Steel Wool Burn – A collaboration of James with Frances Allan

I didn’t realize that steel burns.  Well it makes sense.  Iron + Oxygen forms Iron oxide.  When the steel comes as steel wool and the oxygen is forced through by spinning it at high speed it burns very well.


When the Dogwood 52 week challenge asked for an artistic collaboration of two photographers, Frances wanted to do a steel wool burn.  I had seen this on Flickr and had been mulling over the idea for a long period of time, perhaps 2 years.  I knew that Adrian Hill had done one already.  I had even made a furtive attempt.  I had bought some steelo steel wool from Woolworths and found that it wouldn’t burn because it was impregnated with soap.


Eventually I got it to work.  This is what I did.  I bought some fine grade french polishing steel wool from the hardware store.  I was advised to get the superfine grade.  I stuffed the steel wool inside a kitchen whisk.  I have the whisk on the end of a length of wire.  Outside in the forest I use the fire lighter to catch the steel wool alight.  There was not much of a flame, just a couple of dozen zig zaggy orange fireflies moving into the steel wool.  I then started to spin the whisk in a large circle.  The fire spreads into the steel wool and it glows strongly orange.  As I spin the whisk, sparks fly off from the centre and fly off in all directions at odd angles.  I guess they are really globules of molten steel.  Here and there a few leaves catch fire.  Frances has the two cameras on tripods to take a time exposure photograph.  We use a manual setting and the shutter open to “bulb”.  In the Nikon this requires the remote control to activate.  When the steel wool has all burnt we close the shutter and then stamp out the fires on the ground.

You can see how the photos have turned out.  The spinning whisk creates a strong central circle with an intricate pattern of tangential rays emanating from the periphery.  These lines change into parabolic arcs as the force of gravity has its way with the tiny metal droplets.  The whole pattern is like a fiery mandala.

Looking at other examples on the internet, it looks like I will have to try different locations.  There are some interesting examples on bridges, inside pipes or tunnels and on jettys.  I don’t think this is a suitable activity for the summer months.  The camera settings ended up as follows:

  • Camera – NIKON D7000
  • Lens – 18.0-200.0 mm f/3.5-5.6 at 18mm
  • Setting – Manual;   Center Weight metering
  • Exposure – 98.0 sec;   f/7.1;   ISO 100

I am happy to give further details if anyone wants to try this exercise.  It was at the end of the day a lot of fun.


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