Crashing and Burning: My Epic Quest for Colored Sparks

2013-06-04 4

Ever since I shot my first roll of steel wool lightpainting shots, I fell in love with the technique. Hanging out with friends, there’s the thrill of doing something your parents would sternly shake their head at. There’s this obvious charm about it, I mean, I got a friend who doesn’t care for photography at all, yet each time I get the steel wool out, he begs to come along, giving suggestions how the shot could be more epic and stuff like that. After a while though, I got to wondering, could I get something more than just orange sparks?

My experiment started after seeing shots like this on the internet:

Photo from

I’m guessing it’s an obvious Photoshopped image, but I started wondering whether something like that would be possible, the real way. I mean, I’m sure a lot of you remember these high school chemistry experiments where your teacher would spray a chemical through the flame of a bunsen burner, and the flame would change color.

I did some quick research (you can easily Google it, if you ever want a colored campfire or something; check this link or this link ), and it really looked like something doable to me. The thing is, I’m working in a molecular biology lab, and turns out a lot of these chemicals were just lying in our closet. So, one Friday afternoon I took some plastic tubes and filled them with potassium sulphate and nitrate, potassium chloride, copper sulphate and lithium chloride. Respectively, they should turn your ordinary straight-out-of-the-match orange flames into purple, violet, green, and red. Of course, I got my friends all crazy excited, because OBVIOUSLY it was going to work, and it was going to be awesome. Well, yeah. Slight exaggeration.

My first idea was to dissolve as much chemical as I could in water, soak the steel wool in this mixture, let it dry out, and kaboom, showtime. So, all gloved up, a safety mask for good measure, friends watching from a distance, I prepared all my solutions, looking like I knew what I was doing. After soaking the steel wool, we put it out on some paper towels, even got an hairdryer involved for that quick drying action.

First sign that something was wrong was that the steel wool was leaving obvious rust stains on the paper towels. The copper sulphate solution, which had been all nice and bright blue, had turned a dark, murky brown. Second and most obvious sign that maybe I chose the wrong approach was that every singly one of our pieces of steel wool completely refused to catch fire. You know, rusting, oxidation, fire, also oxidation. Annoying thing was, when you kept the flame of a lighter next to the steel wool, the flame would turn every single color we wanted, bright greens and purples all over the place. So yeah, we shot some ordinary steel wool shots that night (and complete chemical failure aside, what an awesome night), losing a steel wool filled whisk in the process after a lanyard broke (it flew away, landed in a fiery explosion and was never seen again). You win some, you lose some. After that, we went to regroup, rethink our strategy, have a drink, and come up with a new awesome plan.

Credits: math0165

One thing was clear: water was a big no-no. I thought about maybe dissolving the chemical powder into ethanol or something alike, but in the end I decided to go quick and simple: take the steel wool, take the chemical, throw ‘em together, and you get steel wool color spectacle! Naivety and enthusiasm, kick-ass combination isn’t it?

So once again, I plundered the stock room for my precious colorants. Lots of tension, expectations were even higher than before. Gently, I deposited a couple of copper sulphate sprinkles on a wad of steel wool, ever so carefully I closed the wad and put it inside a whisk. I presented my lighter, took a deep breath, and ignited the steel wool. Spin spin spin. Ordinary friggin’ orange sparks once again. So, I got more courageous and threw the entirety of the tube inside some steel wool. You would do the same thing and you know it well enough! More blue powder than in a Smurf crematorium! After pouring half of the tube on the steel wool I hesitated for just a moment. Is this the way to go? But, you know. Go big or go home. If this wouldn’t be the “Holy hell where are my sunglasses” explosion of colors we had been waiting for, nothing would. Aaaaaand yeah, it didn’t. So we ended our expedition early with our tail between our legs. But it’s the journey that counts, right? And look at these “failed” shots, I’m still pretty excited about them.

Credits: math0165

In retrospect, I suppose there’s a big difference between a bunsen burner flame or a camp fire, and molten bits of steel flying through the air. My guess is, even if the chemicals would give a bit of color, the heat radiation would completely mask the effect. It’s just a completely different kind of burning, unfortunately. I suppose some things are supposed to be Photoshopped only. Unless, there’s someone with a new great idea, shout out — I still got access to my supply of chemical stuff. Together, just maybe, we can make this happen.

Alright, if anyone wants to know more about steel wool lightpainting, I wrote a tipster a while back (click here) and if you’re more fluent in German than I am, ck_berlin beat me to it with this great tipster (click here). Well, I suppose it’s great, as I said, not too fluent in German. I’m sure it’s pretty great though. So lomo people, have fun, be reasonably safe, and don’t burn your city down! I’m going to think some more about what to do next. Help me out!

written by math0165 on 2013-06-04 #lifestyle #experiment #steel #lomography #lightpainting #wool #chemicals #failure #analogue-lifestyle #steel-wool


  1. stouf
    stouf ·

    Wonderful !!!

  2. schlogoat
    schlogoat ·

    Love it! I'm on a chemistry degree, I'll see what I can discover!

  3. bcschmidt74
    bcschmidt74 ·

    Have you tried combining a ultra fine mesh copper wool pad? or in combination with a steel wool pad? I suspect that you'd need a mix of both. Was thinking sparklers mixed with the wool may give a multicolored shot.

  4. math0165
    math0165 ·

    @bcschmidt74 - I have not, sounds interesting! But I'm kinda beginning to think it's impossible without photoshop magic, I'm not finding any real examples for coloured steel wool photos, and since the sparks are basically liquid metal, it's something completely different than a coloured flame.. But still, thanks, I like your suggestions! Might try it sometime! :)

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