Thursday, January 7, 2010

Of Wax and Wicks

*warning: mild educational science content ahead

M and I have finished our adventures in candle making. Well, at least I'm done. Combining our experience with some of the knowledge that I gained from a previous job, I'd like to share some tips with you.
Before DH and I were married, I worked as a dental assistant by day and as a candle consultant for an MLM company nights and weekends. My only advice to anyone considering direct marketing is this: Run Away.
Still, physics applies whether it's a pyramid scheme or not. I learned a few things (and stopped biting my nails), so something good came out of it.

Here is our wax mess setup--electric skillet for melting wax inside tin (with pour spout crimped this time), candle molds, wick centering tool (which doesn't make it as fool proof as you might think), and foil for easier cleanup

When candles are well made, the size and type of wick is in proportion to the amount of wax as well as its melting speed and rate of consumption. That means that a good candle will burn without running because the wick absorbs and burns off the wax appropriately. If the wick is too large or burns too hot, then the wax will melt faster than it can be absorbed and dissipated, causing excess liquid wax, puddles and a big mess (like our lovely star and heart candles below). Air currents can also effect how a candle burns, which is why you should try to keep them out of a draft and also place them in a candle holder that can contain any run off.
If a wick is too small or weak, it will either drown itself out or not be able to melt the wax all the way to the rim of the candle. This will create a well in the center and waste a perfectly good candle.
If the wick to wax ratio is correct, then candle burning becomes predictable and controllable--with only a little work and planning. (Hang in there. The boring science stuff is almost done and you'll be glad you stuck it out.) From here on out, we're going to assume you have candles with wicks that are proportionally correct.

The heart candle couldn't decide what color it wanted to be. The blue mold looking stuff on the round pillar is probably from improper heating or cooling, but I'm just guessing.

Most people just light a candle and never consider how it works. A candle consumes wax out from the center first and then down the height of the pillar. Even tapers work this way. But it takes time to melt the wax out to the edge; usually at a rate of one inch per hour. That means that a three inch pillar needs to burn a minimum of three hours every time it is lit in order to be consumed the way it was intended. The same goes for those expensive Yankee jars. You can't light them just for dinner and then get upset when 2/3 of the wax is left over and the wick is gone. You have to burn a candle until the pool of wax reaches the outer edge. Then, if the candle was properly made, something magic happens. Just when you think it is going to well up and run everywhere, enough of the wax is burned off to maintain the balance. Provided there are no drafts...then all bets are off.
It should be obvious that a six inch three wick is a commitment in time then. You have to plan on being home at least six hours in order to burn it properly.
Pillars that have a dome on top need a little extra attention to get them going right. The first time you burn it, only do so for one hour. Let the wax re harden and then light it again; this time for two hours. Increase the burning time at each lighting until the dome on top is gone.

Now you're probably wondering if you can rescue all of those pillars with the hole in the middle. The answer is Yes, but it will be ugly at first. Use a knife to cut the candle level with the current wick. It was only designed to burn the right amount of wax and not all of the extra you have now. From this point on, burn the candles a minimum of one hour for every inch of width. For the jars, burn them until the wick is nearly drowning and pour off the excess wax. Repeat this until your candle is level again.
Some odd ball candle tips:
  • Store your tapers in the fridge (not freezer) to help them burn longer.
  • Buff smudges and small scratches from your candles with an old pair of nylons.
  • Trim wicks on tapers and small pillars to 1/4" before burning to prevent smoking.
  • Don't trim three wick candle wicks. After extinguishing, point them gently toward the center of the candle.
  • Hug your candles. If a slight rim forms, gently hug the soft wax in toward the middle after extinguishing the flames.
  • Use a snuffer. Especially on pillars.
  • Candles burned inside decorative chimneys will burn faster and run more than those in open air.
Our own candle making efforts were marginally successful--after the learning curve. They'll burn at least. The wick materials available at the craft store were not the best quality. The zinc core wicking is overkill for even large pillars. It would probably be perfect for dynamite fuses though. The fragrance and color additives weren't the best either. Wax can only absorb a small amount of additives--too much and it will seep out when the wax hardens. So, any additives need to be super concentrated. Ours weren't. If we were to do this again, I would probably purchase supplies from a candle making specialty store-online or otherwise.
The star and heart molds were fun, but tricky, especially for first timers. They are open at both ends, which takes some extra prep to keep them from leaking. Also, the odd shapes made the wick centering tool harder to use. If you are going to try this on your own, I would recommend staying with simple shapes like round or square until you get the hang of pouring. I would also recommend molds that are only open at one end (except for the wick hole). Finding some good tutorials online is a good idea too.

Have fun! I'm going back to my comfort zone now.


  1. Fascinating! I never knew about the wick to diameter ratio or how long to burn big candles! And you gals made such gorgeous candles using all that cool science!

  2. Thanks for the candle update. :) I couldn't find good materials, so we didn't end up making any candles on New Years.

    We did however make some interesting mosaics, which is a nice and simple craft project. Except that I tried to mosaic on something 3D which doesn't work very well... the tiles kept sliding down before they were glued solidly in place. :P Also, the tiles I used were sort of "chalky" in texture, and the cement didn't wipe off very well.

  3. S, you're my hero!

    Nice commentary.

    I give the same advice concerning MLMs - run far away and fast. Just trust me.


  4. I've lost friends over those pyramid schemes, because they valued the contents of my wallet more than anything.


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