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How to Make Fireworks Strobe Rockets

By Ned Gorski

What is a Strobe Rocket?

If I had to make the choice of being able to construct only one type of rocket, it would be a difficult decision. I truly love the low-level simplicity and effect of the Spectacular Glitter-Tailed Rocket with Willow-Diadem-Horsetail Finish.

But for pure, high-powered, awe-inspiring and crowd-pleasing rocketry display, the strobe rocket is sure hard to beat.

strobe rocket in flight
(Click Image to Play Video)
One-Pound Fireworks Strobe Rocket

The following video is a six-pound strobe rocket. I constructed this 1.5-inch ID model in a seminar I taught at a local pyro club event.

Note: The "one-pound" and "six-pound" rocket motor designations have nothing to do with what the rocket actually weighs. They are fireworking terms, which refer to the rocket engine tube's inside diameter (ID), and have their roots in antique rocket-making terminology.

6 pound strobe rocket flight
(Click Image to Play Video)
Six-Pound Fireworks Strobe Rocket
(Video taken by Dan Thames)

That baby was really up there by the end of its flight. You can tell that from the delay between the video and audio of the report heading. These large strobe rocket engines really do sound like helicopters in flight, too. For such a relatively simple fireworks device, they sure are satisfying and attention grabbing when they work well.

Even when they don't "work well," and CATO (blow up) on the launch pad, these rockets are impressive! There is a lot of power packed into that engine tube, so it pays to put a long piece of Visco fuse on them, and have everyone plenty far away from the launch area just in case.

Whistle Rocket Explosion on Launch Pad
Whistle Rocket Explosion on Launch Pad
(Photo Courtesy Jerry Durand)

This is the third in a series of whistle-related articles. The first installment dealt with making whistle fuel and simple fireworks whistles. That same fuel will be used in these strobe rockets. The second article described the construction of basic whistle rockets. Many of those same techniques will be used now to make strobe rockets. So, it's a good idea for you to familiarize yourself with those basic methods before forging ahead with this project.

Note: I will not be repeating all the basic construction details from the whistle rocket tutorial. You really will need to be familiar with those techniques if you are going to tackle this strobe rocket project.

A strobe rocket utilizes whistle fuel for power, along with strobe fuel to create the popping sound and flashing light that is unique to them.

Pressing Rockets

Note: Once again, as in the whistle projects, hand ramming with a mallet is never employed with these fuels and devices. Only a press equipped with a safety shield should be used to press these items. Fireworks Tips #121 detailed the construction of such a hydraulic rocket press. For small rockets, some folks use a manual arbor press to consolidate (press) the fuels.

Hydraulic Rocket Press with Safety Shield
Hydraulic Rocket Press with Safety Shield

Strobe Rocket Fuel

In addition to the whistle fuel I referred to above, one other fuel is necessary for these strobing rockets--strobe fuel. This fuel is very similar to the composition that was used to make strobe pots. Please study the methods and precautions that were spelled out in that essay.

This strobe fuel is what gives these rockets their distinctive popping sound and flashing light as they fly. But, strobe fuel alone is not powerful enough to make a rocket fly.

Back in the '80's, Doc Barr started playing with a basic strobe rocket, using a black powder fuel to boost the strobe fuel's power. His results are chronicled on Page 58 of The Best of AFN II.

A funny and educational quote from Doc's article is, "All rockets have the potential of exploding on takeoff, but these do it with an annoying frequency. About 1 out of 10 act more like an open-ended salute than a rocket. So 'light fuse and retire quickly' is my Eleventh Commandment."

In the late 80's and early 90's, folks like Doc and Steve LaDuke started working with whistle fuels in rockets, resulting in the high-powered fireworks whistle rockets like I described in the whistle rocket article mentioned above.

Somewhere along the line, these rocketry pioneers had the bright idea to combine the powerful whistle booster fuel with the impressive strobing fuel, and the modern strobe rocket was born.

Traditionally, nitrocellulose (NC) lacquer is added to the standard white strobe composition specified in my strobe pot article. In his BAFN article, Doc Barr said he pressed his strobe fuel slightly dampened with NC lacquer. Many modern builders dampen their fuel with NC lacquer, granulate the dampened fuel through a 12-mesh screen, and dry the granules before pressing the fuel in the rocket motor.

Years ago I made a slight change in this method. Rather than using NC lacquer, I now dampen my strobe fuel with an additional 2% mineral oil dispersed in Coleman Fuel, as I described in the whistle-fuel procedure.

White Strobe rocket Fuel

Chemical Percentage 16 Ounces 450 Grams
Ammonium Perchlorate 0.57 9.15 257.1
Magnalium, 200 mesh 0.24 3.8 107.1
Barium Sulfate 0.14 2.3 64.3
Potassium Dichromate 0.05 .75 21.5
Mineral Oil +0.02 0.3 9

Note: The ammonium perchlorate, barium sulfate, and potassium dichromate are each milled individually in a blade-type coffee mill until they are fine enough to pass through a 100-mesh screen.

Warning: Potassium dichromate is toxic and a known carcinogen. A good respirator and rubber gloves are required when working with this chemical, and when using it in pyrotechnic compositions. Don't breathe this stuff or get it on your skin. Wear your protective gear even when you are pressing the finished fuel in the rocket motor.

I'll be making 3/4-inch ID (one-pound) size, strobe rocket motors. Each motor will use about 39 grams of whistle fuel and 25 grams of the strobe fuel. So, the 450-gram batch of strobe fuel shown in the formula above will be enough for approximately 18 motors.

All the dry chemicals are weighed out individually, then mixed thoroughly by gently passing them through a 20-mesh screen or kitchen colander. I put this mixed powder into a small plastic bucket.

I weigh out the mineral oil into a clean quart jar, such as a spaghetti sauce jar, and then I add 1/2 cup of the Coleman Fuel to the oil. After tightly screwing the jar's lid on, I shake the liquid to completely mix the two ingredients.

This mixed liquid is then added to the dry powder, and it is completely blended in with gloved hands. The damp composition is then dried over a pot of hot water, as described in the tutorial on making whistle fuel. Once again, the fuel is never brought anywhere in the vicinity of any open flame or source of sparks.

After a couple of hours of drying over the pot of warm water, the fuel will be dry, will stop smelling of Coleman fuel, and will resemble grayish-green sand. I use my gloved hands to break up fuel clumps as it is drying.

Strobe Rocket Fuel on Kraft Paper Lined Tray
Strobe Rocket Fuel on Kraft Paper Lined Tray

The Rocket Tooling

To make the 3/4-inch ID strobe rockets for this project, I'll be using my tooling, which is very similar to the Skylighter TL1361 tool set. Strobe rocket tooling is almost the same as whistle rocket tooling. The main difference is the spindle is about twice as long. The number of rammers ("drifts") can vary from tooling to tooling.

Skylighter One-Pound Strobe Rocket Tooling
Skylighter One-Pound Strobe Rocket Tooling

Just as I did in the whistle rocket project, I polish the drifts and spindle using very fine sandpaper and metal polish to facilitate removal of the drifts during the pressing.

Strobe Rocket Motor Tubes

Once again, because of the high pressures used to make these engines, and the high thrust they develop, I use the extra-strong TU1066 3/4-inch ID paper tubes. For these motors I cut the tubes 6 inches long.

Cutting TU1066 Tubes into 6-Inch Long Strobe Rocket Motor Tubes
Cutting TU1066 Tubes into 6-Inch Long Strobe Rocket Motor Tubes

The Tube Support

A 6-inch long, PVC plumbing pipe and band clamp tube support is used to reinforce the paper tube during construction.

PVC Pipe Support for Paper Strobe-Rocket Motor Tube
PVC Pipe Support for Paper Strobe-Rocket Motor Tube

Drilling the Fuse Hole

Just as I did with the whistle rocket motors, I drill a 1/8-inch hole through the side of the paper engine tube, right where the bottom of the fuel grain will be.

Drilling Fuse Hole in Strobe-Rocket Tube
Drilling Fuse Hole in Strobe-Rocket Tube

Marking the Tooling Drifts for Safety

At least 1/8-inch clearance is allowed between the spindle and the point where the drifts would contact it. I mark my tool drifts with masking tape to be absolutely sure they never pinch fuel between the drift and the spindle while the fuel is being pressed. Pinched fuel can explode upon pressing. That 1/8-inch clearance is enough to prevent this.

My particular tooling set only has one hollow rammer and one solid rammer. Some tooling comes with two or three hollow drifts, and each one must be marked with tape accordingly for safety.

Strobe-Rocket Tooling Marked with Masking Tape for Safety
Strobe-Rocket Tooling Marked with Masking Tape for Safety

Pressing a Strobe-Rocket Motor

Cross Section of a Strobe-Rocket Motor
Cross Section of a Strobe-Rocket Motor

The first thing I do in this pressing process is scoop out a paper cup full of whistle fuel, and a paper cup full of strobe fuel, set them aside and put the large tubs of my fuels away in safe storage. As I've mentioned before, this is perhaps the most important safety precaution: limiting the amount of exposed flammable composition when working with it.

For my strobe rocket, I press the whistle fuel in the tube in the same way and with the same pressures I did when making the whistle rocket motors. Pressing three 7-gram increments, and one 4-gram increment of the whistle fuel brings that fuel halfway up the spindle. These increments are pressed with the hollow rammer.

I use black rubber o-rings on my rammers to keep dust down to a minimum during the pressing. These o-rings, as seen at the top of the solid drift in the photo of the tooling above, also serve another purpose.

Each time the rammer is about to be reinserted into the tube, I slide/roll the o-ring down toward the end of the rammer. Then, as I insert and press the drift down into the tube, the o-ring seals against the top of the tube and prevents much dust from blowing out. When the drift is removed after that increment, the o-ring's position marks where the top of the tube was, and just how far into the tube the drift went while pressing that increment.

When the drift is removed from the motor after an increment is pressed, the o-ring stays put on the drift exactly where the top of the motor tube was before the drift was removed.

Critical: I keep a full-scale sketch of the motor on my workbench as I'm pressing the motor. I'll put the drift, with the o-ring marking where the top of the motor tube was, down on the sketch, and keep track of how high the pressed fuel is coming in the motor. In this way I can precisely determine when the whistle fuel is pressed up to the desired level, and switch to the strobe fuel increments.

Hydraulic Pressing a Strobe-Rocket Engine
Hydraulic Pressing a Strobe-Rocket Engine

I keep the hollow rammer cleaned out as I press the fuels, because I never want to be pressing fuel up inside the rammer, between it and the spindle.

Cleaning Fuel Out of a Hollow Drift
Cleaning Fuel Out of a Hollow Drift

Then I press three 7-gram increments of the strobe fuel with the hollow rammer, and one 4-gram increment of that fuel with the solid rammer, being very careful to not press past the safety-tape line on that rammer.

This brings my strobe fuel up to about 3/16-inch to 1/4-inch above the end of the spindle, as checked once again by comparing the drift and o-ring with my sketch. The final strobe fuel increment is adjusted so that it reaches that level.

This strobe-fuel distance above the spindle is critical. Too little strobe fuel will cause the motor to start its whistling delay burn too soon. Too much strobe fuel above the spindle will cause the motor to burn too long, turn back toward earth, and perhaps even return all the way to the ground before the heading bursts.

Note: Ask me sometime how I know about the effect created when too much strobe fuel is pressed above the spindle. The story deals with a six-pound strobe rocket coming back to earth, going through the roof of a meeting tent as there was a "parting of the seas" in the crowd, bouncing off a swimming pool diving board, and the heading explosion nearly scaring Doc Barr to death, or at least into regaining the memory of most of his previous sex life. Oh, I can laugh about it now, but it was damn embarrassing at the time.

After the strobe fuel has been pressed to that critical distance above the spindle, another two 7-gram increments of the whistle fuel are pressed above the strobe fuel, as shown in the sketch above. This whistle fuel section creates the whistling "delay" portion of the rocket's flight before the ignition of the header.

As I mentioned in the whistle-rocket article, other "delay" effects can be produced. Colored fuels can be used instead of the whistle delay fuel, or titanium can be added to the whistle delay fuel. The amount of delay fuel has to be dialed in to produce the desired effect and length of flight.

The motor is then capped off with a 7-gram increment of bulkhead clay, with a passfire hole hand-twist-drilled into it. I never drill into whistle fuel with titanium in it, as I warned in the whistle-rocket article.

If I do use whistle fuel containing titanium in the delay section, I cap it off with 1/8-inch of fuel with no metal in it. Then I carefully hand-twist-drill the passfire hole.

Hand-Twist-Drilling Passfire Hole through Clay Bulkhead
Hand-Twist-Drilling Passfire Hole through Clay Bulkhead

Troubleshooting: The various amounts of fuel, and the distance up the spindle between the two fuels, have been dialed in for my own fuels and tooling. If your pressed rocket motor blows up on the launch pad, then less whistle fuel and more strobe fuel should be used. On the other hand, if your rocket doesn't have enough power at launch, more whistle fuel and less strobe fuel should be used.

So, there we have it, a finished strobe-rocket motor. One final thing I'll do is carefully re-enlarge the fuse hole with my awl since the hole can become a bit closed down and filled with fuel during the motor's pressing.

Enlarging Fuse Hole with Sharp Awl
Enlarging Fuse Hole with Sharp Awl

Creating a Rocket Header

These rockets can fly so high that I really like to only use report headers on them. The effect of a star-shell header could get lost up at that altitude. As I showed with the whistle rockets, the hollow end of the motor tube can be filled with loose whistle fuel, perhaps containing some titanium, and then capped off to create a small report heading.

Loose strobe fuel, which is also a powerful explosive, can be used in this way, too. If more hollow space is desired, the motor tube can be extended with an extra piece of the same motor tube, glued and taped onto the motor tube to extend it.

For a larger, more impressive report heading, Skylighter's PL1020 or PL1022 plastic #5 can shell casings can be used. These plastic cans measure slightly less than 2 inches in diameter, and work well on these one-pound rockets.

I fill the recess in the can's cap with hot glue, drill a quarter-inch hole in the can's bottom, and hot-glue a piece of quickmatch or fast fuse into that hole. When gluing the fuse into the can, I make sure all the gaps around the fuse are filled with glue to prevent any composition from leaking out of the can after it is filled.

The fuse will transfer fire from the top of the rocket motor to the heading.

1/4-Inch Holes Drilled in Plastic Can Bottoms, Recessed Caps Filled with Hot Glue
1/4-Inch Holes Drilled in Plastic Can Bottoms, Recessed Caps Filled with Hot Glue

Hot-Glue Quickmatch into Plastic Can Bottom
Hot-Glue Quickmatch into Plastic Can Bottom

Then I fill the can with my report composition of choice. The traditional filling would be flash powder, but making flash has become a bit problematic for some in the current legal climate.

If one has legal access to the necessary chemicals, I'll describe a safe way to make a flash report with one of these cans. But first, I'll detail three alternatives for making a report without flash powder.

A simple report can be made by filling the can with black-powder-coated rice hulls, with the addition of some coarse titanium if silver sparks are desired. One of the cans can hold 45 grams of the BP-coated hulls, and 14 grams of the titanium.

Plastic Shell Casing Filled with Black-Powder-Coated Rice Hulls
Plastic Shell Casing Filled with Black-Powder-Coated Rice Hulls

Two other alternatives would be to fill the can with loose whistle fuel or loose strobe fuel. A can will hold 57 grams of my whistle fuel, or 67 grams of my strobe fuel. For silver sparks, 14 grams of titanium can be added to either of these fuels by putting the fuel and the titanium into a small paper cup and gently swirling the two together to mix them before pouring them into the can.

Plastic Can Shell Casings Filled with Whistle Strobe Fuel
Plastic Can Shell Casings Filled with Whistle Strobe Fuel

Note: I mention this flash report composition option out of a sense of responsibility. Folks will make flash reports. There is a long tradition of it in all kinds of fireworks. But, flash powder is the most powerful composition that fireworkers work with, and many really serious pyro accidents involve it.

No matter which report composition I used, I then glued the caps onto the plastic casing cans with PVC plumbing cement from Home Depot. I did this outdoors because of the fumes, wiping the excess glue off with a paper towel.

I then strengthened the casings with some 1/2-inch wide fiberglass-reinforced strapping tape. Since my tape roll was 1-inch wide, I split the end of the tape in half. This allowed only one half of the width to tear off as I used it.

Note: During this taping process, the normal handling of the binary-mixed flash report is enough to sufficiently mix the ingredients. No rough shaking is necessary. Once the can is closed, handling this report is no more dangerous than the normal handling of a commercial fireworks salute.

Plastic Casings Reinforced with Strapping Tape
Plastic Casings Reinforced with Strapping Tape

I then finished the headings off with a layer of aluminum foil duct tape.

Rocket Headings Finished with Aluminum Foil Tape
Rocket Headings Finished with Aluminum Foil Tape

Here is a video of each of the four different report compositions, made as described above.

rocket fuel report test
(Click Image to Play Video)
Black Powder, Whistle Fuel, Strobe Fuel, and Flash Reports

I first trim the header fuse so that it is long enough to go all the way through to the bottom of the passfire hole, and is pressed against the rocket's fuel grain. I bare the last 3/4 inch of the fuse.

Rocket-Heading Fuse Trimmed and Bared
Rocket-Heading Fuse Trimmed and Bared

Then I put a bead of hot glue around the top of the motor tube and quickly install the header, carefully making sure the fuse goes all the way down into the passfire hole as I do so. I reinforce the joint between the header and the motor tube with an additional fillet of hot glue.

I've found that the slick side of a piece of the paper backing from the aluminum foil duct tape comes in handy for smoothing fillets of hot glue without burning my fingers.

Rocket Heading Hot-Glued onto Motor Tube
Rocket Heading Hot-Glued onto Motor Tube

The joint is then reinforced with some vertical, 3-inch strips of strapping tape, finished off with horizontal bands of the tape around the heading and the motor tube. This really strengthens the connection.

A 45-inch long, 5/16-inch-square, poplar rocket stick, with a beveled end, is then hot-glued and strapping-taped to the motor. If the rocket is to be flown immediately, then a 6-inch piece of Visco fuse is inserted into the motor's fuse hole.

Final Heading Connection Reinforcement
Final Heading Connection Reinforcement

Completed Rocket, Stick and Visco Fuse Installed
Completed Rocket With Stick and Visco Fuse Installed

If I am going to store the motor for a while before launching it, I won't install the Visco fuse now, but will instead seal the end of the motor and the fuse hole with aluminum foil tape to prevent the whistle fuel from absorbing moisture.

Well, it's been a bit of a journey, but in the last 3 projects we've made whistle fuel, whistles, whistle rockets, strobe fuel, strobe rockets, and impressive report headings. While these powerful fuels and devices are not exactly beginner's projects, if they are approached one step at a time, with good safe work habits, they can indeed be some of the most impressive and satisfying fireworking devices around, both for the builder and for the audience.

Stay Green and Have Fun,

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