Well, here we are again at the Techie’s Corner. This month, we will wind up our section on methods of creating fake fire for the stage with a brief discussion on torches, candles and lanterns. Torches have been around, well, forever. In fact torches have been around longer than we have. Somewhere in the far distant past, one of our proto human ancestors picked up a burning branch from a wildfire and lit his way down the dark path to the future. The basic torch has changed very little since then. However, man, never satisfied with the basic model of anything, tried many variations and improvements along the way. The first improvement was probably when some one discovered that a large pine knot full of hardened sap would burn longer than a plain branch.  After that it would have been an easy step to experiment with other methods of making torches last longer. One early method was to wrap the head of the torch in a loose weave of plant fibers and then soak that in animal fat.

Another type of torch was the “bundle” type.  This type of torch consisted of a number of thin twigs, reeds, plant stalks, whatever bound together tightly.  Again, the business end was soaked in some type of flammable substance.

The main point of soaking the burning portion of the torch in something flammable was to prolong the burning time of the torch.  Soaking the torch produced an effect like a candle or kerosene lamp with the torch becoming the “wick” and the absorbed substance the fuel. In this manner the shaft of the torch didn’t burn, only the “wick” and “fuel” which could be renewed.  Some very elaborate torches had hollow shafts and in fact were much more like oil lamps than what we think of today as “torches”.

Just what the torches looked like then and what they are supposed to represent now is a matter of research for the designer, our job is to make it look like it is burning.  One of the easiest methods is the old flashlight trick.  It works best in a crowd scene, far up stage, on a large stage.  To be perfectly honest, this method is not very realistic and works best when either realism is not the goal or in a large moving crowd scene where there are many other distractions.  To make this effect is simple; it is just a normal flashlight with some gel (color media) and a bit of dressing to cover up the modern flashlight.  The gel is cut into flame like strips and taped together in a series of concentric circles.

After the gel strips have been cut, lay them out flat and get artistic! Use transparent markers to draw ““flame” lines and add various colors to the individual areas of flame.  Another way to add to the look is to cut individual flames from various colors of gel and tape them to the larger strips.  Next, tape the large strips into a circle or ring. Now use hot glue, starting with the center or inner ring; attach directly to the flashlight lens. The final step is to dress the flashlight body to look like the kind of torch handle you need.  This can mean wrapping in burlap and adding cord bands. It can also be done by cutting some long, narrow triangles of 1/8” ply or mat board. The wide end of the triangle should be about ½” to 1” wide. The narrow end about ¾ as wide as the top. The length of the triangle should be several inches longer than the flashlight.

Another torch that works rather well is a variation of the silk flame trick. 

This one requires a bit more work and a few more parts. I am going to list the parts with Allied Electronics part #s because even if there is no Allied Electronics near you, you can look at their on line catalog @ www.allied.avnet.com (SITE IS DOWN as of 4/6/02)  to see the item. That will allow you to locate similar or equal items from a supplier in your area. The parts are as follows:

  1. A small muffin type fan like those used to cool electronic equipment. 4” to 6” (102 mm to 153mm) in diameter depending on your torch design. The Fan should be 12 volt DC brushless fan with a high CFM (Cubic Feet per Minute) ratting. An example is Allied Electronics stock # 599-0660. For those readers using the metric system, there are roughly 35.5 cubic feet in a cubic meter, if I have done my math correctly.
  2. Battery (s) to match the fan chosen. Standard D cells will work fine but you need 8 to get 12 volts for your fan. I prefer a small electronic sealed lead acid type. They come in sizes as small as a pack of cigarettes and can be recharged. A good example is Allied Electronics stock # 621-1208 with charger # 621-6310. This battery is 3.78” x .96” x 2.42” (96 mm x 25 mm x 62 mm)
  3. 12 volt automotive tail light or turn signal lamp and a socket for the lamp.
  4. A small bit of colored china silk or similar very light weight fabric.
  5. Misc. wiring, a switch, connectors etc.
  6. Decoration.

The Flame part is rather similar to the flashlight gimmick. The difference is that there are usually only two rows of flame and the outer one is the silk fabric. The silk strip should look similar to either the outer or middle ring of the gel strips shown above and should run roughly along the centerline of the airflow. That is, if the fan blade is 4” in diameter and has a solid 2” diameter center, the silk strip should make a 3” diameter circle. The flame sits directly on the center of the fan, and depending on the design of the fan, may need a wire frame of something to hold it up off the rotating center of the fan. The wiring runs around the fan and down to the battery and switch.

As with other silk flame effects, the look can be enhanced by artistic “painting” on the silk with brightly colored dyes. Do Not use paint, as it will make the fabric too stiff. Also, as with other silk flame effects, there are very few absolutes and a lot of trial and error. Plan to spend some time experimenting with several fans for power and noise, and some time cutting the fabric to look and act the way you want.


The next item on the agenda is candles. Candles are an enigma. Fake candles rarely look realistic, even the best of the commercially made units. On the other hand, real candles drip, sometimes smoke, can be distracting because of the flicker and often it is a problem to keep lit if an actor has to move about the stage with the candle.

There are a number of very good commercially made units, the two I am most familiar with are the Rosco candle, available from almost any theatrical dealer, the Candlelite unit from City Theatrical and many special effects and magic dealers have their own house brand. Most of the commercial units are between $35 and $50 U.S. to purchase. The best units have three or four lamps, one to maintain a steady background glow and the others to “flicker”. These candles run off a single 9V battery or with a power adapter that you can plug into a wall outlet. I do not know if the adapter version is available where the standard voltage is 220 VAC rather than 115. I have never tried to “dim” one of the commercial units so I don’t know if that will work or not. The Commercial candles also come with or without a white plastic tube with “wax” dripping down the side a bit. These candles look best where there are several such as a chandelier or candelabra and the candle gimmick becomes part of the background rather than the point of interest. They look the worst when there is only one candle on stage because all the audience attention is drawn to the one fake candle.

  1. 555 timer chip
  2. R1 1K ohm, ½ watt, 5% tolerance.
  3. R2 1.8 Meg ohm ½ watt, 5% tolerance.
  4. A small PC board 1” x ½” or a kit to make your own.
  5. D1 almost any diode will do.
  6. C1 4.7 mf
  7. C2 47 mf
  8. 2 Micro lamps (grain of rice) 12 volts, 60 ma.
  9. DPST switch
  10. Misc. wire, solder, flux etc. as needed.

The last section this month is on Lanterns. Lanterns are the simplest of all as you can simply take any of the methods used for candles and place them inside a prop lantern.

The largest single problem when dealing with torches, candles and lanterns on a live stage is the same whether one is using real or fake flames, is turning them on or off with the rest of the stage lighting. There are a number of ways of dealing with this. Some methods are commercial units that interface with today’s computer consoles and are somewhat expensive. There are a number of shop built methods that work in varying degrees and are reasonably affordable. However they require a bit of knowledge of electronics and circuit building and each individual circuit is an article in and of itself. Some of these circuits will be the basis of a future article.

In the meantime, remember, if any reader has any questions concerning this article; feel free to contact me. As with all other articles, when this moves to archives, the illustrations will no longer be supported. If you are reading this in the archives and would like the illustrations, let me know and I will send them to you.

As always, don’t sweat the small stuff……and remember……it’s all small stuff.

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