Pyrotechnics expert, Dr Martin Van Tiel. Photo by Robin Hodgkinson.

Martin Van Tiel, Pyrotechnic Expert


When it comes to exciting careers, it doesn’t get much better than blowing things up for a living. Dr Martin Van Tiel is a pyrotechnics expert who has created some of New Zealand’s biggest and best fireworks displays as well as many of the dramatic explosions seen on our TV screens.

“My interest in chemistry started from a very young age,” Martin says. “I remember getting a little chemistry set for Christmas when I was about 10 years old. But the chemicals weren’t particularly explosive, so I researched and found which ones were more interesting for making pyrotechnics and rockets. The local chemist provided the appropriate chemicals – with a caution, of course!”

But despite a passion for pyrotechnics, even learning more about them was challenging, let alone turning it into a career.

“No-one will teach you much about explosives!” Martin laughs. “My learning was all self-taught throughout high school and university. At uni, access to information was easier, although details about  explosives was still in secretive Government documents. It would take months to get certain defence reports into the library. These days you have access to that information at your fingertips.”

Martin pyrotechnics detonator INP

Dr Martin Van Tiel has a PhD in chemistry and is an expert in explosives. Photo by Robin Hodgkinson.

After completing a PhD in chemistry and many years of experimentation and practice, Martin is truly an expert in what’s required to make things go bang. His company, Van Tiel Pyrotechnics, has been operating for 30 years.

“When we started out we were making our own pyrotechnics,” Martin says. “But these days we import most of them because of the costs involved. We just couldn’t compete. However, we still manufacture specialised pyrotechnics for large fireworks displays, for film and television, and we make rocket propellants for the New Zealand Rocketry Association.”

There are no dress rehearsals when it comes to fireworks displays, so having a comprehensive understanding of the components and performance of each pyrotechnic effect is critical.

“Every time we do a show we analyse our choreography and creativity to improve the level of entertainment for the audience,” Martin says. “It really comes down to years of experience and using good products.”

Martin pyrotechnics explosion INP

A good fireworks display involves having a thorough understanding of pyrotechnic products and lots of experience. Photo by Robin Hodgkinson.

The Auckland millennium fireworks display was the company’s big break in the industry. “We went from standard, small displays to international recognition as being the first display in the world for the new millennium,” Martin says. “There was a lot of pressure and the weather was horrendous that night! But we’d prepped for nine months for that job as we were using some of the biggest fireworks that we’d ever manufactured.

“The largest star shell we’ve ever fired in New Zealand was 60cm, which weighed 60kg. We had two of those in the millennium display and we’ve since used them in the Auckland Anniversary displays over the years.”

Fireworks are flowers in the night sky, traditionally described as peonies, chrysanthemums and dahlias.

In 2011 the Rugby World Cup was another milestone when the world’s eyes were on New Zealand and it required an extra special display. “We created special New Zealand-themed fireworks for that one – pōhutukawa and kōwhai flowers to be represented in the sky,” Martin says.

Despite what you might think, pyrotechnics is not an entirely glamorous job. Fireworks are classified as explosives and are regulated out of necessity. “Paperwork and compliance is a huge part of our day to day work,” Martin says. “The glory is about 1%. But it’s enough to keep you going!

Fireworks have been around for over 1,000 years, so in a lot of ways they’re actually quite a green form of entertainment. “They only use a small amount of chemicals and most of those are fertilisers; the cardboard construction is biodegradable,” Martin explains.

But the best part of the job is people’s response: the world loves fireworks – from jaw-dropping large scale displays to childhood memories in the back yard. “As soon as you see them you’re mesmerised,” Martin says. “I love the enjoyment that the crowd gets. It’s the magic of transforming ten minutes of people’s lives and creating something that will be a real highlight.”


Story by Jo Percival for the Autumn 2024 issue of AA Directions Magazine. Jo Percival is the Digital Editor of AA Directions Magazine.

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