The History of Candlemaking
Ever since the dawn of the human era man has sought to banish the darkness through the use of fire. However, fire was not easy to carry around, and crude torches gave off more heat than light. The principle of making candles by wrapping a solid inflammable substance such as beeswax around a fibre wick was discovered in Ancient Egypt and Crete before 3200 BC, although candles did not come into common use in Britain until the time of the Roman Occupation.
In the home, candles gradually replaced more primitive forms of lighting such as oil lamps and rushlights. While the latter continued in use in many remote country districts until quite recent times, great advances were made in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the science and art of candle-making. The tallow chandlers and the wax chandlers became very important members of the commercial community. Candle-making became a specialised craft, but the majority of candles were still made from tallow in cottages and farmhouses in the countryside and in small ``cottage craft'' workshops in the towns and cities.
Around 1820 there were a number of great developments in wax refining, in the making of plaited wick and in the mechanization of candle-making processes. Thus candle-making was caught up in the Industrial Revolution, and with the growth of firms like Prices Patent Candle Company both moulded and dipped candles were soon being mass-produced. The removal of candle tax in 1821 led to a reduction in candle prices, and by the mid 1850s British candle production probably reached 100,000 tons per year.
The decline of candle-making after 1860 was related to the invention of ``town gas'' lighting and to the use of improved oil lamps using kerosene or paraffin. Within a few decades electric power came to solve one of man's oldest problems once and for all, and the illuminated light bulb took over from the naked flame. Candle-making declined to the status of a minor industry, supplying those who want candle-light for its own sake, in churches and in homes where the gentle glow of a flickering flame adds mystery, or peace, or romance according to the mood of the moment.
A number of large firms continue to make candles in Britain by mass-production methods, but there are still a few ``cottage craft'' producers using the methods first practised 5,000 years ago.
The simplest lights used in the houses of old Wales were the rushlights made from the common soft rush, Juncus effusus .The rushes were gathered in summer or autumn. Their tops and bottoms were cut off, leaving rushes about 18" long which were then peeled very delicately to leave a single strip of skin supporting the soft pith. The rushes were then dried and dipped in kitchen fat or tallow melted over an open fire in a "grissett". When the pith was completely soaked the rushlights were left to dry, and were then stored in bundles for later use.
Because rushlights were not strong enough to stand upright on their own, and because they did not burn well vertically, they were burned in specially-made holders with jaws which held them at roughly 45 degrees. On average a rushlight would burn for about 15-20 minutes, but the light they gave was poor and they had to be "moved up" in the jaws of the rushlight holder every few minutes. However, they were very cheap to make, especially in farming communities where livestock ensured an ample supply of animal fat or tallow for lighting purposes.
Rushlights are still made in some remote parts of the British Isles, and many of the older generation in rural Wales remember rush-gathering and rushlight making as essential parts of the rhythm of country life.
CANDLE-DIPPING IN THE HOME
"Dips" or dipped candles are simpler to make than any other type of candles, and they have the longest history. More sophisticated than rushlights, they have a woven wick which is coated with up to 50 waxy layers by repeated dipping into a boiler or cauldron of molten wax.
In Wales the traditional dipped candle was referred to as cannwyll-y-dwfr (water candle). Such candles were made on farms and in cottages in batches of maybe 100 at a time. Wicks made from thin strips of cloth were tied to a number of wooden wands, about 10 to each wand. Each wand was about two feet long, and whittled down to a thickness of a quarter of an inch. A large cauldron with water at the bottom was filled with animal fat and hung over the fire. When the fat was thoroughly melted, the wands were taken one by one and held above the cauldron so that the attached strands could be dipped quickly into the fat. Afterwards the wands were hung across the rungs of a ladder laid horizontally between two boxes. The fat on the strands of wick would solidify, and so the process would be repeated until the fat-covered strands were thick enough to serve as candles. With the advent of woven wick and paraffin wax in the last century country people could buy in their raw materials and make much better candles, although the dipping method remained unchanged.
During the Middle Ages candle-makers used thin strips of woven fabric as candlewick. Later on, after the introduction of cotton to the British Isles, bleached twisted cotton yarn was used. But it did not burn well, and the thick bulky wicks used with tallow candles in particular produced a large dirty flame and required frequent snuffing. The invention of plaited wick in 1820 transformed the candle-making industry, especially when it was discovered that wicks immersed in various solutions (such as borax) could retard combustion and improve the destruction of the burnt wick. Modern wick is woven into a flat braid, and it curls as it burns. The curling brings the tip of the wick into the hottest part of the flame where it burns away as the candle burns down. In this way the exposed length of wick, and therefore the flame height, is kept constant. After braiding, the wick is treated chemically; it is first bleached, then soaked in a solution of ammonium phosphate, ammonium sulphate, ammonium chloride, borax and potassium nitrate. Candle-makers buy their wick with particular candle diameters in mind, the thickest wick being used naturally enough for the thickest moulded candles.
The coat of arms of the wax chandlers in London -- a sign of the wealth of the guild which was quite powerful in the days when wax candles were essential for the functioning of everyday (or everynight) life in the capital city.
THE TALLOW CHANDLERS AND THE WAX CHANDLERS
Tallow chandlers were specialist candle-makers who used animal fat or tallow as their raw material. During the Middle Ages they were to be found in the country districts or in country towns where tallow was readily available. They are organized into guilds, and their secrets were jealously guarded. With the growth of large towns and cities during the Industrial Revolution the tallow chandlers provided large populations with the dipped and moulded candles needed for domestic and commercial lighting. Some of their tallow was imported from Russia, but they depended for the most part upon the raw materials from local farms and slaughter-houses. They were also responsible for many of the advances made in the mechanical or mass production of candles.
The wax chandlers also had their own guilds before 1500, but they used a more expensive raw material (beeswax), and theirs was a more genteel trade. Because of the characteristics of beeswax the wax chandlers seldom made moulded candles, but specialised in the manufacture of poured, rolled or drawn candles, using mechanical devices quite unlike those of the tallow chandlers. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the wax chandlers made use of a number of special waxes such as spermaceti (whale fat), coconut oil and palm oil, although candles made of special wax blends could only be afforded by the wealthier members of society.
CANDLE-DIPPING IN THE FACTORY
The demand for dipped candles increased throughout Britain as the Industrial Revolution got under way, and the Tallow Chandlers were forced to introduce a variety of mass-production methods in order to satisfy the market. In the mid 1700's the tallow chandlers were using methods not far removed from those employed in the cottages and farms of the rural areas, but these methods were slow and laborious. However, the invention of the "dipping frame" in the late eighteenth century greatly increased the number of candles that could be dipped at one time. Broaches or rods holding up to 100 candles could now be dipped at one time with the human operator responsible only for guiding the machine and controlling the thickness of the candles. During the early nineteenth century several improved types of dipping machine appeared in candle factories, always increasing the speed of the dipping process, and allowing greater uniformity in the finished products. One of the most successful of these consisted of a revolving iron frame which kept the broaches in a horizontal position and allowed 30 - 40 broaches full of "dips" to be made in one session. One such machine, used for a candle-making factory in Shropshire between 1850 and 1930, has been reconstructed and is still in use at the Blists Hill Museum at Ironbridge.
These are made by suspending the candlewick over a container of molten wax and pouring the hot wax from a ladle so that it runs down the wick, cooling as it goes. The surplus wax drips back into the container where it can be used again. As one might imagine, this is very laborious and time-consuming, but the technique is a very old one, having been used by the wax chandlers in particular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the Middle Ages beekeeper-monks used to make enormous Pascal candles (up to 6 feet tall) by this method. Most commercial beeswax candles were made by the pouring method, and while still warm they were rolled to perfect cylinders on a wet wooden surface.
Most of the "ordinary" or "kitchen" candles stocked by iron-mongers (and kept by householders in reserve in case of electricity cuts!) are nowadays made by the moulding method. They are mass-produced by Price's and other large manufacturers and sold in vast quantities. However, the traditional taper us made by the dipping method, which was ideally suited for the making of long, slim candles. The tapers made by Inger in the workshop next door are made of 100% paraffin wax with a melting point of 135 o - 140 o F. The wax is melted in a boiler which is at least half-full of water, so that the molten wax floats to the rim of the boiler. This allows long candles to be dipped to their full depth without any risk of overheating. The candles are dipped in rotation with an interval of a minute or two between each dip to allow hardening of the wax on the candle surface. Each batch of candles is dipped about 40 times into the molten wax, until the desired diameter is obtained. At intervals during the dipping process the long "drips" at the base of each candle have to be trimmed off with a pair of scissors; the wax removed is simply returned to the boiler and remelted. Special candle-making dyes and scents are used to make the graded-colour scented tapers which are now so popular with our visitors.
Drawn candles are made by passing a long continuous wick back and forth through a bath of hot wax, forming a candle "rope" which is accommodated on large rotating drums on either side of the bath. During the eighteenth century most of the commercially-produced beeswax tapers were made in this way, although there was a limit to the thickness of the candles produced. The tapers made by the drawing process were referred to as "bougies", and some wax chandlers made over 10 miles of drawn candle per week. The final thickness of the coated wick was determined by passing it through cylindrical holes in an iron plate positioned on the edge of the bath, and when the desired thickness was achieved the full length of wick was unrolled and cut into standard taper lengths.
Moulded candles are made by filling a mould with molten wax and allowing the wax to cool and shrink before removal. Normally the wick is positioned in the mould before the wax is poured in, but it is relatively simple to add the wick after the pouring, by letting the wax almost harden and then insert a wick, which has previously been made stiff by one dip in molten wax. As the wax stiffens up fully a hole will form in the centre which has to be filled up to make the candle level. One can also wick the candle after it has been removed from the mould. This is done by melting a hole through the candle with a hot rod, threading the wick through, and filling the cavity with a small quantity of molten wax. Moulds are normally made of plastic, glass or metal, but in fact any material that can withstand the temperature of hot wax can be used for candle-making, including milk cartons, cat-food tins, cardboard tubes, yogurt cartons, and even balloons! Flexible PVC and rubber moulds are used for making candles with embossed surfaces or irregular shapes. Our display shows some of the many moulded candle shapes that can be made with commercially available moulds, Most of these candles are made "upside down" to achieve layered and multi-coloured effects in the wax. Candle-makers nowadays use a mixture of soft paraffin wax and stearin for making moulded candles, since the stearin ensures adequate wax contraction for mould release.
OTHER CANDLE TYPES
Wax is a very flexible and pliable material, and there seems to be no limit to the inventiveness of candle-makers both amateur and professional! Warm wax can be shaped in a variety of different ways, and by using a number of warm taper candles plaited or twisted together "multiple candles" can be made. These have several wicks close together. Single warm taper candles can be rolled and flattened, and then twisted into interesting shapes. "Ice candles" are made by pouring hot wax into a mould which is partly filled with chunks of ice. When the ice melts irregular cavities are left in the candle surface. "Hammered candles" are made by striking the hard surface of a moulded candle with a blunt object to create indentations or fractures on the candle surface. "Carved candles" are made by carving out segments from the surface of a multi-layered candle to reveal the layers beneath. Quite intricate patterns can be created in this way. If the candle is carved when the surface layers are still warm strips or petals of layered wax can be detached from the candle surface and folded or plaited to create fascinating and colourful surface textures.
"Balloon candles" are made by coating a water-filled balloon with wax. When the wax is hard the water is poured away and the balloon removed to leave a hollow sphere which can be used like a transparent shell. Swirls of multi-coloured wax can be poured onto the inside of the wax shell and it can then be filled with wax like a normal moulded candle. "Water candles" are made by pouring hot wax onto a cold wax base while the base is immersed into a bath of cold water. The molten wax solidifies instantly on contact with the cold water, taking on exotic and fanciful shapes created by the water turbulence.
"Sand candles" are made by using a hollow in a bed of sand to form a mould. Hot wax is poured into the hollow. On cooling, the candle so formed retains a surface layer of sand, giving it a most unusual appearance. Inger specializes in what she calls "Aladdin Candles", which is large sand candles incorporating slices of agate and sometimes branches of drift-wood. These candles look quite stunning with the light from the candle-flame making the agate glow. Candles can be decorated in numerous ways; dried pressed flowers, transfers, and today even laser printing. Wax can be painted, whipped, stretched, embossed or re-melted on the candle-surface, and many candle-makers have their own secret techniques for achieving effects that might mystify the amateur.
Sand candles made by Inger some years ago, with agate slices which illuminate when the candle is lit
Water candles, in which the exotic shapes on the surface are created by pouring molten wax into cold water. These are not very good ones -- those which we used to sell in the workshop were much nicer....
Three balloon candles, made by partly filling a balloon with water, and then dipping it over and again into molten wax until a thin translucent crust is created.
These candles are made in simple moulds
These are also made in moulds -- more complex this time, and with multiple wicks.
An assortment of moulds used in candle making -- these are made of tin, rubber and plastic. You can use almost anything as a mould...
The famous banana candle, also made in a mould
Complex carved candles, made initially in a mould, then overdipped to give layers of wax of different colours, and finally carved to give the scrolls, slices and other effects. The trouble with these is that they are almost too complex and expensive to burn -- so they tend to collect dust instead.....