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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Still Waxing Strong…

Strained waxIt’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

                                                          Eleanor Roosevelt

Back in the low traffic volume days, before the DOT turned right-of-way pit bulls, I used to sell my honey crop roadside in front of the house. Along with my honey sales, on occasion I had requests for beeswax, so many requests in fact that I was sure to include a block of wax among the jars of honey in my display. Of those who expressed an interest in beeswax, I always asked what uses they had for it. Their answers were always interesting. One customer wanted wax to make boot grease. He would add the melted beeswax to bear fat grease, mix the two together, and smear the concoction on his boots. I told him the smell alone would keep the water away. Beeswax, I discovered from an artist customer, was also used in batik dying, an Indonesian art form that enjoyed worldwide popularity. In batik art molten wax is dribbled in specific designs on cloth: t-shirts, scarves, and dresses. The batik method was also used to create prints for framing and wall hangings. Beeswax, because of its special cloying properties, was superior to paraffin which turned brittle when it hardened and tended to break free from the cloth. Others wanted smaller amounts of wax for thread and twine to stiffen and protect it. I had heard as well that beeswax was used to wax bowstrings and bind the individual strings into one strand. Just last fall Matt Frohning stopped by to pick up a pound of beeswax for his dad Tim who needed the ingredient in a healing concoction for his cows—some sort of balm for udder and teat, I assumed. And the gaskets used for seating your bathroom toilet? Another practical use for the honeybees’ byproduct.

Beeswax is used commercially in cosmetics, lipsticks, glosses, and lip balm. We’ve all seen the ubiquitous displays of “Burt’s Bees” products where beeswax creativity really waxes wild. According to The Hive and the Honey Bee (Dadant and Sons, Hamilton, Illinois, 4th printing, 1978) other “interesting minor uses” for this bee byproduct are:

…its inclusion as an ingredient in the composition of adhesives, crayons, chewing gum, inks, basketball molding, grafting wax, ski wax, ironing wax, and wax for thread and archers’ bow strings.

Interestingly, though, much of the beeswax produced in the U.S. goes right back into the beekeeping industry. This wax is purified and molded into foundation wax. Beeswax foundation are thin sheets of wax imprinted with hexagonal cells, most usually of the circumference used by the bees themselves when they construct worker bee cells.Foundation wax( Note: a thinner, lighter wax is used in the production of comb and chunk honey.) A special wax press roller does the imprinting. These beeswax sheets are then installed in the removable wooden frames used in the modern beehive and are “drawn out” as needed by the worker bees for brood rearing, honey and pollen storage.  These preformed sheets not only give the bees a head start on comb building but also encourage them to build worker cells instead of drone comb which would result in an excess of these freeloaders.

For you carpenters out there, when you’re working with hardwoods such as oak, rub a bit of beeswax on any screws you use to join pieces of wood together. The wax lubricates the screws, keeps them from shearing from the friction of metal twisting into hardwood.

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Many of the customers at my roadside stand wanted beeswax for candle making. In fact candle making is the second major use of  beeswax produced in this country, with the Catholic Church being a major consumer of candles which it uses in religious services. (I can’t confirm this fact but I heard somewhere that Church candles must contain at least 60 percent pure beeswax.)

No candle is lovelier than a natural beeswax taper or emits such a distinct, gentle fragrance. Beeswax has a low melting point of 147.9 degrees, a characteristic that allows a beeswax candle to burn with a constant, even flame. Whereas the harder paraffin candle has the tendency to droop in time, beeswax candles never seem to warp. I reserve my rendered wax cappings for candles; it is too valuable a resource to waste. A few years back I sold a few pounds to a bee supply outlet and only received a dollar per pound. I regret that poor business decision to this day.

A candle maker is called a “chandler” and this time of the year I become one. Most of my candles are molded tapers which I pour a half dozen at a time. The six candle mold is easy to use once you get the hang of threading the wicking through the six cylinders. threading the wickMaking sure the wicks are centered and taut is a bit more challenging. You want the wick to run through the center of the candle straight and true (or as true as one can eyeball it). A series of tugs and yanks on the wicking removes any excess and ensures the frugal use of material. A simple hairpin is used to center the wick at the base of  each candle and hold it firmly in place. This is the tricky part; you don’t want the wicking to slide either side of the tube and repositioning one hairpin after another is part of the procedure.mold ready for pour  The pour is the next step. I melt the rendered and strained wax in a double boiler fashioned from a large coffee can that doubles as the exterior water-filled jacket. A pouring tankard with a spout contains the candle wax. When the wax is completely melted, I’m ready to pour.

Double boiler


The pouring process is pretty straightforward. Just be careful not to overfill. Once each cylinder is filled, you have to monitor the cooling process. The wicking absorbs wax, so some contraction occurs as the wax cools and more liquid wax must be added to each cylinder as needed to prevent hollow bases. topping offPre-made wax plugs can be inserted into the hot wax to fill the void or, as I do, continue filling until each base is completely covered.

After each tube is completely filled, I allow the wax to set. When it has hardened and cooled, the mold goes into the freezer for twenty-four hours. Even though I spray each cylinder with a silicon release aerosol, I’ve found the candles release easier after they’ve been frozen. In fact in many pours the frozen tapers pop out two and three at a time.candle pour First, I cut the wicking loops to separate the candles. Then the excess wax is pried from the bases of the tapers. Sometimes during this process the candles pop loose themselves.





from the mold

Once the candles are released, I trim the excess wick and wax from the base of each taper and begin the finishing process.




These cold days are perfect for finishing candles. The mold is made from sheet metal tin and where the tin meets on each cylinder, there is a fine seam and as the wax sets, a slight ridge forms along this seam. Using a sharp jackknife, I sliver and smooth the ridge until it’s hardly noticeable. I keep the candles outside on a towel, and when I scrape along the waxen seam, the cold wax curls neatly away from the candle until the ridge is gone.Six beeswax tapers

The finishing continues: I trim each wick to approximately three-eighths inch, remove excess wax from the base of each candle, and using a metal candle holder heated on the woodstove, round and smooth the butt of each taper. Using a pair of discarded pantyhose, I rub each candle to a high sheen finish. (Note: I try to do this either in private or at least when no one is looking.) I then wrap the finished tapers individually in a sheet of tissue paper I’ve saved from those used to separate sheets of foundation wax.  Finished tapers                       

One is not a consummate chandler if he hasn’t made candles by the hand-dip method. Hand dipped candles require a substantial amount of beeswax, enough to fill your dipping tankard nearly to the brim if they’re to have any length. wick hangerThe dipping process is more time-consuming and like most artistic endeavors, requires a bit of technique. My tankard allows me to dip seven to eight inch tapers. There are a number of apparatuses that enable the chandler to produce multiple tapers at a single dipping. My setup is a simple wire frame which lets me dip one pair at a time.

While the double boiler melts your wax, measure your wicking so both wicks are the same length. To keep the wicks from floating free in the molten wax, tie a small bolt to the end of each string to weight them down plumb bob fashion.setting the wicks

Three or four dippings are sufficient to set the wicks and add enough weight to keep them from floating free when they are submerged. At this point you can remove the weights.

Tapering a hand-dipped candle requires a bit of technique. If you don’t employ the use of gravity, your candle will end up looking more like a cylinder or a stick than a taper. To prevent this “tubing” effect, gently dunk the wicks into the wax and then jerk them rapidly from the dipping tank. This allows the hot wax to flow quickly down the taper; as the wax at the tip is hotter, less adheres to this part of the shaft. More wax collects further down the shaft as it cools and sets, creating the tapering effect.several dunks later Allow a half minute or so between dunkings to set the wax. (Again, these cold days are perfect for candle dipping.)

You can customize your hand-dipped tapers to fit the base of any candlestick; small, dainty tapers for smaller sticks; thicker bases for larger candleholders. And longer tapers, of course, if you use a deeper dipping tank.

Once my candles are finished, I set the wax by submersing the tapers  in the cold water of the rain barrel. Then, careful to look over my shoulder first, I give each a brisk rubbing with the pantyhose to finish it and my pair of tapers are complete. Even though hand dipping candles takes considerable time (thirty to forty dippings) and a bit of technique, the product is so satisfying.


                        My candle burns at both ends;

                       It will not last the night;

                       But ah, my foes,

                       And oh, my friends--

                      It gives a lovely light.

                                            Edna St. Vincent Millay

I hope your candle was paraffin, Edna.  Surely a poet knows better than to waste good beeswax!Just burn one end

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  1. I use beeswax for a healing salve and lip balm.

  2. Ms. Bridget, "real men," of course, have no use for lip balm; however, a few years back I found a little tube of "Marika's Marvelous Lip Balm" in my Christmas stocking (ingredients: jojoba oil, beeswax, vitamin E, and honey). I don't know if the beeswax or honey came from my bees, but I've since bid adieu to chapped lips. TMJ