In today’s light saturated world, the art of making your own candles is quaint but in the not so distant past, before the proliferation of electric lights, having a ready supply of candles determined just how long your day could be. Every home made their own candles and because candle making is fairly labor intensive, candles were frequently traded and sold for profit.
Making candles is a fairly simple and easy process and it only takes a little effort to master the skills needed to make your own candles. Whether you are making your candles from wax or render fats, the process is really straightforward.
It starts with either wax or tallow. Tallow was a popular, AND CHEAP, way to make everyday candles. Meat drippings and scrap fats are rendered to make a solid fatty wax that forms the body and fuel of the candle. Rendering, literally ripping apart, of the fats is accomplished by heating the bulk fat until it boils. Water is added to separate impurities, like meat and gristle from the fat and salt is often added to raise the melting point of the final candle so that is drips less. After boiling, the fat will rise to the surface above the water and can be skimmed off in chunks.
Candles made from pure tallow are smelly and drip easily. On hot days they even begin to melt at room temperature
and may bend or sag. Adding a bit of
natural wax like beeswax or bayberry wax often solves this problem. Most modern
candles are made of just the wax, sometimes paraffin or petroleum wax, without
the tallow but these cost more. When I
do demonstrations of how to make “tallow candles,” I use the following artificial
10 parts petroleum white paraffin
6 parts stearic acid (to give the tallow feel and smell)
1 part beeswax (for color and softness)
The best candles are, of course, made from just the natural waxes like beeswax or bayberry. Beeswax comes from honeycombs so getting a good supply of this wax is very difficult. Only very special candles are made of beeswax. Bayberry, on the other hand, grows abundantly in New England and is easily harvested in the fall and rendered like fat. Collecting enough bayberry for a year’s worth of candles is a lot of work but certainly doable. Rendering bayberry yields a hard vegetable wax with a high melting point and a pleasing aroma when burned. Bayberry wax turns a wonderful soft green color when boiled in a copper pot (oxidation of the copper ions).
There are three basic strategies for creating tapered candles:
- Dipping: A large pot of wax (or tallow) is heated to just above the melting point — if the wax is too hot, the candles will just remelt when dipped – then a wick of cotton or hemp wick (often prewetted with wax) is dipped in the hot wax, withdrawn and allowed to harden, then dipped again. We repeat this process until a nice fat taper is formed.
- Pouring: Like dipping, wax is heated in a pot only instead of dipping the wick in the wax, hot wax is poured down the length of the wick. Using this technique, it is possible to make very long thin candles but it is difficult to make these candles as uniform and symmetrical as the dipped candles.
- Votive: This is a popular format for modern candle hobbyist. A wick is secured vertically in a heat resistant vessel like a glass or small pot. Wax is poured around the wick and the entire assembly is used as a candle. Votive candles are particularly useful in lanterns as they last a very long time. Tallow votives also do not drip because they are contained so if your tallow is of low quality, creating votives is a great option. Finally, there is
- Molding: Commercial chandlers or very wealthy households often had purpose-built candle molds. These create uniform pillars in a form very similar to modern candles. The only drawback to candle molds is the expense of the molds. Since these must fully cool before the candles can be extracted, a chandler would need quite a few of these tin molds and that can represent a significant investment.