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Black Powder Manufacture


Black Powder (Gunpowder) is the backbone of pyrotechnics.
Black Powder is the main ingredient in a variety of firework and rocket formulas.

Black Powder Basics

Black Powder, also known as Gunpowder, is produced in large quantities commercially and sold in small 1 pound containers, mainly for use in antique Black Powder guns. It is also normally sold in different granulations which indicate how fine the Black Powder is granulated by how many "F's" they put on the container. Coarse granulations are called "FG or FFG" (aka "1Fg" and "2Fg"). Finer granulations are "FFFg and "FFFFg" (aka 3Fg and 4Fg).
The more "F's", the finer the Black Powder... and the finer the Black Powder is, the faster it burns.
Small (fine) granulations burn faster and are used in small bore guns, where larger (coarser) granulations, are used for larger bore guns & cannons... and for launching Aerial Firework Shells out of mortars. Using a finer granulation for these jobs puts too much strain on the gun (or shell or mortar) because the powder burns much faster and creates a fast pressure increase that could damage whatever you're trying to launch, or the gun/mortar itself.
Coarser, granulated Black Powder that is used in mortars to launch shells, or in Roman Candles to shoot out stars, is sometimes called "Lift Powder".

When Black Powder isn't granulated and is in a super fine powder state (similar to that of Talcum Powder) it is called "Meal Powder".

Smokeless Powder is not to be confused with Black Powder. Smokeless Powder is actually Nitrocellulose, and cannot be used in place of Black Powder. 

Keep in mind that Black Powder, Gunpowder, Lift Powder, Grain Powder, and Meal Powder are basically all the same material.
As far as fireworks are concerned, Black Powder is used both in its finely powdered form (Meal Powder) for coating starts and for mixing in other pyrotechnic formulas, and in its granulated form (Lift Powder) for launching shells out of a mortar, or stars out of a Roman Candle.

The formula for Black Powder is 75% Potassium Nitrate, 15% Charcoal, and 10% Sulfur... and like all chemical formulas, it is measured by weight only.

However,  you just can't mix these chemicals together and expect to produce a well functioning Black Powder mix.
The mixing process for Black Powder is just as important as the formula. Black Powder
MUST be made in a Ball Mill to work properly. 
A Ball Mill is a rotating drum with dozens of lead balls inside. The 3 chemicals are loaded into the Ball Mill, along with the lead balls, sealed shut and allowed to rotate for anywhere between 1 hour and 24 hours. As the Ball Mill rotates, the lead balls will crush the chemicals together, forcing some of the Potassium Nitrate into the pores of the Charcoal and Sulfur. At the same time, the entire mass will be reduced to a super fine powder. The longer the Ball Mill runs, the stronger the Black Powder will be. A general rule of thumb for all pyrotechnic mixtures is " the finer the powder is, the faster it will burn ".
ONLY lead balls can be used in a Ball Mill as they are completely non-sparking. ONLY Black Powder can be mixed in a Ball Mill. Other pyrotechnic mixtures such as Flash Powder, etc. CAN NOT, as they are too sensitive and will explode. Individual chemicals however, can also be Ball Milled into a fine powder, but the mill must be cleaned before this is done. If you are a do-it-yourself type of person, you can build your own Ball Mill. For those that don't want to go through the hassle of building one from scratch, Ball Mills, complete with hardened lead balls are available from us. They can be found by Clicking Here.

Once the mill has run for a while, it can be opened and the lead balls separated from the fine Meal Powder.
As we'll show you below, this Meal Powder can now be used to make all the other forms of Black Powder for use in fireworks.

Black Powder vs. Flash Powder

A lot of people ask which is stronger, Black Powder or Flash Powder... or if Black Powder can be used in Salutes (exploding fireworks).
In short, there is no comparison. Flash Powder is a high explosive, a shattering explosive. It converts to a gas so fast, that objects near it, and containers that hold it cannot move out of they way (or vent) fast enough to release this gas so they are destroyed into fragments.
Black Powder is a low explosive, a heaving explosive. It converts to gas much more slowly than Flash Powder, and generally pushes things as opposed to fragmenting them. If Black Powder is used in a small Salute like an M-80, it will just make a loud "pop", and push out the end plugs.
Flash Powder in an M-80 will make a loud explosion and fragment the tube into small pieces. Flash Powder burns so much faster than Black Powder that in larger Salutes, it doesn't even matter if you've got end plugs on the tube at all, it will still detonate and fragment the Salute, even with 2 open ends.
You can
NEVER substitute Flash Powder for Black Powder or vice-versa. If you were to use Flash Powder to launch a shell out of a tube, or a bullet out of a gun, it would barely move the shell or bullet, and completely destroy the mortar or gun, most probably killing the operator.

Manufacture

You will need 3 chemicals to make Black Powder, they are: Potassium Nitrate, Sulfur and Charcoal. Stay away from very low grade materials like "Dusting Sulfur" and Bar-B-Que Charcoal Briquettes. The Charcoal you use in a BBQ (Bar-B-Que Charcoal Briquettes) is not pure Charcoal. It contains other materials and chemicals that are designed to keep the material burning evenly and for a long time, but it will make very poor Black Powder. If you use low quality chemicals, it will yield a low quality or non functional Black Powder.
The sale of common oxidizers (like Potassium Nitrate) are being increasingly regulated by the U.S. Government and they are becoming very difficult to find.
Many customers report that they have used 'Tree Stump Remover', which apparently is almost pure Potassium Nitrate... and is available in most hardware or garden supply stores. 

The following is the standard formula for Black Powder:

Black Powder  

Potassium Nitrate

150 grams

Charcoal Powder

30 grams

Sulfur

20 grams

A step-by-step procedure is outlined below....



Open the lid to your Ball Mill and add the following:  150 grams of Potassium Nitrate, 30 grams of Charcoal Powder, and 20 grams of Sulfur ( if your lead balls are not already in the tumbling barrel, go ahead and put them in now ). Remember that
ONLY lead balls can be used because they are completely non-sparking.
When complete, this will make 200 grams of Black Powder ( a little under 1/2 pound ). You can make larger or smaller batches, just keep the percentages of all the chemicals the same. You
MUST use an accurate scale to weigh your chemicals, preferably one that is accurate to 1/10th of a gram. If you do not have access to an accurate scale, you can find some for sale on our site here



With all 3 chemicals and the lead balls inside, put the lid on the tumbling barrel and seal it, then set it in the Mill. Turn on your Ball Mill and let it rotate for 2 to 4 hours. As the Ball Mill rotates, the lead balls will crush the chemicals together and reduce them into a super fine powder. The longer you let it grind, the stronger your Black Powder will be. Let the Ball Mill do its grinding in an uninhabited area, not in a place like your bedroom. Although the chance of accidental ignition is very remote, it is wise to put your mill in the garage, or better yet, outside to do its work.



At the end of a couple of hours stop the mill. Lay out a sheet of paper ( newspaper will work fine ). Open the lid to the barrel, and dump the entire contents ( lead balls and all ) into a spaghetti strainer over your sheet of paper. The strainer will catch the lead balls and with a little shaking, all the Black Powder will filter through onto your paper sheet. When Black Powder is in a fine "dust-like" state like this, it is called "Meal Powder". The Meal Powder you just made can now be used as-is in a variety of formulas and projects. By adding a little water and Dextrin to it, you can easily make Black Match Fuse or Quickmatch. 


Lifting Powder

There are some applications where very fine Black Powder ( Meal Powder ) will not work well. If you're going to use your Black Powder to launch shells out of a mortar, or for small cannons, it will have to be granulated first. Black Powder that is granulated and used for launching shells and salutes is called "Lifting Powder".
The procedure for making lifting powder is easy, but it sometimes takes a few tries to get it perfect.
Basically all we're going to do is to add a little of a water soluble glue ( Dextrin ) to the Meal Powder, mix it well, get it a little damp, and push it through the spaghetti strainer again. This will produce small granules of Black Powder perfect for launching shells or anything else. The whole trick to this is not to get the mixture too wet, or it will become gooey and just turn into a big mess.

To convert your Meal Powder into Lifting Powder, take 100 grams of Meal Powder and mix in 10 grams of dextrin. A good way to mix them is to put the mixture in a plastic container with a snap-on lid and shake well. Pour the powder through the spaghetti strainer again, this will break up any lumps in the dextrin.
Now place the Meal Powder/Dextrin mix back in your plastic container and add just a little water. This is where experience really pays off. The idea here it to get the mixture damp and not wet. What can be deceiving is that you're adding water to a very fine powder, so it's going to take several minutes of mixing just to get the powder to begin to absorb any water at all. Add just a little water at a time, mixing thoroughly. As the powder begins to take in water, it will turn a bit darker in color.
You want the mixture to be damp enough to where if you take a handful of it and squeeze it tightly, it will just begin stick together. You do not want to get it too wet. If you do, it will not go through the spaghetti strainer and will just clump up on the bottom, or not go through the holes at all. If disaster strikes and you have added too much water, you can always just add some plain Meal Powder to the mix to dry it out.

Just FYI, adding the water also increases the strength of the Black Powder by allowing some of the Potassium Nitrate to dissolve and be absorbed into the pores of the charcoal particles.

Once the mixture is damp, lay out another sheet of newspaper and dump the mixture into the spaghetti strainer. Using a wooden or plastic spoon ( or your hands if you don't mind getting messy ), rub the mixture through the screen allowing the granules to fall onto the newspaper below. The Lift Powder you're making will have to dry for a few days before it can be used, so make sure to spread it around on the newspaper so it will dry more quickly.

If your mixture isn't all going through the screen, or is sticking on the bottom, chances are it's too wet. Take the mixture out of the strainer and mix in some plain dry Meal Powder and try again. If the mixture is going through easily, but isn't really making granules, it might be a bit too dry. Take the mixture out of the strainer and add a small amount of water, mix well and try again. 

 
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