Fireworks Guide: Cakes & Candles
Cakes and candles make up the bulk of most bigger displays. In this article each type of cake and candle is explained so you know what to look for when browsing firework catalogues.
Cakes are one of the most common fireworks used in consumer displays and are constructed from many cardboard tubes glued together. Each tube normally contains a single shot, and these are all connected by an internal fuse. Once the cake is lit, the fuse burns from tube to tube, igniting each shot in turn, which usually flies up into the air where it explodes with an effect. Thus, a 16 shot cake will have 16 tubes, a 49 shot cake will have 49 tubes and so on.
Cakes are designed to be set up on the ground even though their effects might be aerial and the main body of the cake remains stationary while it fires.
Cakes can contain an almost infinite variety of effects and timings. Some cakes are quiet, some are noisy. Some have effects that start as soon as they leave the tubes, others blow a shell high into the air where it bursts into life.
Many beginners are not aware of the difference between “cakes” and “candles”, and think that to get aerial effects they need to get a roman candle. In fact there is practically no difference between them; a cake is simply a number of candles fused together. This is why cakes are sometimes known by their more official title of “Roman Candle Combination”.
Cakes normally offer the best value for money in your display because unlike rockets for example, which have one single effect, a cake will repeat its shots. So, a 16 shot cake will have 16 shots in sequence, one after the other. You would need 16 separate rockets to achieve the same number of bursts.
Cakes come in many different shapes and sizes. Typical cakes contain 16, 19, 25, 36 or 49 shots but it is not uncommon to see even larger numbers of shots. There is a legal limit on the weight of a cake, so cakes with huge numbers of shots normally have lots of very small shots, rather than a few large ones. This is why cakes with 500 or more shots for example look like dustbin lids but each individual shot is tiny.
Generally, cakes with the maximum allowed bore size (the size of each tube, which dictates the size of the shot inside) of around 3cm will have the most powerful effects. It is usually this bore size – not the number of shots – that determines how powerful each shot is.
Not surprisingly, cakes with large numbers of shots tend to last longer. A typical cake will last 20-40 seconds, anything longer than a minute is considered long in firework terms. Duration is also influenced by the internal fusing. Manufacturers can use slow burning fuse to make a cake last longer, or use fast burning fuse to create a more intense – but shorter – barrage.
Cakes start in price from just a few pounds, and some of the very large ones can cost £100+. Very large cakes are often called “Single Ignition Boxes” or “Displays In a Box”.
One of the most exciting developments in recent years is the fan cake. Here, the tubes are angled slightly so that the shots are sent out to the left and right of the firework in addition to straight up. But even better, each row of shots can be fused to fire simultaneously. Fan cakes thus provide a stunning barrage of multiple shots. They tend to be expensive, but the effect created is near-professional. They make ideal finale fireworks to end your show. Where a fan cake fires its shots in a chaser sequence from left to right and vice versa, it is known as a “Z” firing cake.
- Set up on the ground and fire their shots into the air
- Made up from multiple tubes (roman candles) fused together
- Almost infinite number of different effects and noise levels available
- Also known as roman candle combinations or barrages
- Larger cakes are often called displays in a box or single ignition units
- Can have their tubes angled – these are known as fan cakes
“Roman candle” is the traditional name for a firework that has been around for centuries. In its simplest form, it’s just a card tube with a shell sitting inside it. The fuse runs into the tube and ignites a lifting charge, popping the shell out of the open top and into the air, where it then explodes with its effect. The candle itself remains on the ground.
One of the best known roman candles of all is the airbomb which is a small card tube with one or two shells inside that simply bang when they reach the right height. Enjoyed for generations, these “pocket money fireworks” were becoming misused in the UK and have been withdrawn from sale for a number of years. Pensioners and guinea pigs rejoiced.
Airbombs have to some extent been replaced by one or two shot candles with a quieter effect in them such as a pretty burst of coloured stars.
Here, a number of shots (typically 8, 10 or 12) are stacked on top of each other in a single tube. The fuse burns down the tube, igniting each one in turn. A characteristic of this type of firework is the pregnant pause between each shot as the fuse burns down to the next one.
As with cakes, it is the bore size (the inner width of the tube) that determines the power of the effect, not the price. Bore sizes are legally limited to a maximum of around 3cm and candles with this bore size can produce very big, high breaking effects. Each shot also leaves the tube with a large shotgun like blast.
The principle advantage of big candles is that they can be angled and fanned as required. However, this advantage has recently been eroded by the vast number of quality fan cakes available. Here the tubes are pre-fanned and a cake is easier and more stable to set up (and the timing is spot on). As a result, the number of roman candles available has dropped and candles are significantly outnumbered by cakes in retailers’ ranges.
Candle barrages and batteries
Candle barrages contain a number of candles all fused together. Firing pretty much all at the same time the result is a concentrated barrage of effects. Be aware however that many candle barrages contain a large number of small bore candles, so although there is lots going on, the shots themselves are quite small.
This type of firework is also known as a candle battery or candle pot. Although they do offer saturated effects, pace is often erratic because each candle is firing independently. Another disadvantage is that unlike a cake, candle barrages cannot be fused to give a definite ending, and most just peter out towards the end.
Fanned candle racks
Here a number of bigger bore candles (typically three) are mounted on a timber frame with the outer candles angled to fire shots slightly to the left or right. A fuse connects them all, so when you light the main fuse all the candles start together.
Fans have the potential to create some of the most spectacular effects because you get the benefits of the large bore shells and an angled delivery. The downside is they can be expensive. You are paying extra for the timber, fusing, and labour to put them together. Timing is also a problem because the candles are independent of each other; after the first few shots it is not uncommon for them to get out of synchronisation.
These are however becoming rarer and rarer thanks to the success of bigger fan cakes which offer all of the benefits of candle fans without the extra expense of timber and fuse.
- Known by their traditional name of “Roman Candle”
- Single shot noise candles – airbombs – are now banned
- Largely superceded by cakes which are easier to set up, more stable and better value. In fact cakes are multiple candles fused together into one unit
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