How to Make Fireworks Wheels For Set Pieces

Bill Schmidt, a very accomplished fireworks builder, active in the Crackerjacks club, and a former President of the Northern Lighters, approached me a few years ago with a book idea. He has been making fireworks for many, many years. When he first started, he would buy his supplies for Westech, a company in Utah owned by Ralph Degn. In those days, there was a lot less useful pyrotechnic literature around. To help bridge that gap, Ralph wrote a number of project-oriented papers he called "Technical Reports," which he supplied to his customers.

Bill had used these TR's, as they were sometimes referred to, so much over the years that they had become almost used up, too fragile or worn to be of much use any more. So, Bill took it upon himself to reproduce them. He laboriously copied the text into his trusty word-processing software. Even better, he also copied Degn's hand-drawn sketches into vivid color renditions that are both a delight to look at and extremely easy to understand. Bill even faithfully kept to Degn's TR numbering system.

Bill and I contacted Ralph Degn and asked his permission to republish his works in one volume, to which Ralph graciously gave his blessing. The result is one of the most interesting and useful books we offer on fireworks making, the Westech Manual. It contains every known piece that Degn published, assembled into a logical flow of related "chapters." These books are lovingly self-published by Bill and are fairly expensive to produce since they are printed in small batches and contain so many pages in color. In fact, there's more color used in this book than any other fireworks making book we know of. But words don't really do it justice.

So I thought it might be a good idea if we excerpted one section of the Westech Manual here, so you can get an idea of just what it looks like and how much fun it can be for anyone who loves to make fireworks.

What follows is the section of the book called "Basic Wheels and Revolving Pieces" (Westech report number L-103). This is a spark wheels 101 chapter. In it, you can learn everything you need to know to make any kind of basic spark wheel, driver, etc for set pieces. In Bill's book, a number of chapters follow, which show you how to make increasingly complex and striking spark wheels. One such chapter is L-104C, "Exhibition Ground Displays." Although you'll have to buy the book to see the chapter, I thought you might enjoy seeing the sorts of devices and set pieces from that section that you can learn to make. So at the end of this article, you'll see a number of Bill's illustrations from L-104C. Enjoy.


Revised and Copyrighted 2000, Westech
By Ralph Degn and Bill Schmidt


Wheels and revolving pieces present to the pyrotechnist one of the best means to display his imagination and artistic ability to the fullest extent. So much can be created using so little actual physical means. Revolving pieces can be effectively used in the smallest backyard display, in medium-sized displays for groups, parties, or country clubs, to the largest stadium sized exhibitions. Many other forms of fireworks depend on size for their effect. This is true of "Niagara Falls" effects, and some aerial shells.

Revolving pieces provide not only showers of sparks and fire but motion and animation as well. Thus they are able to provide a varied and interesting display in themselves. Since many of the more interesting and artistic effects take much hand labor, revolving pieces in general, not to mention the more elaborate creations, have tended to disappear from exhibition as well as commercial fireworks. The serious pyrotechnist should not let this deter him from creating his own imaginative wheels, either large or small. A truly well balanced display will include a varied selection of revolving pieces.

Most wheels and revolving pieces can be constructed and displayed with comparative safety. However, there are some items that have more than uncommonly dangerous compositions. Therefore, all safety precautions given in this treatise must be followed to the letter.

Certain principles and pyrotechnic theory are also given so the pyrotechnist can better understand the processes that are involved in making revolving pieces. These should be read and must be understood before actually making any of the items described. They increase the safety as well as add to the enjoyment of pyrotechnics.

Since all fireworks items consist of three main parts, viz., a composition, a casing, and a means of ignition, the following format is adopted to make their construction clearer. First, the composition(s) that are required are given. Second, the casing's qualities, dimensions, etc., are listed. Third, the ignition mechanisms necessary for proper performance are described. Fourth, any special materials (items that neither make up part of the composition nor the casing but are necessary for their proper function) are listed. Fifth, any special tools that are required are given. And sixth, the manipulation and procedures necessary in combining all of the above in order to construct the various fireworks items are explained.

The staff of Westech has spared no pains in preparing this comprehensive manual. All of the formulas, processes and procedures are proven and have been used with success; many have never before been available to the great majority of pyrotechnists. However, Westech can take no responsibility for any damage or injury resulting from use or misuse of this material, since we have no control over the conditions of use. The purchaser and user take full responsibility. Pyrotechnics can be a fascinating and rewarding occupation. Do not compound it with tragedy nor give it a bad name through carelessness or thoughtlessness.


Wheels and revolving pieces function on the same principles as the rocket. A burning composition confined within a cylindrical case produces gases, which exert pressure on the walls of the case. If the case were closed, then the pressure would be exerted equally on both ends and the case would remain stationary. However, there is a hole in one end. This allows the gases to escape with a corresponding decrease in pressure at this end. Since the pressure at the opposite closed end is now greater as the result of the loss of gases at the open end, it pushes the case in the direction away from the closed end.

A difference between the rocket and a wheel "driver" is that the rocket needs to produce a tremendous amount of force within a matter of a few seconds or less. (To achieve this, the rocket is charged so that there is a conical hollow inside its powder core. In this way, not only the end of the composition burns, but also the powder along the walls of the hollow. A very large amount of area of the powder is thus allowed to burn at once and produce the needed force.)

On the other hand, wheel drivers are intended to produce a smaller sustained amount of force over a longer period of time. Thus they are charged without a conical hollow so only the end of the powder burns. So charged, there is less area of the powder to burn at once so it produces less force but over a longer period. There is much less force required in order to spin a balanced, lightweight wheel around an axis than to overcome the force of gravity and project the same weight item upward to a great height.

Wheels are generally classified as to the number of drivers they have, i.e., "one case," "two case," "six case," etc. They can be "single action", only one driver burning at a time; "double action", two drivers burning at once; or "multiple action", more than two drivers burning at once. The various drivers and garnishments on wheels are fired with quick match or visco fuse. When effects are to be delayed, visco fuse is used. For simultaneous firing, quick match is employed.

Wheels can also be endlessly varied and garnished. Thus, there are "reversing wheels": wheels that start one way and then turn the other; "colored", "rainbow", or "rosette" wheels: wheels that have small lances or colored pots attached to them so as to burn along with the drivers. Wheels with whistles and/or salutes, drivers with various compositions so as to vary their effects of sparks and flame as they turn. Stop start wheels, "delay" wheels and many, many others, can be constructed, imagination is the only limit.

The actual wheels or other types of frameworks to which the drivers are attached should be as light in weight as possible but also quite strong. Ready‑made wheels should be used if at all possible, since it is sometimes quite difficult to combine the above qualities in homemade wheels. Pine is an excellent material for the construction of frameworks, etc. Wheels and all lightly colored structures should be stained or painted a flat black so they are invisible and not interfere with the patterns of sparks and fire.


The more meal powder a composition has, the more force it produces. Thus for small or light weight wheels, drivers may be used with smaller proportions of meal powder, or only one driver need burn at once. For heavier and more elaborate wheels, more drivers need to be fired at one time, or more meal powder be added to the composition. Only experimentation will tell how much meal powder to add to or delete from a composition, each type of wheel being different.

The size of a wheel will generally determine how rapidly it should revolve, and this, in turn, will dictate the amount of meal powder in the composition and/or the number of drivers burning at one time. In general, small wheels and saxons should revolve with great speed. Larger wheels should revolve quite slowly, but they should not be so slow as to cumbrously lumber around their axis. If any revolving piece or wheel revolves too slowly add meal powder; if it revolves too fast decrease the amount of meal powder. Refer to table L-103-1 (All parts are by weight.)

Table L-103-1 Driver composition formulas

#1 (Saxons) #2 (Fierce Gold) #3 (Chinese Gold)
Meal powder 4 Potassium nitrate 18 Potassium nitrate 18
Potassium nitrate 2 Sulfur 5 Sulfur 5
Sulfur 2 FFFg black powder 12 Iron, filings or borings 12
Charcoal, dust 1 Charcoal, dust 3 Charcoal, dust 3
Charcoal, mixed* 1 Charcoal, mixed* 2 Charcoal, mixed* 2

#4 (Brilliant Gold) #5 (Silver) #6 (Silver)
Potassium nitrate 18 Pot. perchlorate 8 Potassium nitrate 6
Sulfur 5 Aluminum, bright 2 Sulfur 1
Steel needle filings 12 Aluminum, flitters 1 Charcoal, dust 1
Charcoal, dust 3 Red gum yacca 2 Titanium, coarse 3
Charcoal, mixed 2

*Note: Charcoal, mixed, is a combination of various mesh sizes of charcoal. The more varied, the better. This will give a shower of sparks that will have immediate through prolonged burning duration. A general rule is that the larger diameter the driver, the coarser should be the charcoal.


Single Case Wheels


These consist of a single case made to revolve in a plane of its axis by jets of fire projected through holes, one at either end, and at right angles to the axis. Saxons revolve about a nail driven through the center of the case into a post or other support. They may be double action: both holes fire simultaneously, reinforcing each other; single action: only one end fires at a time, the other end starting just as the first finishes; or reversing: the second end fires after the first but reverses the direction of spin. Each of these varieties may also have one or two small cases charged with color compositions attached to the side of the case, producing a ring of color inside the fire of the saxon.

Composition: Formulas #1, #5, or #6

Casing: These should be wet‑rolled of Kraft or Manila paper. They may be any size but those between 1/2" to 3/4" I.D. are generally used. The following proportions work well. Taking the inside diameter (I.D.) as 1, the outside diameter (O.D.) should be 1-1/2 x the I.D., and the length x 10 the I.D. The ends are closed with rammed dry clay.

Ignition: Quick match, and black match (or visco fuse.)

Tools: A rammer one inch longer than the length of the case and of the same I.D. It may be‑cut from a wooden dowel or aluminum rod, a mallet preferably of rawhide, a drill (about 3/16" diameter), and a scoop to measure the correct amount of clay and composition.

Manipulation and Procedure: Stand the casing on one end on a firm surface, pour in some clay, and then ram solid with about ten blows from the mallet and hammer. Enough clay should be used so as to make a plug the same thickness as 1/2 I.D. of the case. The whole quantity of clay should be introduced at once, not in many small portions. Now drive in small portions, Formula #1. Introduce just enough each time so when it is driven with ten blows it rises about one I.D. inside the case.

When the composition reaches about 1/4" from the center of the case, clay is driven for 1/2". Then composition is again rammed so it comes to within one I.D. from the end of the case. Clay is then driven in to the top. A hole is bored about 3/16" in diameter and just through the case as near to each of the clayed ends as possible. If the saxon just to be "reversing", then drill holes on the same side; otherwise they are bored on opposite sides. Bore a hole all the way through the center of the case (where the 1/2" clay plug is located) at right angles to the other two holes. Now bore one more hole just through the case as near to the center clay portion as possible and on the same side to one of the end holes. Insert a piece of quick match in this hole; lead it over the center clayed portion and insert in the hole on the opposite end. Insert a piece of black-match or visco fuse in the hole at the other end. Before the match is inserted, all three fuse holes should be well primed. After the priming is dry, the whole saxon should be rolled up in a few turns of paper to secure the quick match and protect the holes from any premature ignition from sparks.

Reversing Colored Saxon
Figure L-103-1 Reversing Colored Saxon

Flying Dutchmen These also go by other names, sometimes being classified as triangles, or as saxons, or in a class by themselves. They have the same composition, casing, and ignition as the Saxon.

Materials: Professional pyrotechnic adhesive, a triangular piece of wood (pine is good) or 1/8" chipboard. It should be cut in an equilateral triangle, each side having the length of the casing minus two I.D. A hole should be bored through one of the angles as shown.

Tools: A special ramming base described as follows: drill a hole the same diameter as the I.D. of the case and 3/8" deep in a block of wood. Insert and glue in place a piece of wooden dowel 1/2" long. When the glue is well dried, drill a hole in the center of this dowel 3/8" deep x 1/3 the I.D. Insert in this hole a dowel cut so that it protrudes above the surface of the larger dowel the length of 1/2 I.D. of the casing.

Two rammers both 1" longer than the casing and of the same I.D., one should have a hole drilled in one end such that the rammer can fit over the smaller of the two dowels of the ramming board. A mallet, preferably of rawhide, and a scoop for measuring composition and clay are also needed. Of course, aluminum will make better tools than wood.

Manipulation and Procedure: Slip the casing over the ramming base and using the rammer with the hole, ram in with ten good blows enough clay to form a thickness of 1/2 I.D. As always, the clay should be poured in all at once.

Now drive a scoopful of composition with ten good blows. The scoop should hold just enough composition so that when it is driven it rises about 1/2" within the casing. Continue driving composition until it has come to within 1 I.D. of the top of the casing. Now drive in just a small amount of clay to cover the composition. Prime the fuse hole and cavity well and insert a fuse.

When the priming is dry, roll a few turns of paper around the casing. The paper should be long enough so it extends about 1-1/2" past each end. These loose ends are called "nosing." They should be twisted and tucked into each end of the casing and around the fuse to secure and protect it from premature ignition. The completed casing should now be attached with dabs of professional pyrotechnic adhesive to the triangular piece of wood. Refer to figure L-103-2.

Figure L-103-2 Flying Dutchman and tools

Two Case Wheels

Two-case are sometimes classified as triangles but are most often known as "comet wheels" They may be single or double action. They are made exactly like the above but attached to a square piece of lightwood instead of a triangular piece. Each side of the piece of wood has the length of the casings minus two I.D. Also, if it is to be single action, the first driver is not closed with clay at its butt end. Instead it is primed and a length of quick match inserted. This is then lead up to the nozzle end of the other driver. In the case of double action wheels, both butt ends of the drivers are closed, the nozzle on the second driver being connected to the nozzle of the first by a length of quick match. Any of the composition formulas that do not have much meal powder may be used for double action wheels. Single action wheels will require compositions with more meal powder.

Two case
Figure L-103-3 Two case "Comet Wheels"

Three Case (Triangle Wheels)

These also are in various forms, some having six sided blocks, others with three. Since the six-sided are the most common, its construction is given here.

Composition: Formula #2.

Casing: Same as the saxon. Triangle casings generally are not larger than 5/8" I.D.

Ignition Materials: Quick match or visco fuse, priming.

Materials: Professional pyrotechnic adhesive, a six sided piece of 1/8" chipboard constructed follows: With a compass, draw a circle with a radius equal to the length of the casing to be used on 1/8" thick chipboard, marking the center. Using the same radius, divide the circumference into six equal segments and draw lines connecting alternate intersections, 1, 2 and 3, forming an equilateral triangle (see Figure L-103-4 A.) Now draw three lines from the center to each of these points (shown dashed.) Draw lines at right angles to these dashed lines a length of 2/3 the length of the casing to be used from the center. The area shown as shaded can then be cut out and a hole drilled in the center, slightly larger than the nail on which it will spin. This wooden base can be used as a template to outline additional ones, or a cardboard or metal pattern can be made for the same purpose.

Figure L-103-4 Triangle wheel driver construction

Tools: Same as Flying Dutchman.

Manipulation and Procedure: All drivers are rammed as described under Flying Dutchmen, except the first two drivers are not closed with clay at their butt ends. Refer to Figure 4B. Roll a few turns of decorative or other paper around each casing as described for making a nosing.
With dabs of professional pyrotechnic adhesive, attach a driver to each of the smaller sides of the block of wood. Prime all nozzle holes and open ends well. Insert a length of visco fuse into the nozzle hole of the first driver and connect the butt end of the first driver to the nozzle end of the second with a length of quick match. Connect the second driver to the third in the same way with quick match.

When the priming is dry (allow a day or two), twist the ends of the outside wrapping of paper around all match and fuse connections, further securing these by tying with twine.

Multiple Case (Vertical Wheels)

These are constructed by fastening four to eight drivers to a wooden wheel made for this purpose. The wheels are usually 18" in diameter, or less. On good vertical wheels, the composition of the various drivers, or sets of drivers, should be varied and increase in effect as the burning proceeds. For example, the first case is charged with plain driving composition, the second with steel filings, the third with pieces of cut stars, etc. Also, the larger wheels may be garnished with various colored pots, whistles, salutes, reverse their direction of spin, etc.

Compositions: Any.

Ignition: Quick match, priming, visco fuse.

Casings: Same as for Triangles, using 3/4" I.D. or less.

Materials: Same as for triangles except wooden wheels are used instead of a wooden block.

Tools: Same as for triangles.

Manipulation and Procedure: Same as for triangles. The cases and garnishments should be attached to the wheels with small dabs of professional pyrotechnic adhesive, and tied with twine or #18 gauge annealed iron wire.

Colored pots should be placed on the inside of the spokes, (not facing toward you) and so that the direction of the spin is away from the burning end. This is to keep the pot burning evenly (see figure L-103-5.) Care should be taken to be sure and use strong burning color compositions for pots and lances. In order to be strong burning, the compositions must be well mixed. Use mixing sieves. If they are not well mixed, they will not burn evenly and with enough force to keep from being blown out by the revolving wheel. This is especially true of those placed nearer the outside.

Colored pots and lances must burn the same length as the drivers, all stopping at the same time. If colored pots are not well secured to the wheel, they are easily thrown off. Use small wire nails and a dab of professional pyrotechnic adhesive to secure them in the same manner as lance work (see diagram 2.)

Garnishments should be placed so they balance the wheel as nearly as possible. Make sure all quick match connections are tight. They should be tied with twine whenever they cross a spoke or touch the wheel rim.

Multiple case wheel detail
Figure L-103-5 Multiple case wheel detail


[What follows are some of the advanced wheels and set pieces shown in the Westech Manual.I included them so you can get an idea of just how far you can go with this particular part of the book. -H.G.]
EXHIBITION GROUND DISPLAYSThere is a lot more to the Westech Manual than spark wheels and spinners.

Materials Needed
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