This Little Light of Mine: Beeswax Candles

I recently gifted a dear sister-in-law with two homemade beeswax candles.  This has prompted her to do a blog post about beeswax candles.  And that has been a major kick in the pants for me to share my candle adventure here.

Making candles is so easy!  Just melt and pour.


It took me over a year to make two lovingly gifted candles.  It took about an hour to make the actual candles but a year of research and development to create the plan.

The Wax

It begins with beeswax.  I could buy beeswax pastilles online, but I wanted to use the wax from our own bees.

But first, I had to purify the beeswax.  Normally, purifying the beeswax takes an evening.  I melt wax  from our hives in a pot of water, and a lovely disk of cool wax is ready for me in the morning. However, I have begun purifying it twice, because the second go-round results in a much cleaner wax.  Cleaning it twice takes longer, but once the wax is clean, it can be stored indefinitely and is ready for making candles and lip balm.  You can see how I clean my beeswax here.

The Candle Recipe

With clean wax ready to use, I needed to decide on a candle recipe.  Pure beeswax candles would be awesome, but I had a limited supply of beeswax.  And until we have more success with  our beehives, that supply will continue to be limited.  So, I chose to blend two parts beeswax to one part coconut oil. I used processed coconut oil because I did not want coconut to compete with the naturally sweet smell of beeswax. For that same reason, I  chose not to add any fragrance to my candles.

The Container

Starting simple, I planned to make votives.  I have more than a bazillion votive holders leftover from three daughters’ weddings.  In addition, my aforementioned dear sister-in-law gifted me with about a hundred Yoplait Oui! jars last Thanksgiving. I do not lack for jars, but which jars would be best for my candles?  I picked the Yoplait jars because I was planning to give some to my sister-in-law who, as you may have guessed, is addicted to Yoplait Oui! yogurt and the cute little jars.  (For her clever ideas, you can visit her blog Now That You Are Home.)

The Wick

The most important factor in producing a good candle was to determine what size wick I needed for the jars.  This is where R&D got serious.  I ordered a sample pack of wicks from The Candle Science website had helpful information about choosing the right wick size.  The extremely helpful information said, “It’s hard to give accurate wick recommendations for Beeswax.” But they offered a sampler pack of ECO pre-tabbed wicks to practice with and the advice that beeswax, burning more slowly, will require bigger wicks than paraffin or soy wax do.

So, with a sample pack of wicks and a variety of jars laid out in a grid on a paper bag, I melted the 2/3 beeswax-1/3 coconut oil in a double boiler that is reserved exclusively for playing with wax.  That took about 45 minutes.  Then I poured the hot wax into wicked jars. That part was wicked easy.

The Test Burn

A very important step came next–test burning the candles. If the wick is too big, the candle will burn too fast.  It the wick is too small, the candle will not burn fast enough and the flame could drown in a pool of melted wax.  Another problem with a too-small wick is “tunneling.” Tunneling happens when the wax does not melt to the edges of the container, so the candle melts down into a hole in the center of the jar with wax still along the sides.  The proper size wick should result in a lovely pool of melted wax to the edges of the container after a two hour burn.

We dined by candlelight that night of the test burn.  Although the candles were systematically laid out on the kitchen island in rows labeled by jar and wick size, the science experiment still cast a romantic ambience over the room.

The Results

All did not go as planned.  I ran out of wax before getting to the correct jar with the correct wick size.  All the candles had wicks that were too small.

I melted some of the candles again and tried with the largest wicks in my sample pack.  It seemed to be a tie  between the ECO 12 and the ECO 14 wicks. I decided to go with the ECO 12.

Being an optimist, I ordered 100 wicks. (Add that to the list of things my daughters will be tossing when I’m dead.)

I  made another, smaller,  batch of candles with this year’s wax.  The yield was four Yoplait Oui! jars.

And I think the wick is too small.

And I think that the Yoplait jar is not the best choice for my  candles.  A straight-sided votive would burn better. And I probably should use a smaller jar.  The  4 oz. Yoplait jar is about the same size as a small Yankee tumbler.

Next year, I will try a narrower jar and/or the ECO 14 wick.

But I would also like to try to find the right wick for a pure beeswax burn.

The R&D continues.

Up to our ears in wax

Beeswax.  We’re up to our ears in beeswax.

(I’m so tempted to recount an earwax story my sister told me about a certain niece’s boyfriend, but I’ll behave myself.  Family members have here enough data to figure out the source and ask her–if they dare.)

Cleaning the frames

Cleaning the frames

Actually, it’s not the beeswax but old honeycomb that we have in great supply.  Mr. Beekeeper is using the demise of all the bees as an opportunity to clean all the frames. This, ideally, should be done regularly on a rotating basis so that we aren’t dealing with processing 80 frames of comb. (The real reason is to provide healthy conditions for the bees, but this is not about the bees today, this is about me.)   However, we never claimed to be ideal beekeepers and we do have 80 frames of comb in the mancave to deal with.


Beeswax cappings

Four hives full of old honeycomb is a much bigger ordeal than melting the cappings from a honey harvest.  Cappings are beautiful white fresh wax that bees make to seal the finished honey product.  Cappings are the tops of the comb.  Harvesting our honey yields about a kitchen colander full of cappings, enough to make a batch or two of lip balm.  In contrast, old brood comb that has been sitting around is brown and black.  It is full of sticky propolis and pollen and old cocoons and yuck.  Scraped off the frames, it is crumbly like granola and sawdust.  To make a grand understatement, there is a lot more debris in the comb than in the cappings.  The comb from our four hives will eventually fill multiple 5 gallon buckets.

Old comb from the empty hives

Old comb from the empty hives

Why do I even want to deal with this?  I want the wax.   I want to have wax so I can make some lip balm and some candles.  I want to be able to offer the art teacher at my school some wax so that a student can try a hand at encaustic painting.  I want to be able to say to my brother-in-law, “Sure, you can have some wax to lubricate the bullets for your black powder shooting!” And Mr. Beekeeper plans to roll some of this clean wax onto the empty frames to give the new bees a jump start.

There really is a lot of debris in old comb.  The debris not only accounts for the volume in the bucket; the wax sticks to all that glop, making it difficult to extract all the wax.  Melting Batch #1 of comb resulted in a layer of wax so thin that Mr. Beekeeper broke it  into crumbs when he touched it.   (And then I yelled at him.)  With Batch #2, I  squeezed the cheesecloth-enveloped glop (the “official” beekeeper term–I kid you not–is slumgum) to extract more wax.  That resulted in a wax disc the size I normally get from cappings. By Batch #3, I was running out of cheesecloth so I raided John’s undershirt drawer.  (He’s due for new undershirts anyway.)  I’m now reaching the end of Bucket #1 and pondering how many pairs of dead pantyhose are lying at the bottom of the laundry pile in my closet.

For the uninitiated, I first wrap the comb wax in a filtering fabric like cheesecloth.  Then I heat it in a pot of water until all the wax melts (about 20 minutes).  I squeeze the cheesecloth to extract as much wax as I can.  I remove the cheesecloth and let the liquid cool.  The wax rises to the top and solidifies.  I lift off  the wax and dump the rest of the liquid.  (For more detail and photos, check my archived post “Purifying the beeswax.”)

This is what I got from the better part of a 5 gallon bucket.

This is what I got from the better part of a 5 gallon bucket.

The first bucket yielded 2 disks of wax and some crumbs.   It will have to be processed again to make it cleaner.  And the blobs of slumgum can be re-processed to extract even more wax.

A normal person would abandon the melting-bee-glop-in-underwear-on-the-stove project and do something more productive, like bake cookies.  Alas, my first three batches of wax and a Sunday afternoon in cyberspace have merely motivated me to do it more efficiently with the next batch.

You may think I’m nuts to spend my time on this.  Fine.  You mind your  own beeswax and I’ll mind mine.  But don’t complain when I charge money for my lip balm.

Filled tubes of lip balm

Filled tubes of lip balm

On Labor Day and Hobbies

Work should not rule one’s life.

This is just the pile I keep at home. There’s a bigger pile at school.

I say that one week into the school year with a three day weekend to run errands, take a nap, exercise, and play around with beeswax.  But I mean it.  And I’ll mean it in October when my body is screaming at me and I’m stressed for time–although I may have to come back to this post to remind myself.

I’m not a serf.  My job is not my lord.  My husband is not a slave, although his work treats him like one.  That’s why we take the phone off the hook when we go to bed.  If we didn’t, a call center in the Philippines would wake us at 2 a.m. about a service call that could have waited til morning.  Really.  And that’s why I finally drew a line at work and said “I can do this much but no more.”  Really.

I’m being simplistic, I know.  There’s a good reason I’m not paid by the hour.  I’m paid to fulfill a responsibility, whatever time that may take me.  BUT…there have to be limits or work can be all consuming.  An imbalance of work can make us sick.  And then, when we do get sick, we often ignore our physical needs because we can’t take time from work.  Talk about a vicious cycle.

We need things to do besides employment.  A job is a job.  Fortunate people have jobs that are vocations, true callings.  But even if we really love what we are employed to do, we need avocations, diversions from work that bring us pleasure.

So, on this Labor Day, let’s hear a cheer for hobbies.  Hobbies, the anti-work.  Hobbies are what you do when you are not working.  Hobbies are what you do to not think about work.  And yet, hobbies are why you go to work…to earn money to pay for all your hobby supplies!  (Ok, ok, there are also those minor issues of housing, clothing, and food.)

I like having a hobby that yields concrete, visible, I-can-count-’em results.

Honeybees are our hobby.  (Don’t tell the bees, though, because they don’t stop working to have hobbies.)  Actually, the bees started out as John’s  hobby but I got sucked into it and the beekeeping has since spawned several sub-hobbies.  Bottling honey is the most obvious.  Making things with beeswax is a logical second.  Both of these activities will keep me going long after I would otherwise have crashed for the night.  But these have led me to another activity that could potentially get out of control–ordering online.

I love ordering containers and stuff to fill them–jars, tubes, bottles, labels, body butters, sea salts, fillable tea bags and, oooh…shrink wrap.  It makes me really happy when FedEx or UPS comes down the road with a box filled with push-up tubes for my beeswax body balm.  I know that doesn’t give a big  thrill to most people, but it’s like Christmas to me.  I don’t get that same excitement from the delivery of a book order at school.  And it wouldn’t be as exciting if I could zip down to Target to get them.  There’s something about it being an unusual thing to order that makes it so much fun.

Friends ask, “Where on earth do you buy lip balm tubes?”

“From a lip balm tube company,” I reply.  Duh.  I google “lip balm tubes” and, voilà, a plethora of choices awaits.  Then, after getting trapped in the internet time vortex and exploring everything from soap molds to organza gift bags, I place my order for lip balm tubes and shrink wrap.  And wait for the delivery.

I understand if you couldn’t be bothered with my hobby.  Chapstick and Burts Bees is available at every checkout counter in the country.  But after a long day teaching, I love slathering my bee balm on my feet.  I love buying the packaging to put it in.  I love looking at a box filled with my finished product and thinking, “This is what I did.”  And if I sell a few tubes of it, that’s fun, too.  That’s what hobbies are for.

It’s Labor Day, the traditional end of summer.  Don’t let the fall schedule take control.  Leave room for a hobby.

Lip balm

Lip balm ingredients

Making lip balm is one project I’ve been wanting to do with our beeswax.   It is relatively easy and foolproof.  The success of a lip balm has more to do with preference than with messing up a recipe.  (This reminds me of a time when I made chocolate truffles as Christmas gifts.  The raspberry truffle would not set, so it didn’t work as a rolled truffle, but it was great as a topping on ice cream!)  So, hard or soft, the ingredients in lip balm will still keep the chapped lips away.

There are many recipes out there for lip balm but most have three basic ingredients: a wax, a butter, and an oil.  Fragrance is optional, but fragrance comes in an oil anyway.  I had the beeswax.  I ordered two butters online from natural cocoa butter and processed shea butter.  I bought almond oil and apricot kernel oil at the health food section of the grocery store.  I also bought (from believe it or not 100 lip balm tubes, shrink wrappers, and a cool (but necessary!) holder for filling the tubes.

I chose a formula calling for 1 part wax, 2 parts butter, and 1 part oil.  To make 8 oz. of lip balm (which filled 80 tubes), I used the following:

2 oz. beeswax (weighed on a kitchen scale)

4 oz. cocoa butter or shea butter (also weighed on a kitchen scale)

3 tablespoons of oil (apricot kernel oil with the cocoa butter, peppermint infused almond oil with the shea butter)

Lip balm tubes ready for filling

In a double boiler, I melted the wax (broken into little bits), then added the butter in small pieces.  When that was all melted, I stirred in the oil.  Working fairly quickly, I poured the liquid into a pyrex measuring cup with a spout, wiped out the double boiler with a paper towel, and then poured the liquid into individual lip balm tubes.

As the liquid cooled it solidified in the measuring cup, so I microwaved the cup 10 seconds at a time just to melt it again for quick pour.  Some people do the entire process with the microwave, but there are enough warnings about microwave explosions to keep me cautious!

Lip balm tubes being filled

From there it was a simple matter of capping the tubes, slapping on a label, and blow-drying the shrink wrap onto the tube.  Ok, to be perfectly honest, the label project took longer than making the lip  balm.  After handwriting labels for the first batch and finding it to be both tedious and aesthetically displeasing,  I resorted to the computer.  Using some Avery address labels and the Avery design and print website, I came up with my little label design. But it took me ALL evening.  At least it’s done and saved for future projects.
And the shrink wrap?  It was kind of fun using the blow-dryer and seeing the sleeves shrink and wrap the tubes, but the dryer also blows the little tubes all the way across the room.  It was a little tricky holding each tube without frying my fingers.

The labels

 So…I have two flavors.  The first (with the icky handwritten labels) is “Cocoa” because it was made with cocoa butter and smells chocolatey.  The second one is called “Maybe Mint” because the peppermint infused oil was not as pepperminty as I would have hoped and you can maybe tell that there is mint in it.  The shea butter is unscented so there really is no discernible fragrance.  Both balms are firm like Chapstick.  The advantage is that they have a long staying power and won’t make John look like he’s wearing lipgloss.  I think I would prefer a slightly softer version that glides a little easier.  Next batch I will use more oil.  Julie is going to remain faithful to her Vaseline, so I’m not too concerned with her opinion. : )  I would, however, appreciate comments and opinions from the rest of you once you’ve tried it.

Purifying the beeswax

Beeswax cappings

The most obvious advantage of maintaining bees is to have honey.  A secondary advantage is to have the beeswax.  It’s an amazing product with so many practical applications.  Last year we harvested our first honey.  This year we want to find uses for the wax.  The first step is to get the wax from the lovely honeycomb dripping with sweetness into a usable form.  For that we have to purify it.

Beeswax ready to be purified

When we harvested the honey, we let the cappings drip through the sieve to catch as much honey as we could.  Then John rinsed it and let it dry in the sieve.  It gets broken up and crumbly.  We store it in a plastic container.  (Gotta keep those ants off it!)  Last years cappings we stored in a ziplock bag in the freezer.

Beeswax in cheesecloth in pot

To obtain clean beeswax for candles or lip balm or whatever, it needs to be separated from impurities like little bee parts.  To do this, we wrapped the beeswax in cheesecloth, secured it closed with a rubber band (or string), put it in a pot, covered it with water and boiled it for about half an hour.

Boiling the beeswax

As  the boiling water melts the beeswax, the wax seeps through the cheesecloth into the water.  The impurities remain behind in the cheesecloth.  We boiled the wax (gently to avoid splatters and the risk of fire) until it appeared there was no more wax in the cheesecloth.  This took about half an hour.  As “clean” as the wax cappings look in the top picture, there was an amazing amount of dark gunk left after boiling.  After squeezing the cloth gently with tongs to coax out all the wax, the cheesecloth was then discarded and the pot of waxy water left to cool for awhile.

Removing the beeswax from the pot

As the water cools, the wax rises to the top and solidifies.  (Not unlike the fat on a chicken soup.)  Once the wax is cool and solid, it is simple to remove it.   Just press down on one side and lift it out.

Beeswax cooled and ready to be used

This batch of beeswax yielded 4 oz. of purified wax.  The 4 oz. was stored in a ziplock bag and then used to make two batches of lip balm.

This batch of wax came out very clean.  A second batch had a lot of “stuff” still in it.  I think it was not wrapped in as many layers of cheesecloth.  The remedy–break it up into chunks, wrap it better this time, and boil it again.  Pantyhose is recommended as a fine strainer, but I can’t remember the last time I wore pantyhose and didn’t feel like running to the store for that. I’ll be sure to stock up for future beeswax projects.

Update in 2018: After cleaning much more beeswax, I still follow this basic outline, but often I am dealing with wax that is not as pretty as these pictures.  These days, I clean twice.  The first time, I dump all the dirty wax right into the pot and cover with water.  As it melts, I skim off as much of the dirty sludge as I can. As the wax cools on the top of the water, the gunky stuff will stick to the bottom of the wax and have to be scraped off later.  Better to skim what you can first.  A lot more will sink to the bottom and  be a non-issue.

The cooled disk of wax will have visible bits of stuff still on it.  I  break the wax into smaller pieces, stuff it into a nylon stocking knee high sock, tied in a knot. Toss the sock in a pot, add water, and repeat the melting process.  When the wax has all melted, I squeeze the sock with tongs to get out as much wax as I can.  The new disk of wax will be much prettier and ready for use in candles, lip balm, or whatever!