Candle-Making-art - 3/13/11
"Medieval Candle-Making" by Syardis Hohenzollern.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
by Syardis Hohenzollern
This is a guide on how to make medieval candles written by someone who’s never written one of these before, so please forgive me if I get boring, confusing or picky.
v Saucepan (preferably one you don’t want to use for anything else because it will be hard to clean no matter how careful you are)
v Beeswax (filtered if possible – see below)
v 100% Cotton string (can be bought from hardware stores)
v Small ladle (or large metal spoon whose handle you are willing to bend to create a ladle)
v Tall thin can (eg for asparagus), empty, clean & with lid removed
v Sharp cutting knife
v Skewer or fork (optional)
v Hinged clothespeg (optional)
v Heat source (I suggest a stove…)
v Large container of water for dipping your candles into (I generally use a 2 litre plastic fruit juice bottle with the top part cut off) and for burns
v Full-cover apron or very unloved clothes
v Time – you will need at least 2 hours for your first attempt
v PATIENCE – if you do not have this, do not attempt to make candles
Lay out the things you need, and read the instructions completely before you begin. The easiest method to learn is dipping.
I recommend you use 100% beeswax, filtered if you can get it. I usually get mine on eBay, either in round or oblong cakes – I am told that apiarists may have it available. Once I made the mistake of buying and using industrial beeswax (used in building). It is cheaper and can be used but you will have more trouble with it than with filtered beeswax; it is not as good quality, it is not pure, and will be more difficult to work with when melted, require frequent temperature changes, and result in darker-coloured candles. Have I scared you enough? Good.
Why aren’t we using candlewicking? For the simplest reason – it isn’t period. Braided candlewicks did not come into use until after the middle ages. Candlewicking has the advantage that it doesn’t need to be trimmed – but I don’t have to do much trimming anyway. If you need another reason, just look at the price. A ball of string costs a few dollars for maybe 50 metres. Candlewicking costs a few dollars per metre. Case closed.
Preparing your Work Area
If you are new to using beeswax, put newspaper down over a wide area of the floor where you intend to work. Trust me. Really. Getting tiny pieces of beeswax off any floor is murderous. And you will get it on the floor.
Have a look how tall your can is. This will dictate how tall your candle can be, because you will be dipping the candle into the wax melted in your can. Cut a length of string double the height of the can + 5cm (2”) or so – so you can make a pair of candles.
Put the wax into the can (cut the wax into pieces if it won’t fit). Put the can into the saucepan, and put water in the saucepan until it comes ⅓ to 1/2 way up the outside of the can. Any more and the can will have a tendency to tip over. Put the saucepan on the stove and start to heat it. As the wax melts, you will be able to add more to the can until you have as much as you want melted. Once the wax is melted, you may want to turn the heat down a little. Fill your water container and have it handy – it doubles as a fast soaking area for the almost inevitable spilled wax burns.
Preparing the Wick
Lower the string into the wax until you have reached the length you want for your candle, getting the wax to soak into the string. If you are making a pair, keep the middle of the string looped over your finger (or fork) and dangle both ends into the wax. Push the string under the surface of the melted wax. Try to dislodge any bubbles which appear on the string, and swirl the string around so the wax soaks in thoroughly. You can use a fork or skewer to assist you in this. I don’t time how long things take but if you are really worried and can’t tell at all how long you should soak your wick, try about 20 seconds.
Now the technique begins. When you pull the string out of the wax, you need to pull it at both ends, and keep it taut until the wax in it hardens and sets. You want your wick to be as straight as possible. Yes, the wax is hot: holding the very end of the wick shouldn’t burn your fingers but if you have trouble with this you may need to use a clothespeg or other clamping device. Once the wick is set and straight, carefully dip it into your water container. The wick will still be very easy to bend or ‘break’ – if this happens, re-soak and straighten it.
Building up the Candle
Now you have prepared your wick. Wipe off any clinging water drops. This is the repetitive part.
Dip the candlewick quickly into the melted wax until the bottom of the wick comes to the bottom of the can (more or less) and remove. Let any excess melted wax drip back into the can, holding the wick high enough above the can so the heat from the stove doesn’t re-soften the wax. Take a quick look to see that the wick is still straight, (if not, try to straighten it by pulling gently) and dip it into the water container. Remove from water and wipe off any clinging water drops with your hand. The drips of excess wax will collect on the bottom of the candle. Cut them off with a sharp knife every so often (say about every 5 dips). You will be surprised how much extra these drips add if you do not trim the candle end once the candle starts to build up. The cut off portion can be put straight back into the can to remelt (just make sure it does melt before you re-dip or you may get a blob of wax sticking on your candle!). When making a pair of candles, you need to ensure that the two candles do not touch each other when you lift them out of the wax, as they will stick together. Should this happen, separate them as fast as you possibly can and re-dip to get rid of any ridge that may have formed where they stuck. For problems during this section see Troubleshooting.
Repeat from * until your candle is as thick as you want it. It should look beautifully tapered. Every so often, leave the candle alone for a minute or so to allow for greater hardening of the wax. You can try leaving the candle in the water but I find that it stresses the wax if I do this as the surface wax hardens and contracts before the underlying wax is cool, causing wrinkles to appear on the candle (if this happens, see Troubleshooting). From about the 5th dip to the 15th, it seems as though the candle is not getting any wider. Usually this is an illusion – just keep dipping. Dip the candle a bit more quickly – you may be leaving the candle in just long enough that the most recent skin melts away before you remove the candle again, resulting in no actual wax gain.
As the candles build up, the wax level in the can will go down. Refill the can only if you intend to continue making candles this session. Otherwise, let it drop and only put in enough to keep building up your current candles (you shouldn’t need much; remember to take into account that the wax level will rise as your candle dips down). You can reuse beeswax only once or twice before it starts to discolour. It will then still be useable, but it will be a darker shade. If you keep reheating this wax, you will find you have increasing trouble getting the results you want. Get rid of it and start fresh. I do not use beeswax once it has discoloured.
If you are making a pair of candles by having the wick looped over your finger, you will still be able to follow these instructions until the two candles are too wide to fit together into the can. If you still want to build them up, either cut them apart or work on them one at a time, holding the other out of the way. There is a definite appeal about paired candles – it is worth the small amount of extra nuisance to make them together, the time taken is almost the same as for a single, and it’s the easiest way to get a matching pair.
They’re done! Now what?
We’ll deal with the finished product in a moment. First, what do we do with the leftovers? Once you have entirely finished your chandling session, see the part on Cleaning Up.
The candles are built up to your desired thickness, are straight and beautifully tapered. That is the sign of a true dipped candle, to be tapered from top to bottom – there is no way to avoid it. Any candle with parallel sides that claims it is dipped is lying. Let your finished candles rest overnight to harden fully. Don’t be tempted to leave them in the fridge or in water – they will be stronger if they cool slowly and naturally.
Now for the moment of truth. Your candle should be a light brown-yellow colour and smell faintly of honey. The bottom has been carefully trimmed to be flat. Hopefully you have a candelabra or other holder which does your candle justice. Beeswax candles, being softer than paraffin, will easily go on a spike, or if too wide can be gently trimmed down with a knife to fit into a socket. The wick at the top should not be left too long; you really don’t want it much more than 6mm (1/4”), just enough to accept and sustain a flame at first. Okay, light your candle. Remember, do not leave it burning if you leave the room.
Don’t notice much difference? Well, a candle is a candle, after all. But as it burns, you may notice a few things that don’t happen with paraffin candles. Note that these things will not definitely happen; they are just some incidents I have experienced with my own labours over time:
You can keep them either horizontal or vertical. Anything else and they will bend eventually. Beeswax won’t melt in a hot summer unless you have left it in the car or in the sunlight, but it will certainly be more fragile and prone to give way under pressure or even gravity.
Congratulations! You are now a chandler.
I would like to clear up a very common misconception; this version of poured candles is not the same as moulded candles. You can see candles for sale which were “poured by hand in our factory” but the wax was poured into the moulds by hand, usually at a specific temperature; the candles were not built up as we are about to do.
Preparing your work area and preparing the wick are exactly the same as for dipping candles – after all, what else would you do? I will, however, stress putting down a cover for the floor. Pouring candles is much messier than dipping, especially the first few times while you are learning. I can guarantee that you will get wax everywhere – on the stove, on the floor, on yourself (especially if your cat jumps into your arms in the middle of it all!)
Now, having prepared your work area, your floor, your wick, and put the cat out, get a half ladleful of wax from the can in one hand, hold the wick over the can with the other hand, and after moving the ladle to the top of the wick, slowly pour the contents of the ladle down the wick so the wax runs down and drips back into the can. Try this without wax first if you don’t understand what I’m trying to describe, or even with a spare piece of string and some water until you get the hang of it (then remember to dry the ladle). Only use half ladles; if you try to use more, you will have wax splashing in all directions. Trust me.
This is the major part of pouring candles. Just dipping the wax and pouring it down the wick, over and over. The wax builds up quite satisfactorily; again, dip the candle into water every so often to help set it, and also leave the candle to rest every so often – this is more important in pouring candles, the candle is more fragile when warm than a dipped candle as the wax builds up more quickly and is still soft deeper in. Once the candle starts getting a bit of width, you will find that the poured wax doesn’t cover the entire candle on its way down, and you will have to pour on alternate sides. Poured candles are the cheapest way to get a tall candle – you only have to melt the wax you use, not extra for dipping, and where would you get a can that tall? (If you must do it, look for a ceramic spaghetti jar). While the candle is still fairly thin, keep checking it for straightness. This is much more important in poured candles; once the candle gets a kink and starts to build up, you will have a terrible time straightening it (see Troubleshooting). Because the candle is tapered the top will roll faster than the bottom.
Again, repeat from * until your candle is the desired thickness. How thick is that? As thick as you want it (or have patience for). Mine are mostly 2-3cm in diameter. It is nearly impossible to get a smooth even surface for the finished candle; the trails of wax will show up somewhat, particularly at the bottom where they have started to cool before they drip at the bottom. If this bothers you too much, you can try gently rolling the candle on a clean, smooth hard surface to flatten the ridges.
Your candles are made and set aside to cool. You are exhausted and couldn’t manage another tealight. But the place, although smelling pleasantly of honey, is a wreck. Wax festoons the saucepan, the stove, the floor, the apron you’re wearing, the ladle, knife and anything nearby. Err… help?
Don’t panic. Let’s start with the melted wax. If you are using a can and do not have much wax left in it, you can simply leave the wax to harden in the can, and reheat it next time, or you may want to line some muffin pan cups with foil and pour the wax into those to set. If there is quite a bit of wax left, I usually make one or more poured candles to use up as much wax as I can at the time, because beeswax does not like repeated reheating.
Now, the saucepan probably also has melted wax floating on the surface of the water. I recommend just leaving this to cool and the wax to harden (this will take a long time, probably overnight). You can then reuse the wax if you wish. If you are in a hurry and need the saucepan for other uses, you can pour cold water into the saucepan to harden the wax, and scoop it out. Do not reuse this wax – it is ruined. Whichever way you choose, there will be wax left on the sides of the saucepan. Scrape out as much as you can and discard it in the bin. You may have to get the last bits out using steel wool and warm water. Try not to let too much wax go down the drain as it loves to set on the sides of the pipe and build up. It is best to have an old saucepan devoted to candlemaking so you do not have to repeatedly scrub it down.
As for the stove and implements, please note: I have only used a gas stove and have no idea what you need to do for electric stoves. Letting the beeswax get cold then scraping/peeling it off works best. If you need the stove for something quickly, let it cool slightly then try to mop up the wax with paper towels.
Let the wax harden completely on any clothes, then peel/pick off as much as you can. If there is a lot left, I am told you can put butcher’s paper, brown paper bags or paper towels on clothing and iron the wax into the paper, but I have had no luck with this method. You can also try using an ice cube to harden the wax further, as beeswax is softer than paraffin wax.
You didn’t put any covering on the floor? Well, you won’t make that mistake again. Tiny drips and shavings of beeswax will get squashed onto the floor, and you won’t be able to see them until they start collecting the dirt. Then you can get down on hands and knees with hot soapy water and a scrubbing brush. Be careful to collect the beeswax and dispose of it, or you will have to do this again.
Quite a few problems in candlemaking can be fixed up; beeswax is quite forgiving. The absolute key word here is GENTLY. No matter what you are doing, be gentle or the candle may break…
If your candle is fairly built-up and solid, there isn’t really anything that can be done short of remelting the whole thing. If the candle is still thin enough, gently and firmly pull it straight; if you pull too hard you may cause a fracture. If the candle has already started to build up, find a clean flat surface (a large cutting board works well) and gently roll the candle back and forth along the surface using the pressure from your hands to try to straighten it. Don’t try to force the candle straight; the idea is to coax it slowly.
Hopefully, this has occurred near the start or middle of the process, not near the finale. Just dip a few times (being sure to keep the candle straight) and the fracture will vanish. No one will ever know it was there because the wax melts as it burns down. If the candle has broken when you were about to finish it, you will either need to make it bigger than you intended, or you may need to hold the candle in the melted wax for longer, until some of your built-up wax has melted off, and work again from there. Handle with extreme care until you have added several layers – candles love to re-break in the same weak spot.
Candle will not build up
The wax might be too hot – turn it down, wait 5 minutes and try again. Otherwise, dip more quickly – the candle is melting away the wax as fast as it builds up.
Drip down side of candle
Argh, you didn’t notice that drip going down the side! If it’s on the surface you should be able to just peel it off. If you have dipped the candle a few times since the drip appeared, you may be able to gently roll the candle on a flat surface such as a cutting board to flatten the ridge. Otherwise, you will have to take a sharp knife to it and cut it off as smoothly as you can; faint dents or ridges left behind by this method will disappear with a few more dips.
Other flaws in candle
You’ve caught a drop of water or a bubble when you dipped? Just squash it if close enough to the surface, or cut it off otherwise. The water will come out, and two more dips will erase any dimple left in the candle. In fact, repeated dipping will hide most flaws. Every so often I will imprison a cat hair in the wax; if I don’t spot it in time, it is preserved until the candle is burned.
Wrinkles of wax when cooling candle
You put the candle into the water and the wax gets wrinkled; what’s going on? The surface wax is cooling and therefore contracting faster than the wax underneath. You need to give the candle time out to cool down all through. Gentle pressure on the wrinkles should help smooth them out; otherwise, wipe off any water and redip, leaving the candle in the wax a few milliseconds longer to smooth it out again, then wait a minute before resuming your work.
My wax isn’t behaving itself!
Beeswax is not too finicky when it comes to melting, however there are a few things you may come up against:
If your wax is steaming or actually smoking, turn the heat down – fast. The wax should melt, but not do anything else. Turn it down and wait 5 minutes, then try again. Wax that is too hot will not build up on your candle; it can be very frustrating.
Beeswax that starts to look milky when melted is starting to get too cold to use. It will be thick, lumpy and look awful if you try to dip your candle. Just turn up the heat a little.
If you keep reheating the same wax, it will discolour, and eventually be unuseable. Inferior wax, such as industrial/building wax, is the same. You can use it, but the candles are darker and less appealing, and the wax is much less forgiving about temperature, getting too cold/too hot a lot more quickly. Certainly you can try using a portion of inferior wax mixed with filtered wax; that works, as long as you don’t use more than 1/3 inferior to 2/3 filtered.
Alas, I have no hard-and-fast references for you. The information I started with was all from The Honorable Lord Stefan li Rous’ Florilegium – various snippets from preserved emails. I gathered what I could, fathomed what I could and tried them out, until I achieved results which were acceptable. The journey was long but very fulfilling.
One Last Word of Advice:
Don’t leave the door or window open when you are melting wax. A scout from a rival kingdom came in, homed in on the liquid gold and demanded my treasure (which was too hot to touch). I explained to the scout that the treasure was for my King and Queen, no-one else’s, and gently escorted them back outside, firmly closing the door afterwards. It was a bee.
Copyright 2009 by Sandra Bobleter. <Sandra.Bobleter at flinders.edu.au>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.