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.

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