Lighting your fireworks by hand
The fireworks are set up. Darkness has fallen. The audience is waiting… Time to start your show! This article looks into ways you can light your fireworks safely by hand and keep your show flowing.
Methods of lighting fireworks by hand
Getting amongst your fireworks and hand lighting them remains one of the most effective ways to fire your display. With sufficient preparation and the right tools, hand lighting can produce a display almost indistinguishable from a professional show.
There are a number of ways you can light fireworks and some are better than others. There are also some things you should never use to light a firework.
Let’s start with the main things you can use to light fireworks:
Recommended as the best way to light your fireworks in most cases. Portfires are tubes of pyrotechnic powder which, when lit, burn for 3-4 minutes with an intense flame. The benefits of portfires are:
- Intense flame which is largely unaffected by all but the strongest wind and rain
- Able to light fuses almost instantly
- Can be used in gloved hands and even taped to sticks for added safety margin
- Burn time of 3-4 minutes per portfire
- Cost effective at around £1 each
- Used by professional firers
Always get portfires when you order your fireworks even if you think you will use another method such as a blow torch or electrical firing system (see below) because they make an essential back up.
Each firer should keep a reasonable number of portfires ready when firing to cover the duration of the display with a few spares in case of problems. However portfires should never be kept in pockets because of the potential to burn if they are set off by a stray spark. Keep portfires dry before lighting them; like fireworks they don’t work if their fuse gets wet.
Windproof or “Turbo” lighters
Gas powdered lighters which produce intense blue flames are, on the face of it, great for lighting fireworks and are quite popular with enthusiasts. UKFR has tested these extensively however and found two major limitations which you need to be aware of. Firstly some are not as windproof as they claim. Second, the flame is quite small on these and so when the fuse lights the ejection of soot often gets into the lighter. In a short time this can render the lighter impossible to start. Clearly not all wind proof or turbo lighters are identical, so do some tests first before using these in a big display and always keep enough portfires as a back up (and something else to light them with!).
Chef’s blow torches
The mini blow torches used in the kitchen have become popular for lighting fireworks. Like portfires these produce an intense flame but also have the advantage of being able to switch on and off on demand – unlike a portfire. As with windproof and turbo lighters however UKFR has found these can be prone to clogging by soot which will render them useless and some are not as weatherproof as you might think. The advice here is to remember that conditions in the field will not be the same as in your kitchen, test them out with actual fireworks, and take portfires as a back up!
Larger blow torches and plumber’s gas torches
Recommended for experienced firers. Larger gas torches have a big following in firework circles because they produce a very reliable and hot flame which makes light work of fuses. Choose a model which can produce a flame on demand over a model which is constantly on (which can be dangerous). A popular make is Rothenberger but generally any good quality torch with piezoelectric ignition is suitable. Budget for around £30-£100 and buy the best quality one you can afford. They are well worth the investment.
UKFR member Paul, who is a senior professional firer at Dynamic Fireworks comments: “I use a torch called the GoSystem Quick Pro, bought from B&Q for around £40. It’s similar to the Rothenberger and has a good trigger which is easy to use through gloves. Because it has piezoelectric ignition the flame can be used on and off on demand rather than walk around with the flame constantly on, although it does feature a lock if you wish to do so. Flame ignition is instant and gas canisters last for ages. For lighting fireworks I’ve found no difference between the propane and the mixed gas cannisters and they cost around £15 each”.
Remember, always have portfires as spares even if using a good torch, and an alternative method of ignition. Always have a spare gas canister available.
These are often included with selection boxes and look like joss sticks. They burn with a gentle glow rather than produce an actual flame. Once lit they can glow for quite some time and can be held in a gloved hand. However, because of the lack of flame it can take a little while to get each fuse lit, and for that reason are only recommended for smaller garden displays where prompt lighting of fuses it not required or if you have no other means of lighting your fireworks.
Things you should NOT use to light fireworks
There are a number of ways fireworks have been lit over the years which are at best unreliable and at worst dangerous. Here’s a rundown of what to avoid:
Lighters which produce a gentle yellow flame are not suitable for lighting fireworks. There are two problems with them and both are rather critical. Firstly the flame is very susceptible to the wind and even the slightest of breezes will cause the flame to dance around making lighting a fuse almost impossible. Second, you cannot use these with gloves on and when the fuse starts it nearly always ejects a stream of hot sparks and gas which can burn your thumb.
Don’t use cigarettes to light fireworks. They are too unreliable not to mention there is a health risk involved of putting something you are smoking onto a fuse containing various chemicals (a health risk over and above lung cancer, heart disease etc. that is!).
Don’t use other fireworks such as sparklers to light fireworks. This is highly dangerous.
The flame from a candle is not strong enough to light fuses because it is too easily blown by the wind.
Petrol soaked rags or other homemade fusing
Don’t be tempted to connect fireworks with rags soaked in flammable liquids or other homemade fuses. If you want to multiple light fireworks this is best done with a good quality lighter such as a portfire or blow torch, or use a remote firing system.
Firers will be closer to the action than anyone else. It’s vital, therefore, that all firers are suitably protected. Be proactive in your safety approach. Don’t wait until an accident happens before you learn! Even basic steps can result in significantly less risk of injury.
Here are the basic requirements of good safety clothing:
Essential. Even a slow moving piece of debris can cause injury to the eye and it goes without saying the eyes are at risk from fire, flame or explosion. With fireworks you may get very little warning if something has gone wrong. You are strongly recommended to visit to your local hardware or DIY shop to get a decent pair of goggles, as these will last for many years and can be used for other things too. Importantly, investing in a pair of decent goggles means you’ll get a pair that a) fits you and b) you’re comfortable with (especially important if you wear spectacles). Make sure they are endorsed with a CE kitemark or better.
Beware “free” goggles given away by some companies; these are mass produced and may not offer the best fit or visibility. Some have a protective layer of film on the plastic front, peel this off first. If you wear spectacles, goggles are still required.
Essential. Hands are at risk from burns even from small fireworks – if sparklers are the number one cause of burns you can imagine what a display firework could do. Fuse on rockets is particularly prone to burning thumbs or fingers if you try to use a lighter and don’t wear gloves. The use of portfires goes hand in hand (no pun intended!) with the use of gloves.
Essential. There are two reasons for head protection. Firstly for the danger of burns from falling embers or spent casings and secondly for the danger of physical injury from falling debris such as a rocket stick. In a big display it’s inevitable you’ll be hit at some point by something. Absolute minimum is a sturdy baseball cap, recommended is a hard hat. These are inexpensive (eg. £5 from B&Q) but ask around – anyone who works in the building, electrical, telecommunications or construction trades will have one you could borrow.
A nice thick coat is a must on a cold evening, but even if it’s summer, put one on. It’s all useful protection. Never fire wearing shorts or T-shirts. Make sure pockets are buttoned down to avoid any unwelcome visitors (falling debris or sparks) and never carry fireworks or portfires in your pockets!
Needed for good grip as well as protection. You could be standing around for hours so make sure they’re comfortable. Trouser legs should go over the outside of boots, so no hot debris can fall in.
Decide whether you need ear protection based on your fireworks and planned routine. Ear protection should be considered if you display regularly. However, the downside is harder communication between firers and they can take a while to get used too. The small ear plugs given away free by some firework companies are of limited use when you’re running around on the night, far better if you’re serious about this point to get a professional set of ear defenders.
An army surplus shop is a great place to pick up cheap head protection, a sturdy coat and boots!
Final checks before firing
In the last half hour or so before firing, check:
- The wind is not too strong to display. You may need to make minor adjustments to the angle of some candles or rocket racks.
- Everyone is happy what they are lighting, and in what order.
- You all know what “Plan B” is in case something goes wrong or out of sequence.
- You all know where safety equipment is – first aid kits and fire extinguishers or water.
- You all have adequate portfires, a torch and a lighter (in case you get caught between portfires) and know where to get more if you run out.
- The crowd is in the correct place and no-one is in the safety or fall out zone other than cleared staff who should be there.
- You’ve moved your car/van away from the firing or fall out zones.
Remember at all times you’re dealing with explosives and public safety. If in doubt, about anything at all, stop and check. Don’t take risks and don’t start your display if it’s unsafe to do so.
Once you’re cleared by ground control for the start, your eye and head protection is on, and the crowd have hushed in anticipation (or singing “Why are we waiting?” if you’re late!):
- Assuming it’s dry remove any fuse coverings or rain protection from the first few fireworks. Whether you do this with all of them is dependent on the weather, what you’re firing and how close together they are. Most firers just remove big bags etc as they go along. Again it’s up to you. Use common sense. Steady rain can ruin a fuse very quickly though, so take this into account if it’s raining. If it is completely dry there is no reason why you cannot remove the coverings on all the fireworks first.
- Check all firers including yourself have goggles on (and not sitting on top of their head, it’s easy to forget) and head protection if you’re using it.
- Do a final check of the safety and fall out zones.
- Get those portfires alight and off you go…… good luck!
Suffering from nerves or butterflies? Don’t worry, these normally go completely when the first firework ignites and adrenaline takes over.
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