Sunday, 7 April 2013

Fire Spinning With Steel Wool

We've all seen those glorious images of spun fire with orange streaks and bouncing sparks.

Ever wondered how it's done?  It's simple enough but first a word on safety. This is dangerous. It's very hot and will burn you,  your clothes and your surroundings. You cannot put it out until it finishes burning once it gets going. During this shot my son Matt was hit with a chunk and it burnt the back of his neck.

The rain of fire is produced by burning a tight bun of steel wool laced into a kitchen whisk. Yep steel burns, how about that!

The steel wool comes from the hardware store and is quite cheap at a few dollars per kilo. The local home brand is fine. I use 00 or 000 both burn great. The whisk is from the supermarket. Go cheap they don't last long.  You can use just about any rope or string. I light with a butane torch but matches and a 9vdc battery will also work.

Lace the steel wool into the whisk fairly tightly minimising the wool that's outside the whisk. Outside bits come off as flaming burning molten steel meteors. I can attest that they really hurt when they hit you.


Once it's all good. Practice the spin for weight. Get well away from your camera if you're using one. My remote trigger can be locked on and will simply shoot continuously  Expose for the background. You want at least four seconds and up to thirty.  The fire is fairly bright so it will take a few goes to get it right.

Later you can work on patterns but for now go with the safest and spin it above your head. Light Up when ready and spin while the wool burns. The faster you spin the brighter the fire and the shorter time it will last.

+kevin beitler on g+ contacted me and suggested a square metal wire basket instead of the whisk and has written an article on his site about his method.

This image is his and is reproduced with permission of his rig.

You can read Kevin's article. Essentially Kevin's point of why he prefers the basket to the whisk is that it is safer (less blobs come flying out) and it's quicker to load.





To try it out, I made my own basket out of stainless steel wire mesh about 1.5mm diameter.


This basket will hold around 100g of steel wool and while it certainly resolves the blob problem that Kevin discusses in his article it also has some side effects that make me prefer the whisk.


  • The basket is much heavier and I got rope burn from twirling it;
  • There are a less sparks overall with most sparks at the start then it settles to a glowing blob of slag which persists for ages (which is great for drawing patterns);
  • You have to deal with the slag; and finally
  • It still had some big blobs fly out.



Below is an image of the basket in action. You can clearly see that the sparks didn't last very long and then settled into the glowing blob of slag. I had to twirl much harder and longer than usual to keep the blob glowing to make the photographs interesting.


Generally a 100gm spin in a whisk will burn and produce good strong large sparks for around 20 seconds at least where as 100gm in the cage ran out of sparks in less than 10 seconds then glowed for another 20 after that. I think if I'm looking to draw patterns like the atom then the cage is going to be useful, otherwise I prefer the whisk. Remember that if you turn the wool around every wire and lace it into the whisk rather than just shove it in the centre or wrap it around the outside the giant blob exodus is limited.

G+ people and fellow photowalkers +Nat King +Lady Fran W and +Charles Strebor found me this giant grill basket in the hard rubbish, of course I had to try it - it burns up about 250g of steel wool in 2 seconds but wow - what an amazing amount of sparks!


This is the giant basket in action, the fun is over very quickly and the resulting fire is very bright!

Charles was on the fire poi this night and I spun with whisk, basket and the grill basket during the night.

The grill basket is a lot of fun but is over too quickly and one of the few times I've been burnt came from this. So many sparks come out that you risk setting fire to yourself!









You can find  bunch of my spin images on g+.