Friday, September 20, 2019

back to school: a lesson plan for candles and wax craft

Wormy Apple.
Hollowed out sidewalk apple.
Square-braid cotton wick.
I drew a blank when she asked if I could recommend any websites or online videos for a candlemaking how-to. She’s a home-schooler with several children, a wide range of ages, and come fall she’s always intending to do a lesson in candlemaking using a naturally occurring wax such as beeswax, so who better to turn to for guidance than a beeswax candlemaker at the farmers market?

I told her some basics of candlemaking and promised that by next market my mind would not be blank but full, but who can trust their own mind? So before I forget, here’s what I came up with.

The Engineer Guy
Links: and First video in the Chemical History of a Candle series

For background on why a candle does what it does (and what is it doing?), I recommend, a website chock-full of “clear, concise videos and books on engineered stuff” put together by Bill Hammack, a professor at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. I discovered his video series on the chemistry of a candle when I was researching my wax book. In the videos, he performs slightly updated versions of the demonstrations Michael Faraday used in his Christmas lecture series “The Chemical History of a Candle” at the renowned Royal Institute in London in the mid-1800s. The videos are fun and you learn stuff. To paraphrase: All of life, right there in a candle!

Just About the Simplest Candle You Can Make
Link: Making a candle in a walnut shell

This isn’t the only article out there about making candles in walnut shells, but it works, and as it uses a different method of melting wax than the subsequent articles I’ll mention, it serves the purpose of emphasizing that there is more than one way to melt a block of beeswax.

Obviously, these are not walnut shells, but two wormy apples, found on the sidewalk, that I hollowed out, poured wax into, then added a primed wick. As you can see, some wax dribbled out the worm holes. As the apples would not sit upright, I supported them in these wood rings that have something to do with curtains—they came in a 50¢ box of stuff I bought at an estate sale.

As this article shows, one can put wax in a glass jar that is then placed in a pot of boiling water—a homemade double-boiler. The wax melts. The jar here doesn’t seem to have a spout, but one could use a Pyrex measuring cup that does, and that might be easier when pouring the wax. Also, in this article they put the wick in the candle after the wax has been poured and is setting up, or hardening. This is easier to do if you first dip the wick in wax, making it stiff rather than all floppy. This is called “priming” the wick. Of course, if you get carried away and continue to dip the wick in wax, eventually you will have made a candle, a taper, without need for any kind of shell. Alternatively, one can buy wick that is already primed.

This article also has us making candles in an acorn cap and a seed pod. As there are plenty of acorn caps in my yard, I tried this, and if you are wondering how long a candle made in an acorn cap might burn, see below.

You definitely need a spout to pour these little guys, and finding an acorn cap that sits flat on its top (now bottom) is like finding a four-leaf clover—not easy. I held a cap between my left thumb and forefinger, poured the wax into the cap, kept holding it, 30 seconds, 40 seconds, then realized I could secure the nub at the top (bottom) of the cap, if long enough, between the wires of this notebook. With a little forethought, I might have first set the acorn caps in a bowl of sand or small pebbles, or used the method described in the article.

After All, It’s Autumn, Leaves are Falling
Links: Dipping paper in beeswax and Dipping autumn leaves in beeswax

These two articles explain how and why one might dip autumn leaves or paper into melted beeswax, and this person uses a crock pot to melt wax, as do I. Crock pots come in a number of sizes and, as this writer points out, can be found in thrift stores. For candlemaking, though, since it’s a little difficult to pour wax from a crock pot into a candle mold and, I imagine, even more difficult to pour it into a walnut shell, one might use a ladle, as I do, to spoon the melted wax out of the pot into a Pyrex measuring cup that has a spout. For dipping, though, all you need is a crock pot, a bit of wax, some leaves or paper and whatnot.

That’s it. There’s your lesson plan on candlemaking and wax craft. No wonder I’m not a teacher.

Note of Caution
Maybe you are thinking, well, couldn’t wax be melted in a microwave? Yes. I have done this. But, as there is no specific setting for “beeswax” on any microwave I’ve ever seen, I do not recommend it. On the other hand, you may not use your microwave as recklessly as I did. First, I bought an old microwave at a thrift store for $15. I used it for many years exclusively as an auxiliary wax melter, just figuring out on the fly what settings to use. After a while, it became completely splattered with wax inside. Occasionally I scraped off the wax. Then the microwave started falling apart. A piece came off the ceiling, but the oven still worked, so I figured it didn’t need that piece. Then the glass plate broke. I figured out how to work around that. I continued to use this microwave. I should have stopped. One day everything inside burst into flames. Now there’s a lesson for you.

The burning of an acorn cap candle. Time elapsed: 15 minutes. I dipped the candle in wax once, quickly, before plopping it in the water, but am not sure that is necessary. It might float perfectly well without a full wax coat. In photo three, the wick has flopped over, is no longer standing upright. In candles like tealights and votives, candlemakers use these little doo-hickeys called wick tabs that hold the wick upright to the very end. This can give a candle another half to full hour of burn time.

Helpful Notes
If you have a block of wax bigger than your jar or crock pot, put the wax in the freezer overnight. In the morning, whack it with a hammer, but first put it in a bag of some sort so the pieces don’t scatter. You can also break up non-frozen wax this way, but the colder beeswax gets, the easier it cracks.

Beeswax begins to soften and melt just shy of 150 degrees Fahrenheit. It can go up in flames around 400 degrees. And, just in case you think the wax in a candle burns, it does not. Rather, it vaporizes. That’s something I learned from the Engineer Guy (and I hope I got that right).

As beeswax sets up, is turning from a liquid into a solid, it shrinks in size by 10 percent. The colder the surrounding air, the quicker it shrinks; the warmer the air, the slower.

Wick comes in different sizes, meaning different thicknesses. Basically, the wider the candle, the thicker the wick needs to be. Also, wick can be made of different materials. The best type of wick for a beeswax candle is square-braid cotton. That said, the very first beeswax candle I made had a piece of string from the junk drawer for a wick. It worked well enough. Got me started.

Autumn leaves dipped in beeswax.

Friday, September 13, 2019

every ad tells a story

Recently this ad appeared in a local paper. I have cropped it and blacked out the name of the shop and the brand of candles it is advertising. The shop in question is a general gift shop, and the candle company, according to its website, uses soy wax “infused” with beeswax.

This ad gets one thing and one thing only right: Every gift has a story.

Soy wax is a manufactured wax. It was created in the 1990s in laboratories in Iowa and Indiana. Today it is manufactured by companies using proprietary formulas, the basic formula being that of turning soy bean oil, a liquid, into a solid through a process called hydrogenation: soy bean oil and hydrogen are combined with the aid of a catalyst such as copper. Almost any oil can be hydrogenated—this is how we get margarine—and over the years a few different waxes created through hydrogenation have come and gone from the marketplace, waxes such as Coto Flakes, made with cottonseed oil, and Opalwax, made with castor bean oil. Once soybean oil is hydrogenated, we call it “soy wax.” Various substances are then added to soy wax in order to make it suitable for one sort of candlemaking or another. Again, the exact formulations are proprietary.

The candles being advertised are scented (the website lists more than 50 fragrances, from “Laundry Day” to “Gratitude”) and sold in jars. A number of studies have shown that candles that are unnaturally scented and candles that are contained in jars are neither cleaner nor healthier than other candles. In fact, just the opposite. Apparently scented candles and candles in jars burn less efficiently than both traditional tapers and unscented candles in general, no matter the type of wax. Both scented and jarred candles are more likely to produce soot and to release questionable elements into the air.

So there is the story. I have written about soy wax and candle emission studies previously here in this blog and over at the site I used for composing the draft pages of the print version of my history of wax book. Links to those chapters and their references appear below. While working on the final print draft of the emission studies chapter, I came across more and more studies, two of which I have added to the original list.

To be sure, I am not concerned that people sell soy candles, scented candles, jarred candles, or any kind of concocted candle, nor am I concerned that people buy and enjoy whatever kind of candle they prefer. What I am concerned about is getting the story straight. Surely there must be something about these advertised candles that is not only appealing, but true, because that they are natural, cleaner, and healthier than other candles is simply not true.

Read “The Emission Studies”
The Chemistry and Technology of Waxes
Candles and Incense as Potential Sources of Indoor Air Pollution: Market Analysis and Literature Review” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2001
Emission of air pollutants from burning candles with different composition in indoor environments” Derudi, M., Gelosa, S., Sliepcevich, A. et al. Environ Sci Pollut Res (2014) 21: 4320.
Emissions of air pollutants from scented candles burning in a test chamber” Science Direct, 2012.
Determining and Evaluating the Emissions of PCDD/PCDF, PAH and Short-Chain Aldehydes in Combustion Gases of Candles” Schwind, K., Hosseinpour, J., Fiedler, H., Lau, C., Hutzinger, O., 1994.
Soybean Candles for Healthy Life and Well Being” USDA, 2006-2010.
Candlelight: A Dash Of Toxin With Your Romance? Hensley, S. National Public Radio, August 20, 2009.
US Trade Association Calls on South Carolina State University to Stop Promoting Bad Science, National Candle Association Press Release, 2017
Characterization of Scented Candle Emissions and Associated Public Health Risks” Krause, D. 1999.
Black Soot Deposition: How It Impacts IAQ” Krause, D., The Refrigeration Service Engineers Society Journal, 2001.

Additional references from the print version:
Fine, Philip M., and Cass, Glen R., Characterization of Fine Particle Emissions from Burning Church Candles, Environmental Science & Technology, 1999 33 (14) [June]. (Pp 2352-2362)
Fan, Cheng-Wei, and Zhang, Junfeng (Jim), Characterization of emissions from portable household combustion devices: particle size distributions, emission rates and factors, and potential exposures, Atmospheric Environment, Vol. 35, Issue 7, 2001. (Pp 1281-1290)

Read: “Oi Soy”
The Chemistry and Technology of Waxes
Old Efforts at New Uses: A Brief History of Chemurgy and the American Search for Biobased Materials, Finlay, M., Journal of Industrial Ecology, Volume 7, Issue 3-4, July 2003.
History of Industrial Uses of Soybeans. Page 1738, as well as preceding and subsequent pages. Soyinfo Center, 2017.
Soy wax development getting new attention, DeWitte, D., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, August 10, 2012.
William J. Hale obituary, New York Times, August 9, 1955.
Soybean World Production Trends, Potter, B., July 24, 2017.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

red pine and Iron

After that post on the view from the boardwalk, I was reminded of a document I had skimmed through but not read: Founder’s Landing Pier Redevelopment Summary Report, by GEI Consultants. Going back to it and reading it, I began to think of it as poetry, which is not an original idea as I once heard about someone having turned the official rules of baseball into poetry, maybe just by re-configuring the lines –

you know,
the way
poets do –

or maybe it was
the way
the words of the rules were spoken,
verbatim but with a certain infusion of poetic
crescendo and

– release –

from fussy officiousness.

So I was trying to read the report as poetry.
Page 6:
The wood core samples tested
were all identified as red pine
(Pinus resinosa).
The surface of six cores contained evidence
of soft rot decay
and pile number 59 contained
a trace amount
of brown rot hyphal remnants.
I cut some words.
Wood core samples tested
Pinus resinosa
Soft rot decay,
pile 59,
brown rot,
hyphal remnants.
What these consultant folks did, among other things—and it’s an interesting report covering a bit of the history, a bit of the present, ideas for the future, all enhanced with maps and images—was to go underwater to take a look at these old pier pilings (definition of pile, plural pilings … a long, heavy timber or beam driven into the ground, sometimes under water, to support a bridge, dock, etc. … *), and all the pilings they looked at were made of red pine, kind of like an old-growth underwater forest. (As I understand it, these pilings were put in in 1855.) Rather than needles or leaves, though, remnants of “hyphal,” which, to me, was a new word. It refers to the stuff that makes up fungus.

Page 7:
The cribbing located in the Spear Dock was also inspected by the divers.
The timber was tested for soundness by pick or awl.
The large crib structure on the west end of the dock is near the water surface.
Due to the top of the structure lying in the ice interface zone,
and potentially being exposed to air,
it has degraded near the surface.
The crib structure from approximately two-feet below the surface was sound.
The timber cribbing structures at the east end of the dock
to Ripley Rock
were sound and in generally good condition.
Iron spikes connecting the timbers were observed to be in good condition.
Definition of crib or cribbing … a structure anchored under water, serving as a pier … *

The Crib is the name of a coffeehouse in town. I was there the other night for some sound: music (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, sitar) and poetry (words, spoken, exposed to air; inspected, tested, picked for all). I did not know these poets and musicians, yet there was a connection, somewhere, I suppose, in the interface zone. Red pine and iron, submerged, surfacing, slightly degraded, a short break for yoga: Now, stand, breathe, one breath, ten seconds.

The report suggests new piers could be built atop the old.

* Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition.