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Fayette County fireworks maker is living dream

| Saturday, July 4, 2009

Bryce Rinkhoff was 6 or 7 years old when his great-grandfather introduced him to the joys of carbide cannons.

He marveled at how calcium carbide, water and a spark would produce a loud bang and send the lid flying off a paint can.

Store-bought firecrackers and bottle rockets intrigued him, too. As he got older, he figured out what black powder could do.

"I used to dream about bottle rockets and fireworks," said Rinkhoff, 33. "But as I got older, I never thought I'd be in the business."

Rinkhoff has taken his childhood love of booms and bangs and turned it into a career.

He and his wife, Sara, 23, operate Old Glory Powder Co. out of a timber-frame barn on his family's farm in Menallen Township, Fayette County.

Rinkhoff thought he'd simply be a hobbyist when he got his fireworks manufacturing license through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives about 10 years ago.

A Civil War re-enactor since he was a child — he appeared in the films "Gettysburg" and "Andersonville" — Rinkhoff developed a special effect that has the look and sound of cannonballs hitting the ground.

He's used the effect during re-enactments at Pioneer Days in Perryopolis.

But about four years ago, he got more serious about fireworks manufacturing as a full-time business. The license requirements were becoming very demanding and expensive.

"I just couldn't work it as a hobbyist anymore," Rinkhoff said.

There were ATF regulations, plus others from the Department of Transportation, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Agriculture and the state of Pennsylvania.

The company has put on shows in communities throughout the region.

They have three Fourth of July displays to put on today — in Keisterville, Hopwood and Donora.

"We work year-round," Sara Rinkhoff said. "A lot of people think it just happens on the 4th (of July), but we're manufacturing year round."

There are Light Up Nights around Christmas, charity events, firefighter conventions, weddings and even birthday parties.

"Every day, there's someplace shooting fireworks," Bryce Rinkhoff said.

"They just make an excuse to shoot them," his wife added.

The Rinkhoffs make 65 percent of the shells they use for their displays. The rest are imported.

"Competing with China, it's tough because so many people import shells from China," Sara Rinkhoff said.

Making a fireworks shell is a slow, tedious process. Family members help, particularly on the nights of displays.

The shells look like simple cylinders wrapped in paper. But each one is made by hand.

The Rinkhoffs make just about everything that goes inside. They make the stars — the chemically altered bits of black powder that provide the fireworks color. Some stars are one color, others change in mid-air as they burn off.

They make the burst — the powder that sends the stars flying like shrapnel. And they make the quick match — a black powder leader wrapped in paper that is lit to send the shell into the air.

"You learn a lot by trial and error," Bryce Rinkhoff said.

In the early days, they did a lot of chemical mixing and testing to get the colors just right. Their neighbors get plenty of free shows when the Rinkhoffs are trying something new.

"It seems like we're always going back and retesting things," Bryce Rinkhoff said.

Layers of paper, and string and paste filled with layers of stars and black powder, topped with a few fuses, are magically transformed into the brilliant bursts of color and sound that bring about the oohs and aahs in the crowd.

"People don't have the slightest clue of the time involved in putting a shell together," Bryce Rinkhoff said.

Because of the amount of time and money involved, as well as the number of regulations on domestic large-scale manufacturing, most fireworks in America are imported.

Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, a trade group representing the fireworks industry, said it's rare for a company like Old Glory to start a display business from scratch. Most fireworks display companies in America are fourth- and fifth-generation companies.

"It's very difficult to survive being relatively new to the industry," Heckman said. "You have to cultivate a strong customer base."

She said 75 percent to 80 percent of more than 250 million pounds of fireworks used in the United States annually are imported from other countries, primarily China.

"We've pretty much regulated manufacturing out of existence in the U.S.," Heckman said. "There's no way (American companies would) be able to manufacture the amount of product that is needed."

The Rinkhoffs don't expect to become a large display company that does hundreds of shows on the Fourth of July.

And while they entered the marketplace at a difficult time — the cost of their chemicals have tripled since they started — the Rinkhoffs said they'll stick with it.

"So far, people still want fireworks," Bryce Rinkhoff said.

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