Tiger Willow Shells in 2-1/2 Days, Day 3

This is the final installment in a series of articles chronicling Ned Gorski's efforts to produce two traditional 8", Tiger-Willow, paper ball shells, including handmade stars, burst powder, spolette time fuse, lift powder and quickmatch, all at a weekend pyro event.

The original series ran in 2007 in the Pyrotechnic Guild International's Bulletins #152-155. This is a somewhat revised re-issue of that series.


You may want to review the project "How to Make Charcoal" which detailed the charcoal options for this project. It included the production of homemade charcoal to be used in the various components of the shells. The charcoal-making step of the process would occur at home prior to travelling to the pyro get-together.

In "How to Use a Ball Mill Safely and Effectively", ball milling materials, skills and techniques were addressed.

In Part 1, "Tiger Willow Shells in 2-1/2 Days, Day 1", production of the black powder (BP) shell burst granules, black match, shell lift powder, and charcoal tailed stars were begun. Options for star rollers, drying chambers, hydraulic presses, star plates, and homemade shell casings were also discussed.

And then in Part 2, "Tiger Willow Shells in 2-1/2 Days, Day 2", I addressed granulating the black powder, priming the stars, making spolette time fuses, and assembling and pasting the shells.

Now it's time to finish these shells up and get ready to put them into the air.

Sunday Morning

Well, the shells are dry in the drying chamber. Today I will "lift and leader" them, and tonight fire those babies up, two and a half days after starting this project.

9:00 - 10:00 am, Make Match Pipe and Lift Cups

Making Match Pipe

My 8" mortar is 42" long on the inside, so I'm going to want two quickmatch shell leaders about 48" long. The leader is the fuse which leads from the shell at the bottom of the mortar, up and out of the mortar (the "gun"). The leaders for large aerial fireworks shells are typically made of quickmatch, which is blackmatch inserted into a paper tube called match "pipe."

To make match pipe for these leaders, I roll 3" x 34" pieces of 40# virgin kraft paper around a 3/8" x 36" aluminum rod (or you could use a wooden dowel), gluing the edge of the paper down with white glue. This will produce double wall pipe.

First, I tear a 34 inch long sheet from my kraft paper roll. Then, I fold the paper in 3 inches from the edge, make a crease, and slice it off in the crease with my sharp knife. I then make a fold the length of this strip, about a half-inch in from the edge. I lay the aluminum rod into that fold, then roll the paper around the rod, pressing and rolling it on my table a few times till the paper is snug around the rod. At this time, I glue the edge and press it down.

Cutting Kraft Paper to be Rolled around an Aluminum Rod Rolling Kraft Paper around an Aluminum Rod
Cutting Kraft Paper and Rolling It around an Aluminum Rod

6 Finished Quickmatch Pipes
6 Finished Quickmatch Pipes

Making Lift Cups

If you look at the bottom of a typical Oriental ball-shell, you'll notice that the shell lift powder is contained in a conical, paper covering called a shell lift cup.

I have made a little former and template to use in making the shell lift cups.

Former, Pattern, Disc, and Kraft Paper for Aerial Shell Lift Cups
Former, Pattern, Disc, and Kraft Paper for Aerial Shell Lift Cups

These are based on the lift cups I have seen on some commercial shells. I use the template to cut out a pattern of 60# kraft paper. Then I stick a 2" chipboard disc on top of the former, wrap the kraft around it, and hot glue the kraft to itself and the disc, creating lift cups as shown.

Finished Shell Lift Cups
Finished Shell Lift Cups

10:00 - 12 noon, Lift and Leader the Shells

Making the Quickmatch

I want two 50" pieces of quickmatch for the shell leaders. I'll be using 1-1/2 pieces of the match pipe for each leader. I like to put two pieces of black match into each pipe to insure flame propagation past any potential weak places in the black match.

After gently unrolling the dry black match off the match frame, I cut four 54" pieces of match. First, I insert two of the pieces into a 34" piece of match pipe. Then I slide a 17" piece of the pipe onto the match, inserting the end of it about an inch into the longer pipe, and taping the joint well with masking tape. That produces a 50" piece of quickmatch with black match sticking out of each end.

Quickmatch Shell Leaders
Quickmatch Shell Leaders

Lift Powder

Now I take the screen of 2FA black powder out of the drying chamber and dump it onto some kraft paper. The BP is divided into two 6 oz. amounts and put into two small plastic baggies.

One end of a quickmatch leader is inserted into the lift powder in the baggie, the baggie is gathered around the match pipe, and a band of masking tape secures the baggie closed. The extra baggie plastic is trimmed off with scissors and the first tape band is secured to the match pipe with another band of masking tape.

Now, on the shell, I mark the pole opposite the spolette. Holding the baggie of lift powder there, I hot-glue the leader to the shell down to the equator.

Baggie of Lift Powder, and Leader, Glued to Shell
Baggie of Lift Powder, and Leader, Glued to Shell

Then I hot-glue a lift cup onto the bottom of the shell, covering the lift powder.

Lift Cup, Covering Lift Powder, Glued to Shell
Lift Cup, Covering Lift Powder, Glued to Shell

Note: I am top fusing these shells because they use spolettes, which are more susceptible to pressure and blow-through than time fuse is.

Matching the Spolette

After turning the shell upright, the masking tape flag/cover is removed from the end of the spolette, and the powder core is scratched in an X pattern with an awl. An 'h' made from 5 inches of black match is hot glued and tied onto the spolette.

Blackmatch Hot-Glued and Tied to Spolette, after Scratching BP
Blackmatch Hot-Glued and Tied to Spolette, after Scratching BP

Then the quickmatch leader is brought up to the bottom of the spolette where it is bent and then hot glued to the upper hemi of the shell and the side of the spolette.

I pierce the side of the leader above the spolette and cut a little 'door' in the side of the match pipe just above the top of the spolette. Then I insert an extra piece of black match as well as the upper leg of the spolette 'h' match into the leader pipe, and cover the junction with masking tape. This insures that a lot of fire is going to be transferred to the top of the spolette when the leader burns to that point.

Shell Leader and Spolette Match Joined and Secured Shell Leader and Spolette Match Joined with Tape
Shell Leader and Spolette Match Joined and Secured

Then the whole leader/spolette assembly is covered with a kraft paper bucket, consisting of two turns of 40# kraft paper and tied with clove hitches at the top and bottom. I then tug on the leader to make sure it is tightly secured to the shell, since it serves as the lifting rope, which is sufficient for a shell weighing as little as this one does.

Paper Bucket Covering Spolette and Blackmatch
Paper Bucket Covering Spolette and Blackmatch

Finishing the Shell

The shell leader is 'S' folded back and forth onto itself to form a bundle. A band of masking tape, sticky-side-out, secures the bundle, and then the sticky side of that band is covered with a layer of masking tape, sticky-side-in. This forms an easily torn band which is not adhered to the leader. A piece of visco fuse is taped into the end of the leader.

Two of the Tiger Willow stars are hot glued on either side of the spolette to serve as rising tails. Then the tails are covered with rounds of tissue paper, which are tied on with clove hitches, and the labels are glued on.

Rising, Comet Tails Attached to Shell Rising, Comet Tails Covered with Tissue Paper
Rising, Comet "Tails" Attached to Shell and Covered with Tissue Paper

Note: This method of attaching the rising tails works well with my glitter comets, which are made of a composition which gets very hard when it is dry. The glitter tails stay attached to the shell very well.

The tails used above, being made from a higher-charcoal-content comp, were softer. I accidentally bumped one of them and it popped off. I then re-glued it, and also completely covered the sides of all the tails with a layer of hot-glue, right down to the glue attached to the shell. This strengthened the tails and ensured that they stayed on during the lift and ascent of the shell. Another approach uses masking tape around the comet, then little strips of masking tape going down the comet and onto the shell body.

12 noon on the third day of the process, and the shells are ready to drop and fire when it gets dark.

Finished Shells, Ready to Be Loaded and Fired
Finished Shells, Ready to Be Loaded and Fired

So, What am I, Nuts?

After about 16 hours of work, I have two 8" shells. Similar Chinese ones could have been purchased for under $100 or so. Yeah, I guess I'm nuts, but there is something tremendously satisfying about being able to start from scratch, with no pyrotechnic materials, make a little charcoal, get some chemicals, add some paper and glue and string, and end up with these two shells.

I guess that's what I always wanted to know how to do ever since getting into this art almost 20 years ago. I also wanted to know if it could be done in a weekend.

The Shells in Action

One of the Tiger Willow Shells Forming in the Sky
One of the Tiger Willow Shells Forming in the Sky
(Photo by Stephen Lynch)


On the above note, I'd simply like to say that, although I've written about a few original techniques that I employ, there's really nothing new in this series of articles.

In my quest to learn how to make fireworks, there have been literally hundreds of generous folks along the way who were willing to share what they'd learned in their own experience. They've written books and articles, made videos, given seminars, posted to the pyro email-lists and club mailing-lists, made wonderful tools and equipment to use, made chemicals and materials available, and been willing to converse with, and tutor, fellow pyros eager to learn.

To all of them, I simply say, "Thanks." We all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.

We all do this to belong to the pyro community. Remember that feeling you felt when you realized you were not alone in loving all of this?

Best Regards,


  • Homemade Airfloat Charcoal
  • Potassium Nitrate
  • Sulfur
  • Dextrin
  • Wheat paste

    Note: It is possible to make one's own dextrin and wheat paste from corn starch and flour, respectively. This would further reduce a pyro's dependence on outside sources of supplies. "Post-Apocalyptic Pyro" may be the way of the future.

  • Block of wax
  • Denatured alcohol
  • Lampblack
  • Water
  • Puffed Rice
  • Pop-up tent
  • Tables
  • Chairs
  • Generator
  • Extension cords (3 or 4 100')
  • 4 plug gang adapter
  • Gas can - gasoline
  • Ball mill
  • Ball mill timer
  • Ball mill sifting screen/buckets
  • Plywood for barricades
  • Digital scale
  • Plastic tubs
  • 5 gallon bucket of water/sponge
  • Star roller
  • Drying chamber and screens (plus wood strips to rest shells on)
  • Possible humidifier
  • Rubber gloves
  • Spray bottle
  • Hose/nozzle
  • 12 to 24 strand string for black match
  • Roll of 40# virgin kraft paper on dispenser
  • Rough 40# kraft
  • 60# virgin kraft
  • Miscellaneous hand tools/toolbox
  • Match drying frame/stand
  • Match forming nozzle
  • Measuring cups/spoons
  • Dust mask/respirator
  • 20 mesh screen kitchen colander
  • 10 mesh screen kitchen colander
  • 4/8/12 mesh sorting screens
  • 40 mesh screen
  • 12 ton hydraulic press
  • Air compressor
  • Grease
  • Propane torch
  • 4" comet pump
  • Aluminum block to use under comet pump
  • 5 gallon bucket/lid for mixing comp
  • Star/comet plate
  • Drywall knives/putty knives
  • Meat tenderizing hammer
  • Plastic baggies
  • 6" x 6" x 4' pounding post
  • Small paintbrush
  • Paper cups
  • Paper plates
  • Paper towels
  • Spolette tubes
  • Shell hemis
  • 1/2" hole punch
  • 3/8" spolette ramming rod
  • Small aluminum ramming puck/plate
  • Rawhide mallet
  • Hot glue gun/glue
  • Tissue paper
  • Blender
  • Large paintbrush
  • Plastic cutting boards
  • Sharp kitchen knife
  • Pasting strip marker
  • Shell stands made of pieces of 4" PVC pipe
  • 3/8" x 36" aluminum rod or wooden dowel
  • Lift cup former
  • Lift cup template
  • 2" chipboard discs for lift cups
  • Scissors
  • Shell labels
  • White glue
  • Visco fuse
  • Masking tape
  • Thin string
  • Hole punch
  • Dust pan/broom
  • Stopwatch
  • Cooler or low table to paste shells on
  • Light to work by if it gets dark
  • Plastic tarps to cover work tables with at night or in rain
  • Two turtle doves, and
  • A partridge in a pear tree
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