the delight of making your own light
For the last few years, I have been making candles.
This is not an especially tidy activity. Wax is hot, sloppy and difficult to remove from carpet or clothing. The process takes most of a day and clean-up is significant.
Yet, I find making candles very enjoyable. I like watching wax melt and cool and harden. I like peeling drips of it off the counter with a pastry scraper. I like the satisfying feeling of tipping a fat votive out of its mold.
Most of my candle-making equipment and supplies, as shown in the above photo, was acquired from thrift stores. I pour mainly votive candles and container candles. The votives are for my own use during the months when the sun goes down early, so I don’t care if they’re misshapen. I drop them into little glass teacups and put them in my windows at dusk. The container candles are given as gifts, so I try to be a little more careful with those efforts.
After my window votives burn down, I put the teacup in the freezer—the cold makes the wax contract, so it pops out easier— and save the remainder. I save all wax bits this way: the occasional taper candle stub, the pillar candle that drowns its own wick. Along with these leftovers, I must secure more wax to keep the operation going, but this is surprisingly easy to do. Thrift stores and rummage sales always have old, once-lit candles for sale. On a few occasions, I’ve even found craft-store wax, still in its original packaging, at thrift stores.
Every fall, I collect all of this treasure hoard and get started.
First up: a raft of votives. I’ll burn these between October, when the light leaves, and February, when it comes back. Once I’ve laid in enough of a votive stash, I start thinking about holiday gift candles. Since I go to thrift stores all year long, I often have set aside some unusual containers, sound and sturdy enough to hold hot wax and flame. Pyrex is good, as are coffee mugs and oven-proof glass. Adrian has a glass cutting kit, so for a few years, I saved every glass bottle that caught my eye and cut them to suit. After a while, this habit of saving “cool” glass bottles swelled out of control and I had to remind myself that I’m not looking to become an Etsy retailer; I just want to make wax that gives light.
Adrian is a bit wary of my candles for a couple of reasons. One, the soot they produce on the windows and walls is difficult to clean. Two, the negligence of leaving a candle burning worries him. The fact that I almost burned down our kitchen once didn’t help (he didn’t clean off the scorch marks above our sink as a reminder).
I can’t argue with these issues, but it doesn’t keep me from candle-making. I love how candles are something you can make while you’re nudging along other projects, like roasting a chicken or waiting for laundry to finish. I love that this can happen in our kitchen, the hub of so much other production. I love the smell of candles, the way they line up like little benign soldiers as they cool and cure. I love giving candles to people who are dazzled by the idea that I made them, as if it’s some princely endeavor and not me glooping and dolloping wax over a wick kept haphazardly upright with taped-together toothpicks.
This year’s holiday candles were made from a giant red rectangular candle I found at Goodwill. This candle was three feet long, with 6 wicks, the kind of thing you might find in a suburban McMansion’s living room, but for my purposes, it was fifteen pounds of good wax at only ten bucks. Adrian helpfully sawed the candle down into manageable chunks and then melted those into handy, useable pucks (seen in the top photo). It pleased me enormously to see that he isn’t immune to the thrills of wax and heat, either.
To these melted red pucks, I added a blend of mint, basil, and sandalwood from fragrance oils I’d bought at a craft store. (It’s important to use the type of oils indicated for candle-making, by the way; go here to learn why.) I poured this luscious-scented red wax into blue Duralex coffee mugs and milk glass teacups and cut-glass cream and sugar sets (the ones with lids are nice) that I collected from my weekly thrift store haunts. Along with books, these candles made up the bulk of my Jolabokaflod gifts I had Adrian deliver to friends and family just before Christmas.
Beyond the almost-fire in the kitchen, I’ve made lots of messes and mistakes. Once I melted down a huge grey candle I bought at a rummage sale, only to discover that it had a terrible scent, a cloying blend of cheap perfume and institutional floor cleaner.
I’ve added too many odd colors at once, turning the whole cauldron a foul, fecal hue. I’ve melted down candles that had additives to the wax, bits of glitter and other detritus, that made the mixture a scummy, uneven mess.
I’ve gotten distracted by other tasks, which can also cause mishaps. The old fondue pot I use to melt wax runs too hot and the plug-in mechanism doesn’t reliably connect, which means if I walk away to do something else, I can return to scorching hot bubbling or my ladle trapped in a layer of cold wax.
I’ve made candles too small for the wick, which causes towering flames and plumes of soot.
I’ve poured wax into containers that cracked instantly. I’ve mistakenly added a glittery old bit of wax to the pot and every candle poured from that batch molted disco magic all over my home.
I am lucky to have a family who is tolerant of mess and experimentation. And I am lucky to have a winter activity that is relatively inexpensive and easy to do, during the time of year when I struggle.
Certain kinds of work please us more than others. I hate mopping, for example, and changing the sheets irritates me to no end. Unlike those tasks, candle-making is a kind of work that we no longer have to do to survive the night hours as creatures. Yet, it still feels more like work to me than a hobby, as the burnt fingertips and constant top-ups can attest. I think I took up the work of candle-making because it fit with a certain fantasy of myself: a steady, pragmatic farm woman, humming along as she tends to a variety of key chores that will keep her family safe, fed and warm, in a home sturdy enough to handle whatever hot mess life pours into it.
Interested in making candles? Here’s a list of what I use:
taped-together toothpicks for wick stabilizers
old candle ends burnt down, or found at rummage sales and thrift stores
containers, mugs, cups, bottles that appeal to me
reel of wicking, wick tabs, fragrance oils
metal buttons or found items to secure wicks (you can drill holes into pennies and tie your wicks that way, which is a nice witchy move if you want to make mint-scented money candles, for example)
like what I make?