Making paper-match starters, step by step, illustrated

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May 7, 2017
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Murray, KY
Making paper-match starters, step by step

[Edit: just discovered I'd posted the procedure a couple years ago, but for some reason it didn't show up in my search. Sorry for the duplicate. Hope it helps those who've been having starter problems.]

There have been posts about re-using Estes starters, which is a pain no matter what. And unnecessary; a good BP-motor starter can be made from tools and materials you almost certainly have around the house. I am not the originator of this procedure; first time I saw it was in Dave Sleeter’s “Teleflite” book on making BP motors, around 1990. Lots of variations on this technique can be found on the web and in books (American Fireworks News, etc.)

There are NO chemicals to mix. The starter I made for this post ignited instantly when the leads were touched to a single 1.5V AA cell! Note: these starters will fit into the nozzle of an 18mm BP motor but won’t quite touch the propellant. That should be okay, though. I’ve found that the ball of flame from a match head is generally large enough to reach the BP and ignite it.

Materials and tools:
  • Paper matches
  • Copper lead wire, solid, insulated, 24 or 26 gauge (CAT-5 cable, old e-match wire, wires from used starters at a launch, telephone cable…)
  • Element wire. 36 ga nichrome works a treat, but if you have an old USB cable it’ll probably have what you need. The wires have very thin strands. Strip the wire and separate the strands. On the cable you see here, the shield was very fine (stainless steel?) wire that would probably work well.
  • Tape; I prefer electrical tape but mislaid the roll, so I used thin gaffer's*** tape. Cheap plain old masking tape works better than blue tape, holds better.
  • Hobby knife or single-edge razor blade.
  • Scissors
  • Wire stripper
  • Pliers
***Gaffer's tape is the stuff used in the movie industry to hold hot lights and the like in place. Looks like duct tape but can be peeled off afterward without leaving a sticky residue. Keep a roll around the house, it's well worth the extra cost!


1. Cut lead wire to length.
For BP motors, about 4” is good and makes it easy to attach micro clips or alligator clips. Strip one end of each wire about ¼”, the other end about ½”. For composite motors (yes, these work for larger composites with a little extra help) lead wires should be long enough to allow at least 4-6” to extend from the nozzle.

2. With pliers pinch the very end of the wire that was stripped ¼”. Pinch hard. The flat area will prevent the element wire from slipping off.

3. Cut element wires. You can cut individual pieces about 2” long or so but I find it easier to work with a single long element wire, cutting it off as each starter is finished.

4. Prepare the match heads.
When making a number of these it’s easier to leave the matches in the book. Hold two at a time and use a rocking motion of the knife or razor blade (actually seems to work better) to work a tiny groove into the top of each match head. It doesn’t need to be very deep, just enough to hold the element wire.
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5. Sand edges of match head. (optional) Sanding the composition from the edges (left) makes the head fit a little farther into the nozzle. Sand after cutting the notch, not before. The narrower head has a tendency to crack if the notch is cut after sanding the edges.

6. Cut strips of tape
about ¾-1” long.

7. Take element wire and a lead wire in hand and wind half a dozen or so tight turns of element wire around the ¼” end of the lead wire. Take the other lead wire in hand and wind half a dozen tight turns of element wire around that ¼” end. Leave about ½” of element wire between the two lead wires. Snip off excess element wire with scissors.
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(to be continued)
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8. Take a match in hand and place the lead wires on either side of it, fitting the element wire into the groove in the head.

9. Hold the assembly in one hand and with the other hand wrap a strip of tape tightly around the match and wires, leaving the match head and the ends of the lead wires exposed.

That’s it! To use, push the head into the nozzle as far as it will easily go. If it won’t stay in place, roll a tiny piece of recovery wadding into a ball and force it into the nozzle, on one side of the match. Sorry for bad focus; you can see a little blue dot to the right of the starter from the ballpoint pen I used to push the wadding in place. I was able to pick up the motor and starter by one lead and shake it gently without it coming out.012.jpg

For composite motors, a piece of easily-ignited (i.e., fast) propellant is taped to the match head. A matchstick-sized piece is good for H and I motors; larger for bigger motors. (Unfortunately these are too big for most low/mid power composites…)

Note: match heads contain potassium chlorate and sulfur, both of which are pretty corrosive to most metals. I suggest making new ones every month or so, as the thin element wire may corrode and break after a while.

Good luck!
Great guide. I have done the same with shrink wrap instead of tape. It works.
This is how I make starters for my 18 mm motors. They also fit the A and B Q-Jets. and will start a motor that failed to ignite using the supplied starter.
Making the starters for the 18 mm motors.
Original Quickburst needs pyrogen painted on the top of the grain.
Motors for new Quickburst beta test. 7 5", 40 N-s E13 and a 3", 24 N-s E8. 18mm igniter making 01.jpg

Tungsten wire on top of lead wire spool. This wire is 51um (.002", diameter of hair, gold plated). 18mm igniter making 02.jpg

Lead wire, 30 gauge Kynar twisted pair wire wrap wire. 18mm igniter making 03.jpg

Side view of tungsten wire spool. 18mm igniter making 04.jpg

10 leads cut about 25" long. 18mm igniter making 05.jpg

Strippers, purchased from 18mm igniter making 06.jpg