It has several qualities that make it suitable for amateur experimenters: it's not poisonous, it has a fairly low melting point, it's cheap, and it has a really lovely crystalline structure. It's great fun to play with.
I got the health question a lot from people I mentioned this project to. Unlike lead, mercury, nickel, or other metals, there is no significant health risk from vapors or from touching bismuth or ingesting small amounts (it's actually the active ingredient in a popular brand of stomach medicine). There is of course a burn risk when you melt it, but adequate precautions and basic care reduce this to levels that are quite acceptable for me - it's really no riskier than boiling a large pot of water.
Step 1: Equipment and Safety
As with nearly anything these days, bismuth can be purchased on the Internet. I got a pound for about $15 US. This turned out to be a cube (more or less) of an inch and a half to two inches on each side.
Obtain the following additional items:
- goggles in case of splashing
- leather gloves
- crucible - stainless steel pot or bowl
- heat source - stovetop works fine, i used a camping stove
- big tweezers to pick out crystals
- pliers to handle crucible if it has no handle
I got my bismuth from Rotometals for $15 plus about $7.50 shipping, which was lowest for my location. Other online sources sell it as well.