The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

June 4, 2014

The Evolution of a Pyro

Filed under: Random Stuff — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:53 am

A small sampling…

As of the time when I am writing this post, the Fourth of July is now just a month away.  And for anyone who knows me, I do a lot more thinking about the Fourth of July than just about anyone I know.  Granted, that isn’t setting the bar particularly high.  Most people, I suspect, are content to just find a public fireworks display somewhere and call it good, or if they’re feeling ambitious enough they might make a trip out to Boom City or Muckleshoot and try to buy a few things to light off on the Fourth without losing their proverbial shirts.  The fact that most of the major cities around here (including basically all of the Eastside and Seattle) just ban fireworks altogether, which means that the most powerful things you’re going to see on the shelves are party poppers.  I, on the other hand, have already spent a number of evenings over the past few weeks watching fireworks videos (focusing mostly on the new items in the catalogs this year even though it doesn’t look like anyone’s actually going to have most of them, making spreadsheets, and generally overthinking the heck out of the whole thing.

Naturally, this type of thing isn’t all that typical for most people .  Somehow, I doubt there are too many normal well-adjusted people out there who just wake up one morning and start thinking “You know, it seems like a good day to go set something on fire.”  Then again, there seems to be a certain primal fascination with fire and its many forms somewhere within the human brain that inspires people to spend suspiciously large quantities of money on fireworks.  It might also inspire people to occasionally want to set fire to buildings that don’t belong to them, but that’s a matter between those people and their psychiatrists.  In retrospect, the fact that my father (and my uncle who lived nearby at the time) would frequently use the Fourth of July as an occasion to mess around with fireworks when I was growing up is probably where a lot of it came from.  In theory, the permissible fireworks in the town I grew up in were supposed to be limited to the “Safe and sane” variety, but the close proximity to various Indian reservations provided plenty of opportunity for people to get their hands on the good stuff, which meant mostly bottle rockets and firecrackers (the big multi-shot cakes and reloadable mortars that fill most of the shelves of the fireworks stands these days were rare back in those days.)  We did try to light those off somewhat discreetly since we technically weren’t supposed to have those (although I suspect the police had bigger miscreants to worry about anyway) but fireworks aren’t exactly an easy thing to hide when you’re setting the things off. Admittedly, I may not have had the best role models back in those days when it came to fireworks safety, and it is entirely possible that I may have made occasional use of various fireworks in manners inconsistent with their labeling back in those days.  Granted, I never did anything too ridiculous back then, but then again, I suspect it was a bit of a miracle that me and my brothers came out of that period with all of our fingers.

Eventually the family moved up here to the Seattle area, and to a city where fireworks were banned outright.  For a couple of years we were lucky enough to have a view of a professional fireworks display off the back deck of our parents’ house, but eventually they moved that display elsewhere.  Occasionally we might find a few small items and light them off in the driveway while keeping an eye out for the police just in case, but for the most part I spent a few years just not paying much attention to the Fourth of  July.  Then back in 2008, my aunt and uncle and their family moved from Federal Way to Bonney Lake and started having our family Fourth of July celebrations down there.  The first year or two of this was intended to be a fairly low-key affair, but as darkness fell on the first Fourth of July we spent down there, we quickly realized that people take their fireworks pretty seriously down there.  Once darkness fell, there were three solid hours of people lighting off the big stuff all around us, dwarfing the couple of small variety packs we had.  I’d have to say that it was something of a revelation, and the next year’s Fourth of July saw our fireworks stash increase considerably as people started making trips out to Boom City and the stands at the Muckleshoot reservation to pick up stuff for the party.  At the same time, the neighbors across the street started getting pretty serious about the whole thing, and started bringing out some of the big stuff.  Naturally, we’re trying to keep up with the Joneses (well, I was anyway, not sure about the others) and the stuff starts getting bigger.  Over the next few years, it goes something like this:

2008:  “Ooh, I can shoot off fireworks!”

2009: “Ooh, I can shoot off lots of fireworks!”

2010: “Ooh, I can shoot off big fireworks!”

2011: “Ooh, I can shoot off lots of big fireworks!”

2012: “On second thought Maybe that was too many fireworks…” (this was right about the point that quantity started to outpace quality, and we found ourselves with so many little items to light off that by the time we were done we were lighting Excalibur shells 8 at a time just to burn them off.)

2013: “Maybe I should do some research before randomly buying a bunch of stuff…”

Which is where I found myself last year.  That was the point where instead of just heading up to Boom City and getting whatever looked good on the shelves of the fireworks stand, I started doing some research beforehand.  This quickly turned into spreadsheets full of info on which cakes looked best, which ones went with each other, and  what I could actually afford.  It was also around this time that I started finding the pyro community on the Internet, and started learning where I could get stuff without paying the oftentimes ridiculous prices you’ll find at the reservation stands (which become even more ridiculous when you start learning what that stuff costs wholesale.)  In the end, I managed to get quite a bit more stuff than I usually do (and even managed to throw in a few of the big 500g cakes for the first time) and just about managed to light off around half the stuff the neighbors had.

This year, having learned some lessons from last year, I’m looking to start learning a few new things.  First of all, I’d like to learn to fuse stuff together better (I tried to do a finale board last year consisting of 4 200-gram cakes, a 300-shot Saturn missile and a big 500-gram, but the fusing was pretty terrible) and try to get the timing down better on that one.  Second, I’m trying to actually coordinate things better, and continue with last year’s focus on making a show out of it rather than just lighting off a bunch of random stuff.  Beyond that, there’s still plenty of places I could go with this.  I could start getting into electronic firing, and from there (assuming I wanted to invest in the equipment to do it) I could get into doing scripted shows.  I could get an ATF type 54 license in order to be licensed to work with 1.3g display fireworks, although there are a lot of added regulations to deal with at that point (which is perfectly understandable, given the dangers involved when you start dealing with stuff that basically amounts to large semi-controlled explosions.)  I don’t know if I’ll ever go in any of those directions, but the options are definitely there.

Assuming I don’t lose any fingers in the process, of course.

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June 23, 2013

The Fine Art of Setting Money on Fire

Filed under: Holidays — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 12:09 am

Not just yet, but getting there…

Well, once again it’s the middle of June.  And that means that once again, the Fourth of July is right around the corner.  As you can probably guess from some of my earlier posts on the subject, this is easily my favorite holiday of the year.  Sure, some of the other ones are nice, but last time I checked, I tend to get in trouble if I try to set things on fire on Christmas or Valentine’s Day (Long story, don’t ask.)  It’s also the one holiday that I have an occasional tendency to go overboard on, as has been evidenced by some of the gigantic piles of fireworks at previous family get-togethers.  Then again, it doesn’t take too much searching on the Internet to find people who are putting far more into their fireworks shows than even I’d do.  For example, here’s a show from a couple of years ago down in Bonney Lake that makes even our Culdesac of Carnage look like a safe-and-sane value pack:

Of course, by the time you’re motivated enough to put a show like that together, you’re pretty much going to have to start buying your stuff wholesale.  In comments on another YouTube video showing the setup for all that, the person responsible for that show puts the cost around $5,000, although half of it is coming from donations from the neighbors.  All the stuff used there is 1.4g consumer fireworks, but by the time you’re spending that much you’re getting pretty close to 1.3g (professional fireworks) territory.  On one hand, I’m pretty sure I could get much better bang for the buck (literally) by contributing to something like that.  On the other hand, I’d much rather be the one lighting stuff than just watching someone else do it.  There’s just some sort of primal satisfaction to watching some amazing display of color up in the sky and knowing that you were the one that lit it off.  Combined with the fact that the Fourth of July is one of the few opportunities we get to really go a little wild with things (complete with an easily captivated audience of young and impressionable minds to corrupt,) and it’s no surprise that the Vanderhoeven 4th of July keeps getting bigger every year.

Of course, over time, it also starts to become clear that there’s more to the Fourth of July than just random reckless pyromania.  As far as I can tell, we’ve been doing the annual Fourth of July get-together at my Aunt Pam and Uncle Mike’s house every year since 2008 now, and every year the pile of fireworks has gotten larger and larger.  It’s started getting to the point in recent years where we had so much stuff that we were mostly lighting it all off to get rid of it.  It’s one thing to be doing that when it’s mostly little stuff you’re lighting off, but when you start finding yourself doing the same thing with Excalibur shells, that’s when it’s time to start rethinking your approach to the whole fireworks thing.

For  a number of years now, I’ve wanted to try out some of the bigger cakes on offer at the various stands, but have not bothered to do so previously, owing mostly to the ridiculous price tags attached to most of them.  It’s one thing to drop $60 on a 24-shot box of Excaliburs or some other big canister shell, because you at least get 24 satisfying large shots that you can spread out throughout the show.  If you’re putting that same $60 price tag on a single 500-gram cake (which is pretty typical for a lot of the 500-gram cakes at Boom City) which you light once and have it last all of a minute (although they do look pretty impressive in the process) you’re investing a pretty big chunk of your fireworks budget on one single item.  Granted, a lot of the big 500-gram cakes tend to be referred to as “finale cakes” because they’re intended primarily to act as a grand finale to a backyard fireworks show, but an even bigger problem with these cakes is that you’re basically shopping blind in a lot of cases.

This is a pretty typical scene of what you see when you arrive at the fireworks stand.  Lots of colorful graphics, and basically zero information on what any of it actually does.  Sure you can get recommendations from the stand owner, but I suspect that even they have trouble keeping track of that many different items all at once.  And while you could probably just buy from their recommendations and get a pretty decent show out of the deal, It still seems like there’s a better way.  And that’s where the power of the Internet comes in.

One of my longstanding theories about researching things is that if you do a bit of searching, you can find a bulletin board on the web about just about any subject you could think of, filled with people far more knowledgeable than yourself that can be used as a valuable source of information (although this does come with the caveat that you need to be able to filter at times for excessive fanaticism.)  It didn’t take long to find out where all the pyros hang out (that’s pyrotechnicians not (necessarily) pyromaniacs,) and from there it took just a little bit of browsing to not only find some really good recommendations for both 200-gram and 500-gram cakes, but also to find some much better sources to buy fireworks from than the reservation stands, with much larger (and higher quality) selections than you’re going to find on the usual stands.  And most importantly, prices on things that put the reservation stands to shame.  Granted, it’s still more expensive than buying wholesale, but there’s no point in stand owners even bothering with the whole thing if they can’t make a profit out of it, right?

Even with better sources to buy fireworks from, there’s still the problem of figuring out what things do.  Which is also solved quite nicely, thanks to the power of YouTube.  A quick search can bring up a video of just about any firework you can think of being set off, all the way from the 3-for-a-dollar mini fountains to the big 500-gram cakes and giant nine-on-a-board shells that will run you big bucks even in the best of circumstances.  Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve spent hours going through YouTube videos of fireworks, watching videos to audition fireworks (often several times to make sure I know what I’m getting) and cross-referencing them to a list of inventory and prices, and ultimately making a list for a pre-order to pick up the Saturday before the 4th.  Even though I am throwing a box of Excaliburs into the mix (and paying $15 less than I did last year for a box,) I’m going for a quality over quantity approach this year.  Sure there won’t be as many fuses to light this year as there have been in the past (although I suspect there will be no shortage there either), it will give me the chance to just sit back and watch for a bit while the others light their stuff, then break out the big stuff later on.  And believe me, there’s going to be some big stuff in there.  Even if you are doing something as ridiculous as basically burning money for fun and profit, you’ll have a lot more fun doing it if you just do a bit of homework first.

Just in case anyone was wondering, the Vanderhoeven Fourth of July might be a little ridiculous this year.  Just saying…

(Quick plug:  If you want some of the big stuff at shockingly non-ridiculous  prices, give Stinky’s Fireworks in Stanwood a try.  It’s where I’m getting most of my stuff from this year, and quite possibly for years to come.)

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