Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The cheapskate-beginner's guide to non-committally dabbling in candle-making

By Mary C. Tillotson

It all started early in the week when my husband kindly asked me to put away some things I'd left strewn around the office.

I looked at my eclectic shoeboxes labeled beads+string and dremel+woodburner and so forth until my eyes fell on a navy blue box -- Florsheim, apparently courtesy of someone else years ago. I'd been too ashamed to label this one: inside were four jars with the last bits of scented candle in the bottom. The two largest jars I'd been lugging around since (*blush*) college, and the medium-sized ones since the year after.

I am a closet packrat, and all I can say in my defense is that when I married my husband, he owned -- meaning, had not thrown away on purpose -- more than one empty soap squirter. I mean the kind you can buy full of liquid soap for 99 cents.

I realize this is not much of a defense. But these candles had lovely scents, and it would be a snap to combine the last bits and make a new (smaller) candle. Plus, those jars with the gasket-lids are just so handy. I mean, you could clean them out and fill them with Christmas candy and give them as gifts!

Feeling competent and confident from something I'd just finished, and embarrassed at the realization that I still hadn't made the candles (or the Christmas candy, for that matter), I announced to my husband that I was hereby going to make candles this weekend, or I was going to throw the jars away.

And scented candles, too, because without fragrance, what's the point of a candle?

The candles were three different types of floral, and I thought they'd blend well, but I would need to add some scented wax to what I already had.

Unfortunately, nobody sells floral fragrances this time of year. (Aside: candles with baked-goods or fruit fragrances generally smell like tween girl body wash; as for the rest of what's on the shelves this month, what does "Tis The Season" or "Distant Cabin" even smell like?)

I also hadn't realized that there are about 18 different kinds of candle wax and 16 different kinds of wicks, or remembered that in the world of crafts, anything can be really really complicated and expensive if you let it.

Well, I wasn't about to let it, because I am one of those really cool creative types that can turn something everyone else thinks is trash into something really neat and put Pintrist to shame. I'd like to think so, anyway, but to be honest, I'm better at seeing potential than effecting that potential (which is why I have all this stuff) and I don't even know how to spell Pintrist.

I had just made a commitment and didn't want to lose my prized candle-jars, so after a long process that didn't need to be that long, I made the candles. (Some of them, anyway -- the floral ones are still waiting in the Florsheim box.) What follows is an abbreviated (thank goodness!) how-to and how-not-to for beginning candle-makers who don't want to break the bank or stress over the zinc core wick vs paper core wick controversy.

The easiest candles to make, I think, are container candles -- plus you get to use those jars from your old candles. If you don't have old candle-jars, look through your recycle bin. Mason jars, salsa jars, pickle jars, anything that's glass, doesn't have too much of a taper, and is relatively sturdy should work. You will be pouring hot wax in, so I can't recommend your family's delicate heirloom wineglasses.

Getting the wick set up is a little tricky to explain, so look at the picture. Tie one end of the wick to a washer (nine cents apiece at the hardware store!) and drop it into the middle of the jar. Adjust the wick so it's as straight as you can get it, then wrap it around a pencil. Lay the pencil on top of the jar to hold the wick in place. (You may need to adjust it a few times.)

A note on wicks: you can use cotton twine, but I don't recommend it. Find some wick at a craft store, and take a quick glance at the back of the package to make sure nothing is going to explode or anything. (Some wick has lead, and if you have an idea of how big your candle will be, you can get a wick that's designed for that diameter. But if you buy the wrong size, it won't be the end of the world.) I bought six feet of zinc core wick for $3.

A note on wax: Gulf Wax works pretty well, and is cheap. I think I paid $7 for a pound, and you can get it at a hardware or grocery store, in the aisle with mason jars and canning items. Advanced candle-makers swear by everything that isn't Gulf Wax because apparently it doesn't burn very well, but I think it works fine. Probably the cheapest way to get wax, though, is to scour garage sales and buy used candles.

These, courtesy of the previous tenants.

Double-boil the wax to melt it. Candle-making websites will tell you to buy a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature of the wax -- if it gets too hot, it will ignite. I made candles and fire-starters with my mom as a kid and I have never heard of this happening, but I don't doubt that it's possible. Candy thermometers only run a few dollars (grocery or kitchen-goods store), but if you keep the water more at a simmer than a hard boil, you should be fine. Just note that if the wax does ignite, treat it like the fat/oil it is and don't throw water on it. Smother it with baking soda, flour, or the pan lid. And turn the burner off.

If you don't have a fancy double-boiler (or do but don't want to clean wax out of it), you can improvise. Improv methods all have their pros and cons:

This didn't bother my hand as much as I expected,
but it was super boring.

The wax melted cleanly in this $2 Goodwill saucepan
(which I intend not to use for food)
but it didn't have a pour spout so it got all messy.

Four layers of foil awkwardly scrunched into a shape.
I could make a pour spout,
but the whole thing was awkward and clunky.
I squished a soup can a little so it would have a pour spout.
Problems: It will tip over if it's too empty,
and if it stands up,
it will do a little dance on the bottom of the pan,
potentially scratching the non-stick surface.

This was mostly a winner.
My two-cup measuring cup was the right size
for the saucepan I was using, so I used it to mold the foil.
Rolling the rim outside (instead of inside like I did before)
meant less wax got caught inside.
The pyrex-molded foil worked well,
but I had to use two pairs of pliers to pour.

If you want scented candles, add fragrance oil (from a craft store) or scented wax cubes. (I bought scented wax cubes for $2 (per set of six) at Walmart.) Or, combine the wax from your old scented candles for a new blend.

Old candles and scented cubes usually have color, but you can also add stubs from crayons for more color.

When the wax is melted, pour it into your jar. Adjust the wick if you need to, then wait for it to harden. If you're impatient, put it in some ice -- but be gentle; glass doesn't always handle temperature shock well.

Chances are you'll get a little sinkhole in the middle that will show up once the wax hardens. Just heat up some more wax and pour it in.

When it hardens, take the pencil out and trim the wick. Then you're good to go!

They aren't perfect, but they're cool!

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