Story and Photos By Laura Tyler, Colorado – Beeswax comes in a range of colors, from lemon-yellow to warm, grizzly brown — depending on its age and what part of the colony you harvest it from. While wax from all areas of the hive is usable to a degree and there are many wonderful beeswax uses, it is cappings wax, the newest wax you collect with your honey extractor, that makes the most divine beeswax candle tapers. It can take years for even the most productive small-scale beekeeping farm to save enough wax to fill a dipping vat with the material to make a single set of tapers.
But since beeswax candles make a most precious gift representing a marriage of effort between the bee and the beekeeper, they are absolutely worth saving for.
Like many beekeeping families, my husband and I divide our beekeeping work between the two of us. Beeswax rendering and beeswax candle making are his domain. His engineer’s mindset and interest in systems make for efficient and consistent candle production. While you don’t need to be an engineer to make beautiful hand-dipped beeswax candles, it helps to be methodical. And with a measure of patience, you will do just fine.
• Collect your equipment before you start. Look to beekeeping and candle supply companies for specialty materials like wick, wax melting containers and dipping racks. Equipment like water bath pots and cooling racks can be easily thrifted, or perhaps can be found in your home. Food and craft don’t mix, so whatever you appropriate from the kitchen for candle making should remain candle making equipment forever more.
• Give yourself time and space. Beeswax candle dipping is a slow craft that you will enjoy more if you set aside the time for it to happen at an unhurried pace. Also, if you are using your kitchen for candle dipping, don’t plan to also use it for cooking while your stovetop is occupied with wax.
• Make sure you have enough melted wax, and then some, to fill your dipping vat. It can take 10 or more pounds of wax to fill a 15-inch dipping vat, depending on its diameter. The wax level in your vat will drop as your beeswax candles grow so keep a pouring pot of melted wax nearby to add to your vat as needed.
• Heat your wax safely. Beeswax melts at around 145°F. At temperatures above 185°F it will discolor, and at 400°F, it becomes explosive. The ideal range for candle dipping is between 155°F and 175°F. Melt your wax in a water bath to maintain a safe temperature. Never melt your wax directly on a stovetop. Electric warming containers with a rheostat that allow you control the temperature are also available. Use a candy thermometer or laser thermometer to test wax temperature throughout your candle-making session. Invest in a fire extinguisher for your work area if you don’t already have one.
• Protect your lungs by ventilating. While beeswax fumes are relatively benign, the beeswax molecule starts breaking down into respiratory irritants at temperatures of 220°F and above. Reduce your potential exposure to these irritants and any other colorants or scents you may use by ventilating your space. A range-top hood provides good outflow. Leave a door or window cracked to allow fresh air in.
How to Render Beeswax
Rendering is the process of heating and melting unprocessed wax to filter out impurities. I recommend using only cappings wax for dipping beeswax tapers. It is easier to clean than wax from other parts of the hive and makes for an exquisite, aromatic beeswax candle.
• 1 or 2 nylon mesh straining bags available from most beekeeping suppliers
• 2 wax pouring pots with handle and spout
• Water bath (large cooking pot filled part way with water)
• Paper towels
• Silicone molds (cupcake size molds recommended for easy handling)
• Set water bath to boil.
• Use warm (not hot) tap water to rinse honey residue from cappings wax in mesh straining bag.
• Fill wax melting pot halfway with a 50/50 mix of rinsed cappings and water.
• Set half filled melting pot in a water bath to melt.
• Pour melted 50/50 mix through an empty mesh bag into your second wax melting pot. The goal of this first pour is to filter larger bee parts and detritus from cappings.
• Set pot in a water bath to re-warm and settle.
• Wax and water will separate. The wax will settle on top. A layer of slumgum will settle under your wax on top of the water.
• Gently pour a clean layer of wax into silicone molds. Avoid pouring slumgum and water into molds.
• Allow any remaining wax, slumgum and water to cool in the wax melting pot. When cool, it will separate from the sides of the container allowing you to remove it from the pot. Discard water. Save cooled wax/slumgum disc for further rendering. Try using a single ply of a two-ply paper towel instead of mesh bag when rendering further for a finer result.
How to Dip Beeswax Tapers
Beeswax candle dipping rewards a slow and steady hand. It also has a meditative quality that can bring great joy to those for whom the skill is a good fit.
• Water bath (large cooking pot filled part way with water)
• Dipping vat tall enough to accommodate the height of the beeswax candle you’d like to make
• 1 (or more) wax pouring pots with handle and spout
• Rendered beeswax, enough to fill dipping vat and replenish as needed while dipping
• Taper dipping frame (optional)
• You may also dip candles freehand by tying little weights (nuts or washers) onto ends of wick.
• Wick for tapers, 2/0 square braid cotton wick recommended, but you are free to experiment
• Cooling rack (try using an old-fashioned clothes drying rack)
• Blade for candle trimming
• Set water bath to boil.
• Place dipping vat in water bath and fill with beeswax. The dipping vat will float when empty but should settle neatly on the floor of your water bath as you add wax weight.
• Prepare a reserve of melted wax to replenish dipping vat as you dip your beeswax candles. If you can get your wax pouring pot wax to fit in the same water bath as the dipping vat, great. If not, prepare a second water bath.
• Monitor wax temperature using a thermometer. The ideal range for beeswax candle dipping is between 155° and 175° F. Do not allow the wax temperature to exceed 185° to prevent wax from darkening.
• String wick through candle dipping rack per instructions. Skip this step if you plan to dip your candles freehand. If dipping freehand, simply tie nuts or other small weights to wick ends before dipping.
• Dip candle dipping rack or weighted wick to desired depth in dipping vat. If this is your first dip wait for bubbles to rise from the wick before you remove it from the dipping vat. When the air bubbles stop rising it is a sign that your wick is properly saturated with wax. Do not wait for bubbles on subsequent dips.
• Place on rack to cool.
• The beeswax candle is ready to be re-dipped when it is still warm, but not hot, to the touch. You will learn to judge this as you progress.
• Continue the process of dipping, cooling and re-dipping until you reach desired candle width. Create a nice tapered tip on your candle by dipping it just deep enough to submerge previous high wax mark each time you dip.
• Count your dips and make notes for your next candle making session.
• Use a blade to trim the bottom ends of your candle pairs. Dip candles two to three more times after trimming to finish ends.
• Candle making takes practice and good old-fashioned trial and error to master.
• If your candles appear rippled it may be because the wax is too hot, or you are dipping the tapers too fast. First, go slower. If that doesn’t fix the ripples, lower the temperature in your dipping vat.
• If your candle ends look like ringed tree trunks when you trim them it means your layers have failed to bind. Either your wax in the dipping vat was too cool, or you allowed the tapers to cool too long between dips. Next time increase the temperature in your dipping vat and/or allow less time to pass between dips.
• If your candles fail to build mass it means your wax is too hot and you are melting your previous work each time you dip. Or you are dipping your tapers too slowly. Reduce your heat and try again. The trick to mastering hand-dipped candle making is to find the right combination of temperature and dipping speed.
• Dip candles at a consistent, steady rate to prevent ripples.
Laura Tyler is the director of Sister Bee, a documentary about the life of beekeepers, and lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she raises bees with her husband. If you have questions for her about raising bees, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.