Sunday, December 9, 2012

burn, candle, burn: but how? ... that's my beeswax

A variety of beeswax candles.
As much as I enjoy rambling on about other things, it’s time for a little information on beeswax and candle burning. It seems simple. Strike a match, touch flame to wick, there you go. But why does the wick take the flame? How does it keep it? Keeping the flame alive is such a hard thing to do.

Candle combustion is well explained in Beeswax: Production, Harvesting, Processing and Products by William L. Coggshall and Roger A. Morse. This book is somewhat of a little beeswax bible, and in it are many gems and nuggets, such as:
The beginner making beeswax candles is likely to experience some difficulty in determining the correct wicking to use. (Amen to that, brother.)

… a draft is the candle’s worst enemy. (Amen.)

Beeswax is a natural product and this in itself means there is variation in it. (Thank you, Mother Nature.)

… pollen and propolis stain the wax and are the primary sources of beeswax’s distinctive color and odor. (Thanks again, Ma.)

If greasy, first wash with warm beer. (Nothing to do with candles, of course, but in a recipe for a wood cleaner. Fresh beer is not necessary.)
The explanation of candle combustion is a couple of pages long, but the essence is this:
A candle burning properly is the result of interactions among candle diameter, wax, wick, air movements, drafts, and other factors.
So, if you stare dreamily at a burning candle, it may actually be the scientist in you studying the intricate interactions necessary to bring forth this single flame.

The original Soo Line beeswax candle.

Okay, so all you want is a “proper” burn. First, get yourself a proper candle. Determining the size, wax* (including fragrance and dye additives), and wick is the chandler’s responsibility. Everything else is yours, and this is it:
Avoid drafts.
Drafts can be dangerous, drafts can put a candle out. A draft can cause a flame to veer slightly one way or another, causing one side of the candle to melt a little sooner than the other, leading to drips of wax, maybe a messed up tablecloth, a drained wax pool, a leaping flame, a candle burning more quickly than it might otherwise. Stuff like that. In addition, each time you burn your candle, burn it as long as it takes for the wax pool (the melted wax around the flame) to reach the edge of the candle. If you burn the candle for less time, you will probably get a tunneling effect. If at any time the flame becomes larger than you like, douse it and trim the wick to about one-quarter inch before relighting. That’s about it. Though some day I should write about drips. I’m sure I’ve known a few. And oh yes, don’t let your kids play with candles, especially at the dinner table.

Meanwhile, out come the Christmas decorations.
P.S. When  putting out your candle, if you would prefer that the wick not smolder, use a metal rod of some sort, like a a shish kebob skewer, to dunk the flame in the wax pool. Once the flame is out, lift the wick out of the pool.

*Candles can be made of many different substances known as “wax.” From the website of The Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers:
Throughout most of recorded history in Europe, wax has meant beeswax. During the past 150 years a number of other substances have become known as waxes—a loosely defined term referring to substances with similar properties to beeswax, namely:
  • plastic (malleable) at normal ambient temperatures
  • a melting point above approximately 45 °C (113 °F) (which differentiates waxes from fats and oils)
  • a relatively low viscosity when melted (unlike many plastics)
  • insoluble in water
  • hydrophobic
Today waxes may be natural secretions of plants or animals, artificially produced by purification from natural petroleum or completely synthetic. Thus waxes can be further categorized as natural, synthetic, mineral hydrocarbon and petroleum.

{ Now go burn your candles! Properly! }

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