Fireworks Guide: Catherine Wheels

A popular firework that spins and ejects sparks.

Key information

  • Nailed to a post, spins and ejects sparks.
  • Variety of effects including glitter, colour and whistles.
  • Wheels do not bang so are ideal for low noise or out of season displays.
  • Safety distances typically 8m up to 25m. No licence or training required to buy and use at any time of the year.
  • Size, variety and availability seems more limited in recent years.

A closer look at a typical wheel

Regardless of their size, wheels all have the same features as shown above.

Drivers: These contain gunpowder and the sparks emitted from these drive the wheel around. Some wheels hide the drivers behind packaging. Note: Some very small wheels have a spiral tube filled with gunpowder instead of individual drivers.

Fuse: Where you light it.

Free nail: Every wheel should have one!

Mounting hole: This is where you bang the nail through to mount it to a post.

Connecting fuse: Where the wheel has multiple drivers (three on the wheel pictured above), each one will have a fuse linking it to the next one.

Warning label and instructions: The important things you need to know about the wheel, its classification (Category F2 or F3), the net explosive content (NEC) and so on. It’s on the other side of this wheel.

Why they are called Catherine wheels

The term “Catherine wheel” has its roots in Christian tradition as a type of device on which Catherine of Alexandria was put to death (see the Wikipedia article on this). I’ll just refer to them as wheels from here on.

A selection of different wheels with one, two and three drivers.

What type of effects to expect

All wheels emit sparks of some kind. These can be gold, silver or coloured. Some wheels also whistle or screech as they are going around.

Wheels don’t bang which makes them ideal for low noise displays.

They also do not detach from the post and chase Grandad around the garden – at least not intentionally – they should remain in place.

Burning fences and sheds are also not an intended effect. This is why wheels should be mounted on a separate post by themselves, not on the sides of fences or sheds. And don’t nail them to trees!

An example wheel in action is shown in the video below:

How much do they cost?

The very small wheels – known as “pin wheels” – are around £5 each. A reasonably performing multiple effects wheel would retail for £10-£15 with the bigger ones costing £30 or more.

What happened to all the really big wheels?

Some years ago when fireworks conformed to British Standards, a whole range of elaborate wheels and spinning devices (usually called “set pieces”) where available.

Since we changed over to the European CE regulations – well before Brexit came about – this type of firework became much harder to keep within the required standards for consumer fireworks. As a result, larger and more elaborate spinning fireworks have all but gone from the market, leaving us with a much smaller selection.

In the last couple of years in particular, even smaller wheels have become more scarce. I’ve asked a few manufacturers and importers and they advise that a reduction in the number of Chinese factories willing to make this type of firework is largely to blame.

Catherine wheels FAQ

Use the supplied nail and push it through the centre hole, then bang this with a hammer into a tall wooden post. Check it's free to spin before lighting, a small spray of WD40 can help things along.

Most last around 30 seconds or so but it's very dependent on the size and cost.

Wheels don't bang so all could be considered as low noise. Some do crackle or whistle, check first if you want to avoid those sounds too.

Fewer factories in China make these and in recent years they have become rather scarce with most retailers only stocking one or two varieties.

You need between 8m and 15m distance to spectators for F2 fireworks and 25m for F3 fireworks. 

I don't recommend it. Aside from the damage to trees, a stuck wheel can scorch or set fire to fences and sheds. Mount it on a post on its own.

Smaller ones are around £10 with the bigger ones costing up to £30 or more.

Further information and next steps

If you are following the Beginner’s Guides then you can click here to return to that page. Alternatively you can click here to see the main menu of each firework type in this section if you want to read more (or click on the menu at the top of this page to access all of my guides).

If you have any questions then please feel free to join my Fireworks Forum and ask away. Members are always here to help beginners and no question is too silly.

If you’re ready to buy fireworks for your display then the Buying Fireworks section will guide you further.