Choosing Fireworks: New Year's Eve Displays

An occasion that demands a short but intense fireworks show.

New Year’s Eve has become a really big event on the UK pyro calendar. Whilst always popular in other countries (think of it as their alternative to our Bonfire Night) it only really took off here from 1999 onwards with the new millennium encouraging people to celebrate in style. It has grown since then and is largely responsible for ushering in a new breed of very large cakes and barrages – designed to give consumers just one single – but huge – firework to light for a complete show. Minimum fuss, maximum impact, and that’s what I’ll be focusing on here.

The normal curfew for fireworks (11pm) is extended to 1am on New Year’s Eve. Read more advice on various laws in my UK firework laws summary.

Getting started

This article is geared towards a display at the stroke of midnight. If you’re doing a display earlier on in the evening have a read of the general advice section which runs through some useful advice on choosing fireworks for displays in general. 

As I’ve said above, the emphasis here is to keep your display short and high impact, which generally means focusing on one or two big barrages, or just a single large compound cake.

Giving a crowd a short and intense display.

My suggestion to keep things short and simple is based on firing or attending NYE displays for over 20 years and seeing not only what works best, but what’s the safest, given that we’re talking late night and lots of partying combined.

Consider the following:

  • The actual celebration on NYE – at midnight – is about the new year coming in, after a suitably enthusiastic countdown and usually to the chimes of Big Ben. But that’s really it, so if you’re still firing pyro 15 minutes later aren’t you labouring the point a bit?
  • The occasion demands something suitably big and loud to get going, but you need to keep that level of impact going or your display will peter out. That’s hard to do for more than a couple of minutes without spending a huge amount on pyro.
  • To use an amusing but quite accurate expression, a lot of NYE audiences tend to be somewhat “off their tits” by midnight. This sort of audience appreciates a short, sharp, pyro shock but they won’t be quite so happy if they’re still standing there 10-20 minutes later. Attention spans can be limited, I speak from experience.
  • The weather in the UK in late December and early January is never going to be warm and dry – at least not for another 50 years or so when the ice caps have melted – so a short display is often kinder to your spectators. Quite a lot of your audience will in fact venture out still wearing indoor clothing so won’t be able to hang around for more than a few minutes.

What fireworks to use

The first type of firework to consider for a NYE display is a large compound cake. This is simply a number of big cakes all connected with an internal fuse but you only have to worry about lighting one fuse (with a reserve fuse normally available in case of problems). In previous years my advice was to pick a couple of big cakes and barrages but advances in compound cakes means they have become an excellent alternative even for bigger shows.

Despite appearances this is just two fireworks. A large compound cake (here unpacked and ready to fire) which runs through four large cakes off one fuse. And, to end the show, a single large F3 rocket which will fill the sky with colour.

You’ll usually find these in firework retailers’ catalogues and websites in their “Cakes” section (some retailers call them “Barrages”, same thing), though increasingly many firework shops are highlighting compound cakes in their own sections. Some also call this type of firework a “display in a box” as that is what it does. All good retailers will have video clips so you can see the item in action and you can decide whether to err towards a short duration compound (high impact) or long duration (lesser impact) unit.

Using a single big compound cake means that setting up is so easy – just one firework to secure on the ground – as is lighting. You can hand light using a portfire which your firework shop will supply you, or a good windproof lighter. Just a word of warning, many bigger compounds are packaged in pyromesh, so remove that during daylight and well in advance.

The possible disadvantage of a compound firework is cost. Budget for at least £100 for a good one and £200 or more for a larger unit that combines both good duration (2 to 3 minutes) and high impact with price tags for the biggest ones exceeding £500. There is always a slight premium with compounds compared to buying individual cakes because in a compound they have to be pre-fused and usually mounted on a wooden board internally, all of which adds to the cost.

Other fireworks to consider

One other firework that works particularly well for NYE is a large rocket. These whoosh upwards and explode with a suitably loud bang and pretty effect. For maximum impact, stick with the larger Category F3 rockets and ask your retailer for rockets classified as 1.3G which are more powerful (or if you’re buying several 1.3G rockets, they might come in a wire cage and be classified as 1.4G on the outer box, that’s fine too – see the 1.3G or 1.4G? guide for a technical breakdown of this subject).

Budget for between £20 and £40 per rocket for the bigger ones when buying singly, such as the rocket shown in the photo above. Savings can usually be made when buying a complete set (typically four) of any one variety.

A great combination then for NYE is to start things off with a big rocket for a bold opening statement and then follow this up with a big compound cake. If you have more than one big rocket, fire the remaining ones together at the very end.

Useful tip: Fuse timings

Consumer fireworks have a safety fuse which adds a delay of up to 10 seconds before the firework starts, giving you time to get away. So getting a cake or barrage to start on the exact stroke of midnight is very hard. Lighting the fuse a few seconds before midnight helps, but it’s not an exact science with consumer fireworks unfortunately!

Can't make too much noise?

I appreciate that not everyone wants to make a big, loud statement, or might have other constraints or special requests. In those cases, check out the other Choosing Fireworks guides to find the ones closest to what you need.

Firing on a beach?

Mass gatherings of people on a beach to celebrate NYE with fireworks is becoming more and more popular. In these cases it’s important to keep things simple. A single big compound cake requires so little in the way of setting up that it vastly reduces the chances of anything going wrong and will be suitably big and loud.

Some tips for NYE on a beach:

  • Check if any of your fireworks are packed in pyromesh before you go and if so, remove the metal casing in daylight. The fireworks can then be returned to their outer card box for transport to the beach, minus the metalwork.
  • Keep the fireworks off damp sand or shingle prior to firing as the water can soak into the case of the fireworks. Putting them in, or on, a bin bag is fine. 
  • Remember to take something to light your pyro with, ideally windproof, such as a BBQ lighter or a portfire from the fireworks shop (but don’t forget something to light the portfire with!).
  • When setting up a large and bottom-heavy compound it’s fine to set it down on level sand or shingle, providing you’re sure it’s stable and cannot move. Any other fireworks will need proper staking out as per the setting up sections here.
  • At the risk of teaching you to suck eggs, if you’re having a BBQ or bonfire on the beach, keep your pyro well away from it.
  • Please take your pyro rubbish and firework carcasses home with you.

I will finish this article with the warning that alcohol and fireworks is a dangerous combination and the recommendation is always that anyone firing pyro should be sober.

Further information

The other Choosing Fireworks sections might also be of help in case your display also falls within the scope of those too.

If you’re a complete beginner and some of the terms used in this page are unclear then head over to the Beginners Start Here! page for a run-through of both fireworks and the extensive guides on my website.

The next step after narrowing down your choice of fireworks is buying them, arguably the most fun part! The Buying Fireworks sections will help you.

Then, it’s time to set up your pyro before firing it. The Setting Up Fireworks and Firing Your Display sections will guide you further.