Making Sense of Black Powder...

I know I need to make black powder, but which one?

Which BP Should You Make First?

 At some point fairly early in every pyro career, we realize we need to be able to make our own black powder (BP) from scratch in order to make fireworks. BP is used in aerial fireworks shells as lift and burst powder, in rockets, fountains and in almost every other pyrotechnic device and component–mines, stars, black match, and the list goes on.

And since sources of commercially manufactured BP are becoming harder and harder to find, it just gets clearer and clearer that there really is no viable alternative to making it ourselves... Well, if you have poked around the Skylighter site at all, you may be scratching your head about WHICH black powder to make.  Or which BP Kit you should get.

Hopefully, we can clear some of that up for you right now.

First, the basics. Black Powder is made up of three chemicals:

  • Potassium Nitrate
  • Charcoal
  • Sulfur

All modern black powders contain at least these three chemicals.  And sometimes a couple of others.

Now, once you know what goes into black powder, let’s take a look at several different methods for making it.  And help you figure out which method is best for you, in our particular situation. Keep in mind that the process you use for making your BP has a huge impact on the power of the BP that you end up with.

Four Methods for Making Black Powder

Basically, there are 4 different methods for making Black Powder. Here they are in order from most simple (requiring the least investment in equipment but with lower powered BP) to most complex (more equipment and expense, but faster and better quality BP.

  • Hand Mixed Black Powder - the ingredients are screen-mixed together. No fancy tools needed. Not as powerful as other BP,  but still useful for making fuse, fountains, smaller rockets, aerial shell burst powder, and even lifting small aerial shells.
  • Red Gum Black Powder - a step up in power from Hand-Mixed. Adding red gum as a binder enables it to be used for more robust applications like lift powder. It’s still not as strong pound for pound as ball-milled.
  • Ball-Milled Black Powder - requires investing in a ball mill, and lead balls, but makes black powder suitable for just about any application. The components are more intimately combined, so the resulting powder is much more powerful.
  • Ball-Milled, Corned Black Powder - after ball milling the powder, it is pressed into pucks (called "corning") which are then granulated to the required mesh size. Requires an extra step and additional equipment, but is more potent than simple ball-milled BP.
No matter which method you use for making BP, at some stage, you will have what is called "meal powder." That’s the industry term used to describe a grade of black powder that is a very fine black powder with no grains.  Feels and looks like flour. Meal powder by itself is used for:
  • Making black powder coated rice hulls to burst aerial shells
  • Making rockets, spinners, spolettes, and many other devices
  • Making stars
  • Priming stars
  • Making fuse
But you can granulate meal powder into larger particles, and use it for even more things:
  • Rocket fuel (small grains, reduces dust)
  • Aerial shell burst powder (coarse, about 1/4" grains)
  • Priming comets and fuse (small grains)
  • Aerial shell lift powder sometimes (coarse, about 1/4" grains)

So, if you are just starting out, the very fine powder you get from hand-mixed screening will let you make useful enough black powder to begin to make fireworks.  But you will be limited to smaller fireworks and certain applications. Then, you can increase the number of things you can make and do by making Red Gum Black Powder, which only requires a few more chemicals and a few inexpensive tools.

And, you can convert it into all the other grades of black powder that you’ll need for your fireworks. Move up to a ball mill and you will be able to make black powder at home which can be as powerful as commercial BP.

You’ll get a faster burning, more explosive, and more efficient end product. If you are going to become a serious fireworker, you will become a ball miller. If you then press your ball milled BP into pucks and granulate and screen the grains, you'll have every grade of black powder needed to make any kind of fireworks.

And you can easily make it as powerful as any store-bought BP, for a lot less money. So, if you're clear what you need to make, here’s how you can save some money and cut your costs for making this essential fireworks ingredient.