Sweet smells and subtle light will get you through winter’s dark nights
by Anna Herman
When I was seven, I had a revelation. I could have brownies on demand if I made them myself. Learning this simple skill gave me agency over my appetites and fueled a lifelong interest in figuring out how to make things.
It is not necessarily cheaper to DIY—especially the first few times you try out a new skill. There may be an investment in equipment and supplies, and the first batch will rarely be the best batch. The economy of scale is small, and the savings may be smaller. But the value of the fun quotient should be factored in. Making stuff yourself is soul-satisfying in a way that Internet shopping will never be.
Developing a few urban homesteading skills can help connect us to seasonal rhythms, and skill-sharing can connect us with our neighbors citywide.
I am excited to share some do-it-yourself skills I’ve learned, and those that I am still learning, during my “making adventures.”
For my inaugural column, I’ve chosen a simple, but satisfying project: wax candles. All you have to do is somehow get wax around a wick. Making and lighting candles is a practical gesture against the growing darkness of late fall.
The only wax I use is made by thousands of artisan workers, many of whom live in my neighborhood. Honeybees make this wax to build the perfect hexagonal cells in which they raise their young, store food and cover the concentrated flower nectar that we call honey. Beekeepers trim off this wax capping when they harvest honey; it’s melted and cleaned for candles and for other uses. Beeswax burns slowly and cleanly, lighting up a winter room and scenting it with sweetness. Beeswax has a high melting point; hence, it burns brighter than other waxes. It is renewable, non-toxic and dripless.
Most commercial candles are made with paraffin, a byproduct of the sludge of extracting gas from crude oil. There is evidence that burning paraffin negatively impacts indoor air quality.
Soy wax is a popular alternative to paraffin, though, with controversy surrounding GMO soy—the additive in most soy candle formulations—it’s not without issues. I choose beeswax because it is safe, can be produced locally, and makes a wonderful candle.
Wicks are generally made of braided cotton and other fibers—even wood. There are various sizes, shapes of braid, coatings, cores and more to consider. It is important that the wick end up straight down the center of your candle, so figuring out how you will secure the wick is the main challenge of your candle-making project.
Most sources agree that cotton square-braided wick is best for beeswax. In addition, you should have the correct wick thickness, to allow sufficient beeswax to be burned and keep the wax pool from rising up and drowning your wick. If you are trying different size containers, there are numerous websites with wick sizing charts, and wick sample packs.
For the votives, tea lights and small jar candles (shown left) I purchase cotton waxed wicks pre-cut and tabbed to a metal disc. The wax coating allows the wick to stay straight, and the disk is a base upon which the wick stands up easily in the bottom of the container or mold.
The easiest method is to pour melted wax into a vessel, such as a jar, in which a wick has been well-situated. This vessel becomes the candle. Any small sturdy glass, metal tin or ceramic container can work. Glass has the advantage of transparency. Small mason jars are readily available and widely used for candles. But, why not tea lights made in unmatched yard sale tea cups? Or use a simple reuseable mold to shape votives, or metal mini-muffin tin pans for tea lights.
If the candle-making bug bites, you can get carried away and create your own molds for candles from actual gourds or the perfect small pear by using a two-part rubber-like compound. But I digress.
Vessel to Melt Wax
You will need something to melt wax in. I started out using repurposed cleaned food cans, and now use an inexpensive tin campfire coffee pot, which has a spout for easy pouring. Whatever you use should be heat-resistant and sturdy.
Beeswax can be purchased from many farm market beekeepers, every big craft store and many online sources. Beeswax is available in blocks—which will need to be cut into small chunks before melting—or in pre-formed pellets.
Wax is flammable—that’s the point—so care should be taken when melting. Never let the beeswax get hot enough to smoke, and never leave melting beeswax unattended. Once melted, turn off the burner or risk scorching or flash fires.
I put my wax melting pot into a larger pot of hot water. Whatever method you use, stir wax while melting to ensure even heat distribution—a wooden chopstick works well for this.
Remember, beeswax burns hot. Plastic tea-light holders may warp, and glass votive holders and candles in jars and tins will be HOT.
After you’ve assembled your supplies— wax, wick, jar/container/mold and melting pot—you are ready to begin:
- Cover surfaces with newspaper or oilcloth; melted wax can be hard to clean up.
- Cut up wax into small chunks, or measure pellets. One pound of candle wax will yield 20 ounces in volume. The calculation: (number of candles you want to make multiplied by volume of your containers) divided by 20, equals total number of pounds of wax you will need for your project.
- Affix wick to center of the bottom of your container with a drop of melted wax.
- Melt wax slowly over low heat or in a hot water bath.
- Pour melted wax carefully into container. Make any needed adjustments to ensure wick is centered before wax sets. Use a popsicle stick, paper clip or chopstick to prop wick in place at top of container if needed.
- Let cool.
- Trim wick between 1/8 and 1/4 inch.
- Trim wick before each lighting, 1/8 to 1/4 inch.
- Beeswax tea lights and votives should be placed in a holder and on a heat-resistant surface.