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Sparklers - What They Are & How to Use Them Safely

Sparklers make a wonderful accessory in weddings and parties. Sparklers, once thought of as something only to be bought and used on the Fourth of July, are finding their way more and more into other types of celebrations. With their scintillating show of gold sparks, the humble sparkler is now being used to spice up the festivities at parties and weddings across the U.S.A.

Sparklers can be used both indoors and outside. At some weddings they are held by guests to form either a passageway or a sparkling tunnel for the married couple to pass through or under. They are used as party favors, and left beside each place setting. They can be painted to match any color scheme. They can even be used on cakes. Large ones, which burn several minutes, can be stuck into the ground to make a sparkling light-show effect at a reception.

By carefully following the suggestions given here, sparklers can be used in a wide variety of situations and even a first time user will feel safe and confident.

What Are Sparklers?

Sparklers are generally made from a length of mild steel wire, the most common sizes being 8", 10", 14", 20" and 30" long. The wire core is dipped one or more times in a thick slurry of pyrotechnic composition that, when dry, coats the wire for approximately 2/3 of its length. Good quality, well-made sparklers should have their composition applied in a smooth, even coat without cracks or excessive bumpiness. The wire and the composition should exhibit no signs of rust as the presence of rust indicates sparklers that have been subjected to high moisture conditions. Rusty sparklers will burn only with difficulty, if at all, and should not be used.

In the last few years some of the Chinese manufacturers have tried to introduce sparklers made with a bamboo splint (not to be confused with "Morning Glories", a different type of device altogether - see the FAQ section). Instead of a metal wire as the core, a thin section of bamboo has been substituted, sometimes dyed a bright color. Bamboo sparklers should be used with caution and are best avoided, especially if the metal variety is available. The problem with the bamboo type is that as they burn, the bamboo splint becomes charred and is easily broken off in short pieces as the lit sparkler is waved about in the air. These short charred pieces remain very hot for some time and as they break off and fall to the ground can cause burn marks on floors, carpeting or clothing. Bamboo sparklers should never be used indoors for this reason and if outdoors, they should only be used with care.

Most people are familiar with gold sparklers, and in the larger sizes this is usually the only type available. However, sparklers with 5 grams (or less) of composition can be purchased that burn red, green or blue. These sparklers are generally ten inches in length or shorter.

Colored sparklers (red, green or blue) do not burn with the familiar branching halo of sparks normally associated with gold sparklers. Instead they have a more central, smaller ball of flame of the appropriate color which is surrounded by a coarser, less dense display of silvery-gold sparks. The color tends to be somewhat pale, especially the blue.

For weddings, many people inquire about the availability of sparklers, which produce silver sparks. Unfortunately, these are no longer manufactured, as the required chemicals are not allowed under the current federal regulations for sparklers.

Are Sparklers Fireworks?

Sparklers are classified as novelties by the federal government and are not defined as consumer fireworks. Under this classification sparklers can legally be shipped through the U.S. mail system, or by UPS or Fedex ground, and do not require any complicated hazardous material paperwork or special packaging. Most states allow the use of sparklers, however some states and counties do not, even though sparklers are not considered fireworks. If in doubt over your local ordinance, it is always a good idea to check with your local or state fire marshal's office before buying.

Are Sparklers Dangerous to Use?

Contrary to what anti-fireworks groups may indicate, sparklers, when used as intended, are extremely safe. The fact that the federal government reclassified and downgraded them from a firework designation to a novelty class points out the excellent safety record of these devices. As with anything involving high temperatures, proper supervision of young children and adherence to correct lighting and handling methods is necessary in order to avoid careless accidents.

In order to avoid sparkler surprises on the day of your wedding or party, always test out your chosen sparkler a few weeks beforehand. Try some of the different lighting methods and decide which one will work the best for the event. If children will be present, decide how the sparklers will be handed out so that there will not be any possibility of unsupervised use of the items.

LIGHTING SPARKLERS One of the first things people notice about sparklers (especially gold sparklers) is that they are rather hard to light. Trying to light them with matches or in windy conditions is often next to impossible and can be very frustrating. The exception is a special type of sparkler equipped with a striking composition at the tip. Similar to a "strike on the box" kitchen match, the sparkler is lit by scratching the tip on a special strip conveniently provided on the side of the sparkler carton. For all other sparklers the following lighting suggestions should make the job easier. Children must always be closely supervised when using anything involving combustible material.

  1. Pick a location out of the wind to do the lighting

  2. Never attempt to light more that one sparkler at a time. Even one sparkler when it first lights can be rather surprising in that it does not come on slowly but instead bursts to life in a halo of sparks. Trying to light a bundle of sparklers all at one time can be unsafe.

  3. Do not use paper or stick matches to light sparklers. Sparklers often require a fairly long period of time to light once the ignition source is applied to the tip of the sparkler. Matches generally do not burn long enough to raise the composition of the sparkler to its ignition point. Additionally, the hand of someone attempting to use matches will be uncomfortably close to the sparkler when it does light. The exception to this is sparklers that have been specially treated at the tip with a black powder priming that is much easier to light and affords time to remove your hand before the sparkler develops its full sparking display. Also colored sparklers generally are somewhat easier to light, however, even under these conditions, stick matches are recommended over paper matches.

  4. Butane lighters, barbecue lighters and propane torches are the best choice. Especially safe are lighters in which the flame is away from the hand holding the lighter. Gas or charcoal barbecues can also be used. The "instant on," push-button type propane torches (these are equipped with piezoelectric igniters), if available, are the quickest and best lighting method.

  5. By far the easiest method when lighting multiple sparklers at one time is to ignite just one sparkler using a butane or propane lighter and then using that sparkler to light other sparklers in turn by touching the lit portion to the tip of the other sparkler. Having one person be the "designated lighter" and lining up everyone else in a row, each with sparkler in hand makes it very simple to light and quickly move down the line. Sparklers lit with another sparkler will light almost instantly and hands are situated well back from the burning ends.

  6. Hold the sparkler horizontally or with the tip slightly lowered when lighting.

  7. Always light a sparkler at the tip furthest away from the bare wire handle.

Handling Sparklers Once Lit

  1. Always keep lit sparklers at arm's length, away from the face, body, or clothing of yourself or people nearby.

  2. Good quality sparklers should burn in a continuous, smooth, even progression down the length of the coated portion of the wire, and should not have to be re-ignited at any point.

  3. A sparkler can safely be waved about in front of the person holding it, as long as there is adequate room to avoid contact with other people or objects. Lit sparklers should never be held in close proximity to the face or eyes. Young children should be monitored so that they do not throw sparklers, or run into a sparkler being waved by another person.

  4. As with anything involving fire, such as cigarettes, matches, or lighters, sparklers are very hot when burning, especially at the point where the composition is adhered to the wire. Never bring the burning sparkler in close contact with any other material, as it will leave scorch marks or possibly ignite the material. Be especially aware of highly flammable materials, such a gasoline, hair spray, nail polish or alcohol that may be in the vicinity. Do not attempt to use sparklers in proximity to these types of substances.

Disposing of Spent Sparklers

  1. Sparklers will remain hot for a length of time after they have stopped burning. Users should be cautioned never to grab or touch the burned portion of a sparkler after it has completed its effect, as the residue will be unpleasantly hot. Have a bucket filled with water or sand, or a metal tray available as a place for people to dispose of the burned out sparkler wires.

  2. Once cool, the spent sparkler wires can be safely disposed of in the trash.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Can sparklers be used indoors safely?
A: Yes, gold sparklers develop very little smoke or odor, and are entirely appropriate for indoor use. Colored or crackling sparklers are somewhat smoky and are best used in larger, well-ventilated areas or outdoors. However, keep in mind when indoors or out, to be aware of any nearby people or objects.

Q: What is the best size sparkler for parties or weddings?
A: In order to allow enough time for everyone to get their sparkler lit and have them all burning simultaneously, the best size is either 14" or 20". Eight inch and 10" are generally too short in duration and 36" are usually too bulky for large groups.

Q: For my wedding, I would like to have silver sparklers. Are these available instead of gold?
A: Unfortunately, the chemicals used to manufacture silver sparks are not allowed under the current federal regulations for sparklers, and therefore silver sparklers are not currently on the market.

Q: Can I paint my sparkler to match my party color theme?
A: Yes, sparklers are normally gray in color, but can be lightly spray-painted whatever color you want. Choose good quality spray paint, such as Krylon, and remember to use a light, even coat. Always try a test sample before the big event to avoid unnecessary surprises.

Q: Is it okay to put sparklers on birthday or party cakes?
A: A few 8" or 10" sparklers on a cake are okay, but don't overdo it. Sparklers do give off a small amount of non-toxic black residue specks, which may be noticeable on cake frosting if a large number of sparklers were used. If in doubt, hand out sparklers to everyone at the party instead of putting them on the cake.

Q: Can I buy sparklers online?
A: Yes, sparklers can legally be bought online and shipped to you by ground methods. This is an easy and convenient way to purchase sparklers, especially if your event is not scheduled near July fourth.

Q: Can I get a case of sparklers to arrive tomorrow?
A: No, it's illegal to put sparklers on an airplane. Sparklers can only be shipped by ground methods like U. S. mail, UPS or Fedex ground or by freight truck.

Q: What are "Morning Glory" sparklers?
A: "Morning Glory" sparklers are made in a different manner than common sparklers. Various types of compositions are charged into long thin-wall paper tube and fitted with a bamboo handle. The tube is decorated with bright colored wrappings. Morning Glories are easy to light but burn with a more vigorous effect than common sparklers. They tend to be smokier and are more likely to drop small glowing particles, therefore their use indoors is not recommended. Outdoors they should be used with care.