Preparing For A Fireworks Show


Preparing For A Fireworks Show

By: Matthew Kleinmann


Many people want to put on “pro” quality fireworks shows in their own back yard for their own events, be it a holiday party, a graduation, or even an extended  family gathering.  With today's consumer fireworks you can put on a very impressive show.


Putting on a professional show requires a professional attitude and a professional commitment to the work before, during, and after the show.  If you expect to spend the afternoon drinking and socializing with friends and family you are not going to be putting on a professional show.  The summer is a fine time to kick back and relax and enjoy the finer things in life, there is nothing at all wrong with that.  However, if you plan on that kind of a day, you would be better off hiring a professional company to come and put a show on for you.  Prices for small shows generally start at under $2000.  Not a trivial amount but there are a lot of nuts you have to pay to crack to have pros put on a show for you.  Permits, insurance, and labor are things that are often forgotten.  An old saying in the industry is you pay $1000 for the first shell.  That is the fixed cost that eats up about the first $1000 of a pro show.  After that it is mostly product you are paying for.  Putting on your own show gives you the advantage of every dollar you spend going towards product.


When you first propose a fireworks show, you need to look at where the show will take place.  Google maps and historical weather data can be big assets.  Google maps and the directions of the prevailing winds can give you good ideas for where to shoot from and where your audience can be.  You need to have an adequate fall out zone for small bits of paper and foil, which will sometimes be on fire, to safely fall back to the ground.  You don’t want the fallout zone to be your next door neighbour's roof.  If there is not a safe direction or enough of an audience setback, you may need to select different products for the show, or move the show to more fireworks friendly surroundings.  Pro’s often shoot smaller shows that limit the size of the shells they can shoot, and some shows have no shells at all.  If you seek a more fireworks friendly venue, be sure to get written permission to use it, and make sure that either right after the show or first thing the next morning you go back and clean up the site.  If you hunt you will see an analogy here.  Having and showing respect for other people's property will both assure your continued use of it, and not give the anti fireworks factions another piece of ammunition to restrict the hobby.


A professional show has a minimum of two people and crews of up to a dozen or more.  A few people or some pre-planning and a pair of people should be considered the minimum for a pro quality home show.  These people have to be committed to working out in the hot sun in the day, and doing a fair amount of physical activity.  Then there is the above mentioned post show clean up.


Now that you have a venue, and a crew, it is time to start thinking about the types of products that will fit in with your venue and the general flow of your show.  In general, you want to break things up.  If you do nothing but shoot shells for 20 minutes, people will get bored with them.  A professional show will have a rhythm to it.  Depending on the budget and the crew it might be as simple as starting with some cakes, shooting a couple racks of shells, doing a big cake then transitioning into some ground effects, and then end with some big cakes with perhaps some shells shot over them for the grand finale.  BTW, about 20 minutes is the longest you want to shoot for.


One way you can think of effects are high in the sky effects.  These are typically shells, and the larger they are the higher they go and the larger they burst.  Next we have cakes in the middle  and lastly ground effects, that are ground or fixture based.  Consumer fireworks can be confusing with shells and cakes, as you can get cakes with bigger shells than the loose shells you can buy.  This is where having a good fireworks shop with videos of the effects, but even more important,  a staff that has seen them first hand, is your ace in the hole.  If you tell them what you are realistically trying to do, they will be very happy to help you achieve that end.


In a pro show with a modest pace you are looking at a shell about every 5 seconds or so.  You can tell the little county fairs and low budget affairs by the large gaps between shells.  Probably the most often asked question when people want to commission a fireworks show is how long will it last?  The truth is you can make two shells last all night, but it would be a pretty boring show!  So you need to decide on a pace.  I may be the odd man out to some extent, I like to watch all of the effects of one shell burn out before the sky is lit with the next shell, but even I would say the show will start to look amateurish if you go more than about 10 seconds between effects.  That boils down to no less that 6 shells a minute, and most people would say twice that is a nice pace, with some going off on top of each other.


One big difference between consumer and pro shells is the way they are fused.  Pro shells have a small length of visco, the slow burning fuse, that sticks out of the very end of the fuse, but the rest of the fuse is quick match.  That means you have a little delay from the couple inches of visco sticking out, but once the visco hits that black match, the shell is gone.  Compared to consumer shells pro shells go off very very fast.  That being said, you can shoot barrages of consumer shells quickly, but it takes more of a sense of timing.  Consumer shells are completely fused with visco.  Your grandmother could light one and safely retreat on her walker before it would go off.  There is a temptation to re fuse the consumer shells, but that defeats the safety aspects of them.  What you can do is light a shell, count to two or five or ten, and light the next one and keep moving on in that manner.  The end effect will be the same as the pro’s but you will not see the fruits of your actions quite as fast.


The above is making one big assumption and that is that you have racks for your shells.  All pro shows with shells use racks.  Lots and lots of racks.  Decades ago the mortar tubes were buried in the ground and shells would be reloaded from a day box, but most commercial shows now are all preloaded.  Buying a few racks will allow you to do the same.  It is just about impossible to send up a steady stream of shells without having racks.  If you have an assistant you can get by with two racks.  You can preload them both and after you shoot out one rack, move on to the other and have your assistant re-load the first rack.  If you can afford it, it is a lot nicer to have the whole show pre loaded if you do this on a  regular basis.


Another thing to consider is mixed media.  Fountains and a small cake, or spinners flanking a fan cake etc.  In the middle of the show I would recommend not shooting shells over cakes.  Save that sky filling action for the finale. 


As I mentioned in another missive, one thing you can also do at an informal home show is party favors.  Have a bowl of jumping jacks people can light and toss into the field or perhaps hand out some roman candles.  Nothing big, and be sure to supervise, but this lets everybody get in on a little of the action.  It also helps pass the time between dusk when you have just finished dinner and when it gets dark enough to shoot your good stuff.


For a consumer finale I suggest some big cakes with some nice shells shot over them.  Again, discuss your plans with your salesperson and they can help guide you into appropriate products.  Don’t be shy to ask.  I have yet to meet a pyro who does not genuinely enjoy talking shop.  And there are a lot of cakes to choose from.  You want one with a lot of shots for your finale but you don’t want one that will shoot them all in 6 seconds!  And yes, they make them that fast.  They also make cakes with cool fan, whistle, and color changing effects, and there is new stuff coming in every year.  Chat with the folks at the store and watch the videos to ensure you are getting products consistent with your vision.



As you can see in a few of these cases, it is handy to have two people.  Also for positive lighting of visco I suggest either road flares which have the added benefit of giving you enough light to see by, or a propane torch.  There is also a variety of wireless electronic firing systems that are very affordable that will allow you to be in two or more places at once.


I think what really sums up the difference between a professional backyard show and an amateur backyard show is Vision.  Start with a vision, and work towards that, or go and look at the products and get inspired from them, but the key difference is thought and dedication.

  Matthew Kleinmann Is a professional, licensed pyrotechnician and a staff writer for Mess’s Fireworks.