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How to Make Fireworks Whistle Rockets

by Ned Gorski

What Is a Whistle Rocket?

I think a really impressive fireworks device speaks for itself, so here's a video of one of these whistling firework rockets in action.

(Click Image to Play Video)
One-Pound Fireworks Whistle Rocket

A whistle rocket does just that: whistles and screeches as it leaps skyward. The motor uses the same whistle fuel that was used in the How to make a whistle article. Whistling rockets are "hot." They leap off the launch pad and can really reach a seriously high altitude if they're made well.

I've made whistle rockets in sizes from 1/4-inch ID super-bottle-rockets up to 1.5-inch-ID "six-pounders."

I've lifted some big ball shells (called "headings" when they're carried by rockets) with the larger whistle rockets. But, often they fly so high that the effect of such a heading is lost. For that reason I prefer to simply put a large report heading on them with some coarse titanium in it for impressive silver sparks when the header explodes.

Other variations in construction can include various "delay" effects during the coasting portion of the flight following the initial powerful thrust portion--from simply allowing the rocket to continue whistling across the sky, to having the whistle change to a brilliant red flare or a color changing one, before the heading finishes the rocket's flight.

Be aware, though, that whistle rockets are not your "father's black-powder rockets." The rocket fuel used in these babies is powerful. If the rocket engines are not dialed in carefully and fused properly, very impressive CATO's ("bombs on a stick") can result.

Warning: Do not EVER hand-ram whistle rockets using a mallet. The fuel is sensitive and could be set off in that process. Whistle rockets must be pressed using a manual arbor press for small rockets or a hydraulic press for larger motors, which require more pressure. It is wise to use a safety shield on a press just in case something goes wrong and the motor ignites during construction.

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

Whistle Rocket Fuel

I'll be using the same fuel that I specified in the article on making whistles. The alternative fuels I mentioned in that essay can be used to make whistle rocket motors. But there will be the requisite "dialing in" in order to maximize performance and consistency with those variations.

Whistle-Rocket Fuel on Paper Lined Tray
Whistle-Rocket Fuel on Paper Lined Tray

So, study that article and make some of that whistle fuel, observing all the pertinent safety precautions.

Whistle Rocket Tooling

I will be making one-pound, 3/4-inch ID, whistle rocket motors for this project. Skylighter carries TL1311 tooling used to make these engines.

Whistle Rocket Tooling
Whistle Rocket Tooling

This tooling set comes with a base, a spindle, a hollow rammer for pressing the fuel increments around that spindle, and a solid rammer with which to press the increments of fuel above the spindle.

Note: You may notice the tooling I'm using in this project, which I've had for years, is different than the Skylighter tooling. But, my spindle is about the same size and the motor construction and performance are very similar.

Whistle Rocket Motor Tubes

Because of the high pressure at which the fuel is pressed in these motors, and the thrust they develop during flight, high-strength paper tubes must be used in their construction.

Skylighter TU1066 3/4-inch ID, 1/8-inch wall, extra-strong tubes are an excellent choice for these whistle rocket motors. I cut the 30-inch long tubes into 4.75-inch long tubes for these engines.

Cutting Tubes for Whistle Rocket Motors
Cutting Tubes for Whistle Rocket Motors

The Tube Support

Because of the high pressure used to press these motors, the tubes would bend, split, and collapse if they were made using no tube support. A good support is absolutely essential when making these motors.

A 4.75-inch piece of 1-inch ID, PVC plumbing pipe serves well as a tube support. It is sliced lengthwise with a hacksaw to ensure that it will go around the paper tube and fit snugly when the slice is closed. The support is held tight with metal band-clamps, installed side-by side, and tightened with their screw-adjusters alternated around the circumference of the support.

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

Polishing the Tooling

Unlike the fuels for charcoal tailed rockets, whistle rocket fuel tends to be "sticky." The high pressures used to press the fuel around the spindle cause the fuel to adhere to it. This makes the motor hard to remove from the spindle once the engine is pressed. And the sodium salicylate fuel I prefer is reportedly stickier than fuels made with potassium benzoate or sodium benzoate.

Here is a solution, though, regularly touted by master-rocketeer Steve LaDuke. Polish your tooling, especially the spindle, using very fine, 600-grit sandpaper and a good metal polish. I got an excellent polish, Mothers Billet Metal Polish, at my local auto-parts store.

Polish Whistle-Rocket Tooling with Fine Sandpaper and Metal Polish
Polish Whistle-Rocket Tooling with Fine Sandpaper and Metal Polish

First, if I have any scratches or small imperfections on the spindle, I remove them using a small piece of the sandpaper to smooth the tooling. Sanding in a lengthwise direction on the spindle ensures any remaining scratches run in that direction, rather than in a circumferential pattern, which would make the motor-removal more difficult.

Then, using a small section of soft rag, the tooling, including the rammers, is polished until it all has a mirror-smooth finish. This really enhances the ease of use of the rammers, and the finished rocket motor's ability to be removed from the spindle.

I even do the best I can to polish up inside the hole inside the hollow drift ("drift" is another word for "rammer"). This will help release any fuel which gets between that hollow part and the spindle during pressing.

Polishing the tooling this way is time well spent. It will help avoid a lot of aggravation in the next steps of pressing the motor and removing it from the spindle when it's done.

Pressing a Whistle-Rocket Motor

Besides being pressed in a longer tube, and on a longer spindle, a whistle-rocket motor is not much different than a regular whistle. But I do fuse whistle rocket motors differently than I fuse standard whistles.

Fireworks Whistle-Rocket Motor Cross-Section
Fireworks Whistle-Rocket Motor Cross-Section

Drilling the Fuse Hole

You'll note that the fusing technique shown in the diagram is different than most rocket fusing. There is a method to my madness.

The first thing you might notice is there is no clay nozzle in whistle rocket motors. A whistle rocket needs to have the bottom of its motor tube wide open. So the fuel has to be ignited right at its bottom edge, or else there's a good chance the motor will blow up due to over-pressurization after ignition.

It can be a challenge to install a fuse from the bottom of the motor, only touching the edge of the fuel-grain, with no nosing to hold it in place.

Some folks hot-glue the fuse to the inside surface of the paper tube. Others use masking tape to attach the fuse to the rocket stick. I've tried both of those methods. With some care they can work fine, but at other times I've had the fuse fall off as it was burning, before igniting the motor.

So, I came up with the solution of installing the fuse as shown above. Before pressing any fuel, I drill a 1/8-inch hole through the motor casing, right at the outside edge of where the fuel grain will begin. I use a piece of wooden dowel to back up the inside of the paper tube during the drilling operation.

Drilling 1/8-Inch Fuse Hole in Whistle-Rocket Motor Tube
Drilling 1/8-Inch Fuse Hole in Whistle-Rocket Motor Tube

Marking the Tooling Drifts for Safety

Next, I mark the tooling drifts with masking tape to ensure they never come into contact with the spindle when I'm pressing a motor. I allow about 1/8-inch margin of safety between the drift and the spindle when I'm applying the tape.

Marking Tool Drifts with Masking Tape for Safe Clearance
Marking Tool Drifts with Masking Tape for Safe Clearance

Pressing Rocket Fuel into the Tube

The hollow drift is used to press the increments of fuel, until the fuel is above the spindle. All the increments are pressed to 7500-psi (pounds per square inch) on the composition.

In the article on making whistles, I illustrated the method for determining how much hydraulic press force to use with a solid drift. Applying 2200-psi of pressure according to my press's gauge results in an actual 7500-psi on the composition with the solid drift.

But, since the hollow drift has the hole in it, less force will have to be applied to it to achieve this same pressure on the fuel.

End of Hollow Whistle-Rocket Drift
End of Hollow Whistle-Rocket Drift

With some math, I've determined that the surface area of the end of this hollow drift is about 80% of the surface area of a solid-end drift. For this reason, when using the hollow drift I'll only apply about 80% of the force with my press that I'd apply when using the solid drift.

So, for the increments that are pressed around the spindle with the hollow drift, I'll press up to a gauge reading of 1750-psi on my hydraulic press.

The first thing I do when pressing a motor is remove a small paper cup of the fuel from the tub of fuel. Then I close the tub tightly and set it aside away from where I am working. That way, only the small cup of fuel is exposed in case something goes wrong.

Ready to Load Whistle Fuel into Rocket Motor Tube
Ready to Load Whistle Fuel into Rocket Motor Tube

With the support securely fastened around the paper tube, and with the fuse-hole-drilled end of the tube mounted on the spindle, I introduce 7 grams (1/4-ounce) of the whistle fuel, using a funnel.

Weighing Whistle Rocket Fuel
Weighing Whistle Rocket Fuel

I then consolidate that fuel increment with the press in two steps, by first pressing up to only 1000-psi on the gauge.

I remove the drift and use the smooth, round end of my awl to clean any fuel that is wedged in there out of its hole. Then, I insert the drift back into the tube and press the rest of the way up to 1750-psi on the gauge.

Cleaning Whistle Fuel Out of Hollow Drift
Cleaning Whistle Fuel Out of Hollow Drift

If I press all the way up to the full pressure on the hollow drift in one step, fuel will work its way up between the drift and the tube, and between the spindle and the drift, in its hole. This can bind the drift in the motor, which makes it difficult to remove after the increment is pressed. Pressing the increment in two stages, and cleaning the drift between those two pressings usually eliminates stuck-drift syndrome.

When I'm pressing a really large motor, such as a 1.5-inch ID model, I'll actually press each increment in 3 or 4 stages to reach the full pressure in order to keep the drifts from getting stuck.

Pressing a Whistle-Rocket Engine in a Hydraulic Press
Pressing a Whistle-Rocket Engine in a Hydraulic Press

Four, 7-gram increments of the fuel, pressed in this manner with the hollow drift, bring the fuel to just above the spindle, using my fuel and tooling. This can vary a little from batch to batch of the fuel, or with different tooling.

After the fuel is above the spindle, I switch to the solid drift. Now I press the same 7-gram size increments in one pass up to the full 2200-psi reading on my gauge.

For the rocket shown in the initial video in this article, I press fuel to one inch above the spindle. That requires three 7-gram increments with the solid drift, for a total of 49 grams of fuel in this motor.

I cap the motor off with a 7-gram increment of bulkhead clay mix.

Adjusting the Total Flight Time of the Whistle Rocket

The portion of the rocket's flight after the initial high-thrust phase, and before the heading bursts, is called the delay section of the flight.

The fuel around the circumference of the spindle, and above it for that same distance, about 1/4-inch, burns very rapidly in the highly pressurized thrust period of the rocket motor's burn.

Whistle Rocket Motor's Thrust Fuel and Delay Fuel Sections
Whistle Rocket Motor's Thrust Fuel and Delay Fuel Sections

Then, the solid portion of the fuel above that thrust fuel burns more slowly in a less pressurized environment. That's why the whistle sound changes so drastically after the initial thrust burn.

So, in this rocket motor I had 1/4-inch of thrust fuel above the spindle, and then about 3/4-inch of delay fuel above that. If I shorten that delay fuel, the delay portion of the flight would be shorter. If I lengthen the delay fuel column in the motor, that delay portion of the flight would be longer.

Looking at the video at the beginning of this article, the one-inch of total fuel above the spindle produced that particular flight and delay before the heading exploded. I was pretty happy with that rocket's flight. I might have lengthened the delay fuel column another 1/4-inch to see if that produced a more pleasing flight in the next rocket.

Other interesting modifications can be made to the delay fuel grain. Once the fuel has been pressed to above the spindle, spherical titanium can be added to the fuel increments that get pressed with the solid drift. The delay fuel is weighed into a paper cup. I add 10% of that fuel's weight in titanium. Then the cup is swirled to mix the components.

The titanium fuel mix is pressed one increment at a time, the same as described above. The metal will produce a silver spark trail as the delay-fuel burns. If the hard metal is added to all the fuel (below the top of the spindle), it will tear the spindle up pretty quickly. Since it also might pose a sparking threat, I only add it to the delay fuel.

If I plan to have a passfire hole, I usually drill the hole down through the center of the clay bulkhead into the fuel. But, I don't want to drill into any fuel containing titanium; so I'll cap any titanium-fuel off with 1/8-inch of plain fuel (no titanium in it). Hand-twist-drilling into that is safer.

The effects you can create using the delay fuel are limited only by your imagination. For instance, in his article "How to Make Fireworks Rockets with Green and Red Tails," Dave Stoddard describes delay fuels used to change the rocket tail's color to a green or red flare as it flies upward.

Removing the Tube-Support from the Tube, and the Motor from the Spindle

After the fuel and clay have been pressed in the tube, it's time to remove the motor from the spindle. This is easier if the support is removed from the engine first, which loosens the motor on the spindle just a tad.

First, I loosen and remove the metal band-clamps from the support, and then slide the PVC support off of the motor.

Then the motor is twisted off the spindle. Putting the spindle base in a vise or holding it rigidly in the rocket press can facilitate this. Using both hands to twist it, the motor is carefully removed from the tooling. Do not use clamps or pliers on the motor itself, or you will risk cracking the fuel grain, which will cause the rocket to explode instead of fly.

Support Removed from Tube, Whistle Motor Removed from Spindle
Support Removed from Tube, Whistle Motor Removed from Spindle

Drilling Passfire Hole into Clay Bulkhead

If I am going to put a heading on the rocket, then I'll need a passfire hole in the clay bulkhead to transfer fire from the last of the rocket fuel to the heading.

I create this passfire hole by carefully hand-twisting a drill bit into the center of the bulkhead just through the clay into the pink fuel. (Remember that the last 1/8-inch of fuel that was pressed should contain no titanium, even if titanium was added to the rest of the delay fuel.)

Warning: Never use a power drill to create the passfire hole. The friction and heat caused by such fast drilling could ignite the motor. Only use hand twisting on the drill bit to create the hole.

I've found that starting the hole with a sharp 1/8-inch drill bit, hand twisted through the clay until it just barely penetrates the fuel, works well. Then I'll expand the hole with a 1/4-inch diameter bit to widen and create the final passfire hole.

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

Simple Rocket Headers

Several types of simple headers can now be employed on this whistle rocket.

There is a 1-inch long empty space in the motor tube above the drilled clay bulkhead. First of all I like to insert a couple of pieces of black match, from either quickmatch or fast fuse, into the drilled bulkhead passfire hole. I cut these pieces of match about 1.5-inches long so they reach the bottom of the passfire hole, and extend just to the end of the motor-tube.

Inserting Blackmatch into Whistle Rocket Passfire Hole
Inserting Blackmatch into Whistle Rocket Passfire Hole

These strands of blackmatch ensure positive fire transfer from the last of the rocket-fuel to the header.

For a spray of stars at the end of the rocket's flight, a small amount of black powder can be put into the tube's recess, followed by some of the stars.

For a falling glitter comet, some of the black powder followed by a single 3/4-inch comet can be used to fill the end of the motor.

For a small report at the end of the rocket's flight, the end of the tube can be filled with either loose black powder or loose whistle fuel. A pinch of coarse titanium can be added to either of these powders to produce silver sparks when the header fires.

End of Whistle Rocket Motor Filled with Loose Whistle Fuel
End of Whistle Rocket Motor Filled with Loose Whistle Fuel

With any of these types of headings, the motor is then capped with a 1-inch end disk, glued on.

If a report heading has been made, I like to reinforce the report tube-section and end cap with some strapping tape, finished off with some peel-and-stick aluminum-foil duct tape. This reinforcement really helps a report heading to "pop."

For a star or comet heading, simply gluing a paper disk on is sufficient to finish the end of the motor.

Finishing Rocket Report Heading with Strapping and Aluminum Tapes
Finishing Rocket Report Heading with Strapping and Aluminum Tapes

Installing Rocket Stick

The last step to finishing this rocket is to install the stick. I'm using a square poplar stick that I ripped on my table saw. It measures 5/16-inch square by 36-inches long. I bevel the end of the stick, hot-glue it straight on the motor, and finish the attachment with two bands of strapping tape. I make sure the stick does not cover the fuse-hole.

Attaching Stabilizing Stick to Whistle Rocket Motor
Attaching Stabilizing Stick to Whistle Rocket Motor

A 6-inch piece of Visco fuse can now be inserted into the fuse hole, and the rocket is ready to be placed in a launch tube and flown.

Visco-Fused Whistle Rocket Loaded in Launch Tube
Visco-Fused Whistle Rocket Loaded in Launch Tube

Sealing the Rocket Motor for Storage

If I'm going to store the finished rocket for a while, I like to seal the bottom of the motor and the fuse-hole with some aluminum-foil duct tape. This prevents the hygroscopic rocket fuel from absorbing atmospheric moisture during storage, and protects the motor from flame or sparks until flight-time.

Sealing Bottom of Rocket Motor and Fuse-Hole with Aluminum-Foil Tape
Sealing Bottom of Rocket Motor and Fuse-Hole with Aluminum-Foil Tape

Prior to flight, the tape is completely removed from the motor's bottom, and the Visco fuse is installed through the fuse hole.

Motors without sticks can be stored in sealed plastic baggies along with a bag of desiccant to ensure they do not absorb moisture.


Well, there you have it--one of the most interesting and powerful rockets you can make.

Next time I'll show you a nice variation on this basic motor, the strobe rocket, and some different ways to create a rocket heading.

See ya then,

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