I grew up in a farming community, and self-sufficiency was a way of life. As an adult, I’ve incorporated many of the routines I learned as a child, but I’m always eager to learn new skills. I’ve noticed, though, that the quest for self-sufficiency is never one straight line, but rather, a circuitous, meandering path.
Take, for example, candle making. I started making candles using commercially prepared beeswax and paraffin. I enjoyed the process and learned a new skill, but before long I wondered, “So what happens if I don’t have access to commercial supplies?” And, “I wish I could figure out a way to get the supplies more economically.”
As with so many other projects I embark on, those questions led me on a search for a sustainable, homespun solution. I hunted through several old books, determined to learn how to make candle wax like the old-timers. Below are some of the answers I found. Read on to learn the secrets to making candle wax at home.
Tallow, the rendered fat of animals, was used for centuries for candles and is still one of the most inexpensive types of wax if you butcher your own meat. You can also ask a butcher to save pieces of fat for you. Most butchers will give it to you for free or at a very reasonable cost.
Tallow is fairly easy to make and produces hard, slow-burning candles. Candle waxes have different melting points, but the best candles have a melting point between 125 and 165 degrees Fahrenheit. If the wax is too soft, it burns quickly and loses its shape. Tallow candles vary in their hardness, depending on the animal the fat came from. Sheep fat is hard, but cow fat is harder. Deer, goat, and elk fats make the hardest tallow and are ideal for candle making.
Fortunately, you can manipulate the hardness of the tallow by adding alum or stearic acid. Alum is available at a local pharmacy. Order stearic acid from candle-making suppliers. Another option is to mix beeswax with tallow, which also hardens the wax. It also cuts down on the odor, which is helpful since the main objection most people have to tallow is its smell. In the Middle Ages, tallow candles were common for everyday household use, but beeswax candles were reserved for use in churches and ceremonies because they had no objectionable odor.
To make tallow, fill a large, shallow pan with clean chunks of fat. Two pounds of tallow makes approximately two dozen candles. Add ¼ cup water to the bottom of the pan and heat in an oven at 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Watch the pan closely and stir frequently so the fat doesn’t burn. Turn the heat down if necessary. Once the fat is completely melted (which can take four to six hours), remove it from the oven.
Allow the fat to cool slightly. Line a colander with cheesecloth or muslin. Pour the tallow through the colander into a clean pan. Cool the fat so the tallow rises to the top. Skim it off and return it to the shallow pan. Discard the remaining liquid and sediment. Heat the tallow in the oven again to melt it. Strain it and skim it once more. Allow the tallow to harden and cut it into blocks for later use. Wrap it in wax paper and store it in a cool, dry place or make it into candles immediately.
Pioneer Tallow Candles
Try this old-time recipe adapted from Carla Emery’s wonderful book, ”The Encyclopedia of Country Living.” Mix 2 ½ pounds of alum with 5 gallons of water in a large stockpot. Boil until the alum is dissolved. Add 10 pounds of tallow and boil for one hour. Stir well and skim to remove the wax. Cool the wax and strain it through a colander lined with muslin or cheesecloth. Pour it into candle molds or use it to dip candles by hand.
Most candle enthusiasts prefer beeswax candles to other types of candle wax. Beeswax has a pleasant, natural smell and a soft texture that makes it very easy to work with. You can melt it as you would paraffin or tallow. You can also mold it by hand, simply by softening it with a warm knife.
If you’re new to beekeeping, your hives probably won’t have any beeswax to spare for at least the first year or two. Even then, think twice about taking the beeswax for candle making. If you rob the hive of beeswax, the bees will put their energy into making more wax, rather than honey, which will reduce your honey production. If you have several hives that produce more honey than you need, you can probably afford to use the beeswax for candles. Another option, of course is to buy unfiltered beeswax from a professional beekeeper. Beekeepers typically charge less than $2 per pound for the wax.
To clean your beeswax for making candles, first set it in an aerated box on top of the hive for a day or two. The bees will visit the box, carrying off every last bit of honey. Then, melt the wax in a double boiler over low heat. Line a colander with a piece of muslin or paper towels and strain the wax through the material. Pour it into candle molds immediately or ladle it into clean empty milk cartons or even a cake pan lined with foil. Wrap it in wax paper and store it in a dry place until you’re ready to make candles.
If you live in a wooded or natural area with plenty of vegetation, you might be able to make your own bayberry wax. Bayberries are small shrubs or trees that grow throughout many parts of the U.S. In the East, you’ll find bayberries growing along the coast. Western bayberries grow predominately along the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California. In the South, look for a plant called wax myrtle. The small, greenish-gray berries of these plants produce a waxy substance when ripe, which can be processed and used for candles. The finished wax is a soft, transparent green color with an aromatic, herby scent.
Before you pick wild bayberries, though, check with a local forestry specialist. Bayberries are endangered in some areas and picking the berries could be illegal. You can also grow bayberries, although they require a soil acidity between 4.5 and 5.5, which makes them unsuitable for growing in the Rocky Mountains and most of the Midwest.
To collect the wax, pick the berries in the fall when they’re ripe. Bring them to a boil in a large pot and simmer for thirty minutes to one hour, or until the wax floats to the top. Skim off the wax and melt it again in a double boiler. Strain the wax through a colander lined with paper towels or muslin. Make candles immediately while the wax is soft or pour it into a milk carton and allow it to harden for later use.
You’ll need a lot of bayberries for candle making. In fact, fifteen pounds of berries typically produce only one pound of wax, depending on growing conditions. To make the wax go further, try mixing it with beeswax or paraffin.