Candle-making by Jess Dyde
Candle-making by Jess Dyde
Candles were used by practically everyone until the invention of electricity, and are still used to create atmosphere for special occasions and festivals, or for things such as church ceremonies.
It's impossible to overstate their importance to our history, as human beings are helpless without light. The light from a fire is not very bright, and of course isn't portable, whereas a candle can be picked up and used to light your way as you move about.
Oil lamps were also used, although they were more expensive. Simple pottery oil lamps have been found in the UK from the Roman period, but candles would far more widely used in all eras.
There are two ways to make candles – moulded or dipped. A moulded candle is simple. The wax or tallow is poured into a mould, into which a wick has been suspended, and left to harden. Then the candle is turned out of the mould.
This method is used for "fat' candles and candles of unusual shapes and are very popular nowadays. But in the past, dipped candles seem to have been more common, so far as we can tell. Evidence is difficult to collect, as the candles themselves do not survive, so we rely on candle holders, and pictorial evidence, which seems to point to the dipped candle as the most common type. A dipped candle is what we would nowadays called a pillar candle, straight, and narrow. They are made by dipping the wick numerous times into hot wax or tallow.
Expensive candles were made with beeswax. Cheap ones were made with tallow (animal fat) and they stink!!
If you intend to make some for Living History purposes, I strongly advise using paraffin wax, even though it isn't authentic, or beeswax if you can afford it. Tallow will simply drive everyone away.
There is a candlemaking shop at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, and even they use wax as they reckon they wouldn't get any visitors if they were authentic and used tallow! By the way, it's well worth a visit. They have a working candle dipping machine, which can dip hundreds of candles at a time, although the power is provided by a person.
Making dipped candles is very easy. You need wick, wax and something to heat the wax in. The wick needs to be the right width for the thickness of candle. A thin wick in a fat candle will go out as the melted wax will overwhelm it, and a fat wick in a thin candle will burn very fast.
If you've never tried this before, start with a length of 3mm wick. It's cheap to buy – try ebay or a good craft shop. The wax is usually in pellets which melt quickly.
The exact temperature of the melted wax is something that you learn by trial and error. Boiling is too hot, but if it's too cool and thick, it won't dip well.
It needs to be hot and liquid. If you're doing this over an open fire, you'll need to move the wax can around until you find a good spot.
The best sort of can for dipping is ! well ! a dipping can! These are tall and narrow metal cans. You can only create a candle that's the height of the dipping can so if you use a pan you'll only be able to make short candles.
If you use a very large tall pan, such as a stockpot you'll need an enormous amount of wax to fill it. A made-for-purpose dipping can is initially expensive, but you'll save in wax!
One way of keeping the wax temperature fairly constant is to stand the can in a pan of hot water, which you can replenish when it cools. This can be easier than trying to keep an open fire at an exact temperature.
One useful tip before you start: tie a loop in one end of the wick. You can cut it off afterwards, but it gives you something to hold, and allows you to hang the candle up on a hook or tree during the process.
The other way to provide something to hang your candles by is to cut a length of wick that's twice the length of the candle, and dip two at once. You hang them by the bit of undipped wick between them. The difficulty is keeping the two candles apart while you make them as the warm wax means they easily stick together. It's more efficient to make several candles at once.
Cut your wicks to the required length. Once the wax is the right temperature, dip the wick in the wax and remove. Let it drip and cool a little. Then pull it straight.
Repeat this several times, until the wick has gained some stiffness. You don't need to pull it from this point, just dip it. If you don't pull it straight, you can end up with a curved wick, and consequently a candle which doesn't burn evenly.
Like a lot of crafts, the starting and finishing are the fiddly parts of the process.
Once the wick is straight, you simply keep dipping and cooling, dipping and cooling, building up thin layers of wax until your candle is the required thickness.
Then you allow it to really harden, and cut the surplus wax off the base so it's flat. You should trim the wick too.
Because you have a slight wait while each layer of wax cools, it makes sense to make several at a time.
Dip your first candle, then hang it up to cool. You can dip the second candle at this point, and so on.
I find that five seems to be an optimum number to be dipping at one time, as the wax from the first candle has cooled nicely by the time I've finished dipping the fifth.
The cooling is necessary or the liquid wax on the candle will simply melt away in the can. Don't leave the candle in the hot wax or it will start to melt – each dip should be in then out immediately.
The ideal is a lot of thin layers rather than fewer thicker layers, so keep an eye of the temperature of the wax in the can.
It will take upwards of a hundred dips to create a respectable candle.
Professional candlemakers would travel to small hamlets or remote farms and work for a day making candles. They would also make rush lights which are even cheaper than candles as the wicks are free.
In late spring or early summer, rushes have a sort of soft pith running up the inside of the stem which makes an ideal wick. Strip the pith from the rush and dip it.
Rush lights are surprisingly bright, but can't be made very fat so don't stand up by themselves.
You'll need a holder, which is essentially a stand with a metal "jaw' which grips the rushlight. You can alter the angle to "point' the light where you wish.
Fires from rushlights were more common as they burn down to the jaws and fall, or slip in the holder.
If you burn rushlights, you need to continually check on them.
By the Tudor times, a similar contraption of stand and jaws was being used to clamp round-bottomed flasks of water.
These were used to focus and intensify the light of a candle or rushlight, using a similar principle to starting a fire by focusing sunlight with a magnifying glass.
They really create very bright light, in a small area, and were used by lacemakers and embroiderers who needed good light to work by.
Using several stands and flasks meant that a team could work together by the light of one candle.
Candles were very rarely coloured, but could be scented, by adding oils or finely chopped herbs or flowers to the wax .
This must have been common with tallow candles, but beeswax has a beautiful honey scent of its own.
One fun thing to do is to make a clock candle. This is simple. Make several candles that are similar in size, and burn one, noting how much has burned after each hour (measure up from the base).
Mark these hours on the other candles by carving a line round them. They are useful at Living History events when you aren't wearing a watch!
It's impossible to overestimate the importance of candles throughout history. Without them, we would have been constrained by daylight hours.
Think of the work that wouldn't have been done, the political meetings that would have been held, the feasts and banquets that would never have happened! The whole of our history would have been different.