Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Pioneer Skills: hand dipped beeswax candles

Lighting with pure beeswax candles made with cotton wicks was one of the many methods of lighting during pioneer times and, I'm sure, the least air-polluting. Burning beeswax has been claimed to clean the air in your home by ionizing it. I make no such grandiose claims, just that beeswax candles smell great and burn cleanly.

Interest in beekeeping, even in urban areas, is on the rise so even if you don't raise your own, you should have access to a local source of beeswax through your farmers market. If you can't find any there, check online resources for beeswax and try to select an organic source.

I chose to explain how to make hand dipped beeswax candles, mostly because the amount of equipment you need is minimal. You don't need molds or any fancy wick suspension system or the like. Just a container of melted beeswax and some wicks.

I suspect this was also the main method of making candles back in pioneer days because of its simplicity. It would also be one of those projects that took time and could be done as a social event. I envision women sitting around the beeswax, making candles and talking. I suggest you host a beeswax candle making party to keep the tradition alive.

This also makes a good project for kids, as long as they are old enough to be careful around hot wax.

Supply list
  • Beeswax (get organic beeswax from a local beekeeper if you can)
  • 100% cotton candle wicks (organic cotton if you can)
  • Metal container (to melt the beeswax, you can use a medium, tall tin can for this)
  • Pot


    1. Fill the metal container about 3/4 full of beeswax. If you don't feel like chopping up large chunks of beeswax, which is, notably, a huge pain, you can use beeswax pellets if you can find them, but they are much more expensive than buying bulk beeswax. Place your metal container in a pot of water so that it hits about halfway up the container. Heat the water over medium heat until the wax is melted and turn the heat down to simmer.

    2. Trim the wicks into 16 inch pieces. Dip each end of the wick about 6" into the wax, alternately ends, about a second in and a second to pull out. Wait 15 seconds in between dips for the previous "layer" to cool. Once you get the hang of it, you'll get into a candle dipping rhythm that can be quite meditative.

    3. When your candle has reached the appropriate diameter (1/2 to 1 inch), it's time to cool them. If your candles are looking a tad too rustic for your tastes, you can roll them in wax paper on a hard surface for a smoother finish. Let them cool by hanging them over a thick rod. Trim the bottom of the candle if you like.

    Problem solving:
    *If you are finding the the wick is floating in the wax during the first few dips, you can tie some washers or other weight to the dipping end.
    *If you want to speed things up a bit, you can dip the candles into cool water in between dips.
    *If you are having issues with clumpy wax or remelting your candle as you are dipping, keep the temperature around 160 degrees F. 150 to 180 is a safe range for dipping.
    *For a clean finish, increase the temperature of the wax to 180 degrees for the last dip.

    How to make hand dipped beeswax candles
    Making hand dipped candles

    1. Sounds easy enough...I'll have to have the girls over for a party :)

      Btw, how is your Freeze yer Buns challenge going???

    2. My kids love making candles. Haven't done it at home yet, have to go get me some beeswax! :) Have you seen the Foxfire books? My mom has them- Pioneer skills that someone wrote down in the 60's. Really good series of books.

    3. I remember making candles as a kid at a type of pioneer day event. They had cans of wax in a circle and we walked around and around the circle dipping the wick and building up candle wax. I've also made candles out of wax crayons with my grandfather years ago.

    4. Dipping is great, but a good deal more work than using candle molds; also very common in the old days. With those, you just thread the wicks, tie them up and make sure they're straight; and pour the molds full. The just let it cool; dip in a hot water bath briefly to get the candles out.

      But you have to have the molds. :-)

      I've also made "tallow dips"; using deer tallow, which I had a lot of one year. Don't.

      Or at least try carefully- pure deer tallow can be very stinky- though my deer was an old buck- might well be less stinky other times. Beef tallow used to be the standard- beeswax was for the very wealthy.

      For breaking up your wax block- try putting it in your freezer overnight. Then put in a sturdy bag- and whack it with a hammer.

      One thing to beware of, too- if someone not so skilled spills melted wax- on the stovetop- you can have one hell of a stove fire. Usually it's recommended to melt the was in a double boiler type situation; otherwise the wax can be forgotten on the heat- get so hot it starts to vaporize- and you can actually generate a bad explosion-

      All very simple and obvious- if you watched grandma do it with mom while you were growing up; not so obvious if you've never done it.

      It IS fun, and satisfying- and you can make your own birthday candles this way too.

    5. If you can't find local beeswax, a good source if you are buying by the pound is Dadant and Sons Beekeeping supplies. I use lots of wax for sculpture and it is the best price I've found.

    6. Have to give this a shot! I did the butter (think it was your directions) and it came out great, hope this turns out as well!

    7. I'd like to try it. I remember diping candles as a kid in art class, and it was fun. Now, to find a source for wax...

    8. We love to dip candles with children. Try using an old crock pot (or line one with aluminum foil), then start singing a slow song. The children can dip, then circles around to the back of the line to let the candle cool before dipping again (like owlfan says). Singing a slow song together tends to keep everyone calm and well behaved around the melted wax...

    9. Thankyou! I got my first bee hive only last week so will definately give this a go.

    10. I remember dipping candles when we went to living history centers as a kid. My mom ended up with a LOT of hand dipped candles that we wouldn't let her burn.

    11. This is something I'd really like to try. I also like the fact all of us who do this are helping local businesses.

    12. fantastic, thank you for sharing this!Beeswax is one of my favorite things.