The 36-inch shell that is scheduled to go off Friday night as part of the Pyrotechnic Guild International’s last public performance won’t set a world record, but it is being made by a record-setting pair of hands.
Jim Widmann of Connecticut has been spending hours putting together the shell, as well as a 24-inch one, ahead of Friday’s show. He’s used to going big, and has gone much bigger.
He designed a 60-inch shell that went off Jan. 1, 2018, in Dubai. It weighed 2,397 pounds and set the Guinness World Record for largest aerial firework.
The 36-inch shell will be small in comparison, but it’s still impressive. It will weigh about 360 pounds, Widmann said, and require 35 pounds of powder to lift it off the ground. He estimated it takes about 100 hours to put it together from start to finish.
Widmann said his favorite day of the year as a kid was the fifth of July.
“I’d get up early, go to where the older kids had been shooting fireworks the night before,” he said. “I’d find the duds, the half-exploded things, and cobble them into some sort of firework.”
PGI spokesman Tom Sklebar said it would take a year for someone to make a 36-inch shell by hand. Widmann invented a CNC machine that takes the manual labor out of the process and speeds it up.
That’s when he really started building big shells.
The 36-inch shell is so large the federal government doesn’t have any regulations for it. Sklebar said the government doesn’t have any regulations for shells larger than 16 inches, just because it’s so rare to see shells that size.
The launch point is up to the judgment of the builder and shooter of the firework, Sklebar said. PGI’s regulations are a shell needs a 100-foot buffer for every inch in diameter. So the 36-inch shell will be located more than 3,600 feet from the audience.
While Friday is expected to end things with a bang, that doesn’t mean Wednesday will be lacking. The Super Nuke will go off Wednesday as part of the state-sponsored Wyoming Equality Night, which celebrates 150 years of women’s suffrage.
Technically, the Super Nuke isn’t a firework, but a special effect. It will be a large ball of fire made from 1,000 gallons of gasoline. It will be the biggest fireball ever done at PGI, Sklebar said, adding that it keeps getting bigger every year.
Sklebar said set up for Friday’s show began last Saturday.
Friday’s show, Widmann said, will include a PGI All Star segment, where “fireworks makers from all around the country have been working for months in their shops, making the best, most complex, exciting fireworks for the people of Gillette.”
One of those fireworks makers is Ned Gorski of Cincinnati, Ohio, who will attempt to set off a “cap bomb,” a 12-inch shell that will create an Escher’s parasol, or an umbrella of sparks. The pattern was chosen as the logo for PGI’s 50th annual convention.
When Gorski was younger, he saw advertisements for Disney World and the fireworks caught his attention.
“I wanted to know how they did that, how did they accomplish that effect?” he asked.
He read a book, taught himself and here he is 30 years later.
“The weather’s been perfect,” he said. “When we were here in 2003, it was 111 degrees every day. It was miserable.”
As he set up his rockets for Tuesday night’s show, Thomas Rebenklau said everyone has two questions for him: how long does a rocket take to put together and how high do the rockets go? He doesn’t have a good answer for either.
“For the height, I don’t have a tape measure,” he said. “How long does it take? You don’t make one. You make casings, you cut tubes, you make stars, you make inserts. It’s a continual, full-time job.”
It’s a lot of work, Widmann said, but at the same time “it’s wonderful” watching people’s reactions.
“Fireworks make people happy,” he said. “That’s why we do it.”
For Gorski, it’s the uncertainty that keeps things interesting.
“It’s exciting to make something and wonder if it’s going to work,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t work perfectly, sometimes they do. The anticipation of seeing it go up in the air, and see it work, is a lot of fun.”