Fireworks Guide: Fountains, Wheels & Mines

All three of these fireworks create mostly ground-based effects and can enhance any display. This article takes a look at each one.


Fountains

Bigger fountains are referred to as conic fountains. A conic fountain resembles a volcano in shape and it’s not far off with its effects too! This is because conic fountains normally contain just one single type of effect which is pressed inside the cone-shaped casing. Starting slowly, these can build up to quite magnificent plumes and look particularly good used in a line across the display area.

Conic Fountains

Conic fountains (inset) produce a beautiful plume of sparks

All fountains create a column of sparks from ground level and except for crackling versions, are quiet in operation, giving just a gentle “roar”. Machine-pressed cones offer a more consistent effect during the fountain’s life and have become the standard.

Regardless of the price, size or brand, the simpler, brighter effects (such as silver) are more powerful than colourful or crackling ones, where some of the energy is lost to colour or noise (or both). Gold versions of these cones are generally the weakest, creating more of a gold flame rather than a plume. Here is a video clip of a silver to crackling cone:

Multi-effect Fountain

A multi-effect fountain contains a number of tubes inside which burn one by one

Multi-effect fountains

Many fountains are multi-effect, and resemble cylinders, cakes or other shapes. These contain a number of tubes, each with a different effect packed into it, and the fountain burns from one tube to another.

These have the advantage over conic fountains of providing a number of varying effects, for example colours, silver, crackles and so on, all in the same firework. Their main disadvantage is that each effect is much smaller in height than a dedicated conic or gerb.

There are many extremely good multi-effect fountains in the Garden classification (5m spectator distance) and for smaller displays these are well worth the investment.

Gerbs

A gerb is a professional version of the conic fountain, dispensing with the eye-pleasing conic shape in favour of practicality. Gerbs have the key advantage of a consistent and “instantly full” plume of sparks (whereas cones start small and build up). They are also easier to mount on posts or at angles than cones – but they tend to be more expensive.

Because the powder in a gerb is pressed into a tube rather than a cone, combinations of effects are possible such as colour changes part way through.

Strobes and flares

The ground based strobe (or Bengal Blinker) is becoming an increasingly popular firework in many displays. This very small – and cheap – firework sits on the ground and flashes on and off like a strobe light. Reflecting off the surroundings or illuminating its own smoke, the effect is very unusual. These work well in multiples and are normally silent in action except for the “phut phut phut” of the strobe. To see a video of one in action, click here.

Bengal Blinker

Bengal blinkers can be exceptionally bright

Bengal Flares are small tubular fountains which create a coloured flame. These are not intended to be fountains, but do offer a specific colour. Due to their small flame, these also work best in multiples. You can use these to create a specific colour theme (team colour, anniversary etc) or to focus attention to ground level with a quiet effect. They’re not too exciting used on their own though.

Fountains summary:

  • Placed on the ground to create a volcano of sparks
  • Great for a low noise display
  • Bigger conic fountains or gerbs provide an excellent ground effect in larger displays

 

Wheels

Catherine Wheel

A catherine wheel in action

In the 4th century, St. Catherine of Alexandria was tortured on a wheel (they used all sorts of worrying implements in those days) giving rise to the traditional name “catherine wheel” for this well-known rotating device.

A wheel is a card or plastic disc with a number of rocket-like thrusters or gerbs (fountains) mounted around the circumference. Each one burns to provide both sparks and thrust, spinning the wheel around. The fast motion of many wheels adds to the effect.

Most larger wheels change effects as each gerb burns in turn. So, you might have silver or gold, then colours, then screeching.

Price has never been a good indicator of quality with wheels. Some of the cheapest wheels offer stunning performance, good duration and even reversing action. In general though, more expensive wheels have bigger and better gerbs – but be sure to mount them high enough to show off the effect.

This video shows a large, traditional catherine wheel in action:

Pin wheels

The smaller wheels use a different approach to generate spin. A long thin tube is filled with a powder and coiled around a centre disc. As this burns, thrust is created to spin the device. These do not spin as fast as bigger wheels but can still look very pretty and they can last a long time. But make sure you haven’t banged the nail in too far – the slightest resistance can stop these spinning.

Wheels summary

  • Traditional item seen a lot at Guy Fawkes
  • Usually mounted on a post
  • Spins to create a ring of sparks

 

Mines

A mine is one of the most powerful fireworks you can buy because the whole contents explode at once. Whereas the contents of a cake, candle or other firework go off “bit by bit”, in a mine the whole lot is packed loosely in a single card tube. The fuse ignites this and the explosion shoots out of the end of the tube, into the air. The effects are not only powerful, they are sudden, and occur from ground level up to dozens of feet.

Mortar mines

Mine

A mine in action, dwarfing the firers below (click to enlarge)

The mortar mine is a good example of this in action, with a pack or bag filled with the desired effect loaded into a mortar tube and a fuse connected. The fuse burns down into the mine which then detonates.

The disadvantage of this single detonation is an extremely short duration compared to fireworks of a similar price. For example, a £25 professional style mortar mine would last perhaps five seconds at most, whereas a good cake for the same price could last up to a minute. Used in the right setting, however, the power of the mortar mine is simply stunning.

Mortar mines are sometimes referred to as “pre-loaded mortar mines”. Professionals use reloadable tubes but these are not available to the public, you can only buy single use, ready loaded mines. Hence the term “pre-loaded”.

Beginners often confuse the large tube of a mortar mine (particularly if it is labelled as a “pre-loaded mortar”) as being a professional shell in a tube. It is not! Shells are not available to the public even if pre-loaded. A mine is a loose collection of effects which explode from the ground upwards.

Unfortunately, changes in legislation have somewhat tamed this type of firework. The reclassification of the bigger mines to 1.3G (read about 1.4G and 1.3G in the Fireworks Classification article) means these are becoming rare. There doesn’t seem to be any interest yet for manufacturers to produce 1.4G versions using mesh packaging, as they have with rockets. If you want to see what you are missing out on, have a look at this video clip of an “old school” mortar mine from 2004: Mortar Mine.

Fountain start mines

Fountain Mine

Two photos in sequence showing a fountain (left) exploding to the mine part (right)

As the name suggests, these fireworks are mines that start with a fountain effect. This is normally created by a wide fuse, and the fountain in itself is not normally particularly good compared to dedicated fountains. This burns down into the mine itself, setting it off.

Fountain mines are very good for any display for several reasons. Firstly, the fountain start can be quite pretty and it pads out an otherwise short firework. Secondly, the fountain is often mistaken by the audience as the main effect of that firework, so the main detonation creates a useful element of surprise.

These mines are also cheaper than the bigger mortar mines and work well in a line, the fountains creating a line of sparks which transform into columns of effects.

This video clip shows an example of a fountain start mine:

Double effect mines

Sometimes a mine is split into two or three sections, which go off one after the other. These are known as double or triple break mines. Although each effect is obviously smaller, the firework lasts longer and can offer great value for money.

Mines summary

  • Very powerful, mostly one-hit effects
  • Can start with a fountain

 

Further information

If you are working through the beginner’s “Start here!” guide you can return to it here. Or, pick a new help topic from the menus at the top of the page.

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