OK, here's a run down of how I make fire props, poles, poi, swinging clubs... I put this together as a quick email for someone, so it's terse.
Firstly you are best off finding some proper fire-wick, usually made from kevlar in 2" or 2.5" widths - this stuff is very tough and lasts for ages. You also need "cup washers" for the screws that hold the wick on, these are shaped washers that both spread the load and protect you from the sharp edges of the screws. The screws should have the standard "countersunk" heads (ordinary wood-screws).
Here is my attempt at an ASCII diagram:
screw _---------_ / \\ // \ / \\ // \cup washer ...........| |.............. ...........| |........wick... ...........| |.............. ===========| |========tube=== ...........| |........wood...
Photo of wick and screws / cup washers.
For a fire staff/pole/stick, I use wooden broomhandles or a suitable piece of 7/8 inch or 1 inch dowelling, and cover the ends for about 6 inches with chromed bathroom towel rail tube. I don't know if such stuff is easy to obtain in canada, but its thin chromed steel tube with an outside diameter of about 1 inch (you can get thinner stuff too, but then the wooden pole would be too flimsy. Drill holes through tube and pole, wrap about 14" length of wick round and pass screws through cup-washer, wick, tube and into the wood. Screws should be long enough to go though most of the pole (the wood gradually chars and weakens at the surface). Use two screws and fold the end of the wick back under itself for neatness.
Pole end and tube ready for mounting, pole with tube on, completed pole and another view.
For fire-poi (chains), I stuck to the same chrome tubing, but cut to a length that is a little shorter than the width of the wick. I replaced the screws with bolts, and drilled holes all the way through the tube. The bolt goes through cup washer, wick, into tube, a place a nut on the end, then the chain goes over the bolt, and then another nut, and finally the end of the bolt passes though the opposite hole in the tube. The nuts are tightened so as to wedge tightly against the tube, and the bolt length has to be just right. It's fiddly to put together, but the result is something that won't fly apart since the chain, tubing & wick are bolted together.
Photo of chain end of poi tube showing bolt, other end of poi tube.
At the handle end I ran a loop of soft rope though the end of the chain and spliced its end together to make a soft comfortable handle that couldn't break.
Photo of poi handle, completed set of poi.
With fire-poi the important thing is to ensure it cannot possibly fly apart - imagine the consequences if a flaming missile shot through someone's window or rolls under cars... I always have the rope loop round the wrist and through my hand for the same reason. Similarly you want good quality welded-link chain. I also check the nuts are secure before use.
If you have access to a wood-turning lathe, then making your own swinging clubs is feasible. Juggling clubs are basically the same, but need a padded handle built up on the wood to prevent bruising.
For swinging clubs the important detail is nice large spherical ends with a narrow stem, thus giving an easy and comfortable grip (avoiding cramp in the hand). The rest of the club can just be a plain stick up to the wick. For juggling clubs you need to get the balance right, which means copying existing fire clubs, and some trial and error to find the right weighting. The handle needs to be thicker, and some sort of padding should be added. Standard rubber juggling-club knobs are worth adding, they make getting a club in the face much less painful.
For finding supplies, hardware stores will probably do everything but fire-wick - a juggling suppliers might be a good place to try, and find some mail-order. Fire wick isn't very cheap, expect to pay around £2--£3 per foot, but you only need about a foot per item. Using a bit more gives you the option of trimming later when it does start to wear out, but you can always unwrap it and wrap back on the other way round to expose the fresh end. The wick I prefer is 2.5" wide kevlar, which is hard wearing and big and thick, and so burns for a while.
I have seen glass-fibre wick, with a protective metal mesh covering, but I've only seen it in narrower format (about 1.5"), and it doesn't last long if regularly bashed (juggling fire-clubs get a lot of abuse).
You could probably use any non-synthetic cloth as a cheap temporary wick, I suspect thick cotton is quite good - however it will char much faster and it would be wise to extinguish such wicks well before they dry out to keep the temperatures on the surface low.
As for fuel I only use paraffin (kerosene for the americans), which burns relatively cool and has quite a high flash-point. Any liquid like gasolene or alcohol which ignites as a liquid at ambient temperatures is much more dangerous to work with - except in very hot weather you can extinguish a burning club by dipping it into paraffin/kerosene. This means accidents with fuel spills are far far less dangerous than some other fuels. Never keep fuel in glass containers. Kerosene is also the cheapest.
Having said that, please don't extinguish props in liquid kerosene, it isn't good practice and leads to overheating and over-loaded wicks - you should ensure any excess of fuel is shaken or spun off before lighting, otherwise drops of burning fuel will shoot off in an alarming fashion. I tend to dip wicks to about 2/3 their length and hold for 2 to 3 seconds, then shake off any excess.
On the subject of safety, don't fire-breath. Really, its not worth the risks. (pneumonia, lung-burns, cancer, diarrhea, death)
Oh yes, one last piece of advice - if the wicks extend a little bit beyond the end of the stick or tube, it makes it a lot less dangerous to be hit by the end. For a really big flame you can wind two wicks side-by-side, but if you do this you won't be able to extinguish it just by blowing - make a metal tube to snuff it, or use a dampened heavy cloth.
Last updated by firstname.lastname@example.org Wed 31 July 2002