I believe that one of most prestigious jobs in our factory had to be the finisher on the cone production line. Always a woman, she was the one to spin the final label around the cone before sending it down the line to be packaged. She was so important because her speed determined when she and her coworkers would meet their quota and leave for the day. Their day started with a new bundle of 500 sheets of paper labels and ended after fourteen bundles were neatly wrapped around a truckload of cones.
We touch a lot of paper in fireworks making. We roll a finish wrap on gerbs and shells or we form fuse cases from paper spun on metal rods and shell cases around wooden formers. Then we glue the wraps down. Paper can be stiff and strong, silky or mushy. A life in fireworks is as much an affair with paper as it is with fire. Paper has grain, it comes in different thickness and weights, it rolls, twists and folds. If you can’t tell which way its grain runs, you’ll know as soon as you struggle to roll up a roman candle or nose a Niagara Falls stick.
A shipment of brown Kraft paper was heralded like the arrival of a new wine vintage; a load of bad paper could affect the mood of the factory for weeks whereas a fine vintage of soft, workable paper was intoxicating and no doubt led to a most content and highly productive workforce. I’ve seen my father and other masters rub paper grocery bags between their fingers and squint their eyes as if they were connoisseurs assessing the delicate aromas of a new red.
To prepare paper for most work in a fireworks factory, one would take a bundle of paper, stacked neatly, and spread it enough to expose an edge of each sheet, akin to fanning a deck of cards. This is so you could paint a brushstroke of paste along each edge at once. That’s it.
I can’t remember the first time I ever saw someone spread paper but I was mesmerized. Of all my skills as a fireworks maker, it is one of those that fascinates people the most. In his book entitled Pyrotechnics, George Weingart describes spreading paper this way, “Take a bundle of approximately one or two dozen sheets and lay them squarely before you on the rolling board. Holding them down tightly with the left hand, rub them gently toward you with the thumb-nail of the right hand so that each one will slide about a quarter inch below and to the left of the one under it.” He was describing rolling lance tubes and I would just add that you can use a blunt object, like a stick, if you care about keeping your thumbnail. A simple, gentle rub pulls each leaf slightly, equally and miraculously away from the next.
I believe the reason this skill so fascinated me as a boy was that it was one of the most difficult skills to teach a new person. No matter how you taught them, they would still want to place one sheet on the table, wipe on some paste, roll it up, and do it again. Maybe it seemed just too simple and therefore unnecessary. To become a cone finisher though you had to master the skill. The head cone finisher at the factory was named Jane Sturgill. No one was ever better or faster. In all my years learning the art and craft of fireworks making, sitting across a production line from her – a simple cone finisher – learning how to simply spread and wrap, taught me perhaps one of my most cherished skills. Thanks Jane.