Childhood Christmas Memories.
As a child growing up on a remote Scottish hill farm, Christmas was a magical time because it always snowed back in the fifties, and we always had a tree with real candles. I helped my father choose the tree from a little plantation on the hill. We dug it up together and replanted it after Christmas. My 5 brothers and sisters and I sat with our parents round a roaring log fire singing Christmas carols with only the log fire and coruscating candlelight to illuminate the room.
Keeping Traditions Going.
When I discovered that collecting and cleaning beeswax is messy but easy, I started making my own tree candles to keep the family tradition going. I still had some very old holders from my childhood but found new ones on the internet. Bee-buddy Cynthia brought more holders back from a German Christmas market so I made lots of candles and parcelled them up with the holders for presents one year.
Needless to say, lit tree candles are a big fire risk, so the extinguisher, sporting its festive red livery, sits subtly in our sitting room every December. Nowadays, we only light the candles for a few minutes to enjoy and it makes them last longer. I did say it was messy and time consuming making candles!
Beeswax is a pretty awesome substance with many more uses than just for candle and furniture polish making. You can investigate for yourself the different ingredients, but I can tell you that it is a complex substance containing about fifteen separate chemical components. In addition, it contains colouring matter and fragrant substances such as propolis that gives it colour and a delicate perfume.
The ancient Egyptians made sacrifices to their gods from beeswax, and for the ancient Greeks it was a multi-purpose product used for: protecting metal surfaces from rust; modelling and making waxed tablets for letters, and for sealing them; embalming the corpses of leaders, and applying to the heads and necks of the living ones as a sore throat cure.
Beeswax has always had a place in Russian medicine for healing wounds and chest complaints, and as a component of ointments and creams. Rich in vitamin A, 100 grams beeswax contains 4096 international units compared with only 60 IU in the same weight of beef. Vitaminised sweets utilising beeswax retain their value for several months and have been used in Russia to improve metabolism, circulation, and muscle efficiency.
Wax Down the Ages.
For centuries artists have used wax paints which have an attractive sheen and retain their colour well. Archaeological finds during excavations of Pompeii revealed a wax mural that had decorated the banqueting hall of a rich citizen of Pompeii. Amazingly, despite being buried in earth and volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 24.8.0079, after nearly 18 centuries this mural had retained its beauty and brightness. Beeswax is still used in manufacturing oil paints as it binds the oil and pigment.
Another use in art was for sculpturing busts and models. In St Petersburg, Peter the Great of Russia employed the famous architect and sculptor Bartolomeo Rastrelli to make sculptures for him. Today the wax head of Peter the Great can be viewed at the Ethnographic Museum of the USSR Academy of Sciences.
Medical science has also benefited from the preservative qualities of beeswax with blood vessels and tissues being filled with waxes of different colours so that they could be observed easily and used for teaching anatomy to medical students. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), the remarkable naturalist and artist, also contributed to medicine with his anatomical studies. In one of his astounding achievements, he worked out a method of making anatomical preparations of the brain by injecting molten beeswax into the ventricles.
In 1962 a Russian scientist developed a process of obtaining a scented substance from beeswax that could be used in the production of high-quality perfumes. This substance has similar properties to rose and jasmine oils used in perfumery but it is much cheaper to produce with more than five kilos of oil coming from a ton of beeswax.
More everyday uses include; ski wax, shoe polish, glue for marble and plaster, pencils for writing on glass, textile and leather industry, horticultural grafting, foundry, railway transport, and in the engineering industry-and, of course, in candle making.
Moulded Candles. Photo by Stuart Thompson
Meanwhile, back to candles which you can make for yourself, or for sale, even if you don’t have a good supply of your own beeswax. You can buy wax from a local beekeeper or beekeeping equipment suppliers but be sure only to buy clean cream or yellow coloured wax that has come from the honey cappings and super frames where honey has been stored. Wax from brood frames is usually quite dark and not pure enough to make a candle that will burn correctly and not splutter and gutter. Darker wax is fine for making furniture polish.
Beekeeping suppliers stock the wicks, wax and candle moulds needed to produce easy-to-make candles of all shapes and sizes. Hand-dipped candles take longer to make but for some people they are more challenging and satisfying to produce and you have control over the candle diameter and length.
Just a word about wick which can also be bought in craft shops. It must be the correct size in relation to the diameter of the candle. Different waxes require different thicknesses of wick. Beeswax candles need a wick about twice the thickness of that required for paraffin wax candles of the same diameter. So always check when you buy wick as some general candle-making shops may label wick for paraffin candles.
A good wick is plaited making it bend over when burning so that the tip is burned off by the hottest part of the flame, and “snuffing” is done automatically. Snuffing is the trimming of the smoking tip and, in the old days, servants in big houses were employed purely for this job.
Wicks are also pickled in a weak solution of mineral salts which helps to reduce smoking and length of afterglow, and it improves illumination.
The following table gives the candle diameter and corresponding correct wick number when purchasing wick for wax candles e.g. a 1/4″ diameter candle needs a number 0 wick.
1/4″ = 0
1/2″ = 1
1″ = 2
1 1/4″ = 3
1 1/2″ = 4
1 3/4″ = 5
2″ = 6
2 1/2″ = 7
3″ = 8
3 1/2″ = 9
4″ = 10
Wax in bain Marie. Photo by Stuart Thompson
You will need a bain Marie and a thermometer. Overheated wax loses its beautiful natural colour and unique aroma. It is easily combustible and should never be heated in a pot directly in contact with the heat source. The melting point of bee’s wax is 63.8˚C, solidifying point 63 ˚C, and flash point 242 ˚C -250˚C.
Dipping Candles. Photo by Enid Brown.
Making Hand-dipped Candles. Photo by Enid Brown.
Dipped candles are made by repeatedly dipping wick into a pot of wax and at intervals the candles are rolled between two sheets of glass to keep them straight and round. You can make the candle length and diameter to suit your needs. The drip (“port”) at the end must be cut off at intervals to give a flat finish and the finished candle will be tapered to the top. If the temperature of the wax in the dipping pot is not kept between 76-80˚C the layers of wax may not adhere properly. Don’t work in a draught when making dipped candles as the candles may finish up bent and crooked. Several candles may be made at the same time and they are hung up to harden slightly between each dip.
Making Moulded Candles. Photo by Enid Brown.
Moulded Candles Cooling Before Removal From Mould. Photo by Enid Brown.
Using silicone rubber moulds requires a wax temperature of 75˚C, and no release agent such as washing up liquid of glycerine is needed because the moulds are split down the sides making candle removal easy when cool.
Have a go if this inspires you. It’s pretty amazing how much bees have contributed to our world beyond just the pleasures of perfume, sweetness, and light.