatever I write shows up on my computer, my iPad and my phone and that’s all I ask. For longer range stuff, I use ToodleDo which has a lot of features.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
We just got a DeLonghi Magnifica automatic espresso machine. It’s wonderful — I just push a button and I can get freshly ground coffee the way I like it, and in just seconds. Another item that’s important to me is the Philips Sonicare Diamond Clean electric toothbrush; it makes my mouth happy.
What tools do you use to write?
I use Word for the actual writing. DropBox really works well for sharing documents. I work with a lot of different editors at different publishers and magazines and so on, and having a system of shared folders makes keeping track of things a snap.
Do you find yourself always working on something? Or when you finish a project, do you take time to let your mind wander without concern for what’s next?
I always have a ton of projects in mind. On my ToodleDo list, I divide projects into those I’m actively working on, those I’m not doing but believe I will do and those that sound good but who knows if I’ll ever get to them.
I spend a fair amount of time just thinking about whether something is feasible or not, and if it is feasible, whether it’s really worth doing. There are a lot of ideas I’ve had that I originally was quite taken with, but over time, I lost steam. They stay on my list, but between me and you, I’m probably never going to do them.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?
I’m really good at building things that shoot, hurl or throw stuff. Not real guns so much, but stuff like potato cannons, catapults, blowguns, trebuchet, air guns, rockets and so on. There are interesting scientific and historical connections between these things that I just love. I get called up and asked about this stuff a lot by the media and others. Yeah, it’s a weird little niche, but by God, it’s my niche.
What do you listen to while you work? Got a favourite playlist? Maybe talk radio? Or do you prefer silence?
In my office, I like it quiet, so I can concentrate. In my workshop, I like to have the TV on for background noise, but I only put on shows that you don’t really need to watch in serial order; stuff you can glance up every once in a while and still know what’s going on; for example, Cops reruns, Jeopardy! and Forensic Files.
What are you currently reading?
How do you recharge?
Every day, I walk with my dog — summer, winter (it gets -28C in Saint Paul), rain or shine. The nicer the day, of course, the longer the walk. I get some of my best ideas while out walking. When something good hits me, I’ll use Siri to make a note so I don’t forget.
What’s your sleep routine like? Are you a night owl or early-riser?
I usually get up around 7:00AM or so and go to sleep around 11:00PM. But I travel internationally a lot and I have a hard time sleeping and staying awake normally after crossing multiple time zones, especially going east. I’ve tried light therapy but not found it too helpful. I’d love to get ideas on overcoming jet lag.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see ______ answer these same questions.
Leonardo Da Vinci. Leonardo is arguably the world’s most famous polymath. So many thoughts and so many different ideas! I’ve seen his notebooks which are filled with tiny, messy scrawls written in mirror image across the page. I’d love to know how he kept all his projects going at once.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I think it’s important to associate with positive, upbeat people. You get energy from other people, so hang out with energetic people. I got this advice from my mum who is the most positive, optimistic person you can imagine. She’s 94 and still completely independent, and she’s always positive and optimistic.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
I like trivia and host a trivia contest every Monday night at the bar closest to my home. One time I appeared on a television show called Win Ben Stein’s Money. I won Ben Stein’s money. Here is a question I answered from then WBSM host Jimmy Kimmel: “Formed by hardened lava, what is the most abundant of the volcanic igneous rocks?”
The answer is basalt.
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