Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Candlemas, Imbolc - Life Force is Rising! (Making Beeswax Candles)

Hard to believe on this -18F (-27C) night that transition from winter to spring has begun. We have to trust our ancestors, who saw the signs much more clearly than we can, with our senses protected and dulled by running hot water, central heating systems, space-age fabrics and such. Because our ancestors saw that on this day, February 2nd, a struggle between winter and spring, old and new, death and life took a definite turn towards rebirth and restoration of life force.

February 2nd is the day to bless hives by lighting candles by each one; it is also time to collect all that bits and pieces of old candles and remelt them. Surely that was because the supply of candles was dwindling after several months of dark; making new candles invited the return of light, restored hope. Since there is no way to harvest bees' wax in the winter, the act of pouring new candles in February is rather profound; the essence of the summer - wax and honey poured to light the home surrounded by wintry landscape.

As all old-time skills we have to re-learn (or more likely, figure out on our own!) - the skill of making candles takes some practice and experience. It seems most of us carry this secret notion that our ancestors were somehow less advanced and therefore somewhat simple-minded and as a result all old-time skills can be simply faked when the time comes. To make beeswax candles one needs the wax (lots of it) and wick. Wax is best found in a bee hive, in mid August when the honey harvest takes place. Wax bought on the internet is often laden with chemicals from a commercial bee yard that gets dozen off with all sorts of substances; and it is often bleached to impart a more appealing shade of yellow.  Needless to say, that is not the way to go. If you don't have a source of bees wax, find it and make it your project for next year. There is no hurry in any of this - and there is a beekeeper somewhere near you to befriend and support financially. The best thing about beekeepers, they are usually not so interested in wax (not ALL of course, but SOME....) - either way they will sell or give their wax to you, come August. Below is a honey comb from a topbar hive; note how light and pretty the wax is (and can you almost taste the honey?)

I am blessed with two beekeeping friends who present me with super-messy, delicious and amazing concoction of broken combs, residual honey and some dead bees - all contained in large buckets. Below is is a photo of a honey comb - the bees get brushed off, the comb is cut and crashed and drained of its precious load. What is left, goes to candle making (at least in my house)

Gentle simmering in a double-boiler bath (using dedicated pots, as cleaning pots up is not a recommended way to spend your time!) will separate honey and all sorts of impurities from the wax. Honey can be still used for baking, it is not "raw" anymore, but is still a good thing to have in the kitchen. The wax is ready to be used, and it is best if it is processed in a deep small-diameter pot. Such pot makes it easier to dip candles; and since there is a lot of gunk at the bottom of the pot, it gives you more of clean wax on top.
I must say, dipping candles is very entertaining the first time around, but otherwise is it slow and tedious process and poured candles is a way to go. Of course if we were talking to our ancestors, they would remark that dipped candles (which are tall and long ) are the ones that actually give you useful light, the kind of light that makes it possible to walk with a candle in the dark house, or read, or work. The poured candles, unless you have expensive forms for tapers, end up being cute and fat; they are useful too for sure but mostly as decor. They do give light, just for ambiance, and are not easy to carry around in the dark house; there is no way you can read using these unless it is placed somewhere on your own head.

So forms for long tapers are a must for a serious candle user. We are re-introducing candles to our life more and more as we eat and read and bathe and tuck our little son to bed all with the candle light. Candles are gentle on the eyes in the morning if you have to wake up before sun - whether to go to work, or to nurture children, or to make breakfast before the house erupts with activity. Candles don't jarr your senses like electrical light does and they welcome the early rays of sun in a peaceful and gentle way.

To make candles, use cotton wick (available at Hobby Lobby, and it can be probably made out of very thick thread just as well).
Find forms - metal and glass work well. Cookie shapes work if laid on aluminum foil (you will need two people, one pressing the shaped down as you pour). Use olive oil to prepare the form. 
Soak the wick in the hot wax very well. It needs to be saturated to burn well. Make it straight and cut into pieces. It will become stiff with wax.
Use cool wax to pour; not hot!
Allow wax to slightly harden on top and then insert the wick. The little hard crust will keep your wick from "fainting" and moving to the side which ruins your candle.
After about 4-5 pours you should be able to make relatively decent candles (by this I mean they actually burn)
Happy learning, re-skilling and enjoying the candle-light!

1 comment:

Lee the Permie said...

The water used to wash the comb was the basis for mead in olden days.

Given that the raiding of beehives predates the advent of agriculture, humans were likely making mead long before they figured out how to make beer from grains.

I'm not a maker of mead, but if I was washing honeycomb with any regularity, I would be.