Lighting Fireworks By Hand
Advice on lighting your fireworks safely.
In this article I’ll run through how to light your fireworks safely by hand, from what equipment to use through to examples of how to light each type of consumer firework.
Table of contents:
The basics of lighting fireworks
Out of all the extensive advice regarding fireworks here on UKFR, if I could pick just a few critical tips that can make life so much easier and safer when it comes to using fireworks, one would be to use a decent means of lighting your pyro! Something that can ignite your fuses immediately reduces the time spent fumbling around next to a firework and having a clear indication that your fuse is now live gives you much more time to move safely away.
A good firework lighter should:
Two items of lighting equipment fulfil all of the above requirements. They are portfires and blow torches. Let’s have a detailed look at both of these:
These are thin tubes about 8-10 inches long, filled with a pyrotechnic composition that burns with an intense flame:
Portfires have either a green fuse on one end, or blue touchpaper, with the other end marked as the handle. Once lit, they cannot (easily) be put out and burn for between 3 and 5 minutes depending on the brand and length (the Wells portfire above ran for 4m 30s). So, they are designed as one-off lighters, they are not reusable.
Because of the intensity of the flame, portfires are pretty much windproof and providing you keep them dry before use, can usually survive wet weather for the few minutes they burn. The flame on these is intense enough to light fuses immediately and also burn through any clingfilm if you have waterproofed your fireworks.
Portfires can spit out very hot sparks and for this reason I recommend you wear gloves when using them.
Probably the best thing about portfires is their relatively low cost. Typically on sale for around £1 each or less if purchased in bulk, they should be considered an essential safety item and part of your display equipment. Even if you are using other methods to light your fireworks such as blow torches or electrical ignition, portfires are handy to keep around as a back up.
They are significantly better and safer than tapers (see below).
Portfires on sale in supermarkets are equally as good, as my video here demonstrates.
Whilst a great deal of professional teams have moved over to electrical ignition in recent years, I have been to many wedding and public displays during the life of UKFR where the firers have hand lit with portfires. This is why portfires are often marketed as “professional” lighters.
Some tips regarding portfires:
- Whilst some retailers add portfires free of charge to firework orders (particularly with display packs), it is always worth check whether this is the case. Note that portfires, as they are classed as explosives, cannot be sent through the post so if you are buying mail order fireworks, don’t forget to add portfires to your order as they cannot be sent on by Royal Mail afterwards if you forget!
- Use retailer video clips to get a rough idea of your total running time and divide the number of minutes by three. That will give you a minimum number of portfires needed for one firer, allowing for overlaps. Add the same number again for each additional firer and then add in half a dozen spares – leftovers will keep for your next display.
- If your display is more informal and of the “take one firework out at a time and light it” style, or a selection box with dozens of small items in that might last for hours, you may be better off investing in a good blow torch (see below), as one portfire per firework is both wasteful and expensive for a large number of fireworks.
- Conversely, if you’re just lighting one or two fireworks, say for New Year’s Eve, portfires are ideal.
- Keep portfires in a metal tin or similar, remembering they contain flammable powder.
- Familiarise yourself beforehand as to which end to light. Yes seriously! It’s surprisingly easy in the dark to try and light the handle and wonder why the portfire isn’t working. We’ve all been there.
- It is advised not to keep unused portfires in your pockets in case of an accident. Hold spares in your hand or keep them separate from your fireworks.
- Portfires can be taped to a stick if you want greater reach, for example to light a wheel or set piece where the fuse is above head height.
- Be aware that portfires are very smoky. They are not suitable for indoor use. Their high smoke emissions however do make them good wind direction indicators before your display and are useful for persuading moles to move on to the next garden, just saying.
- Portfires are also very handy for lighting bonfires, sparklers and sky lanterns.
On the face of it the suggestion to use a blow torch to light fireworks might sound like either overkill or potentially dangerous. But in fact blow torches are the most common tool used by professionals to light their pyro, second only to electrical ignition. This is because a good blow torch fulfils the criteria listed at the start of this article, namely having an intense flame, being windproof and they’re easy to use in gloved hands.
But they have one other important advantage, especially over portfires: The flame can be switched on and off as required. Piezo ignition too means you can pull the trigger, light your firework, then let the trigger go to switch the flame off. This vastly improves safety as you’re not running around with a naked flame and it saves gas too. And unlike portfires, they don’t give off copious amounts of smoke!
By “blow torch” we are referring here to a plumber’s torch that would be used for general soldering or brazing work. The brand most used by my Fireworks Forum members is the Rothenberger which has proved to be a sturdy torch that can withstand the UK weather, for example the Super Fire 2, costing around £90 but typically available for £60 or so from Amazon. Another recommendation from professional firers is B&Qs “Go” system for around £40.
(As a side note, the more expensive Rothenberger Rofire Global (£70-ish from Homebase as an example), doesn’t switch the flame off when you release the trigger and is therefore unsuitable for lighting fireworks. The cheaper Rothenberger Quick Fire does not have an adjustable flame, which can be useful in windy conditions).
Let’s take a closer look at a Super Fire 2 to see why these are so popular with fireworkers:
Nozzle: A good length to ensure you are a safe distance from the firework’s fuse.
Flame on lock: Not so much used with fireworks as the point is to have the flame go off after letting go of the trigger, but if you need it for actual plumbing work, it’s there!
Trigger and on/off: On the Super Fire 2 the whole button presses in as a trigger, which starts the gas and piezo ignition. When you let go, the flame goes out and the gas stops. On this model the button can also be turned as a master on/off.
Gas canister: This screws into the bottom of the unit.
Flame adjuster: Even the lower setting is more than adequate for fireworks, but you have the option to turn it up, for example in windy conditions.
Handle: Easy to hold in gloved hands.
|Wind proof (due to flame strength)?||Yes||Yes|
|Suitable for all consumer fuses?||Yes||Yes|
|Smoke free flame?||No||Yes|
|Flame on or off as required?||No||Yes|
|Easy to hold in gloved hands?||Yes||Yes|
When buying a blow torch you will have a choice of different gas, some more expensive than others, such as propane gas cylinders or mixed gas. I’ve asked a number of professional firers who have told me there’s no difference in terms of lighting fireworks, so the cheaper gas is fine. This is certainly my experience too when using propane which has an excellent flame strength.
Some tips regarding blow torches:
- There are many different makes available apart from the ones I suggested above. Look for trigger ignition and a reasonably long metal tube as this ensures you have more separation between your fingers and the fuse.
- Another critical feature is that the flame goes out when you release the trigger (as opposed to you having to turn the flow knob manually).
- Be wary of cheap (< £40) generic “rip offs” of the Rothenberger. A quick scan of the reviews on Amazon shows many fail to light reliably or have poor build quality. Remember you’re using this out in the field, it will get knocked around. Some reviews also say the cheaper ones go out when used at an angle, which has implications on bending over to light fireworks.
- Although robust, you should still keep your blow torch dry and where possible light fuses from the side rather than head on as this reduces the amount of soot and debris thrown into the torch (which can gunge up the piezo ignition).
- Buy some portfires anyway as a back up.
What about tapers?
I’m not big fans of the long tapers often given away free by firework retailers or included in selection boxes or rocket packs. The reason is they only burn with a smouldering end, not an intense flame. Their length and thinness also makes them somewhat wobbly at arm’s length and getting the small burning end to stay on a fuse long enough to ignite it can be tricky.
Perhaps for very small and informal displays where you don’t mind taking longer to light your fireworks these are OK if you’re on a very tight budget. But in such cases I’d recommend a small investment in a good quality chef’s torch or BBQ lighter (see below).
Chef's torches and smaller gas lighters
There are a great deal of smaller lighters available if you don’t want to go the full distance and buy a blow torch. Be warned however that many of these are not suitable for outdoor use. In particular avoid those with a gentle orange flame as this will in no way work in even the slightest breeze. Instead, look for lighters with an intense blue flame and ideally those sold as windproof.
You should also look for lighters with a long nozzle rather than those in the traditional cigarette lighter shape. This is because the old style lighters need to have their body physically underneath whatever they are lighting which causes obvious issues with firework fuses that are on the top of cakes and flush with the casing.
Another reason I recommend portfires or bigger blow torches over these is that, in my experience, this smaller type of lighter has not proven durable in use. One major concern is how easy it is for soot to bung up the piezo ignitor, rendering it useless.
When using smaller lighters, try and get into the habit of lighting the fuses from the side and not end-on. Doing the latter means that when the fuse ignites, a whole load of soot and other particles are blown into the torch which can kill the piezo ignitor. The images below hopefully demonstrate just how much a fuse expels and why this would be a real problem if it all went into the end of your lighter.
Another difficulty with these smaller lighters is they’re often very hard to use in gloved hands.
However, despite my suggestion to give preference to portfires or bigger blow torches, these smaller lighters are still vastly better (and safer) than tapers if you find a windproof one with a strong blue flame. Given that a reasonably good quality one can be picked up for around £3 from most firework shops, those of you having an informal back garden display should definitely give these a look instead of tapers.
Suggestions for cheaper lighters suitable for fireworks were asked for in an October 2020 discussion in my Forum. It has a number of recommendations and is well worth a read if you don’t want to spend the additional money on a full-sized blow torch. You can read it here.
Lighting cakes, candles, fountains and mines
These fireworks are all usually staked out on the ground so the techniques for lighting them are the same.
If your firework is not waterproofed, that is to say you’ve staked it out to fire immediately, then locate the fuse cover and remove it. The cover is usually an orange or foil sticker with a tear-out section.
Many fireworks, particularly cakes and barrages, now have two fuses. One is intended as a reserve fuse in case the main fuse fails. It is important not to try and light both fuses and instead locate the primary fuse. It will be numbered “1” in some cases with the reserve fuse labelled “2” or “Reserve”. Sometimes it is not immediately obvious because the number of language variants printed on these labels makes it confusing so take your time.
In case you are wondering what would happen if you lit the reserve fuse by mistake, the firework would run backwards. This doesn’t pose any kind of safety risk but if you have a barrage that ends with a flourish, it will instead start with the flourish because the firing sequence is reversed. And if you lit both fuses together, the shot sequence would be the start and finish together, working in towards the middle.
If you have waterproofed your fireworks and set up in advance, either remove the top bag if you’re using them and then remove the fuse cover (unless you already did this during setting up), or, if you used clingfilm and again assuming you already removed the fuse cover before wrapping, locate the fuse.
Ensuring that no part of your body is over the firework, light the end of the fuse at arm’s length.
Always light the fuse’s tip and not part way down, or you will have less time to get away.
Once you have lit the fuse, move away immediately (known as “retiring to a safe distance” in safety label speak). Some fireworks state the distance that you, as the firer, should move to. In fact this distance is dependent on the level of safety gear you are wearing, if you are fully kitted out with PPE then standing closer in readiness to light the next firework is usually OK though always use common sense.
If the primary fuse fails and the firework does not start, it is recommended on many safety labels to wait at least 5 minutes before returning to try the reserve fuse. I’d echo that advice because I’ve have seen cases where the fuse was still smouldering and the firework sprung into life after a few minutes, a potentially dangerous situation if you are next to it trying to light the other fuse. If you’ve set up all of your fireworks in advance then move on to the next firework in your sequence and decide whether to fire the reserve fuse on the problem firework later on. If you’re setting fireworks out and firing them one by one, give the problem firework a wide berth while you fire your others, before returning to it.
Please be very wary of trying to relight partly burned fuses. If you see that a primary fuse still has some visible length it is still safer to light the reserve fuse. If the firework doesn’t have a reserve fuse then usually it is better to treat the firework as a dud and contact your retailer after the display to discuss this. It’s generally a bad idea, for example, to apply a blow torch or similar to the firework’s casing to “try and get it going”.
If you have placed a bag over your rocket to keep it dry, remove this first. Then, remove the fuse cover, which is the bright orange plastic cap on the bottom of the rocket’s head. Tip: In some cases these are quite tight as they are secured with a little glue so if setting out your fireworks in advance, I recommend removing then replacing these covers during setting up, to make things easier when you come to light them.
With many rockets the fuse is doubled over under the cap, so straighten it first.
It is very important at this stage and before lighting the fuse that you check the rocket is free to rise from the tube. In particular, check that the stick is not stuck in the ground, or the tube has bent and gripped the stick. Also make a final check that the tube is secure and the rocket cannot fall over after being lit.
Light the tip of the fuse at arm’s length and move away immediately as per the advice I’ve given for cakes and barrages above.
If the rocket “whooshes” but has become stuck in the tube, move away as fast as possible (“run like hell”) and don’t look back. The rocket could be about to explode in the tube which is highly dangerous to be near. Thankfully this is very rare and nearly always caused by rocket sticks getting pushed into the ground, so is mostly avoidable.
Rockets do not have reserve fuses. If the fuse burns and nothing happens, leave the rocket well alone and treat it as a dud (see the What Can Go Wrong? article for advice on dealing with duds). Please do not put a blow torch, portfire or similar into the bottom of the rocket to try and light it. You could be seriously injured.
Keep an eye on the flight path of your first rocket especially if it’s windy, in case you need to make adjustments to the angle of your launch tubes, or even pull the rockets from the display if conditions prove too breezy.
Lighting wheels and lancework
If you’ve set up the wheel in advance and have any plastic bags or sheeting over the top of the wheel, remove this and locate the fuse. Remove the fuse cover if you have not already done so.
Check the wheel is free to move by giving it a little spin by hand. Assuming it spins OK, light the end of the fuse at arm’s length and move away. If your wheel is mounted above head height on a bigger post then using a portfire on the end of a stick is recommended.
Follow the same steps if you’re lighting lancework. One thing I will warn about with lancework is that the fuse connecting the lances is usually black match or similar and flashes through almost instantaneously after the safety fuse (the part you light) has burned down. The resulting flash and loud “whoosh!” takes many inexperienced firers by surprise, so be prepared for this.
Keeping things moving
If you’re firing an informal display in the back garden, particularly where you are taking fireworks out one at a time, it’s fine to have gaps between each firework. However for bigger or more “serious” displays it’s usually preferable to avoid any gaps and to keep things moving continuously.
To this end, it’s better to overlap the fireworks slightly than try and go for perfection where one stops and another starts. To be blunt you’ll never do this with consumer fireworks and hand lighting because you have to contend with varying durations and varying fuse burn times.
It’s very hard to judge when a firework is going to stop and to light the next one just in time so it starts as the first one ends. Don’t leave it too late – that’s where gaps come in. Don’t be frightened of “premature lighting” (it’s nothing to be ashamed of!). Here’s some advice:
- Have a running order in your favour. Rotate the effects so you can overlap from one to another and it will look natural.
- Items with a small number of shots can be counted out by hand. For example, if it has eight shots, light the next fuse as number five or six is going up. This takes practice but can be quite effective.
- If you want a rocket effect followed by a ground based firework, light the ground based one straight after the rocket – before it takes off. It’ll start just as the rocket is breaking.
- Never use one shot wonders in isolation. Mines are the worst – you’ll never be able to have a cake finish, a mine go off, and another firework start straight after. Work them in with other fireworks instead – for example, light a line of fountains, and a line of mines behind. The fountains will give a pretty ground effect while the mines will add some sudden aerial power – but the fountains will continue, giving you a chance to light the next firework and carry on. Rockets are another tough one. Having a cake going off at the same time is a good way to keep things flowing, while rockets are going off overhead.
- Remember, it takes practice! Gaps are inevitable for your first few displays. Try and use fewer, bigger, items to start with while you find your feet.
- Always use portfires or good quality blow torches as described above – don’t even think about messing around with a taper for bigger shows.
Further information and help
There’s more info on lighting fireworks accessible from the Firing Your Fireworks Display page including advice on remote firing systems, safety gear and how to let off multiple fireworks at the same time.