SHULLSBURG—An interest in woodworking and fireworks transformed into a booming business for Jane and Bernie Brandt.
Starting as a hobby business in the basement of their home near Shullsburg, Bernie and Jane started Midwest Wood Specialties, a wood plug business specializing in plugs for fireworks, in 1996. They started with a truckload of scrap wood and a band saw. As they gained more customers and larger orders, they moved the shop to the garage and 10 years ago built a shed on their property to work out of.
“I’ve loved fireworks ever since I can remember,” Bernie said. “At 10 years old I can remember waiting for the Fourth of July fireworks in Shullburg. I decided then I was going to be involved in fireworks one way or another. It has worked that way.”
Jane said they’ve made as many as 5,400 plugs in one day but usually average about 3,500 each day. Some orders that come in are for 15,000 plugs at a time. Midwest Wood Specialties is averaging 200,000-250,000 plugs made each year.
“It’s been quite a ride, but I’m getting tired,” Bernie said. “It’s gotten to be a big job now.”
The business has expanded to include plugs for packaging companies as well as naval ships and research vessels. Bernie said Marinette Marine in Marinette has contracted with Midwest Wood Specialties recently.
“It just seems to be getting larger right along,” Bernie said. “We’ve gotten more and more into the packaging industry, although fireworks is still our mainstay.”
Bernie and Jane work long hours for several months of the year, and steadily the rest of the year, to keep up with demand for the wooden plugs.
The plugs range from 1.5 to 16 inch diameter and have various thicknesses depending on the need. They can be both cross-grain and in-grain plugs.
“We’re making about 100 different sizes and thicknesses now,” Bernie said.
Bernie said he’s heard that his plugs last as long as 10 years. The increased demand for the plugs comes from electronic ignition of the fireworks requiring more mortar tubes and plugs.
“They don’t shoot very many hand-fired anymore,” Bernie said. “When you go to a fireworks show, there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of these tubes out there in the field.”
Commercial fireworks transitioning to electronic ignition is what has led to Midwest Wood Specialties’ success.
“Whenever you’re shooting fireworks commercially, and even with some of the consumer fireworks, you have to have a mortar tube to shoot it out of,” Bernie said. “They take an HDP plastic tube and drop the loads down in the mortar tubes, light the fuse and up in the air it goes.”
The lift charge, when lit, lifts the fireworks into the air, igniting a time fuse that will set off the break charge, igniting the stars when at its peak.
The plug goes in the bottom of the mortar tube to provide a solid base for the ignited firework, which causes a lot of pressure.
“We’re at the bottom of this whole situation,” Bernie said.
Fireworks shows using Midwest Wood Specialties plugs have been shot at three Super Bowl shows, the White House, Summer Olympics, Disneyland and Sea World.
“They’re in places more than what we know,” Jane said.
Bernie said their plugs have been sold in all 50 states as well as several foreign countries: England, Canada, Mexico and the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean.
All of the wood used to make the plugs comes from leftover scraps from truss companies. The pieces are glued together then cut to the proper sizes. A variety of types of wood are used. There can be no knots or cracks in the wood because the plug has to handle the high pressure when the ball is blasted into the sky.
“I kind of liked the wood and I really like the fireworks, so it ended up being a pretty good combination. And I’ve got a pretty good helper,” Bernie said about Jane.
Bernie and Jane have been married for 42 years. They both used to work for Walnut Hollow, a woodworking company in Dodgeville. They left their jobs there 14 years ago to focus on the plug business. Bernie said he used to shoot fireworks commercially for a company in Mineral Point. He was asked 16 years ago to make wooden plugs for that operation, which led to the start-up of Midwest Wood Specialties.
Jane takes care of the gluing, shipping, customer service, bookkeeping and ordering. Bernie does the measuring, cutting and finishing of the plugs. They also have two part-time workers helping during the busy season the few months before the Fourth of July events.
Bernie still shoots fireworks for a few private shows locally and Bernie and Jane display their plugs at two conventions each year, providing them the opportunity to meet their customers and showcase their work.