Pyro School: Finale


I’m finally finished with all of my coursework for my Washington state pyrotechnician’s license! The last course, as far as I’m concerned, was the best of all. We spent a bit more than 2 hours setting up and loading racks of mortars and wiring them up for electrical firing. We spent less than 2 minutes firing them…

1 3/4 inch shells with ematches installed.

Electrical firing allows the operator a greater degree of control over the timing of launch of the shells which can give a show a nicely polished appearance. It also makes timing the show to music a bit easier. Lastly, it is quite a bit safer than hand firing shells due to the removal of personnel from the mortar racks.

Ematches are used instead of fusees (road flares) to ignite the fuses of the shells. An ematch is simply a wire bridge, a low resistance, small diameter wire that heats upon applying electrical current. The bridge is at one end of a small gauge pair of wires while the other end has stripped ends that are shunted, twisted, together to reduce the possibility of inadvertent ignition. The bridge is coated with a mixture of flammable compounds that burn insanely hot when given the juice.

A classmate loads a 2 1/2 inch shell into a mortar.

Wiring shells in series for simultaneous firing of three tubes.

More wiring…

More wiring…

Connecting the leads to a firing slat.

The firing slat runs alongside the mortars. This one has 50 individual pairs of connectors allowing 50 cues (single or multiply connected items) to be fired from the board in any desired order.

A full fan rack hooked up and ready to go.

Espressodude doing some wiring…

Espressodude is a good friend of mine and is the one who nudged me into earning my Oregon and Washington licenses. We camp together at Burning Man and build propane flame effects together at home in the Portland area. He is a crew member with Black Rock FX, an awesome group of highly skilled and dedicated pyrotechnicians who coordinate, install, and fire many fireworks and effects displays at Burning Man. They did the Flaming Lotus Girls Tympani Lambada as well as The Trojan Horse shows last year. If everything goes right and I get the nod, I will be on the crew this year in some capacity…

All loaded and ready to go…

20 roman candles quickmatched together.

Smaller candles are typically not used in big shows. Smaller shows like high school games and grand openings and the like will use them quite a bit due to their low cost.

Pepper (middle) was itching to spray somebody with the class A extinguisher.

Pepper is one of almost ten folks at the display company (where we trained / launched at) who have switched from tobacco to personal vaporizers (e-cigarettes).

A 200 point firing board.

The firing board shown here will set you back around $4,000. They’re well made and will stand up to a shitload of abuse (within reason…). Each point, when touched with the stylus, the black test probe, will fire whatever is hooked up to the corresponding point on the slats. The slats connect to the 50-pair connectors at the upper right. The board is powered by the sealed lead-acid 12 volt battery shown atop the board. It is connected to the board by the terminals at the top left corner. To the right of the terminals is a switch that selects between test and fire. In the test position it restricts the outgoing current to a few milliamps in order to check the continuity of each circuit. If the cue is ok, you’ll see a light illuminate as well as hear a tone from the speaker. Although we check each cue before connecting it to the slat terminals, something can always go wrong. Test twice, fire once. There’s no do overs during the show…

Each connector at the lower right corner of the board connects to a 50-pair cable.

A classmate firing his shells.

Shells launching!

Espressodude shooting his load…

The candle racks firing…

My training card sits atop my copy of the show report.

I need four more live shoots, two letters of recommendation, and the passage of a state exam to obtain my Washington state license. Two more live shoots and passing a state exam will net me my Oregon license. Because I love certifications and licenses (locksmith, gunsmith, heavy equipment operator, alarm and security installer, etc.), I’ll probably go for my Idaho license as well.

Fireworks display companies are always looking for people to help on their shows. Think about it. Most folks spend their Fourth of July eating brats (or chasing them) and passively watching fireworks shows. Then there’s us pyros. We’d rather let someone buy tens of thousands of dollars worth of fireworks for us to fondle, er, handle, load, and fire. Unless you’re the lead pyro you won’t be making much. You’ll do well to cover your gas and get a lunch or dinner out of it. Money isn’t the point of it though. The opportunity to work with like minded individuals and the chance to entertain a crowd with the harnessed power of a thousand year old art form, that right there is payment enough for me.

Remember, fireworks aren’t just for the 4th. New Years Eve, Christmas, weddings, parties, funerals, grand openings, and movies are but a few other events that make use of splodey goodness.

Google your area or state for fireworks display companies and give them a call. Most will be glad to train you or tell you where you can obtain training. Most states don’t require licensing to fire shows. Of course, if you don’t have a license, you can’t lead a crew on a shoot. If earning some extra money is one of your goals, get your license, put some time in as a crew member, get to know the operators, build a reputation as a safety conscious and hard working individual, and you’ll be able to lead your own crew.

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Children are amaaazing…..

TheLittleDesignStall

I found this amazing, unique, but brilliant installation online. It´s installed at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Ar, artist Yayoi Kusama. The installation, entitled The Obliteration Room, is part of Kusama’s Look Now, See Forever exhibition that runs through March 12.  I was inspired by: ThisisColossal

“The first four images courtesy Queensland Art Gallery and photographer Mark Sherwood. Additional images from Stuart Addelsee and hey bubbles.”

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The Great Teddybear Massacre


A group of burners (Burning Man junkies, not pot smokers) extended an invitation to me to come to their “Cute Shoot”. This is a wholesome family event that features exploding teddy bears. These bears are unstuffed and restuffed with Tannerite (a legal impact sensitive explosive compound), 1lb propane cannisters, cans of V8, and numerous combinations of the above items. The animals are bought for about a dollar a pound at the Goodwill bins distribution centers. After stuffing, the animals are placed a safe distance downrange and engaged with high velocity rifles. Rimfire rounds and pistol rounds will not usually detonate Tannerite. One exception is my friend Anne. She detonated a bear with a Glock 17 (9mm) pistol. That’s not an easy shot with a 5.5 inch barreled handgun fired from an unsupported position at 30 meters. Nice shooting Anne!

I rigged up a portable flamethrower with a tank that you strap on like a backpack. I made it specifically to help with the cleanup of the bits of fluff generated by exploding teddy bears. It worked nicely and the land owner was pleased with how it burned up the scraps. I was originally going to drop a 20lb propane tank into an REI expedition backpack but it wouldn’t fit through the top entry! Then I figured I’d buy a smaller diameter 10lb tank that would fit into the pack. I spotted a hank of rope I had in the back of my truck and decided to use it to rig up shoulder straps and save 90 bucks by not buying a new tank. I used an 8 foot long piece of that rope, fit each end with hot melt adhesive lined heat shrink tubing, doubled the rope, looped it through the collar handle on top of the tank, passed the ends through a gardening kneeling pad, and threaded the rope through holes in the tank’s base ring. I also made a 90 degree adapter for the propane tank to ease mechanical stresses on the tank valve. An 8 foot hose leading to the Manchester Power Jet hand burner completed the rig. It’s easy and cheap and really works well. You can also use this setup for walking your driveway, logging road, or cow pasture to burn weeds and it’s a dandy and fun way to get your burn piles lit up in the fall when they’re a bit wet. I have removed the gas orifice from the top tube which is the burner gas delivery tube. This allows a longer and fuller bodied flame. If you’re only burning weeds, you can leave the orifice in place to conserve propane.

Mixing 1 pound Tannerite charges to stuff the bears with.

Mixing 1 pound Tannerite charges to stuff the bears with.

A Tannerite stuffed teddybear ready for the firing squad...

A Tannerite stuffed teddybear ready for the firing squad...

He shoots, he scores!

No more teddybear...

Teaching a panda bear to defend herself from propane crazed teddybears.

Teaching a panda bear to defend herself from habitat destroying teddybears.

Another rabid teddybear taken out of action!

Another rabid teddybear taken out of action!

I was a little heartbroken by this one...

I was a little heartbroken by this one...

Cleanup is always more fun with a flamethrower!

Cleanup is always more fun with a flamethrower!

 

Fire Toys


Here’s some photos of propane burning fire toys I have built. While I’d love to make a step by step tutorial, the nature of these systems prevents me from doing so. They aren’t inherently dangerous, quite the opposite actually. Rather, the construction and operation of them by individuals unfamiliar with building systems like these may lead to accidents that can be prevented by a little bit of knowledge. I built this “fire poofer” based on seeing photos and diagrams elsewhere on the net. The first two photos show the construction details of poofers. These are from The Department Of Spontaneous Combustion. The concept is simple. The poofer consists of an accumulator tank that also serves as a base. Rising from the accumulator is a manifold consisting of an inlet for the propane gas, a safety valve to shut off flow to the solenoid valve (or hand operated whistle valve), a solenoid valve (or whistle valve – a quick opening and closing valve typically used on steam whistles and air horns), a vertical ‘stack’ or pipe leading upwards, and a pilot light to ignite the released propane as it emerges from the top of the stack. My manifold is truly overbuilt. It is made up of stainless steel and 5,000 PSI hydraulic fittings (propane gas pressures seldom exceed 150-160 PSI). It’s what I had laying about in my workshop. It can easily be built from plumbing fittings available at most home improvement stores for less that $100.

Poofer fired by electric solenoid valve. It allows multiple poofers to be fired individually or simultaneously by remote control or programmable controllers. Of course, it can run a single fire poofer using a button like I do with mine.

A manually operated poofer. I’d recommend stepping up to a whistle valve for smoother operation.

The rest of the pictures are of my fire poofer.

Yes, yes I can!

Overall view

A closeup shot of the manifold

The pilot light

A wide open blast. It sounds like a jet engine. Has a deep throaty whistle / roar.

At Burning Man. Running it with short bursts or ‘poofs’

Controlling the solenoid valve with a signal generator

My “Auto-Fire” control

A finished view of the “Auto-Fire” controller box. The 10-turn pot allows fine control of the firing rate. It ranges from around 1 shot per second to 17 per second. On and off periods are identical, i.e. 1 second open, one second closed. Future iterations will allow adjustable periods independent of each other.
The timer circuit is based on a 555 timer IC and a solid state relay. It’s a 4 channel relay so it has expansion possibilities.

A video of the poofer running in Auto-Fire mode:

In manual burst operation it will produce fire rings in still air

I don’t know what this one came from but it’s from something of ours and looks cool

One of our propane flamethrowers (modified Manchester Power Jet commercial weed / brush burner)…

The Manchester Power Jet hand burner puts out 750,000 BTUs. See details at Manchester’s website. They’re not cheap. Expect to spend around $200. Here’s one for $130. That’s just the burner, no hose or regulator. They have a package deal including them which costs $220. I don’t use a regulator with mine, never have, not needed. I want wide open, right now, burn it all kind of flames. You can get a 10 foot hose online or at a propane dealer. The valve that it uses is what’s referred to as a whistle valve. It allows nearly instant full opening as well as infinitely variable flame adjustment.

A whistle valve available online from McMaster-Carr.

Here I’m running two Power Jets and the fire poofer at the same time. I’m using a foot switch to run the solenoid valve on the poofer.

 

A manually operated poofer:

The manually operated poofers can use a whistle valve (best due to the speed of operation) or a ball valve (less expensive). Electrically operated (using a solenoid valve) poofers cost the most to build and require a power source to operate the valve. I like them due to their adaptability to automation and remote operation. Manual ones are quite safe to operate but you are so close that you can’t appreciate the look of the fireballs and flares.

Be careful and have fun. Wear all cotton, wool, denim or aramid clothing when operating any fire toy. Synthetic fabrics melted onto skin are decidedly un-fun…

Update, May 5th, 2017. Nick Poole, another flame effects and electronics enthusiast, has a poofer build at Sparkfun you should check out. He listed this page as reference used in his research, AND, he’s still alive! If you’d like to improve your chances of survival and integrate a microcontroller into your project, go and learn how here.

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