Homemade Fireworks from a Local Druggist By day, he counts pills for residents of upstate New York. But by night, pharmacist Pete Henry rolls cases, cuts fuses, and plans his homemade fireworks. In the age of high-tech displays, Henry will light up the rural night sky for crowds on Independence Day, using the tools he has perfected in 40 years of building fireworks. Gregory Warner of North Country Public Radio reports.
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Homemade Fireworks from a Local Druggist

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Homemade Fireworks from a Local Druggist

Homemade Fireworks from a Local Druggist

Homemade Fireworks from a Local Druggist

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By day, he counts pills for residents of upstate New York. But by night, pharmacist Pete Henry rolls cases, cuts fuses, and plans his homemade fireworks. In the age of high-tech displays, Henry will light up the rural night sky for crowds on Independence Day, using the tools he has perfected in 40 years of building fireworks. Gregory Warner of North Country Public Radio reports.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The ancient art of creating fireworks has gone high tech with big shows now launched by computers. One amateur fireworks maker in the Adirondack Forest of New York still keeps up the old craft.

As Gregory Warner of North Country Public Radio reports, new regulations are making that hobby harder to pursue.

GREGORY WARNER reporting:

Pete Henry is looking for a cardboard tube. Deep in the woods behind his log cabin, in his homemade fireworks shack, it smells of green leaves and gunpowder. The shelves are lined with fuses, jars of chemicals and lots of odd-shaped tubes.

Mr. PETE HENRY (Fireworks maker): This is actually what Saran wrap comes on at the kitchen in the hospital where I work.

WARNER: Pete's 55, a hospital pharmacist. He's been making fireworks since he was 11.

Mr. HENRY: This is my bible. This is where I keep all my formulas.

WARNER: He pulls down a thick binder with pages of compounds for each color.

Mr. HENRY: This is just the color blue. I've got about a dozen different formulas for different types of blue effects.

WARNER: And once Pete mixes his color, he pours the powder in a bowl of tiny pasta balls.

Mr. HENRY: About a quarter cup (unintelligible). It's like we're baking something here.

WARNER: He shakes the bowl and spritzes water until the powder congeals around the pasta to the size of chickpeas. Each one will burn a few seconds - one streak in the firework.

Pete's specialty is multi-break shells, an Italian twist on the fireworks Marco Polo brought back from China. Multi-breaks are like many fireworks in one, all exploding in sequences.

Mr. HENRY: So then you don't just get single break flowers, you get the -

WARNER: These days such complex shells are mostly obsolete. Computers can launch multiple fireworks with perfect timing. But Pete prides himself on craft. Tomorrow's 20-minute show over the St. Regis River in New York is a year's labor.

Mr. HENRY: In the fall, in the wintertime, I roll casings, I cut fuse. Spring of the year is when I start doing chemicals. And then usually in May and June is when you actually start putting the shells together. It's very much like growing crops, like being a farmer. And when everything is boxed - which is where I'm going to be by tomorrow - I can sit back and say, okay, I've harvested my crop. I'm ready.

WARNER: Firework making is an art advanced by amateurs. It was a hobbyist tinkering with chemicals who invented strobe effect fireworks in the ‘70s. But since 9/11, those chemicals are a lot harder for private citizens to get. Federal authorities have gone after the online vendors that sell explosive compounds. It's more difficult for small operators like Pete to find a vendor that will sell him what he needs.

Mr. HENRY: If I can't buy small amounts of certain chemicals, I'm sunk.

WARNER: It's not just he art of fireworks that will suffer, Pete says. Lots of scientists and inventors first found their passion with do-it-yourself rockets and explosions. And Pete says the right to blow things up in your garage keeps you young. He wants to still be allowed to do it when he gets old.

From NPR News, I'm Gregory Warner in Canton, New York.

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