Introduction: How to Plan and Launch a Fireworks Show

About: I love to learn new stuff. I am, by trade, a computer geek, but my true passion is the arts... ALL the arts. I have made movies (both in front and behind the camera), photography, pencil and pen art, comic boo…

You've been volunteered for your neighbourhood/campground Canada Day/Independence Day/Bastille Day firework show, and while you've fired the odd firework in the past, you want to put on a good show...but you're not sure how. As the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy so aptly states: Don’t panic!

There are a few instructables that purport to show you how to make fireworks, but few that actually show you how to design a good firework show. So let me tell you how I go about creating my shows. We will limit ourselves to using only consumer grade fireworks. Display fireworks require all kinds of certifications that are well beyond the scope of this instructable.

Here in Canada, the consumer grade firework selection is much slimmer than what is available in the USA. For example, salutes (loud bangs) are illegal. Re loadable tubes are also illegal, and the maximum tube size available for launching is less than 2”, which limits the height of the show to about 120 feet. That doesn't mean you can’t make a decent show with Canadian consumer fireworks, it just means that we have to work a little harder than our American brethren. If you’re reading this from the US of A, then you have way more choices available, but the basic premise of this instructable still applies.

Step 1: Stuff You'll Need

  • Plywood (OSB will do in a pinch)
  • 2 x "whatever"s (I used scrap 2x4s and 2x6s)
  • Screws
  • Drill with a screw bit
  • Saw
  • Zip ties
  • Safety equipment:
    • Fire extinguisher(s)
    • Bucket(s) of water
    • First Aid kit(s)
    • Safety goggles
  • Appropriate footwear
  • Construction gloves
  • Head cover (baseball cap at a minimum)
  • Soldering torches or road flares
  • Rake
  • Garbage bags
  • Head lamp (optional)
  • Stopwatch or smartphone (optional)

Step 2: ​Safety

Before you roll your eyes and skip this section, know that fireworks can cause great harm. Try an internet search for “firework injury” if you don’t believe me, it’s extremely sobering and rather gruesome. I remember setting up a neighbourhood show where a semi-drunk fellow (he’d already broken the “No alcohol or drugs” rule) was planting Roman candles into the ground and lighting them with a pocket lighter. Not a great plan. I was setting up my show beside his firing line when the inevitable happened: a candle fell over and launched a couple of shots directly at me. If I had not been following one of the cardinal rules of safety “Never turn your back on a lit firework”, I wouldn’t have been able to dodge and would have been badly burned. The semi-drunk guy ran over screaming “I got this” and broke another of the cardinal rule of fireworks: “Never hold a lit firework in your hands”.

So here are the rules:

Wear appropriate clothing and safety equipment. That means at a minimum long pants (jeans are great as natural fibres like cotton won’t melt like synthetic fibres do), long sleeved top (cotton sweatshirt, no synthetic fibres that can melt), socks and shoes (preferably construction boots), safety goggles, a construction hat (a backwards baseball cap will work in a pinch and protects the neck), and gloves. Many pyros own firefighting helmets with a full face mask. It’s a bit of overkill if you’re firing consumer fireworks, but it has the advantage of having great protection. Lamps that strap around the head are also a huge help.

Never, ever hold a lit firework in your hands. When taking my pyro certification, I was shown some pretty horrible pics of accidents that happen when people do that. Just don’t do it.

Never, ever turn your back on a lit firework. Always keep lit fireworks in front of you so you can see them firing. If a firework falls over, at least you have a chance to dodge. If a firework misfires, you can see it (and hear it) misfire, and hit the deck before it explodes in the tube.

The corollary to the above rule: make sure your fireworks can’t fall on their sides. That means that you mount them to a board, attach them to a rack, bury them in sand, whatever. A firework firing sideways is extremely dangerous.

No alcohol or drugs. Anything that can impair your judgement is dangerous. Remember that you’re playing with explosive gunpowder. That means ZERO alcohol, ZERO drugs. Enough said.

Have emergency supplies on hand. This means buckets of water, fire extinguishers and first aid kits should all be readily at hand and close to the action, preferably available at each and every station. An accident during a firework show happens in the dark and you want the available supplies close at hand. Accidents will happen sooner or later. Be ready for them.

Step 3: Site Selection

Often, the site for the show will already have been selected in advance. But just in case, ensure that the site meets the following requirements:

Unobstructed firing line. Naturally, you will want a site free of overhead wires, trees and far from buildings and other structures.

Plan your firing line and your crowd areas. Ideally, your crowd will be one and one-half times as far from the firing line as the highest firework you launch. For example, if your highest altitude firework goes to 120 feet, then the crowd should be 180 feet away from the fireworks. A firework that travels to this height will have an effect – or “break” – that is about 30 feet in diameter. The one and one-half rule is therefore a minimum safe distance for your crowd if you're firing straight up. Your crowd location should also be up wind from your firing line so that the firework debris fall behind the firing line and not toward the crowd. This is, of course, not always possible, so leeway should be made for the amount of wind on the day of the show. Have some people on hand to help you enforce the minimum safe distance.

Wind is more dangerous than rain. You can always cover fireworks (I use foil) to protect them from rain and, in most cases, you can shoot right through that cover (although it makes a huge mess). You can even fire a show in fairly steady rain as commercial fireworks are covered in a water resistant paper. But wind will affect the flight of the fireworks and can make a show immensely dangerous. Judge the wind accurately. Up to a stiff breeze, you can probably fire, more than that, you’ll want to postpone.

On to the planning of the show.

Step 4: ​Planning

Now we have to think about budget. Is your show sponsored by anyone? Are others chipping in? Are all the funds coming out of your pocket? Fireworks can burn money faster than most any activity you can name. At our little Canada Day show last year, we had a $2,000 firework budget, and we burned up about $600 in the last 90 seconds alone. That's $400 a minute! Over $65 every 10 seconds! It is very easy to go overboard. Choose an amount of money and work within that budget. It’s possible to make a very memorable show with a few hundred dollars.

Save a third to a half of you budget for the finale. You read that right. If you’re planning on a $600 show, then $200 to $300 of that amount will be for your finale which will last anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds. There’s a good reason for this: most people will remember the finale most of all when they talk about your show. They may mention other parts of your show, but what will stick in their minds is the very last part of the show and how they were floored by the number of fireworks in the sky.

Shop around. The very same firework can be had for very different prices. Pictured above is an example with one of my staples for a finale. It’s a 25-shot cake that fires 5 shots of crackling flowers at a time. Note the huge price difference between suppliers. Don’t be fooled by the different graphics; the three are exactly the same. Do your research! Dollars saved here mean a bigger and better show. Part of your budget should also go toward safety equipment, firing equipment, and supplies to build racks that will ensure your fireworks don’t tip over. You likely have some of the lumber on hand already and can probably borrow some of the equipment you need.

Step 5: Bases for Your Fireworks

Some fireworks have a plastic base, as is the case for mortars and mines, but all of them have clay at the bottom of the firework tubes. This clay provides the resistance to the explosion that ensures the firework flies up and out of the top of the tube instead of bursting out the bottom. You can take advantage of this clay base to mount your fireworks to boards. I have specially built boards that are made of 5/8 inch plywood. They are cut to two feet wide by 8 feet long. I have screwed some 2x4 pieces to the bottom to make them easy to pick up off the ground. All the fireworks are screwed into the board through the clay base of the cakes. Mortars and mines are screwed in by their plastic base.

For simplicity's sake, I screw in the pieces in order on firing along one long side, then along the other long side. The boards are placed with the short edges facing the crowd. All the person firing has to do is light the pieces in order from front to back on one side, then down the other side. For larger shows, I may have two boards at each station, one behind the other, one for the main show and another for the finale.

Barrages and roman candles are attached to racks that can fire either straight up or at a 30 degree angle to either side. This provides stability as well as the possibility of aiming the pieces. The barrages are simply zip-tied to the rack. As you can see from the image, a couple of "two by's" and some plywood can easily be converted into a workable barrage rack in very little time.

If you don't have the time or the materials to build the rack, another option is to bring some buckets filled with sand. I usually "borrow" the sand from an area beach or playground sandbox where it is promptly returned (without debris) after the show. Buy or borrow substantially large buckets such as 5-gallon buckets available from Home Depot (recycling bins are also a good choice for this). Fill them halfway with sand and sink in your barrages and roman candles so that their bases are buried in sand. Top up with more sand. Ensure that you do this just prior to the show. Sand can hold a fair amount of moisture, and leaving your fireworks to sit for hours or days in moist sand is likely not a good idea.

Step 6: Know Your Fireworks

Cakes offer a lot of bang for your buck and can create some spectacular combinations that would be difficult to accomplish with individual pieces. One of the pieces in the photos above is called Hillbilly Heaven and fires four orange stars to the right, four green stars to the left and four red stars straight up that break into peonies. Some fire very rapid successions of comets. Some provide a series of huge brocade breaks that last a minute or more (and are therefore a great anchor for a finale). Use cakes as the foundation of your show which will allow you to vary the dynamics of the show with each new piece you fire.

Z-cakes are the same as cakes except that they fire to the left and right as well as up. Z- cakes usually have five to seven tubes that are angled to fire in different directions. The Surf's Up Z-cake pictured above fires six simultaneous deep blue breaks four times and is a beautiful display that fills up the sky all by itself.

Tubes, shells, or mortars fire a single shot, but usually have a larger or more dramatic effect. Fire two or three of these at once to really fill up the sky. One trick is to tie three mortars together with the middle one going straight up and the two side ones at an angle, and linking the fuses together. The three pieces will fire at the same time but diverge as they climb to provide a nice sky-filling effect.Save this for the finale as it can be expensive.

Noise-making fireworks are a welcome change of pace in any show. Mix and match different sounds at different times to offset other pieces, or drown the audience in a barrage of sounds by blending many sound effects at once. Check out the video to see how it changes the dynamics of the show - and the reaction of the crowd which is always hilarious.

Barrages are collection of small tubes attached together into one piece. Each smaller tubes contains multiple effects that are fired into the sky as each tube burns down. The barrages provide a smaller effect than cakes or mortars, but have the advantage of being directional. That is, they can be strapped to a rack to provide a nice effect.

Roman candles fire a series of glowing stars into the sky. Single roman candles are not very useful as part of a serious show. But they have the advantage of being inexpensive, and firing a large number of them at once can be a great effect. But you might as well fire a barrage instead.

Fountains, since they only fire about 6 feet up, are nearly useless unless placed very close to the audience as a show opener. Don’t place them with your main show as they are nearly impossible to see from 200 feet away, and the sparks can set off other pieces before their planned launch time.

Step 7: Know Your Effects

Knowing the different types of breaks and effects that are available will help you to understand what pieces you can mix and match. Below is a brief description of the more common effects you will encounter with consumer fireworks.

Brocade: A spider-like effect in the sky. Most brocade effects use glitter to produce long brocade tails.

Comets: A type of star that leaves a long trail of sparks as it flies through the air.

Chrysanthemum: A flower-like aerial pattern.

Crossettes: A type of comet that breaks into multiple comets, usually leaving a cross shape. Very hard to find as a consumer firework.

Dahlia: Another flower-like effect, very much like a chrysanthemum.

Fishes: An aerial effect that looks like a bunch of fish swimming through the air.

Leaves: An effect that has a very small break followed by comets falling toward the ground.

Mine: A ground effect where stars are shot out of a mortar tube. Some mortars have both a mine when the effect is fired and a break at altitude.

Palm: Like a brocade but with thick glitter to imitate the leaves of a palm tree.

Palm tree: Similar to the palm, but the charge leaves a stem of glitter as it rises, before breaking into a palm.

Peony: Another flower-like effect, this one usually very round and multi-coloured.

Ring: An effect that produces a ring of stars in the sky.

Spinner (or tourbillon or serpent): A type of star that spins in the sky and gives off a lot of light and sparks.

Spray: A newer offering in consumer fireworks, the effect produces small fans of stars.

Star: All fireworks are based on clusters of stars. Single stars are usually the effect shot out of roman candles.

Strobe: An effect where the stars blink after the burst.

Whistles: An effect that produces a loud whistle as the firework rises in the sky. Often coupled with

Willow: An effect that looks like a willow tree in the sky. It's very hard to find a good consumer grade willow.

Step 8: Creating Tableaus - the Pyro's Art

A fireworks show should employ dynamics. It's the same as the storyline in a movie: there should be quiet moments and loud moments, moments when the action is non-stop, and ones where the sheer artistry captivates the audience, laugh out loud moments, etc. You don’t want your show to be a constant barrage of fireworks, as even the most awe-inspiring display becomes boring in its sameness after a while. You have to change the number, types, altitudes, sizes, colors, and sound of your pieces to keep the show interesting.

The secret is to use all these options to create a series of tableaus. For example, you may want to create short and tall palm trees at the same time. So you could set off a cake that fires a load that leaves a trail and breaks into a palm 50 feet into the air, at the same time as you fire mortars that leave a trail and break into a palm 100 feet into the air. The constant "palm trees" at 50 feet with the occasional large palm trees at 100 feet creates an interesting tableau for the audience and creates movement for the eye.

You could decide to fire only blue fireworks, or to fire a flying fish cakes at the same time as you fire a noise-maker cake. You could fire three barrages at various angles as in the video above. This is where the true artistry of the fireworks comes in. Mixing and matching altitudes, effects colors, etc. really makes the show, keeping the audience’s interest up. Bring the tempo up and bring it back down, bring it up higher, then higher yet, then bring it back down again. This constant movement in the show is what makes it interesting. You can accomplish this by firing single pieces, multiples of the same firework, different effects at the same time, etc.

For example, my upcoming fireworks show for Canada Day will start with Saturn Missiles for grabbing the audience attention, then on to Crazy Palms for a first taste of the larger stuff, then mellower with Strobing Thunder which offers a glittering effect, then a few larger mortars with three Silverados, then quieter with Dream Weaver, and then some unexpected combination with Hillbilly Heaven, and so on. As you can see the show moves up and down and changes constantly.

If budget permits, try to fire from more than one location. Increasing to just two firing positions can dramatically improve your show, making it that much more interesting. Explore with three or more firing stations. Budget allowing, there comes a time when making a longer show is not going to improve the quality of the show. Adding variety and pace to the show is what will make or break its success.

I like to use three to five firing stations, with three being my favourite, especially since we hand-fire our shows - synchronizing five stations can be difficult. Unless you have a large budget, your show will be hand-fired as well. A 3-station setup provides many options. You could fire from:

  • station 2 only (pieces that fire straight up or toward the sides)
  • stations 1 and 3 (pieces that fire toward the centre station or fire Z-cakes)
  • stations 1, 2 and 3 at the same time

These combinations of different firing stations provide you with a lot of options.Some of my favourite combinations include:

  • Firing two z-cakes that have complementary effects from station 2. (see video)
  • Firing the same z-cakes from stations 1 and 3.
  • Firing lots of comets straight up from station 2, while firing chrysanthemums straight up or toward the sides from 1 and 3.
  • Firing three barrages from station 2 (left, centre and right)(see video)
  • Firing a fan cake of coloured comets from station 2, with fan cakes of silver comets from 1 and 3. (see video)

Of course, at the finale, fire from all stations.

Whatever you decide, make sure to pace your show and that the dynamics ramp up and down. I personally like to chart the dynamics of a show. I rate each piece that will be fired on a scale of 1 to 10 and then design a show around these ratings. See the chart in the images above; the zig-zag blue line indicates the rating of individual pieces, and the black line indicates the overall dynamics of the show. While this is a purely subjective measure, it has served me well. I like to start the show on a fairly high note, bring it down from there, and zig-zag up and down. Near the end of the show, I ramp it up higher and higher until we hit the finale which is non-stop action.

Step 9: The Finale

This is it; the entire show has brought you to this moment. A great finale lights up the sky at all levels and will be the highlight of the evening. Filing the sky is the secret to a great finale. While your goal for the main show was tyo switch types, altitudes, colours, etc. to keep the crowd's eye moving, the finale is where you throw everything together. Mixing comets and stars with tails with bursts at different altitudes is one of the best ways of doing this. I usually accomplish this with cakes that fire comets from 1 or 2 firing points, coupled with cakes that fire mid and high bursts from all stations.

For example, imagine cakes at stations 1 and 3 that fire a fan of seven silver comets simultaneously, while you have a fan cake firing five simultaneous mid-level mid-sized palms from 2, and two more cakes firing constant large single brocades high in the sky from stations 1and 3 as well. That kind of intensity is what you’re looking for in a finale.

Don’t skimp here. You can go smaller for the rest of the show as long as your show dynamics were good. The finale is where you go big. Check out the videos. One is for a small $500 show and we used about $150 for the finale. The other was a $1,400 show and we used $450 for the finale. This latter video's finale is kicked off by whistling fireworks, and is pretty much non-stop action from that point until the end. You will also notice that there are still some dynamics in the finale: the intensity still goes up and down, there’s just way more fireworks in the sky.

Step 10: Firing the Show

You’ve designed your show and you’ve arranged your pieces in the right order. They’re all attached to boards and racks, ready to go. Now you could just light one piece, wait for it to stop and light the next, and so on. But that makes for a pretty boring show. The reason is that is takes about a second or two for you to realize the piece has finished firing, and another two seconds to light the fuse of the next one. The fuse then takes five seconds to burn, and the first effect will take about two seconds to lift to altitude before bursting. That means that there’s a 10 to 12 second delay between each piece during which time the crowd starts to get antsy. You can do better to keep the crowd involved.

This is where a firing sheet comes in handy. First you need to know how long each piece lasts. Your fireworks retailer or manufacturer can help here as they usually have videos or information about the length of each piece. You also need to know how long it will take for your firework to start putting on a show for your audience after it's lit. I use the 8-second rule: it takes me about one second to light the fuse, the fuse burns for 5 seconds, and the first effect will take about 2 seconds to lift into the sky before bursting. Knowing this, I will light my next piece 8 seconds before the piece that’s currently firing stops shooting.

For example, let’s say I have a 25 second cake, followed by a 30 seconds cake, then a 20 seconds cake. I would light my first piece and 8 seconds before that ends (i.e. at the 17 second mark), I would light the second piece. Then 8 seconds before that 2nd piece ends (i.e. at the 47 sec. mark of the show), I would light the third piece. I usually prepare a firing sheet with all the time stamps for lighting the pieces in order. I then use a smartphone timer app as a stopwatch to launch at the right times. This method will have the advantage of creating an uninterrupted show for your audience and adds a huge level of professionalism. With a few helpers – and many will want to help, shooting fireworks is fun - this method can also be used to fire from multiple stations with a fair accuracy in timing. Almost everyone has a smartphone these days. As long as all the timers are started at the same time, it’s easy to synch up the firing of the various pieces from different firing stations. As you can see from the sample sheet above, the timers are all started at zero seconds, and the show starts 50 seconds later. allowing enough time for everyone to get tot heir stations with goggles on, torches or flares lit and ready to go.

Speaking of which, don’t use a lighter to light your fireworks. At the very least, get a soldering torch. Better yet, duct tape a road flare to a long dowel or branch. The flares burn very hot and will light the fuses very easily. They also provide for some distance from the firework when lighting it, which is a margin of safety.

Step 11: Clean-up

Because your fireworks casings are strapped to boards and racks, carting away spent fireworks is a snap. But launching fireworks makes a mess, and it’s a pretty sad “manly man” who leaves a mess behind him. Bring a rake and garbage bag and rake up the the pieces of paper, cardboard and plastic that are the aftermath of a show. To help reduce the amount of debris, remove the top paper from all your firework pieces. Note that noise-making fireworks fire a plastic whistle into the air and are by far the messiest fireworks out there. Collect the plastic whistles after the show, or come back in the morning to pick them up leave the site as pristine as you found it.

Step 12: Take a Bow!

That’s it! If you’ve done this right, you will get many accolades from the audience and be recognized as the local pyro expert. You can look forward to many invitations to help launch fireworks into the night sky for years to come.

Feel free to ask questions or comment on your own experiences. While I have done my share of shows, I still love to learn new tricks.

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