How To Make Black Powder (Safely)

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Black Powder Basics

Homemade black powder is comparable or superior in quality to the kind you can buy, plus you can customize the properties.
Homemade black powder is comparable or superior in quality to the kind you can buy, plus you can customize the properties. Dave King / Getty Images

Black powder or gunpowder is an energetic chemical mixture used in fireworks, science experiments, and for black powder guns. Some types of black powder are available for purchase, but it's easy to make it yourself. Let's review the composition and properties of black powder and then learn how to mix it.

What You Need To Know About Black Powder

While there are different grades of black powder, it's made using the same three basic chemicals: potassium nitrate, charcoal, sulfur in a 6:1:1 or 6:1.2:0.8 ratio or about 75% potassium nitrate, 15% charcoal, and 10% sulfur. The ratio of these chemicals may be slightly adjusted to affect how quickly it burns, but mainly that is determined by how finely ground the gunpowder is. The finer the powder, the faster it burns. There's more surface area, so the reaction proceeds more quickly. Finely granulated black powder is used in small bore guns and pyrotechnics. Coarser powder is used to launch firework shells, for large bore guns, and for cannons.

Note: Flash powder is a completely different chemical from black powder and the two chemicals cannot be used interchangeably! Flash powder is nitrocellulose.

Now that you know what black powder is and what it's used for, you're ready to make it...

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Black Powder Materials

A teacher supervising students doing a chemistry experiment with lit gunpowder.
A teacher supervising students doing a chemistry experiment with lit gunpowder. Adam Burn / Getty Images

To make black powder you need chemicals, but also basic equipment to grind the ingredients together. While this may be done by hand, you get a vastly superior product letting a machine do the work for you. Fortunately, this does not require anything complicated. For 200 grams of black powder, you need:

While you can adjust the recipe to make more or less product, only mix small batches of black powder at a time. This limits risk from a fire or explosion. You must accurately weigh the ingredients using a scale. 

Notes About Black Powder Materials

Potassium nitrate may be purchased by name, but some "tree stump remover" products are essentially pure potassium nitrate and may be purchased at a home supply store.

You need high grade charcoal, which is readily available or may be made from burning pine or other wood to ash. Do not use charcoal briquettes, as they are not pure carbon.

Sulfur is available as a pure chemical, but avoid "dusting sulfur" which is a lower grade chemical.

A rotary rock tumbler and lead balls makes an inexpensive ball mill. The balls must be made of lead, which will not spark and ignite the composition. Do not use any other metal!

Once you've got the proper materials, you're ready to mix them...

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Making Black Powder

Black powder is used in small fireworks, such as firecrackers.
Black powder is used in small fireworks, such as firecrackers. De Agostini / C. Sappa / Getty Images

To mix the black powder ingredients together, open your ball mill (rock tumbler) and add the three ingredients and the lead balls. As the tumbler rotates, the balls will crush the chemicals together and grind them into a powder. The longer you let the tumbler run, the more finely ground the black powder will be.

Place your ball mill someplace away from traffic, like a garage or shed. It's highly unlikely accidental ignition will occur, but you should take necessary safety precautions. Don't grind the powder in a room with people, an open flame, or flammable chemicals. Do not smoke around black powder.

Allow at least a couple of hours for the ball mill to do its job. Lay out a sheet of paper, open the tumbler, and dump the contents into a kitchen strainer to catch the lead balls. The black powder will filter through onto the paper.

This dust-like black powder is called "meal powder". You can use it for science experiments and to make fireworks as-is or you can mix it with dextrin to make sparklers or quickmatch.

A very simple exploding firework to make is a firecracker, which is simply paper rolled around a tiny bit of black powder with a fuse. Sparklers do not compress the reaction and are not intended to explode, but you'll want to add the sugar (usually dextrin, although other sugars work) to moderate the reaction.

Be safe! This project and those that proceed from it are only intended for adults to try or for use as a reference regarding how gunpowder is made.

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Your Citation
Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "How To Make Black Powder (Safely)." ThoughtCo, Jul. 14, 2016, thoughtco.com/make-black-powder-safely-4062684. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2016, July 14). How To Make Black Powder (Safely). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/make-black-powder-safely-4062684 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "How To Make Black Powder (Safely)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/make-black-powder-safely-4062684 (accessed November 20, 2017).