Skip to main content

How Fireworks are Made: A Brief Overview of Pretty Explosions

Every year, happy Independence Day revelers spark up over 200 million pounds worth of fireworks. Most everyone has seen a firework display, but unless you deal in pyrotechnics for a living, you may not know much about the science or design behind them. With the 4th of July fast approaching, we decided to burn through some research and find out more about what makes all your favorite types of fireworks work.


A brief history of fireworks

best non-fiction

What’s In a Firework?

Set of fireworks
Image used with permission by copyright holder

From firecrackers to fountains, every type of firework is composed of the same basic ingredients:

Stars: the compound mixtures that create effects

A Shell: a spherical container that holds the Stars

Black Powder: the propellant that ignites to create hot gasses

A Bursting Charge: a charge in the middle of the firework that ignites the Stars

A Mortar: the outer tube that holds the firework

A Fuse: the part that initially gets lit, which allows a time delay before the full explosion

The arrangement and final look of different fireworks can vary, but in each type the basic reaction is the same: the fuse is lit and the resulting ignition of the black powder and bursting charge creates incredible heat and gas that launches the firework out of the mortar and up into the air, where the stars burst to create the mesmerizing colors and designs that light up Independence Day celebrations across the country. Essentially, how fireworks are made all comes down to combustion.

Science Creates Color and Effects

Fireworks display
Image used with permission by copyright holder

So we know the basic structure of a firework and what makes them tick (er, boom), but what’s responsible for all those bright, bursting colors? Well, the short answer is: science.

Colors are achieved in fireworks by combining specific metal elements and compounds so that the resulting reaction creates a specific color. Barium, for example, creates a brilliant green effect. Strontium gives sparks a red hue, while Sodium results in shimmering gold fireworks. Magnesium can be used to create a stunningly bright white color, or to enhance the overall brightness of other shades. A lot of careful work goes into creating the mixtures that add your favorite colors to fireworks, with some shades – like blue and violet – being quite difficult to create because of the precise ratios of compounds used.

All that Periodic Power doesn’t stop at color, either – different elements are also used to create specific effects, like deeper colors (Calcium) or extra smokiness (Zinc). Aluminum is used for sparklers, Antimony gives a glittery shine, and – awesomely enough – phosphorous results in an almost eerie “glow-in-the-dark” effect. In some fireworks, chemicals like perchlorate are used to create popping or whistling sound effects.

What You Pack is What You Get

Fireworks explosion
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Your standard sparkler, fountain, or starburst is pretty neat, but if you attend a public fireworks display or 4th of July event, you’re likely to see some real show-stoppers, like fireworks that create specific patterns or have multiple effects.

For fireworks that create patterns in the sky – say, a heart or smiley face – the method is a lot simpler than you might think. The Stars are arranged on a piece of cardboard in the desired pattern inside the firework. By adding individual charges to each Star, and using a layer of break charge to separate the full pattern from the rest of the firework, the Stars maintain their pattern as they burst up and outward into the night sky. Star arrangements can vary from simple and relatively random to carefully calculated designs that create beautifully complex patterns when they explode.

Some fireworks have multiple explosions, combining several bursts and effects in one Mortar. These advanced designs can be composed of Shells-within-Shells or have several sections with their own fuses, so that when the first bursts, the next is ignited. You can spot these multi-break designs in displays by looking for fireworks that have a rapid succession of bursts or visual effects like large, stretching starbursts with smaller, tighter bursts at their center. In every type of complex or professional level firework, timing is everything: if one fuse is missed, the whole effect can be ruined.

At the heart of every firework is the same basic reaction, but the elements, compounds, design, and arrangement all have to come together perfectly to create the unique designs and effects that we know and love. The 4th of July is a time for backyard BBQs and a night sky alight with celebratory bursts of color. Now that you’re armed with all this explosive knowledge, this year it can also be about totally schooling your friends with some fireworks facts.

Editors' Recommendations

LeeAnn Whittemore
Former Digital Trends Contributor
LeeAnn Whittemore is a writer, artist, and graphic designer who grew up in the Midwest before moving to the Gulf Coast. As a…
The best Hot Ones episodes: These celebs are our favorites to watch
There have been so many great Hot Ones guests, and we have the best ones ranked
Sean Evans and Shaq in Hot Ones Interview 2021

It's hard to argue there's a more entertaining celebrity interview show that can beat the Hot Ones. Host Sean Evans interviews celebrities over a tray of increasingly spicy chicken wings, but the concept is only part of the fun. Evans is a deft interviewer with immense skills. The questions he poses to guests are often much more personal, wacky, or even humanistic than the typical fare on a late-night talk show or another interview series. The combination of hot sauce insanity and personalized questions make it unlike any other online show.

With over 20 seasons, Hot Ones has become something of a YouTube sensation, but has now gone beyond YouTube. Like Between Two Ferns or some of the best episodes of Seinfeld, the show derives its comic gold from seemingly nothing at all. There's spontaneity, surprisingly interesting small talk, and an occasional revelation or two, all set to the requisite watering eyes and nose-blowing that come with eating hot wings. Guests routinely forget the questions that are posited, thrown off completely by the intensity of the hot sauces.

Read more
Best TV deals: Save big on Samsung, Sony, LG, and more
Vizio 65-inch V-series 4K TV in living room.

TVs have become a central part of our living rooms and also tend to constitute the main way we consume our favorite content or stay up to date with the news. That said, regardless of what size TV you need, they can get quite expensive, especially if you're aiming for something that runs a 4K resolution. That's why we've gone out and collected some of our favorite TV deals across various big brands, such as Samsung, Sony, TCL, and a couple of more. As such, be sure to check all the deals available below, as well as our quick guide at the bottom on how to choose a new TV.
Best LG TV deals

LG makes some of the best TVs around making it an easy brand to recommend to most people. It sells a wide range of different products so you can buy an inexpensive 4K TV from the company as well as high-end OLED TVs with the latest technology. The C3 and G3 range are the most up-to-date but there are often some great discounts on the A and B ranges if you want an OLED TV without spending so much. webOS and its Magic Remote make browsing for content super simple too.

Read more
11 classic films everyone should watch (or re-watch) now
These are all pre-1970s, so strap in for a unique list of the classics
Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Leigh in Psycho

Movies today would be nothing without the movies of yesteryear -- the classics, the inspirers, the motivators, the innovators, and the auteurs.
Since there are so many classic movies to choose from, it's usually heavily debated which are the essentials and the go-to’s, but today is just another one of those days. Some of these are chosen for their revolutionary impact on the film industry, others are chosen for their undeniably charismatic and downright badass lead characters. For whatever reason, that film made it on this list and we are here to appreciate it as one within the golden age of film.
Starting from the top, all of these films are pre-1970s, so we will be talking about each of them in chronological release order. Since this list of the best classic movies might be unlike others you’ve seen, strap in because this list is thematically sporadic and may not be agreeable for some.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Read more