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Candle Making Basics - Part 1

Dateline: 09/16/97

Newcomers to candle making may be having a hard time finding useful information about it. Years ago there were some good books on the subject. There are very few candle making books available now, and most of these are geared towards using granulated wax in boiling bags or beeswax sheets ( which are fine for those with just a casual interest). The real fun in candle making is the experimentation. Fortunately, the Web has taken up the slack, and there are many candle makers willing to share their knowledge.

The Rules
Rule Number one - There are no Rules, with the exception of safety rules. Candle making is about experimentation. It is Chemistry, Art, Imagination, and Magic rolled into one. There are many factors that affect the finished candle - wick, wax, temperature, additives, type of mold, dye, scents, etc... Always consider candle recipes a starting point for your own experimentation.

Record Keeping
One thing often overlooked by candle makers of all experience levels is the importance of keeping records. It would be a shame to develop your "ideal candle", and not be able to reproduce your results. Keeping a notebook handy in your candle making area is very helpful. Some things to consider for your records are:

  1. Type and quantity of wax.
  2. Type and quantity of additives such as stearine, vybar, luster crystals, etc...
  3. Type and quantity of dye.
  4. Type and quantity of scent.
  5. Type and size of wick.
  6. Type and quantity of mold.
  7. Pouring temperature.

Tool List

  1. Double boiler - may be a commercial double boiler, or use a coffee can in an old pot. A seamless pot is highly recommended though.
  2. Thermometer - a candle or candy thermometer that clips to the pot works fine. Do not even consider making candles without a thermometer.
  3. Pot holders or pliers - depending on whether you are using a pot or a can.
  4. Molds
  5. Mold release - silicone spray is easiest to use, but peanut oil works well also.
  6. Cutter for wicks.
  7. Wooden spoon - for stirring wax.
  8. Dowel for poking relief holes in molded candles.
  9. Baking pan at least eight inches square - numerous uses, but mainly for leveling the bottom of molded candles.

Wax
There are many waxes available for candle making. I recommend that beginners start with a general purpose paraffin wax which melts in the range of 135 - 145 degrees. As you progress into candle making, you will probably want to start experimenting with other types of waxes such as microcrystaline, beeswax, bayberry, and other melting points of paraffin. For now get to know the properties of one readily available wax.

Additives
The variety of candle additives commonly available has grown tremendously in the past 2 decades. Here are descriptions of the most common additives:

Stearine - Also called stearic acid. This has been the standard paraffin additive for a very long time. Used to make wax harder, release from mold easier, and increase opacity of the wax. Use from five to thirty percent ( three to five tablespoons per pound of paraffin). This is the easiest additive to find, and I recommend it for beginners.

Vybar - Available in low melting point (Vybar #260) and high melting point (Vybar #103). More economical to use than stearine. Improves color and scent retention. Difficult to find, and doesn't always release from mold easily. Use one to five percent.

Plastics - There are a variety of plastic additives (mostly polyethylenes) that will improve gloss, opacity, translucence, strength, and hardness. Marketed under a variety of names such as luster crystals, opaque crystals, translucent crystals, etc... These are readily attainable, but are difficult to use due to their high melting point. Must be melted separately, then added to melted wax. General usage is from one half to two percent depending on the product. Not recommended for beginners.

Wick
There are more than 35 different wicks on the market, although only about six of these are commonly available to retail candle supply purchasers. Wicking can be broken down into three categories - Flat, Square, and Wire Core. Flat and square are used for molded and dipped candles, wire core for floating, votive, and container candles. The starting point for wick selection is to match the wick to the mold diameter. For a small mold use a small wick, etc... If a test burn of the finished candle shows a minimal wax pool the wick is too large for your wax formula. If your wax pool is drowning the wick by causing it to go out or have a small flame, go to a larger wick. The wick size is the easiest way to adjust how your candles burn, and it is important to keep in mind that changing your wax formula may require changes in wicking as well. If you don't have another size wick handy, adjusting your wax hardness with more or less additives may help it burn correctly.

Dye
There are 2 main ways to color candles, dye and pigments. Most candle making is done with dye. Pigments are very concentrated colors primarily used for over dipping and carved candles. As a general rule, never use pigments to color the core of a candle - the particles of pigment will clog the wick. Although it is common to see candle making instructions using crayons for color, this can also clog the wick. For the best results always use a dye specifically made for coloring candles. If a really deep color is needed consider an over dip in that color - too high a color concentration in the core of the candle may cause burning problems. Wax colors will be lighter than they appear in the melting pot. To get an idea of the finished color place a drop of wax on a piece of white paper. An even better test is to put a half inch of wax in a paper cup and place it in the freezer, this will give you the exact finished color in a hurry. Keep in mind that wax additives affect the final color.

Scent
Candle scent is marketed in 2 forms - liquid scent oil, and scent blocks. Although the liquid scent is a higher outlay in cost, I feel it works far better than scent blocks. As a general guideline follow the manufacturers directions. Higher scent concentrations can usually be used, however too much scent can ruin a candle. Use caution with acrylic molds since high percentages of scent may ruin the mold.

Summary
This lesson detailed the components that make up a good candle. I would like to stress the point that every component of a candle is affected by every other component. Changing any component may require adjusting other components. Join me next week for Basics - Part 2 where I will discuss molds, and take you step by step through making a basic molded candle.

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