Senko Hanabi – Japanese Sparklers

Written by Harry Gilliam

Topics: How to Make Fireworks

The delicate and subtle Senko Hanabi sparklers were introduced to me Tom DeWille, the founder of Luna Tech in Alabygodbama. Later I had occasion to visit Tom at the Luna Tech plant, and spent a couple of enjoyable days there learning how they make stage and theatrical fireworks from him. Tom has always been very generous with information and withheld nothing when I asked about various techniques and formulas. (Did you know that you can make a 5/8″ glitter mine using micro stars only-with no lift powder? Write me, I’ll tell you how. Write Ned, he might even make an article out of it!)

While we were puttering around Luna Tech’s lab at 0-dark:30 one night Tom pulled out what looked like incense sticks and lit one. The thing morphed into the most unbelievably pretty sparkler I had ever laid my eyeballs on.

“Senko Hanabi,” Tom chortled. “Got ‘em in Japan 20 years ago.”

He souvenired me one pack of them, and I rationed ‘em out to myself at the rate of about one a year, until…

Until I saw these teeny, leetle, twisty, colored paper things that Fred Olsen was selling at a PGI Convention several years later.

Holding one in my hand, quizzical expression on my face.

“Senko Hanabi,” Fred chortled. “Got ‘em specially made in China. Nobody else has got ‘em. Here, take one outside and light it.” Which I did. Very different looking on the outside from the incense-stick jobbies DeWille had given me, but performed very similar.

I came back inside and promptly tried to buy all he had.

“Nope. Haven’t got enough of them. Need to ration ‘em out. Dunno when I can get any more of them out of China,” replied Fred.

I bought as many as he would spare, and spent the next 7 years rationing them out to friends and family. And when they lit them, always the same “oohs” and “aahhs.”

But Fred didn’t have any more. I asked every Chinese-connected human bean I knew about getting Senko Hanabis. I met either a blank stare on the phone, or a flat “nope.”

When I first went to China a few years back, I bought Skylighter’s initial container of fireworks directly from the factories owned by Shogun. Shogun’s a really great company. Good people, good product. And they were very helpful to me, a newbie at the game, particularly Joe Wan, one of the company’s owners, and John Werner, their US based product designer.

One day we found ourselves at a factory which makes Morning Glory sparklers, and were poking around the ubiquitous fireworks factory sample shelves-where they display every firework they have ever made for anybody, in any country, in every language, at any time since the last dinosaur croaked.

Lo and behold, there, back behind some 7-inch long firecrackers, was a little bundle of Fred Olsen’s twisty paper style Senkos!

Feigning indifference, I blurted “Quick, ask him if he can make these,” to our translator.

The factory manager called a minion into his office, held a single Senko Hanabi sparkler up, and the guy took off at a trot somewhere. 15 Chinese minutes later he’s back holding a small bundle of freshly made Senko Hanabis in front of my dollar encrusted eyeballs, now blinking rapidly to try and reduce the shine in them.

Outside, they burned and sparkled perfectly. The golden, molten globule forming, shrinking, vibrating, and then finally exploding into the most fabulous sparkler spray of all sparklers! Bingo!

But my visions of retiring on Senko Hanabis were quickly quashed. “Nope. Cain’t make ‘em,” he said in perfect Caintonese.

“Too much trouble. Takes too much time. Too much labor. Too expensive to make now.”

“How expensive?” retorts I (I’m an American, for God’s sake. Money is no object.)

“I dunno. I’ll have my guy get back to your guy on it,” he says.

Well, more than 5 years later, his guy has never gotten back to my guy.

Jump to November 2007. Back in China, this time with my Ace Fireworks Finder, Matt Palaszynski.

For the past 3 years, Matt has known about my quest for the Holy Senko. Now, he has finally found a factory that used to make them. But they have not made them for years (there must be a reason). And he doesn’t know if they’re willing to do it again. We are scheduled to meet the factory owner this morning to see.

We drive through one of the rat-mazes of little, windey, one-lane concrete roads outside Liuyang, me and Anne, with Annie the translator, and Matt. Much cell-phone back-and-forthing, the factory owner homing us in on his office.

We all arrive at his office at about the same time, him on his motorcycle, us in the car. Handshakes all around, the obligatory offering and declines of his cigarettes. Then we get down to bidness.

He fumbles around in his coat and produces a bundle of the sacred Senko Hanabis.

Holding Senko Hanabi

Senkos In Situ

My ears start getting tingly, the hackles rise on my neck, and my wallet pocket starts throbbing. Furtively, I pull my coat down to hide it! Cain’t let him see. Cain’t let him find out that I don’t CARE what they cost! I just have to have these wonderful little twisty paper things.

I try to put on my stupidest, semi-interested, inscrutable Westerner’s face, one big “huh?”

Showing Senko Hanabi

How’s this for “inscrutable?”

I like this guy. He seems a little hungrier than some of his nouveau-riche fireworks company compadres. And he did arrive on a motorcycle, not a fancy dancy new car. I can work with this guy. And yep, he IS willing to make them.

Pricing is put off for another day, to be haggled back and forth by Matt and the factory owner and me, based in part on quantity I agree to order, packaging, and other factors.

We shake hands, I toodle off, all satisfaction and afterglow, with Anne and my pals, and I offer to buy lunch for all, secure in my final victory that I have found the elusive Senko Hanabis and will finally be able to get them to my insatiable customers in the good ole US of A.

But if you want to tackle the intricate mysteries of making Senko Hanabi yourownself, you can read Ned Gorski’s article below on making them. They are tricky little devils, requiring a fine balance of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulfur. And if you already have those three chemicals, you can do it easily with just a little tissue paper. Ned takes all the guesswork and hair pulling out of the process for you.

- Harry Gilliam
Chief Cook & Bottle Washer
Senko Hanabi Sparklers, #NV0500 Add To Cart: SSenko Hanabi Sparklers

How to Make Senko Hanabi – Japanese Sparklers…

7 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Frederick says:

    Hey guys,

    Just made these “gemini”:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7H8BXbCnQQ

    Enjoy!

    Greets,

    Frederick

  2. Fantastic, i will give these a go.

  3. Frederick says:

    Hello Harry,

    I’m glad other people can be as excited about these little wonders as I am. The video shows a badly tuned composition (violent burning), but with OK results. Pine soot is home-made…

    I managed to get some webspace at http://www.senkohanabi.be. I will put the information I have already gathered on this site. Right now I’m rebuilding our house, so I don’t have much time for rolling Senko’s or updating the website. Nonetheless it’s worth to take a look at it from time tot time to check if there’s new info…

    Also, I invite everyone who is interested in joining the quest for the ultimate senko to send his/her comments,experiences, articles,… to frederick@senkohanabi.be.
    I’ll add an extra page to publish these comments.

    I would be extremely thankful to the person who reads the chapter “Theory” on my website and then sends me ANY additional information that is included in Shimizu’s works. I cannot engage in bigger pyrotechnical projects, so buying the Shimizu-volumes is just not worth it… can someone help please?

    Greetings en hear you soon at frederick.senkohanabi.be,

    Frederick

  4. Frederick says:

    …or check this video-clip from already a while ago.
    http://nl.youtube.com/watch?v=OvB11NZaz7M
    As you can see, the formulations need optimisation. It’s a shame, but the largest spark in this clip travelled towards the camera. I estimate that it travelled double the length of the others (see the ruler of 30cm attached to the wall).
    Please join the research & keep safe!
    Frederick

    • HEGilliam says:

      Wow, Frederick, those are just spectacular. I am notifying the Nobel committee to consider you for a new annual Senko Hanabi prize. What is your source for pine soot?

      • frederick says:

        Hello Harry!

        Nice to hear you appreciate the hard work I’ve put into making these…

        The pine-soot is home-made by burning pine-resin under a glass bowl and scraping the soot from the inside. It takes a lot of resin (and time!) to produce just a few grams of this pyrotechnical caviar :-)…

        I’ve started building a website dealing with the exact procedures and formulations I’ve already gone through. If you want you can take a sneak-preview at: http://users.fulladsl.be/spb2069/safety.html. Just don’t click on ‘introduction’, because I’ve used this page to announce a party… Also check the page ‘contact & links’ to see what it gives when you hit a senko-drop with your finger!

        I’m willing to put everything I know on these pages because the pyro-community also shares a lot of knowledge through the internet. Perhaps I will ask one favour in return: a copy of the chapter on Senko hanabi from Shimizu’s books. I don’t have the possibilities to engage in bigger pyrotechnical projects than these little jewels, so buying Shimizu’s books from skylighter is just not worth the investment. Is it possible to provide me with this information? Then I can add this to the chapter ‘Theory’. Also, if you manage to get your hands on a Japanese translator, you can try to translate the tehnical articles on my website…

        Because I changed provider, I cannot edit my website anymore, but soon I will put it back online via http://www.senkohanabi.be, including the introduction page.

        Greetings & stay black (wanna make soot, huh?),

        Frederick

  5. Frederick says:

    Dear Senko-enthousiasts,
    I succeeded in reproducing the effects of commercial senko hanabi (even the ones of Simiko Kaito) by using pine-resin soot. In the near future, I will optimise my techniques and formulations, although I can now make a senko hanabi-sparkler emitting sparks as big as oranges that travel up to 30 cm. I use a double system in which I first let a mixture of KNO3, S and pine charcoal burn and react (easy), this slag travels upwards and integrates a mixture with pine soot. The rest is magic….
    Keep safe,
    Frederick
    You might want to follow my senko hanabi experimantation on:
    http://users.fulladsl.be/spb2069/
    Greets,
    Frederick

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