Introduction: Turk's Head Fire Poi Heads

About: I'm a software engineer for Etsy. I enjoy working with my hands and building things. I also enjoy working with electronics. Halloween is my favorite holiday because it's the only time that EVERYONE tries to…
Poi is one of the many manifestations of fire dancing.  It originates (according to legend, at least) from a flexibility and strength training exercise used by the Maori people in ages past and has evolved into a performance art.  As a fire spinning art the performer uses "heads" on his or her poi made out of a fire-resistant wicking material -- often a kevlar blend -- that have been soaked in fuel (people use kerosene, lamp oil, white gas (naptha to people outside the US)  or a blend of those fuels, normally) and lit on fire.

Poi heads can be made out of pretty much whatever you can think of: bright-colored balls, glowsticks, flags, and even socks filled with sand in a pinch.*  I have a rather nice set of glow heads myself, but even though I've spun fire before I've never owned any burn heads.  Some people use monkey's fist knots for their burn heads, but I wanted to go one better and use a turk's head knot.

Spinning fire is a lot of fun and isn't really as scary as a lot of people think, but it's still dangerous.  Always make sure you have someone spotting you when spinning with fire and don't try any moves with fire that you haven't tried and gotten good at in (less incendiary) practice.

*Yes, I have done this.  I was at the beach and used my shoelaces for strings.  I recommend you remember to bring your poi with you, though, because a sock full of sand has another name: blackjack.  It hurts when you whack yourself with these.

Step 1: Bill of Materials

For these heads I decided to use 3\8" (10mm) kevlar wick.  The turk's head is really a cylindrical knot, rather than a spherical one, so you'll need to tie it around a core of some sort that has an anchor in it to clip your chains to.  My materials list was as follows:

  • 3/8" kevlar rope* (20ft) -- about $30 plus shipping
  • Wooden sphere, 2" diameter (x2) -- $1.50 each from a craft store
  • 1/4" x 3" steel Eyebolt with nut (x2) -- About $2 each from a hardware store
  • 1/2" wood screws (x2)
  • whipping twine (optional)
  • Power drill or drill press -- needs 1/4" and 1/2" drill bits and a driver bit for your wood screws.
  • Pliers
  • Marlinspike or Fid
  • Sailmaker's palm and needle (optional)

* I've bought most of my poi stuff from the New Zealand based Home of Poi.  They have some excellent resources for learning the various fire spinning arts, making your own gear, and one of the best shops for buying those things you can't or decide not to make (wick, really cool, durable glow poi, chains).  The HOP shop links in this instructable contain my referral code, Kyle135.  To my knowledge this grants you (if you 're a first-time buyer) a 5% discount on all items in the store and gives me the same 5% of your purchase as a kickback on my next purchase.  You don't need to use it if you don't want to.

Step 2: Make the Core

First thing to do is make the core to tie your wick around and attach the chains to.  One of my biggest questions was what material the core can be made from and Home of Poi says wood is fine, so I went to the craft store and picked up some wooden balls.  These balls had a flat cut on one side and a hole pre-drilled part way through already, so that made a great guide for drilling the hole for my eyebolt.

One thing to look out for, though...this sphere looks as though it had a big hole bored in it that was then filled with a plug.   I certainly don't trust that not to break free at some point and send a pair of 3" fireballs into my spectators, so that's one more reason to drill all the way through the core and use a bolt with a nut rather than something that'll just self-tap into the existing hole.

To drill the hole I just clamped the sphere onto my sawhorse (thanks, toymotorhead!) and punched through it with my hand drill to widen the hole so that it'd accept the bolt easily and extend it all the way through the sphere.

I got bolts that were just a hair shorter than the sphere was wide so that I wouldn't have to worry about it sticking out the bottom, but this meant I needed to drill a counterbore to drop the nut in so that it would grab the bolt.  I used a 1/2" spade bit for the counterbore and that worked well enough.

When you're done drilling drop the bolt in, thread the nut on, and crank it tight with your pliers.  Your core is now done, congratulations!

Step 3: Tie the Knot

Now to tie the wick into a turk's head.  This'll be a 3-lead 4-bight turk's head which means it'll be basically 4 loops of a 3-strand braid all done up in a circle.*  The following steps describe the corresponding photographs.  Each photo shows the rope as described by the previous step and has a red arrow showing where to bring the working end of the rope in the current step.  Make sure you have enough rope to finish at least one pass at the start (2 feet should do it).  Also make sure to keep the knot loose; you'll need to stick the core inside when you're done and it's easier to make the later passes if you leave room.

Step 0:
Lay the rope across your palm leading up from bottom-left to top right.  Loop the rope behind your fingers and bring it back to the front, emerging on the right side of its standing part (the long tail you're not working with).  Lay it across itself in your palm.  This is shown in step 1 (the first photo).

Step 1:
Bring the working end around the back of your hand and back to the front, this time emerging on the left of the standing part.

Step 2:
Cross the working end over the loop you just made to the left of the original loop.  Tuck it under the original loop at your index finger.

Step 3:
Drop the working end around the back of your hand to the right of the existing rope.

Step 4:
Flip your hand over.  There should be two non-crossing loops of rope across the back of your hand with the working end tucking over and under them near your index finger.  pull the left loop over the right loop to make an eye as directed by the arrows.

Step 5:
Weave the working end over and then under the strands forming the eye so that it bisects the eye.

Step 6:
Let the working end run over your pinky finger back to the front of your hand.

Step 7:
Flip your hand back over.  Feed the working end along next to the standing part so that it's lying next to the standing part and continuing in the same direction as it was when you started.

Step 8:
You're done!  The rest is just following the knot around to bulk it up.  In this picture the first pass is shown in blue and the working end that's beginning the second pass is shown in red.  Keep the working end parallel to the last pass without crossing and just continue feeding it along until you've done three passes. (You can do more or fewer, but I think 3 ideal for this application).

Step 9:
Jam the core into the center of your knot (you kept it loose, right) so that the eyebolt sticks out through the hole in the center.

*If you're having trouble following this guide try tying it as a double carrick bend (steps 1 and 2 of my rope mat instructable).  When you tie the carrick bend as a mat they're actually the same knot just squished into different shapes.

Step 4: Tighten

Begin working the knot tight.  I usually do this by finding the end of the rope inside the knot (or the short end  hanging out if you started too far down and had left over rope after completing all three passes) and moving a couple of tucks in from it so I don't just pull it out when trying to tighten.  Start tugging, gently this first time, to bring the knot into shape around the core.  As you work around the knot you'll get a bigger and bigger loop to tug on, but don't pull too hard -- this first time is just to make the knot seat snugly around the core so you don't get it bunched up in weird ways.

After  you've finished (I pulled about 10" of slack out of my knot the first time around) start back at the beginning and this time really yank on it.  Be careful still not to pull the short end out of the knot, but don't have mercy anywhere else; the tighter your knot the longer the wick will last.*

Eventually you will reach a point where you can't pull the next part of the rope out of the knot because the loop on top of it is too tight.  This is good, you just need tools now.  Ideally you'd want a fid or marlinspike, but anything that's smooth, thin, and strong will do.  I used the blunt end of a butter knife.  Insert the tip of your (makeshift?) fid under the next strand to pull and work it loose until you can grip it and pull with your fingers.  Try to avoid using pliers here because they'll damage the fibers and reduce the life of your head.

*Even though kevlar is pretty burly it will wear out eventually.  The biggest culprit is cycle fatigue on the they flex and bend they get weaker and eventually snap.  Over time this will cause the head to wear out and eventually fall apart (please retire it before it does that).  Tightening the knot more will mean the wick soaks up fuel more slowly so you have to soak the head longer when fueling.  It also means the wick has less surface area exposed so the fuel will burn more slowly; this gives you a longer burn that's not quite as bright.

Step 5: Attach

Once you're done tightening your knot trim the wick neatly so the ends are tucked inside the knot.  At this point I stitched the end to the pass next to it with sailmaker's needle and a bit of whipping twine, but that's pretty optional.  You do, however, need to attach the wick to the core somehow so that it doesn't work its way loose.  I simply took a pair of short wood screws and sank them into the core through each end of the knot.

Step 6: Have Fun

You're done.  Attach your heads to a pair of chains, put your handles on the other handles, and get spinning.  My chains are from Home of Poi and are welded, oval link chains rather than the lighter ball chains.  The handles are leather with double loops and the chains attach to the heads with a pair of quick links and a swivel each.  If you're going to make your own chains be sure to check that everything has a rated strength; you don't want a chain or quick link to fail when you're burning.

These heads have a pretty nice weight to them.  They're not so heavy that I'll wear myself out too soon, but they're heavy enough that my chains don't sag when spinning (my glow heads are too light for these chains so the center of mass is somewhere along the chain itself rather than in the head.  Makes for a weird feeling while spinning).

Have fun and be safe!

Although this instructable deals mostly with three dimensional surfaces and doesn't have much room laser cut designs or pieces, I thought I'd enter it in the Epilog challenge.  A laser cutter would be invaluable for cutting precise, small pieces for costumes (like the gears in my Halloween costume this year) or organizational projects around the house (like my over-cupboard wine rack).  It'd also make it easy to elegantly inscribe gifts with appropriate messages or designs.


I've discovered that the poi heads that I show in the pictures of this instructable are not safe to be burned more than a few times.  The turk's head is normally a cylindrical knot, rather than a spherical one, and the cores I chose were too large for the kevlar rope I used, leaving those gaps at the top and bottom of the heads.

Those gaps leave the wooden cores exposed, which means they will burn.  After three or four burns these heads were throwing sparks and the heads were charring around the eyebolt on both sides.  If I'd continued spinning them they would have failed catastrophically during a performance and caused serious damage to either my audience or my surroundings.

After so few burns the kevlar is still in good condition, so I was able to untie the turk's heads, pull the bolts out of the cores and throw away the cores.  Once I find new, smaller cores, I'll be retie them and try again.  This time, as much as I like the turk's heads, I'll probably use monkeys' fists to ensure full coverage (those are spherical knots).

Be safe!
4th Epilog Challenge

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4th Epilog Challenge