So, I start all my posts out with Whew! Like I’m in a perennial state of recovery. Which is perhaps more apt than I’d like to admit. It’s been a whirlwind for us over the last few months!
Top on our list has been diving in to the engrossing world of candle-making. I’ve got to admit, when we took over the soap and candle making business and launched Northern Comfort Botanicals, I thought soap making would be the more difficult nut to crack.
I had no idea the subtle intricacies of candle making!
What Really Goes Into Candle Making?
I had NO idea. An avid fan of Pinterest, I’d seen my fair share of pins with embedded herbs and melting down store bought candles. Last Christmas, mom and Jeff did some experimentation with big box soy ingredients, making a batch of vanilla soy tea cup candles. They seemed nice. We stuck ’em in the booth and I don’t remember if they sold or not (#bestbusinessownerever).
Once we moved to the farm and got a primer from Kathy, previous innkeeper with 20 years of candle making experience, I still thought our biggest concern was sourcing the best materials for the best price. Then we made our first batch and started our deep dive into the intricacies of candle making.
Among other considerations….
- Do you want to have great smelling candles or clean burning? There are different waxes that yield different results. And yes. You have to make a choice.
- Do you want to have poured candles (in a jar) or molded candles (pillar, taper, unique shapes)?
- For scent: how important is the hot throw (scent while burning) cold throw (scent when not lit)?
- Is using pure essential oils important, or are you ok with using man-made fragrance oils?
- Do you want bright colors or natural colors?
- What sort of labels do you want? What are the requirements for labeling?
- What sort of containers to you want?
- Are you OK with a plain (i.e. less expensive lid) or do you want one that is more evocative of your brand?
Ultimately, there were SO many questions that we didn’t even know we needed to consider. We’re happy with our current lineup, and will continue to test and refine to bring candles to our customers that provide the best quality and are most true to our vibe.
Candle Making Material Checklist
Oh….. so much that goes in to this, and thus why there are great candle makers out there (dare I say chandlers?). A true understanding of the different material options and the effect that materials have on the final product are what marks an expert from a hobbyist from a beginner.
Materials your need and what to consider….
- Wax — there’s paraffin, soy and beeswax. And probably others. Each has different properties and price points. I love beeswax candles but haven’t worked with that source yet. In general, paraffin is a petroleum product that has exceptional scent carry, both cold and hot (not burning/burning). The tradeoff is that paraffin candles tend to burn dirty with more soot. Soy wax is vegetable based and while it doesn’t have a very good scent throw, it burns much cleaner. We use a blend of paraffin and soy to get the best of both worlds! We only pour candles into containers. Different waxes are required for poured versus molded (freestanding) candles.
- Fragrance — when we ordered our first round of materials and made our first batches of candles, I was fixated on finding pure essential oils, rather than man-made fragrance oils to scent the candles. I have a tendency to the homegrown and natural, so of course I’d want essential oils…. they’re natural and therefore better, right? Well… maybe. While I still love essential oils for our hand poured soaps, turns out most essential oils don’t really carry the scent very well in the wax, and will evaporate completely at higher temperatures. Which means that burning candles made with essential oils don’t have much of a scent! That varies by scent and essential oil formulation, but we quickly realized that we were partial to candles with a stronger scent — not cloying like inexpensive mass produced candles, but we like to smell our candles while they are burning! We ended up having to order the fragrance oil version of our entire essential oil lineup. We still use essential oils in our soaps and in a few of our candles — Sauna Nights is 100% scented with Cedarwood Essential oil — but making the switch to fragrance oils really increased the quality of our scents!
- Additives — while we don’t add anything to our wax, there are different options to add to the wax to help it harden, provide UV protection and stabilize/improve the candles in other ways.
- Wicks — oooo boy. I’ll talk more about this in a bit, but understanding wicks is what separates a good candle maker from a bad candle maker. There are different wicks made with different outer materials (what burns), inner core (what makes the wick stand up), different coatings (wicks have to be primed by dipping in wax) and different ways of anchoring (to keep your container from getting too hot and cracking). The right wick means that a container candle will burn down evenly, with the pool of wax extending from one edge of the container to the other and not much soot in the flame. If the wick is too small or of the wrong materials, the candle will ‘tunnel’, burning down through the center, leaving wax on the exterior of the container. If the wick is too big, it will create soot and ‘mushroom’ with excess carbon.
- Tabs — candles need a ‘base’ to hold the wick in place. They are little metal disks that you string the wick through and secure.
- Containers — what to pour the candle wax into? We use mason jars for ours because we like the country vibe. There are suppliers who offer tons of modern, vintage and country options. Candle containers tend to be sized by volume (we use 8 ounce containers for most of our candles) so you have to think about your sale price and margin. Finding a local source can be the difference between a profitable candle business or not due to the cost of shipping.
- Molds — we haven’t worked with molded candles yet. Candles that come ‘naked’ are molded — things like pillars, some tapers (tapers can be dipped too) and specialty shapes. Molded candles need a special putty to keep the liquid wax from leaking out by the wicks.
- Lids — container candles need lids! We chose to purchase vintage style lids with a flower cutout instead of using the two part lids that come with mason jars. It’s an extra expense but we like the look!
- Lid inserts — for the style of lids (like the ones we use) that have cut out shapes, you can purchase inserts that will protect the candles surface/scent. We purchased clear ones, thinking about aesthetics, but realized almost right away that the opaque/white ones are better on the sales floor. The inserts are round discs that are placed on the top of the jar before tightening the lid. A lot of our browsers will ‘sniff’ our candles and not smell anything since there’s a seal, but they can’t see the seal because it’s clear.
- Labels, packaging, etc. — most candle suppliers sell a pre-printed warning label that you can stick on your candle if you are planning to sell. In addition to the warning label, you will need to design and procure a label and if shipping have a plan in place to protect the candles for transit.
Testing: The Key to Making Great Candles
So here’s the part that I naively was not expecting with candle making. There is no ‘one way’ to make a candle. We use the same wax and containers for all of our candles, but the level of dye used as well as the fragrance change how the candle burns, which means that we need to make sure we have the correct wick for the mix of wax, fragrance, dye and container diameter.
It’s a tricky process.
We made our first batch of candles using the wax and wicks that were recommended to us. None of the first batch would stay lit. It was a bit of a struggle to figure out what the problem was, but after lots of research and advice from our friend at Misi at Gable House Goodes (check out her amazing candles and melts!) we realized that we were using the wrong size and style of wicks. Candle wicks are made from different materials, an outer core of cotton or something like that and for container candles, an inner core of paper, zinc or another material. Each wick needs to be made from the correct material to interact properly with your wax and dyes and the correct diameter so that it doesn’t burn too fast and burn out or burn too hot and get sooty.
It’s a balancing act.
Luckily, most suppliers have technical desks, so we were able to chat and describe our problem. They made two recommendations on good wicks for our wax and containers and they even had sample sets that they could send us. We made a batch of candles, all the same wax and fragrance mix in the same size containers with different size wicks. I spent a day test burning the candles while I worked — burning the candles for 3 hour stretches, extinguishing for one hour and burning for another 3 hours ’till they were burned through — and we had a better idea of the right size wicks for our candles.
A Learning Process to Something We Love
At the end of the day, we came out with candles and scents that we loved for our first line! But we’ve got the bug, now! There are more scent profiles to test, better color combinations and fun new treatments like country grunge candles. The sky’s the limit with good supplies, an openness to testing and a sense of adventure!