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Finally got my completely questionable lab set from China. It came from a no-name industrial supply company on ebay, but whats nice about it is that the set is made entirely of borosilicate glass. This has the added perk of not requiring gaskets, since low thermal expansion means that the milled portions of the set will always fit together. If it were glass-glass, there would be leaks, etc. You can buy one yourself – but I also strongly recommend a no-contact IR thermometer to monitor the temperature at the top of the flask. Whats nice about this particular set is that the condensation column is on the end of an arm – so instead of being directly in line with the flask and subject to the heat source, I can move the flask around so the arm is where I need it to be. There is no stand that comes with it, but this is nothing my meager woodworking skills cannot overcome.

I also bought this scale, and I had planned on using it for reloading given that October means hunting season is full swing around here, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that the scale not only had grams measurements, but it also had grains measurements. Grains are similar to arshins, they’re still used today but in very niche applications. People very occasionally run across them mostly in the medical field, but outside of that, I would be impressed if anyone knew what a grain was off the top of their head. The answer is a neat meld of alchemical and practical observation – a grain unit is simply one unit of a specific thing. Confused? The simple answer is that there is no answer! A grain was simply something like “A grain of wheat taken from the center of the head [of the stalk]”. A carat is the same idea – a carat is a measurement of mass of a seed of carob, a grain became a grain of wheat (four of which made a carot), a corn was a barleycorn (three of which made a carat). But all this talk about measurements, hunting, and such misses the point. The grain was statistically important because it would have been handy for a household to have, and certainly would have been the preferred unit of measurement in Alchemical experiments.

Grains of course aren’t really grains, and even in Agrippa the expression is never “4 grains of gold” but rather in Chapter xxxiv of book 1, the expression is used as “a grain of Mustardseed, bruised, the sharpness which lay hid is stirred up”. Grain of wheat, grain of mustardseed, grain of barley… The standard was imprecise but always came with a comparator. “In like manner four grains of the seed of Turnisole being drunk…” which I take to read “four seeds”. Agrippa is also a wonderful source of Alchemical prompts, and oftentimes the catalog of plants and such. Sometimes the plants proscribed are supposed to be taken in wine and sometimes the plants are supposed to be applied as (what we would call) poultices.

Specifically regarding “wine”, there’s really two possible “wines” here. Wine as it was consumed in antiquity would have been watered down to 3% or so. The idea was to get the flavor and some tipsy, but it wasn’t consumed to the excess we do today to become flat out intoxicated. This cultural norm came about when people figured out how to make alcohol reliably. Agrippa could be talking about this, but I doubt it since he goes to such great lengths to describe the preparation and harvesting of material. The argument for this is that if Agrippa meant some sort of fortified wine, he would have just said so. On the other hand, I think that it’s also very likely that Agrippa meant Spirit of Wine (Aqua Vitae). Not only would that produce intoxicating effects, but it would also allow most medicinal compounds to be solvent in either the alcohol or the water. Agrippa, practicing alchemy, would have used a similar distillation rig.

This is where good old magic crosses over into redneck fun – how does a pot still work? Turns out its pretty easy and a lot less messy with todays conveniences like electricity. Alchemical texts are filled with really weird but generally reproducible standards like placing the item being transformed into a gentle heat of decaying mare’s dung and similar. For the still, it should be sufficient to use a double boiler sort of setup. Get a bucket of ice water and if you used that kit I linked to earlier, some .4″ inner diameter tubing. Put a bung in the bucket you can pass the tubing through so it flows (or use a brewing bucket from your local beer and wine making store) and attach that to the top of the condensing column. Run the bottom of it to the sink. Some manuals will reverse the top and bottom, but the size of the column is such on this scale that it won’t make a difference.

If we’re looking to dissolve something suspended in water for religious purposes, collect the first 100ml or so of material for a 1L batch. If the material is suspended in alcohol, it gets a little trickier. The first 10ml of a 1L batch of something which is alcoholic will most likely be methanol. Dump it. The next few hundred milliliters will be ethanol, we want that. The last hundred milliliters will be fusel oils, etc and not good at all. In short, the first 10ml will smell like solvent, the next 100ml or so will smell delicious, the next 800ml will be OK alcohol, the last 100ml or so will smell like solvent or burning. If you have that no-contact IR thermometer, start collecting after the temp start rising after 92C or so and stop collecting around 97C per the home distiller.

Now I have to go track down some plants under the sphere of luna. I thought I would find some of them while outdoors in the normal course of hunting season. Jury is still out on that but I better get moving before the snows set in.