Elementary Chemistry: Copper-Plating a Nail

We jumped into practical chemistry today with this experiment from Wholly Irresponsible Experiments.

To be honest, for all my recent intention to become more hands-on with science, I had planned to ease gently back in after our week away skiing, by watching Chemistry, A Volatile History. I hadn’t counted on C (8) and J (6)  being so inspired by what they saw that they wanted to leap straight into being chemists themselves!  (There’s nothing like a break to recharge the homeschool enthusiasm!)

As soon as the end credits on the documentary began to roll, J jumped off the sofa and headed towards the bathroom, blithely announcing he was “off  to make some potions”.  Remembering that a similar impromptu potion-making session had got through the large part of a £35 tube of my Laura Mercier foundation,  I quickly grabbed Wholly Irresponsible Experiments and began setting up this easy and fun experiment.

What You Need

  • 12 dull copper coins
  • 150 ml (2/3 cup) vinegar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Small bowl (we used a ramekin)
  • Teaspoon
  • Iron nail (ungalvanised) or 2
  • Kitchen paper

What You Do

  1. Pour the vinegar into a small bowl.
  2. Stir in the salt.
  3. Put the copper coins into the bowl so that they are completely submerged.
  4. After 5 minutes use a spoon to remove the coins
  5. Put the nail into the bowl. Notice little bubbles begin to form on it.
  6. After 30 minutes use a spoon to remove the nail

What Happens

The nail comes out copper coloured! If you have a second nail you can compare the two.

The Scientific Explanation

Copper from the coins goes into the salt and vinegar solution and attaches to the nail, producing a copper-plated nail.  For more on the science see this site.

Verdict on the Experiment

A resounding success.  Fast, easy and very cool!

Beginning Chemistry

It’s time to get more hands-on in our science.  Last term we followed REAL Science Odyssey’s “Life”  curriculum;  C and J loved making jelly cells and blood, acting out red blood cells moving around a giant’s respiratory system, and learning about human digestion and bones. But since the Life curriculum had moved onto worms and molluscs their interest was beginning to wane, besides which it’s entirely the wrong season to be hunting snails or waiting for butterflies to emerge from chrysalises.   The upshot is, we’ve put our half-finished animal kingdom lapbooks aside for now and dived into chemistry!


I spent a weekend thumbing through some chemistry books on our shelves – Robert Winston’s It’s Elementary! Putting The Crackle into Chemistry  and Irresponsible Experiments  – and the REAL Science Odyssey Chemistry curriculum I’d bought in the last Pandia Press sale.  “It’s Elementary” is wonderful but doesn’t offer much in the way of hands-on science, and “Wholly Irresponsible Experiments” is full of fun activities, but from experience I know I need to be guided by some sort of curriculum otherwise all that fun hands-on stuff tends to fall by the wayside.

REAL Science Odyssey Chemistry (1)

The RSO chemistry curriculum is very rigorous in its application of the scientific method and contains lots of practical activities.   The worksheets are mainly geared to older children, so we’re going to focus on the experiments, backed up with plenty of discussion.  We’ll still follow the scientific method –hypothesis, observations, conclusions – but my overriding intention is to get the children excited about science!


C and J are big Harry Potter fans so I knew this “potions” lesson would go down well. We started out with three separate bowls containing:

  • confectionary (icing) sugar
  • baking powder
  • baby powder

First we used our physical senses to examine the powders.

Then we tested how each powder reacted when we added small amounts of various liquids:

  • Water
  • Vegetable oil
  • Vinegar
  • Blue food colouring

Mostly the liquids were added one at a a time to the powder, but sometimes we added more than one thing, like:

  • Food colouring and water
  • Oil and vinegar
  • Oil, vinegar and food colouring

How Did It Go?

The children loved it.  J was especially delighted to have chosen to administer the test on baking powder, which fizzed very gratifyingly when vinegar was added to it!

What Would I Do Differently Next Time?

Although they started out very enthusiastic, by the end of the experiment the children were a bit weary – there were a lot of tests, and they had to wait while I washed up the glasses in between each one. If I were doing this again I would probably spread it over more than one day or leave out some of the tests.  Science works best in bite-size chunks in our house at the moment.

What Next?

The RSO Chemistry curriculum moves on next to a discussion of atoms and then introduces the elements. Before we go onto that, I’d love to find a good living book on the history of chemistry.  It took a long time for alcehmists-turned-scientists to discover that the world is made of elements, and the story of how they did is fascinating, as I found out when I recently watched the BBC documentary Chemistry – A Volatile History. Wouldn’t it be fun to learn about atoms and the elements as the final piece of a detective story that puzzled great minds for centuries!


We’re really enjoying learning about the human body as part of our REAL Science Odyssey Life (level 1) curriculum.  The combination of the hands-on activities in the curriculum, great living books and the wonderful resources available on YouTube really brings the human body to life (ha ha!).

Today we found out about blood. We made a model of blood using half a cup of vegetable oil (for plasma), half a cup of red kidney beans (red blood cells), five butter beans (white blood cells) and a tablespoon of dried lentils (platelets).

All stirred up in a jar this was a great way of learning how, although blood looks like a homogenous red liquid, it is actually made up of several different components, appearing red because of the red blood cells.  We talked about what each component does.

The children coloured and labelled diagrams of the blood model, and we read The Magic School Bus Has A Heart (highly recommend – we love the Magic School Bus!). We also looked at Blood!  which is a nicely illustrated and very comprehensive early-reader style reference  book but was less of a hit in this living-books-loving house. Usborne’s flap book See Inside Your  Body has some great pictures of the circulatory system.

Finally we enjoyed our favourite new find – the “Once upon a time… Life” series on YouTube. These are short animated movies (15-30 minutes) by Procidis which C and J absolutely LOVE.  Each mini-movie (viewable in 3 parts on YouTube) covers a different topic using cartoon characters inside the body.  The science is spot on and very detailed, but presented in such an engaging way as not to overwhelm younger children.  This morning we watched the movie about the blood and another about the heart.  [Edit: C and J later begged me for another, so now they know all about platelets, too!]

My Library Thing

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