8 Ways To Make Your 4th of July Backyard Fireworks Display Better

Come June, here in the good ole US of A, every Tom, Dick and Harriett is scrambling to put together his or her fireworks display for the Mighty Fourth. So, naturally, a lot of folks call with questions about how to do it around that time of the year. Here are some of those questions and our standard answers. Some of the information below you will be able use, as you prepare for your next July 4th fireworks display. We hope your fireworks display looks better and is safe for you and your whole gang.

Question: I recently bought 50 reloadable mortars, but I don't have but one tube to fire them out of. Do you have extras I can buy? I was thinking about using PVC pipe from the hardware store.

Answer: First let us get something straight: a "mortar" is a tube from which a projectile is fired. That projectile, in fireworks, is called a shell. Shells are marketed as "artillery shells" or "festival balls." Got it? Mortars are tubes. Artillery shells are fired from mortar tubes. So what this customer really wants is more mortar tubes from which to fire his 50 artillery shells. So, yes, we have more mortar tubes. Depending on the diameter of your artillery shells, you can use either TU2100 spiral paper mortar tubes, or PL3170 high-density polyethylene mortar tubes. Under no circumstances should you ever use PVC. When an artillery shell explodes in PVC pipe, the PVC splinters like glass or steel and can be very dangerous to anyone nearby. HDPE, on the other hand, shreds and tears, but does not create the dangerous shrapnel of PVC.

Question: I recently ordered 18 of your HDPE mortar tubes (PL3170) for artillery shells. Although my artillery shells have an outside diameter (OD) of 1.91, the mortar tubes you sent me have an inside diameter (ID) of 1.78. I was very happy with the quality of the mortars that you sent, and the speedy delivery. However, the mortars I received will work with less than half of the artillery shells that I have. What can I do?

Answer: Not to worry. This is a very common problem. The HDPE mortar tube ID's do vary some. This is because the pipe from which they are cut is actually made to have a more critical outside diameter than the inside one.

The firework shell OD's vary as well. In a study I saw several years ago, Chinese artillery shell OD's varied from 1.68 to 1.91. There is, in fact, no standard.

Here's what you can do to get your shells to fit.

First, take a file or rasp and file the inside lip of the HDPE mortar tube down. All these mortar tubes are originally cut from 40' lengths. When they are sawn, often a bur is left on the inside, which decreases the ID. File this down.

Next, try to drop one of your shells into the mortar tube. If it does not fall freely down to the bottom, place the shell on its side on a hard surface, with the fuse down. Press down on the shell hard with your hand and roll it back and forth across the surface. The objective is to flatten the visco fuse some, and press it into the wall of the shell. This is a very common problem, even with Class B (1.3G) commercial fireworks and mortar tubes. I use these same HDPE mortar tubes myself every year, and have to roll many of the artillery shells every time, particularly the newer, longer canister shells.

Question: I can't get quickmatch. What can I use as a substitute?

Answer: Use GN1100, Fast Yellow Visco. It doesn't burn as fast as quickmatch, but it can be shipped. It burns at a 1/2 second per inch. It's yellow colored so you won't make a mistake and use it for something requiring slower fuse.

Question: What is the best way to connect one fuse to another?

Answer: Basically, you hold them side-by-side, tight against each other and then use 3/4 to 1-inch wide masking tape to tape them together tightly. The objective is the have the fuse which is "giving fire" be burning right against the fuse which is "taking fire" for some length. It is generally a bad idea to connect your visco fuses at right angles, or end-to-end, this will result in many fuses not lighting.

Question: How can I use fuse to connect a lot of fireworks devices together, so I can get many of them to fire at the same time?

Answer: There are all kinds of ways to do this. Depending on the speed you want, we recommend you use either GN1005 Green Chinese Visco (2.5 seconds per inch) or the quick burning GN1100 Fast Yellow Visco (0.5 seconds per inch). Or both.

Sequential Firing: Sequential firing will cause each device to fire after the previous one. First position your fireworks devices in a line or on a piece of plywood. Then cut a length of fuse long enough to connect all the devices. Then, one by one, use the masking tape method described above to connect them. What's important is that you first burn test the connecting fuse and time it. That way, you will have some idea how fast your fireworks display will go. You can cut the fuse so that the devices fire after each other with dark sky in between. Or you can use shorter timing so that the devices are "overlapping" each other-that is, one starts firing before the last one is finished.

Concurrent Firing: Use this method when you want to have a number of devices fire at the same time. First position your fireworks devices however you want them to be. After burn-testing your fuse timing, cut as many lengths of fuse as you have fireworks devices. Then, using the masking tape method described above, connect one piece of fuse to each device. Then join the other end of each piece of extension fuse to each other in a bundle. Use masking tape to tie these tightly together. When you are ready to fire them, just light the whole bundle.

Combinations: You can use both types of fusing above in combination to fire groups of fireworks in sequence, or when you have widely spaced fireworks devices. Get creative. Try different ways of doing it. Forget getting it perfect. You never will, but your audience will never know the difference. Meanwhile, you will learn from every fireworks display you shoot.

Question: Is there an easy way to fire a barrage of bottle rockets?

Answer: Yes indeed! There's a spectacular way. Get yourself a coffee or any tall can-even 12-18 inches deep would be good. You can even do this in a 5-gallon plastic pail. First punch a hole in the side of the can as close to the bottom of the can as you can make it. Insert a three-inch long length of visco fuse into the hole, about a half an inch deep. Leave at least 2 inches (5 seconds) sticking out. Put about half an ounce of black powder into the coffee can, or up to two ounces in a 5 gallon bucket. Then drop a bundle of bottle rockets into the can, with the sticks down and the bottle rockets up. If the fuses of the bottle rockets are inside the can, fine. You're ready to go. If the fuses are more than about an inch above the top of the can, break the bottle rocket sticks off, enough to get the fuses down into the can. When you light the fuse, get as far away as possible, because bottle rockets inherently fly erratically, and you don't want to be brought down before you finish firing the rest of your fireworks display. Keep in mind that the shorter the bottle rocket sticks, the more widely dispersed, and erratically flying your bottle rockets will be.

Question: When I connect 6 cakes together with one piece of fuse, they take too long to ignite. How can I speed them up?

Answer: I suggest you use GN1100 Fast Yellow Visco.

Question: Is it feasible for me to fire my own firework display electrically?

Answer: Yep. You'll need the following items: an electrical firing system and electric matches. The way electrical systems work is by firing an electric match (or "ematch"), which ignites some part of a fireworks device.

Cues: A "cue" is one switched, firing position. A cue can be a single fireworks device being fired by an electric match. Or it can be a group of fireworks devices all fired at the same time by multiple ematches, such as a line of firework fountains.

Electric Matches: You can buy them or make them. However you are required to have an ATF explosives license in order to purchase them. Alternatively, you can make them yourself. For instructions and materials needed, read "How To Make Electric Matches Using Skylighter's Electric Match Heads". Alternatively, you can use Estes Rocket electric igniters, which can be purchased at hobby shops, Wal-Mart, and elsewhere. Estes igniters do not require an ATF license, and although smaller, can be readily adapted to fire fireworks devices.

The Firing System: Skylighter carries three different firing systems.
(GN6011) consists of three parts: a battery-powered firing box, a 100-foot cable, and a "slat." The cable connects the slat to the firing box. The slat is on the fireworks end and the firing box is at your end, up to 100 feet away from your fireworks. Each slat will enable you to fire 10 "cues."
(GN6020) and (GN6021) consist of two parts: a 12-cue field module and a remote control.

Shooting Wire: Think of shooting wire (sometimes called "zip" wire) as ematch extension cords. You use shooting wire to connect your electric matches to the slat or field module. You also use shooting wire to help build multiple ematch circuits.

Ematch Testers: An ematch tester is a specialized circuit tester. It generates a low enough current to test the continuity of an electric match without actually exploding the match. Standard circuit testers will generate enough power to actually blow the electric matches; so don't use them. Although it is a good idea to test all electric matches before using them, if you make your own electric matches, it is especially important. Homemade electric matches are not as reliable as store-bought ones.

More Information on Electric Firing: We carry several videos on the topic.

How To Set Up a Display Electrically Using Firing System GN6011: This is a very simple explanation. Electrically fired firework displays come in all shapes and sizes from the very simple one described here, to complex firework displays consisting of many thousands of cues, choreographed to music, and costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A complete firing system consists of several parts that must be connected. First, the fireworks fuse needs to be set up so that it can be ignited. An electric match is attached to the fuse, typically using masking tape. When an electrical current is forced into the ematch, it heats up a nichrome wire in the ematch almost instantly and becomes very hot (up to 2500 degrees F). That heat ignites the pyrotechnic composition on the ematch, and in turn ignites the firework fuse.

Each ematch igniter has two wires attached. These wires supply the positive (red) and negative (black) power to the igniter. These two wires as a unit are called "shooting wire." Commercial ematches come with two "leg" wires already attached. You may need to attach more shooting wire to the ematch leg wires, to enable you to attach the ematches to each other for a multi-shot cue or to be able to reach the slat.

The other end of the shooting wire is connected to two metal terminals on the slat. The two terminals are called a "cue" and they supply power to the shooting wire. Each slat has a number of cues on it (Skylighter's GN6010 has ten cues). Other shooting wires running out to additional ematches and fireworks are connected to those cues. The slat is the central connection point for power to fire all the fireworks cues. (If there is more than one slat, the slats are placed close to groups of fireworks or distributed evenly over the firing area. This minimizes the distance a firework is from a cue, which reduces the length of the shooting wires. Shorter shooting wires means less wire that has to be bought, stored, transported, and set up, saving you time and money.)

The slat is then securely plugged into the 100-foot cable. The other end of the 100-foot cable is then plugged into the firing box. The firing box lets you decide which cue (or cues) will be "fired" (or have its power turned on) or tested. Once you have your display completely wired and connected, you will want to test each cue's circuit.

First, you turn the power on to the firing box, using the key provided with the system. Next you turn the red rocker switch to "Test" mode. Then turn the rotary switch to the #1 cue. Holding the black rocker switch down in the "On" position, you push the red Test button down. If the indicator light comes on, your circuit is good. Repeat the process for cue positions 2-10. If the indicator lamp does not come on for any circuit/cue, you will need to check your connections all the way out to each firework wired to that cue. Often, a wire has been pulled apart, and you simply need to reconnect it.

Once all cues have been tested, your firework display is ready to be fired. To get ready to fire the display, you switch the red rocker switch to "Arm." You then turn the black rotary switch to the desired cue (usually #1). To fire the cue, you hold the black rocker switch down in the "On" position, and with your other hand, press the red rocker switch to "Fire." This will fire all the fireworks connected to cue number 1.

Immediately turn the black rotary switch to the next cue (say, number 2), and wait for the firing box to recharge, usually 10 seconds or less if you are using fresh batteries. When the indicator light glows, you are ready to repeat the firing process described above. Always turn the rotary switch to the next cue as soon as you have fired a cue, so that the machine recharges and is ready to fire the next cue when you want. Since most consumer fireworks last longer than the recharge time, this will prevent you from experiencing any delays in your firing pace.

More Than 10 Cues: Using the very simple Skylighter firing system, you can expand your display from 10 cues to as many as you want by simply adding additional cable and slat combos. When you have finished firing the first slat, simply unplug its cable from the firing box, and connect the cable to the second slat. You can easily do this while the last fireworks are firing. Your audience will never know. Using this method, you can fire an unlimited number of cues.

How Many Fireworks Per Cue: The Skylighter system is powerful enough to fire up to 50 electric matches on a single cue. The best way to attach all those ematches together into a single circuit/cue is to wire them in series. Here's an example of how a simple two-firework series cue could be wired. Say you want to fire two silver fountains at the same time. Securely attach an electric match to each fountain's fuse. Split the ends of the ematch wires into what we are going to call "left" and "right" wires. Take the right wire from the first fountain and attach it to the left wire of the second fountain. The take the left wire from the first fountain and plug it into one of the connectors for cue number 1 on the slat. Take the right wire from fountain two and plug it into the other connector for cue number 1.
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