Appendix VI - Juggling Fire Torches
DISCLAIMER: the author takes no responsibility for any 'bad things' occurring as a result of using the information which follows.
Despite appearances, fire juggling can be performed in perfect safety as long as you can juggle confidently with 3 clubs, and observe certain common sense precautions. Note that none of the advice below applies to fire-breathing or fire-eating - if you want to learn those then you're on your own.
A Fire Torch (or Fire Club) is simply a juggling club without the plastic body, and with a wick attached at the head end. The wick is made from a thick strip of non-flammable material which is soaked in fuel and then lit. It needs replacing occasionally but the life span is quite good, my torches are over 3 years old and still have their original wicks (just). Most specialist juggling shops sell spare wick, you will need about 1 foot per torch, possibly more with certain types. The wicks should be wrapped tightly around the shaft of the club and secured by screws. The screws should be checked and tightened regularly because they do work loose. A new wick can soak up quite a large amount of fuel, enough to keep the torch alight for several minutes.
A well designed torch has a rubber ring or some other form of cushioning around its widest point. This ring protects the body of the club from damage when it is dropped.
A flame guard is also desirable, this is the wide part of the club near to where the dowel enters the body. Flame guards help to protect your hands from being burnt if the club is accidentally pointed downwards so that the flames come up the handle.
Most torches have a metal tube covering the dowel to ensure that no wood is exposed to the flame. This metal gets very hot without looking it, this is where all my most painful burns have come from.
Fire clubs are generally heavier than normal clubs, there are 2 reasons for this. Firstly torches are used outdoors most of the time and so are subject to gusts of wind, obviously the heavier the club the less it will blow around. Secondly, as the fuel in the wick burns off, the head of the club becomes lighter, which speeds up the club's spin. This change in weight is less noticeable on heavier torches because the weight of the fuel is small in comparison with the weight of the club.
Fuel type can be quite important, I usually use paraffin which is sold in some DIY shops and garages. Paraffin is cheap and readily available and it burns with a relatively cool flame compared to other fuels, however it smells strongly and gives off a lot of smoke. I have also used White Spirit, which has a noticeably hotter flame than paraffin, but didn't particularly relish the experience. It is also possible to buy specially made 'fire water' which has no taste or smell; be warned however, one company that used to supply it a few years ago stopped doing so after it was discovered that the chemical agent which was added to remove the smell was highly toxic if swallowed.
Never use petrol as fuel for fire juggling.
To prepare the torches, pour a small amount of fuel into a cup or tin can and dip each of the wicks into it in turn. Submerge the wicks until they stop bubbling and then, and this is very important, shake each club vigorously to remove excess fuel which might otherwise spray off after the torches have been lit. Before you even think of igniting the clubs, make sure that your fuel container is well out of the way, preferably inside something flameproof. Whilst busking a few years ago I had the unpleasant experience of having a club slip out of my hand, shoot off behind me and land in the middle of my pile of equipment, right next to a 4 litre container of paraffin.
When lighting up the clubs for the first time in a session it might take a few tries before the wicks will ignite because they are cold. However once you have refuelled a few times and the clubs have heated up, a little caution should be exercised as the fuel can catch light very quickly.
Another thing to remember about fire clubs is that they can get very dirty, very quickly. The wick, neck and flame guard all get covered in black smelly soot as, inevitably, will your hands and face.
Precautions and Advice
- Keep your matches or lighter well away from the fuel at all times.
- Avoid baggy clothes and garments made from flammable material.
- Tie back long hair, don't wear gel or hair spray.
- Take care not to allow any fuel to spill on your clothing.
- Clean your hands regularly, they can become slippery and the consequences of a lit torch unexpectedly flying out of your hand could be severe.
- Remember to shake the excess fuel off each club before you light up.
- Spilt fuel, or fuel which has sprayed off the clubs during shaking, can cause slippery patches on the ground which are hazardous to you and to passers by.
- Put all combustibles well out of the way before you light the torches.
- The flames are always largest just after you have lit them, save your harder tricks until they have died down a bit.
- To extend the life of your wicks, dip them again after you extinguish the flames for the last time, this stops the wick smouldering and wasting away.
- If you have never juggled fire before the best time to learn is in the evening just before dusk - the flames stand out well because it's starting to get dark, but there is still enough light to see the handles. Juggle the torches unlit first of all, and then with just one alight, then with two and finally with all three.
- If you can see that a torch is going to land the wrong way round in your hand then just let it drop, it looks bad to the audience, but not as bad as if you had burnt yourself. There are people who will quite happily catch the flaming end of a torch without batting an eyelid, and a lot of the time they don't get burnt, but I would not recommend you to copy such antics. Apart from anything else if you do it in front of an audience and manage to escape injury, it will detract from the apparent danger of your feat if it appears that the flames aren't hot enough to burn you.
- When doing high throws make sure that the clubs you are holding don't point down - the flames will burn your hands. It is easy to forget when all your attention is fixed on the club that is in the air.
Busking and other performances
If you know a few tricks and find a good busking spot, then you can make a set of fire clubs pay for themselves in an afternoon. There are however, a number of difficulties which can sometimes arise. Police or security guards sometimes ask you to move on, but almost never do more than that unless you are rude/stubborn/really being dangerous. You can minimise the chances of this happening by marking off an area around yourself, and making sure people stand outside it. Carrying a small fire extinguisher makes it look as though you are making an effort, and you never know, it may prove useful. Also consider where the smoke/smell from the fire is going, and make sure that your crowd isn't blocking the pavement. If it starts to rain then make sure that the wicks don't get wet - if they do, then that's the end of your fire show for the day. Wicks are impossible to light when wet, and they take ages to dry out. People can sometimes be reluctant to put money in your hat if you are standing over it throwing 3 blazing torches around, place your hat a good distance away, but not so far that you can't stop kids stealing it.
If you juggle fire indoors then look out for smoke alarms. Fire juggling for any length of time indoors can fill the whole building with the most awful smell if you use the wrong type of fuel, so make your choice carefully. Iso-butanol is ideal for such occasions, it burns without a smell and doesn't smoke; however it isn't as readily available as paraffin, and usually has to be bought from a chemical suppliers
Any trick at all looks impressive when done with torches, however there are one or two that are definite audience favourites:
Club between the legs
Do the trick just as described earlier, i.e. from a cascade, grab one torch and place it, flaming end first, between your legs, hold it there for a moment, and then remove it with the other hand and continue juggling. This looks and sounds rather dangerous, but as long as you push the torch far enough through, and remember to leave enough handle poking out at the front to grab hold of, the flame shouldn't go anywhere near you. Obviously, you should make very sure that none of your clothes are at all flammable, and don't wear a jacket that hangs down over your bottom.
Three club flash
This trick looks spectacular when performed with fire torches, especially using triple spins. Clap your hands to emphasise that both your hands are empty.
Blowing out the torches
This makes a nice finish to a fire routine. Once the flames have burnt down low choose one of the clubs, watch it go through the pattern a few times so you get used to its flight path, and as the flame gets to its closest approach to your face, blow quickly to extinguish it. Practice doing this using just a single torch to start with. An important safety tip - move your face towards the torches, not the other way around.
To round off this section I will include a list which would have saved me a great deal of hassle had I written it down a few years ago, rather than now. These are the things you will find essential, or at least useful, when performing with fire:
- Your torches, preferably in a separate bag.
- Matches or a cigarette lighter.
- A cup or small container for dipping wicks.
- Fuel in a sealable container.
- A funnel, to pour excess fuel back into the container without spillage.
- A screwdriver to test that the wicks are properly attached, keeping it in your fire juggling bag will remind you to use it.
- Some old pieces of cloth to wipe hands, club handles etc.
- A hat to collect money in if you're busking, and a strong cloth bag to put it in on the way home.
- Chalk to mark out a safe area for your audience.
- A fire blanket or extinguisher.
- Something to treat burns with.