Thursday, January 16, 2014

Day 249 - Making Candles

I have never made candles. When I started my “I have never...” journey, I committed to taking some time over the year to work more with my hands and to satisfy some of my curiosities about how some of the items I encounter each day are made. As a part of that goal, I quickly determined the process required to make candles was something that was unfamiliar to me. Although the process of melting wax into a form and adding a wick seemed straightforward enough, the scents, colors, and patterns contained in many of the candles around my home ultimately got me thinking there was much more to it than I expected. As a result, I decided I would take time to make candles for the first time during my “I have never...” year, and with arctic cold refusing to release its persistent grip in the new year, I figured today was as good a day as any to take on that task.

Following a last minute change in my original plans for the evening, my decision to make candles began with a trip to a local craft store. When I arrived I wandered around the store until I eventually stumbled upon the candle making supplies near the end of an aisle. The nearly barren shelves and hooks in the area made it apparent the cold weather had influenced others to take on the task as well, which left me with a limited selection of supplies to work through. Completely unaware of where to begin, I looked over petroleum waxes, soy waxes, wicks of varying sizes, dye blocks, and scent blocks trying to make sense of the process. Feeling somewhat perplexed by the number of components involved, I did my best to make sense of the process as I read segments of the instructions written on the back of the multiple packages in my hands. My actions made it clear I was generally clueless about candle making, but I wasn’t going to leave the store until I had everything I needed to take on the craft.

The stuff
Eventually, a little more reading and some comparisons of products made me comfortable I had enough understanding to grab the materials I needed to make candles. As a result, I grabbed a pound of soy wax, compatible coloring blocks, some wicks, and two glass containers before heading to the front of the store and making my purchase. The lack of any concerned look on the employee’s face at the counter made me somewhat confident I had what I needed for the task, but I knew the only real way to know would be to get home and try the process. In turn, I took my supplies and promptly found my way to my car for the ride back to my home.

Upon arriving home I immediately began explaining my last minute change of plans for the evening to Rachael as I hurriedly moved to the kitchen and began laying out my supplies. With the clock nearing 8:00, it was apparent I had to get the task underway if I was to complete the task before the end of the day, which set me to work tearing open packages and looking up walkthroughs on my phone. A bit confused by actions, Rachael slowly walked into the kitchen and looked over the scattered materials strewn across the countertop. “What’s going on now,” she said furrowing her brow. “My plans fell through, so I picked up supplies to make candles,” I said pausing briefly, “...Well, I think I did anyway.”

Unmelted wax in the "double boiler"
My lack of certainty caused Rachael to move toward the counter to get a closer look at the various supplies I had brought home with me. After a short moment of silence she responded to my actions, “Alright, why not?” With that, Rachael helped me get setup and grabbed my small camera from my coat pocket. “I’ll help for a while, but I’m not staying up late,” she said firmly as she moved back into the kitchen. Grateful for her willingness to deal with my sudden and unexpected whirlwind of activity, I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and turned back to my supplies. Taking stock of everything in front of me, I took a deep breath and said the only thing that came to my mind, “OK, it’s time to make candles.”

Checking progress...
I took a few minutes to review the instructions on the containers of supplies and review the resources I had found online before setting up my work station. Fashioning a double boiler from a Pyrex bowl and a pot, I filled the rigged container with the necessary water and placed it on a stove burner. Satisfied the setup would work well enough, I placed the pound of wax in the dry bowl and increased the heat to a steady, moderate burn. Realizing I would have to wait for the next phase of the process, I took a step back and watched the wax for several minutes. Noticing no change in the consistency of the material, I puzzled over the double boiler’s effectiveness momentarily until I noticed a small fleck of the wax starting to liquefy at the edge of the Pyrex bowl. The first step in making my candles, melting the wax, was underway, but I knew I was a long way from finished with tonight’s new experience.

Over the next 30 minutes I watched as the heap of wax melted down into a small pool of liquid at the bottom of the bowl. The difference in the size of the wax following this transformation was significant to the extent that I was shocked at how little wax came from the process. The yield made it clear I would only be able to produce one candle during my first attempt at candle making, which left me adjusting my approach. As the rest of the wax melted into liquid form, I temporarily attached a wick to the interior of one of the glass containers I had picked up earlier in the evening and turned my attention to the temperature of the melted wax. A quick dip of a thermometer into the liquid showed it had heated at a very rapid pace to the top end of the optimum heat scale for coloration listed in the instructions of the wax packaging. In response, I quickly cast the thermometer onto the counter and hastily grabbed a knife and a coloring block from my stack of materials. Without hesitation, I sliced into the coloring block and dropped it into the melted wax. In a matter of seconds the shreds of colored wax dissipated into the mix, leaving a green pool of liquid at the bottom of the bowl.

It's all... melty...

Entering the final phase of the process, I turned off the heat on the stove and removed the bowl from the double boiler. Following directions to let the wax cool from 180 degrees to 125 degrees, I stood by with my thermometer at the ready as I waited for the temperature to drop. To my surprise, the temperature moved very slowly as I monitored the decrease. After nearly 20 minutes it finally began to approach my target of 125 degrees, which spurred me to prepare for the final pour into the glass jar I had prepared earlier. With the wick held in position, I lifted the glass bowl full of melted wax over the vessel and poured it around the wick. In one fluid movement, the wax gathered and slid into the jar, shifting the wick slightly as it leveled into a smooth surface. Although still in liquid form, the obvious shape of a candle emerged as the materials came together, leaving only the need to let the wax cool before my project was done.

Ready to cool

With Rachael heading to bed for the night, I was left to wait for 45 minutes as the candle hardened into its final form. With the clock rolling toward 11:00, I eventually returned to the kitchen to find a light sage green candle resting comfortably in the glass vessel. With a trim of the wick and a little clean up around the rim of the jar, I lifted my candle from the stovetop and looked it over. Although simple, the beautiful pastel color and even form of the candle made me excited at the outcome of my effort. “That’s a candle alright,” I said to myself as I carried the completed project out to my dining room table and lit it with a match. Amid the silence of the house, I watched as the candle’s flickering light danced across the walls and cascaded onto the floor. It’s was only a candle, but it was my candle; and that was enough to make me smile.

Today’s “I have never...” event was more or less a last minute roll of the dice that left me hoping I could learn and do something completely unfamiliar over the course of an evening. While I will be the first to admit making candles isn’t a difficult task, the number of steps and precision required to make the process work was something I didn’t expect. Although I went into the experience largely unaware of what candle making entailed, I was able to make the process work through a little on the fly reading and some trial and error. As a result, I gained a skill I’m sure I will use again when I have a little time and feel like putting my hands to work. I’d be a fool not to considering the ease with which tonight’s experience came together, the results I had from the process, and the fact that I still have a bag of unused supplies that shouldn’t go to waste. The only real challenge will be finding a location for all of my new creations. I just may need a bit more shelf space.

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