Special Effects Science: Make Smoke Rise From Your Fingers!

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Want to convince people you're a great spiritual leader, or you've just come through a time portal? You can make smoke rise dramatically off your skin — without being burned. Or even lighting anything on fire.

All you need is a faucet with cold water, a matchbook, a lighter... and a willingness to smear residue on yourself, or your loved ones. Find out how to create a cool special effect in minutes.

This is a simple effect that stage magicians and special effects wizards use for minor — but cool — effects. It involves simple stuff, and it's only moderately dangerous, so let's get started. It's a way to get smoke to rise from your fingers. Technically, it's a way to get smoke to rise from any part of your body — provided you can press it against another part of your body — so it's only really limited by how toned your muscles are and your overall level of flexibility.


Let's assume you'll want to start with fingers first, and work up from there.

The effect doesn't take much. Start with a pack of safety matches — the rectangular kind, with the rough strip on one side. Cut out the strip. Fold it in half lengthwise. (I've seen it folded so that the rough side is inside the fold our outside the fold. It just needs to stand up.) Next go to the kitchen or bathroom and get the faucet going. Run the cold water until it gets very, very cold. Place the folded strip on the back of the tap. Grab a lighter, and light the folded strip. Hit both ends, and then run the lighter along the middle. The entire thing will burn to a cinder. Once it's done, knock it off the paper off the tap and let the water run over it to make sure it's completely out.


Left on the back of the tap should be a reddish-brown paste. Wipe some off and hold it between your fingers until you see someone you want to impress. When you do, rub your fingers together and smoke should rise from them. It's said that, if you do it in the dark, you should even see a glow.

Oh, but there's a problem. Most sources say that what you're doing here is condensing the relatively unstable white phosphorous from the red phosphorous on the side of the matchbox. Red phosphorous is a stable form of phosphorous, made from four phosphorous atoms that are structured in such a way as to grab on to atoms around them. Heating them produces white phosphorous in a vapor. The cold water running through the tap condenses the vapor into a paste. White phosphorous is a ring of four molecules, much less stable, and will give off heat and smoke when exposed to the air, or too much friction. It's also poisonous, and apparently can be absorbed through the skin.


Still, this trick has been used by magicians for a long time, and was often done in the 1970s in schools. And the process produces so little phosphorous, that you shouldn't have any problem with doing it every once in a while. So don't inhale the smoke, don't do it too often, and don't try to do it in bulk.

Unless it really, really impresses people.

Top image: Pond5/1@Andreus.

Via About.com and Instructables.