I am one of those people who can’t walk into a household goods store without beelining for the candle aisle and sniffing everything on the shelves. I always say that I’m just going to look, but over time, I have somehow accumulated about a dozen candles that are now scattered around my apartment. Sometimes, I’ll light them all at once to make the living room look like a cozy cathedral (with a cacophony of smells).
My candle habit is getting pricey, though. When the wax burns out of the charming votive jars (which have become an integral part of my interior decor), I want to have the candle making skills to fill them back up again with sweet smelling wax without breaking the bank.
Candle making is an ancient skill often credited to the Romans, who created an early wicked candle by dipping rolled fibers repeatedly in melted tallow, a hardy fat extracted from cattle and sheep, which burned poorly and smelled even worse. During the Middle Ages, candlemakers turned toward beeswax, which was more effective but scarce, so candles remained the privilege of religious leaders and wealthy families.
The late 18th century whaling industry brought large quantities of spermaceti, a wax obtained by crystallizing sperm whale oil, onto the candle making scene. Like beeswax, the spermaceti wax did not elicit a repugnant odor when burned, and produced a significantly brighter light. It also was harder than either tallow or beeswax, so it wouldn’t soften or bend in the summer heat.
Candles fell out of fashion with the invention of the incandescent light bulb in the late 19th century. In the past few decades, though, the popularity of candles has experienced a renaissance as they’ve been rebranded as a decorative item, hygge staple and self-care essential.
While mass-market giants like Yankee Candle ( which dominates 46 percent of the candle market) still reign supreme, some candles have achieved luxury status. The Business of Fashion, a fashion and luxury goods industry publication, reported that sales of prestige candles totaled $101.9 million in the United States between 2017 and 2018, making it the fastest-growing product in the prestige fragrant market. Even McDonalds has recently gotten into the candle-making game, releasing a line of limited edition candles inspired by the smells of a quarter pounder that quickly sold out (not to editorialize, but ew).
There is a darker side to candles, though. According to the Environmental Working Group, companies that manufacture personal care products are not required to disclose the ingredients in trade-secret formulas like fragrances. An ingredient list including the word “fragrance” may hide dozens of chemicals, including ones that have not been assessed for safety. These ingredients usually include phthalates, which make fragrances last longer, but have been linked to male reproductive system birth defects and hormone disruption, and synthetic musks, which are linked to allergies, endocrine disruption and certain types of cancer. Fragrance formulas can also contain allergens and trigger asthma attacks.
Not only will learning how to make my own candles help me maintain my hygge habit on a budget, but it will also make sure the atmosphere in my apartment is a little less polluted.
Learning to try
I wanted to make my candle making endeavor as sustainable as possible, so the first step was to get some empty old candle containers to repurpose. My editor, Sarah Walker Caron, gave me two empty-ish candles to clean and reuse a few weeks ago, so I decided to take her up on that challenge.
I found several methods for cleaning candles online that claimed to be effective. One is freezing: the cold causes the wax to harden and shrink, and then you can supposedly pop the chilled wax out with a butter knife. Another technique is to pour boiling water into the container and watch the wax float to the top. Heating the containers in the oven until the wax melts was another option the world wide web offered me, or boiling the candle in a pot of water until the wax melts. I decided to try the freezing and boiling water techniques since I had two containers to spare and they seemed simplest.
Then, I found a candle making tutorial from the Spruce Crafts that seemed straightforward and set about finding my materials. First, I had to decide which type of wax to use. There are several types of wax available on the hobby candle making market, including beeswax, soy wax and paraffin wax.
Paraffin wax was introduced in the 1850s, after chemists learned how to separate and refine the naturally occurring substance from petroleum. Paraffin burns consistently and is more economical to produce than any other candle fuel. Aside from being a petroleum byproduct, though, paraffin also releases carcinogenic soot when burned that can cause respiratory and heart problems. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, petro-soot from paraffin candles gives off the same soot as the exhaust of a diesel engine, and is considered just as dangerous as secondhand smoke. Paraffin fumes have been found to cause tumors in the kidneys and liver of lab animals.
The array of natural wax options are better for environmental and human health. Soy wax, which was invented in the early 1990s as a cheaper alternative to beeswax, is a popular option, but I went with traditional beeswax because I already had some on hand. Beeswax, apparently, has a lovely natural scent and innate air purifying qualities, but doesn’t retain scent or coloring as well as soy.
Then, I picked a candle dye from the craft store. When it comes to coloring candles, apparently you don’t want to use recycle crayons because they are colored with pigments, which don’t dissolve in wax and will clog the wick and create sooty smoke. If I had more time, maybe I would try to color them naturally by infusing the wax with natural colors with herbs like lavender (my favorite) and rosehip. I’ll save that for another time.
A trying experience
First, I had to clean the used candle containers of the remnant wax. I put one in the freezer for a few hours and filled the other (which, admittedly, had significantly less wax) with boiling water. The boiling water removed the leftover wax quite quickly, and with a simple soap and water rinse, it was clean (save for the sticky dot at the bottom that used to hold the wick tab, which I had to scrape with my fingernail).
The freezing method was ineffective. I tried to scrape the frozen wax out with a knife and it wouldn’t budge. I gave up and filled the cold container with boiling water (generally, a bad idea — filling a freezing cold container with boiling water will cause it to shatter under most circumstances — but candle containers are heat resistant and tend not to crack, so I emerged unscathed). The candle slowly started dissolving in small bubbles and floating to the surface like a lava lamp until, finally, the large disk of wax at the bottom floated to the top.
While this was happening, I started breaking up the block of beeswax into smaller chunks. Normally, I am dogmatic about using beeswax pastilles, but I had a big old block of beeswax left from when I made beeswax food wraps that I hadn’t used since my awful experience trying to grate it. Hacking chunks is easier than grating, I figured, and I wanted to put it to use.
Cleaving the beeswax block was a little difficult, and I was scared for the safety of my fingers. I wasn’t sure how sharp my knife was (admittedly, I used my worst knife, because I knew it was going to get covered in wax), but there was a fair amount of sawing and grunting involved. Once I cleaved a bit off, though, more followed, crumbling off in shards like a waxy, flaky pastry.
Cutting got harder as time went on. Not only were my arms fatigued, but my knife handle and blade were covered in wax, which rendered it much less effective. Perhaps in a mix of physical and emotional fatigue, I decided to try throwing the block of beeswax on the floor to break it into more manageable pieces. I set my cutting board down on the ground for aim and to gather the pieces I was certain would come.
It was not my best idea. My cutting board split and half, but the block of beeswax remained unscathed.
Disheartened (and, frankly, embarrassed), I got back to the tedious work of cutting the beeswax. Eventually, I had two cups worth of wax, which I tossed in a heat-tempered Pyrex measuring cup. I heated a pot full of water on the stovetop and put my cup full of beeswax inside — ta-dah, a makeshift double boiler!
While the beeswax melted, I started cleaning up. The instructions had suggested laying down wax paper or some other easily disposable surface covering, but I hadn’t paid the warning any heed. This was my greatest regret. Everything I did to try and clean the tiny bits of wax all over my counter and floor seemed to make the problem worse. When I used hot water, the wax would melt and spread around like soft butter. Eventually, I just started scraping wax up with my fingernails.
After about an hour, the beeswax finally melted down to a liquid. My apartment smelled like a combination of honey and rubber rain boots that had been left out in the sun. Disappointingly, the two cups of beeswax pieces melted down into about a cup of liquid beeswax, only enough to fill one candle. I added two squares of the chocolate bar-like candle dye (it looks like one square would have done the trick though — the color was a little intense, but I had read that beeswax does not retain color well, so I went overboard) and a few drops of essential oil (my go-to lavender, of course).
I set up one of my clean candles with a wick by hot glueing the metal tab to the bottom and propping the wick straight with popsicle sticks. When I poured the wax in, though, the wick flopped over. I tried to buttress it again with more popsicle sticks and felt good about it for a second, but it slowly sank back into the wax. Finally, I got it to stay up, but I had a sneaking suspicion that the wick was secretly coiled crookedly deep in the opaque wax.
The instructions said that beeswax takes about six hours to set, so I waited. Later, I cut the wick and lit my candle. Everything was going smoothly at first (though the candle didn’t smell at all like lavender), but I noticed that my wick quickly sank below the wax. I peered inside to find a candle cavern, with my slowly suffocating fire surrounded by hollowed out walls of wax deep in the recesses of the beeswax. Soon after, the wick drowned in the wax melting from above.
My tried-and-true takeaways
Candle making is slightly more challenging than I expected. Besides the fact that my candle wasn’t exactly successful (anyone have any idea as to why?), the process requires a few special materials and decisions on the part of the candlemaker, so make sure you do your research about types of waxes, wicks and coloring.
The candle making process is also extremely messy. Cleaning is, perhaps, the greatest challenge of the entire endeavor (I advise you heed the warnings about laying down some sort of protective surface covering before you start). I will be scraping candle wax off of my counter for the rest of my life, and I don’t think my knife will ever be (bee?) the same.
I will say, though, that cleaning used candle containers is extremely easy with the boiling water technique. It pains me to think of how many gorgeous candle containers I have sent to the landfill now that I know this method could have cleaned them and given them new life. If you have cool decorative candle containers that are sitting around the house, I highly recommend cleaning them out and using them again, even if you do not wind up making candles with them.
Making your own candles with natural materials will also give you peace of mind about what you are releasing into the air around you. Homemade candles cost less than some of the luxury brands that use the same materials, even if they don’t smell quite as nice as the ones from the store. Plus, candle making is a fun way to express your creativity and experiment with different scents. Maybe I will have better luck — and make less of a mess — next time I try my hand at candle making.
Think you know what went wrong with the candle, or have an idea for what Sam can try next? Columnist Sam Schipani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.