Written by Vanessa McGee

The Secrets, Tips, Tricks, and Opinions of an Accidental Candle Maker

When I first began making candles I thought, "How hard can this be?" While vacationing in Santa Cruz, my bestie and I stumbled across a candle making shop. Thinking it would be a fun rainy-day activity, I popped in not knowing how drastically my life would change. We chose cute pre-cut bits of wax to use as embeds, chose our molds and fragrances, and happily set about ‘making a candle’. When we finished our designs, the nice lady poured the pillar wax for us, et viola! We were candle makers! When I came home from vacation, I confidently announced that I would, heretofore, be making candles. Wow, my hubris is astonishing. Honestly, if I knew how difficult and expensive it would be, I likely wouldn't have started. I spent countless hours and thousands of dollars only to throw out every single candle I made. YouTube videos did not address my issues, and I felt very frustrated and directionless. The purpose of this article is to pass on the bits of information I feel would have truly helped me on my journey. It is not a substitution for basic skills or safety procedures, and it assumes that readers have some basic knowledge of how to melt wax and put a candle together. Additionally, this article does not address any safety or regulation issues, and you will need to look elsewhere for this information. 

There are two major issues for beginning candle makers: First you must make a candle that looks good, without sink holes or dimpled tops. Second you must create a candle that performs well. You may have found that you can make a pretty candle with smooth tops and centered wicks, but when you light the dang thing on fire it all goes to hell. The 'lighting on fire' part is the reason that candle making is so much more difficult than, say, soap making. I have mad respect for anyone trying to learn to make candles; it is hard.

In this article I will address the four major components of candle making:

  • Waxes
  • Wicks
  • Fragrances
  • Containers

A Word About Testing

At the risk of sounding even more bossy than usual, you absolutely must test a candle every time you change one of the four components: wax, wick, fragrance, container. This is a rule that all responsible candle makers follow every time and without exception. Most conduct multiple test burns and purposely stress the candle to determine if it becomes dangerous if burned improperly. Changing anything about your candle can result in a radically different burn, and this is why we test, test, and test some more.

When you pour a candle to test, pour it without any wicks. Yep, you read that correctly. When the wax has cooled completely, (usually the next day), cut the wick tabs off and insert wicks for testing. This way, when the wicks fail, you can simply pull them out and insert new wicks to test. This method will save you hundreds of dollars in wasted product, and countless hours for certain.

Waxes

When I began making candles I had no clue what wax to order. After watching endless YouTube videos, I decided to order a paraffin pillar wax, soy wax, and a paraffin/soy blend. The pillar wax is still sitting in my garage because I don't make pillars (I actually have no idea why I ordered it), the paraffin/soy blend I never reordered because it's Vaseline-like consistency was just gross, and the soy wax I eventually gave to my brother to use in a modern art sculpture. I played with a variety of other waxes and nothing was working. I had sink holes, I had bumpy "cottage cheese" tops, and I had ripples. I had sweating candles, I had wicking issues, and I had candles catch on fire. I had problems! I was the queen of the pour-over, I had to heat gun literally every candle, and they still never looked right. 

I had heard a few people online say that they really liked coconut wax, but I didn't want to order it because I thought it was too expensive. Other people online had made fun of the coconut wax users for "paying too much for wax" and I didn't want to be made fun of. I was new to candle making and felt insecure about how poorly I was doing. I honestly didn't even know how much coconut wax cost. When I looked it up I realized it was not so expensive and I had clearly been throwing money away hand-over-fist on waxes that were not working at all. So I ordered some Coconut Apricot wax (Ceda Serica) and didn't mention it online.

The first time, the very first time that I made a candle with coconut wax it was PERFECT! No sink holes, dimples, rippling, or shenanigans of any sort. Of course, when I burned it I had problems because I had no idea how to wick a candle properly, but I was happy with the win. Hey, the whole 'lighting it on fire' part is pretty tricky! Since that glorious day, I have been loyal to coconut wax and I have had perfect tops every single time. I now have no idea where my heat gun is and pour overs are something I only do with my coffee. Bottom line, if you are using a heat gun and doing pour overs, you're using the wrong wax for you. It shouldn't be that difficult. It certainly doesn't need to be. 

For all of the above reasons, I now prefer to work exclusively with coconut wax, (although we now carry a soy blend that behaves like a coconut wax!). My personal favorite pre-blended waxes are: Coconut-Soy Pearl, Soy Bliss, and Luxe Coconut-Apricot, and all are available at Sixteen Seventeen. I do love many other waxes and use them to create blends that intrigue me. If you are new to coconut wax, it's best to start with a pre-blended wax, and any of these waxes will be excellent. People love to debate which wax is better and if you ask me, the answer is the one YOU like the best.

One of the other benefits of working with coconut wax is that you do not need to cure before testing! This was a game changer for me. You can wick test your candle the very next day. To test for hot throw, you may want to wait up to two weeks, but you will be able to smell your candle just fine the next day. It will become stronger smelling over time, but for wick testing purposes, next day is just fine.

Coconut wax needs to be heated to slightly passed 200 degrees F before fragrance is added. This allows the fragrance oils to fully bind with the wax. This was difficult for me to do with a double boiler on the stove. I truly wish I had bought a proper wax melter when I started making candles. Instead of spending $70, I tortured myself with hours of melting small amounts of wax in a pan of water over the stove. Get a proper wax melter. It will help you immensely. A small size presto pot with a metal spigot works great. You must NEVER walk away from the presto pot as your wax can get very hot very quickly. Leave the lid off when melting the wax. You will need to research flash points of wax and become familiar with safety precautions that this article does not address. There are plenty of facebook groups and online forums that discuss wax melters and safety precautions.

If you do not have an infrared thermometer, get one. Candy thermometers were just awful for me and I wish someone had told me to spend $10 on Amazon for an infrared thermometer.

If you do not have a decent digital scale, get one. I like the scales that are accurate to a tenth of an ounce, although it is acceptable to round up and down.

There are wonderful facebook groups for coconut wax users and I highly recommend you join one. My favorite is "For the Love of Coconut Wax" hosted by Teri Brown. This group is great for beginners and seasoned candle makers. They serve up a wealth of knowledge without the side of drama. Everyone is respectful and supportive, and you will not feel intimidated. You will be able to get many of your questions answered that this article does not address. Use the search bar within the group as many of your questions have been asked and answered.

If you are new to candle making and struggling with waxes, I strongly encourage you to try coconut wax. 

Wicks

Wicking is the most difficult aspect of candle making, and while there are no shortcuts to wick testing, there are some great tips that will make the process so much easier! A properly wicked candle will give great hot throw, does not smoke or soot, does not make the container too hot to touch, will provide a full melt pool that isn't too deep, has reasonably sized flames that are not a fire hazard, and will provide a clean burn throughout the life of the candle. There is so much to discuss about wicking---this article could become a book about wicking if I let myself go there! For the purposes of this article, I must narrow the subject to tips, tricks, and general advice, trusting that you can learn so much more than I could ever tell you about wicking from the online hive-mind!

Coconut wax likes small wicks. By small, I mean the diameter of the wick, not the length. Always order minimum 6-inch length wicks as many of the smaller diameter wicks are often sold in the tea light size of 3-inch length. And it's a bummer when you try to wick a candle with a 3-inch tea light wick. Many folks will advise you to buy a bunch of wick sample packs. That's okay, but you will end up with a few samples of the sizes that you need and a lot of sizes that are just too big for coconut wax. Because coconut wax needs much smaller wicks that soy wax, these larger wicks are going to be way too big for your gorgeous coconut wax candle. I recommend that you buy small amounts of each brand of wick in the first 1-4 sizes offered

A Word About Testing

When I was new to candle making I would pour testers with different fragrances, in different containers, and add color to some and not to others. My testing procedures were a chaotic, muddled mess. I was just so excited to try every new product and fragrance that I couldn't help myself. As a result, I never achieved any helpful results until I began testing properly. When wick testing you must remove as many variables as possible. The proper way to wick test is to pour one candle, without wicks, and insert the wick the next day. Always write down the wick you are testing. When that wick fails, remove it, (I use needle nose pliers), and when the candle has reset, insert the next wick you are testing. Write it down. You may find the correct wick easily or you may burn the entire candle having never found the correct wick. It's okay. You will eventually succeed! When you think you've found the right wick, pour a tester with the wicks attached to the container (wick stickers work great). This way, you can see how the wicks perform closer to the bottom of the glass. Sometimes the wicks will appear to die out or exhibit very small flames halfway through the burn. Other times, the candle begins to burn too hot at the midway point, and the exterior jar temperature exceeds 175 F, which is an automatic fail. For this reason, some experienced candle makers will pour their testers only half full. This allows them to save time and wax as they know that if the wicks perform well from the halfway mark, they likely have a winner. Their next test will be with a full container of wax and the same wicks, fixed to the bottom of the glass. When testing candles, eliminating variables is important. Testing one thing at a time will give you measurable results. 

Which wicks should you buy? The short answer is all of them. This is because even when you have found your favorite couple of brands, you will inevitably run across a container or a fragrance that hates your favorite brand of wick. When this happens, you will be very happy that you have many other brands of wicks to test with. Remember, every time you change fragrances, fragrance load, modify wax, or change containers, you must test. Some of the most popular brands of wicks that coconut wax users like are:

  • CDN
  • CD
  • LX
  • Premier 700 Series
  • Zinc
  • HTP
  • Eco

I recommend that you purchase small quantities of each of these brands in the smallest sizes. For example, you may choose to purchase CDN wicks in sizes  2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. These are the five smallest sizes offered in CDN, a wick that is very compatible with coconut waxes.

When wicking containers three inches or larger in diameter, it is advisable to double wick. While soy wax can be successfully single wicked in a three-inch-plus container, coconut wax cannot handle a wick large enough to achieve a full melt pool. Double wicking larger diameter containers looks beautiful and gives a gorgeous burn.

Just a quick note about burn time. I see a lot of candle makers fretting about which wick gives the longest burn time. My opinion is, who cares? Customers don't choose the candle with the longest burn time unless they're buying emergency candles. I recommend you choose the wick that provides the best performance regardless of burn time.

On SixteenSeventeen.com you will find wicking suggestions for all of our containers. You may find that our suggestions work perfectly for you! Or, you may find that you prefer something different. As long as your candle is not smoking, sooting, or exceeding an exterior temperature of 175 F at any point in the burn, (including your power burn!), it is perfectly fine. Although we do a lot of testing around here, you will still need to test your own candle.

Why don’t I talk about wooden wicks? Well, I have (mostly) not used profanity in this article and I’d like to keep it that way. In my family, we still don’t discuss the year that I tried to make wooden wicks work; it is verboten. All kidding aside, I don’t use wooden wicks because I just can’t make them work consistently for me. There are plenty of enthusiastic wooden wick users though, and you can find those happy people in Facebook groups.

Fragrances

I love fragrances and perfumes, and when I was a beginning candle maker I ordered a plethora of fragrances. I had hundreds of little bottles and I spent hours combining different fragrances like a little French perfumer trying to achieve olfactory nirvana. It was lots of fun but it didn’t help me a whit with candle making. If you’ve got hundreds of fragrances lying around, that’s okay, smelling stuff is fun! Just remember that scent combining is an advanced technique and you need to master the basics first.

When we put fragrance into our wax we change how the candle burns. Each fragrance has different properties that affect wax in a variety of ways. My mad scientist escapades did not yield any usable data because my fragrances were always different. Most candle makers try to achieve a blowout hot throw. I was forever trying to please my father, who wanted a hot throw that he could not only smell throughout his 2,800 square foot home, but from the neighbor’s yard as well. That’s just fine, except I should have been using a select number of fragrances that are well known for providing a killer hot throw rather than mixing 20,000 different scents together.

I recommend that you find approximately ten good quality fragrances that are well known for great hot throw in coconut wax. Work with these fragrances until you can successfully wick them. Since much of hot throw is due to wax and proper wicking, it is difficult for beginners to know if a fragrance isn’t throwing because you are working with the wrong wick/wax, or because the fragrance is just 'weak sauce'. This is why I recommend finding fragrances you like that are well known powerhouses in coconut wax. 

It is our opinion that not all fragrances are created equally. We have tested hundreds of fragrances and only a very small percentage make it through to round two. For us, it must preform well, possess a level of sophistication or uniqueness, AND provide a killer hot throw. Here is a list of some of the fragrances we are currently pouring that have 'made the cut' with us:

Candle Cocoon:

Sugar Shanty

Neroli de la Luna

Patchouli Dreams

Mountain Meadow Honey (This one we pour at 10%. It is STRONG and will clog wicks at higher than 10%)

The Candle Maker's Store:

Cherries on Snow Type (This one we pour at 10%)

Candle Science:

Apples and Maple Bourbon

Beach Linen

Fraser Fir

Rose Petal Gelato

Scentsational Soaping Supply:

Rose Jam (a must have)

Mahogany Teakwood (a must have)

Sugar Plum Berries

Balsam and Cedar

Sun Drenched Apricot Rose Yankee Type

Northstar Country Candle Company:

Victorian Rose (true rose scent and amazing throw)

Rustic Essentuals:

Christmas Bliss (a must have)

Bramble Berry:

Wild Rose

Emerald Agave

Midnight Waters

Fragrance is personal and we experience it uniquely. What I love may just be “meh” to you, and that is okay. You are an artist and you must please yourself first. Work with fragrances that YOU love, not what you think other people will like. I still can’t stand the smell of honey because of the three months I worked with a honey fragrance I hated. Other people loved it so I thought I should too. The candle you are making right now is your art and a representation of you, and as such you should love everything about it.

Here are some tips about fragrances I wish I had known when starting this journey:

  • Use fragrance oils, not essential oils. Stay away from fragrance oils that have high essential oil content. They just won’t burn well.
  • Use enough fragrance oil. 12% is generally good with coconut wax. On some occasions a fragrance oil needs to be reduced to 10%.
  • Don’t color your wax. It’s unnecessary and it clogs the wick.
  • Making fragrance-free testers is a waste of time and money unless your finished product will be fragrance-free. Any data you gather will be useless when you add fragrance to the candle.
  • Don’t be cheap. Get good quality oils from reputable sellers.
  • Use phalate-free fragrance oils. You’re going to be inhaling a lot of this stuff.

Containers

I love candle making, I really do, but I am passionate about glass. Beautiful glass evokes emotions; the heft of a stately piece, the alluring delicacy of an elegant piece, the dignified grace of a minimalist piece, all make us feel something wonderful. This is why it offends my senses when a beautifully crafted candle is hoyed into a mason jar. Somehow this has become the American standard and it needs to stop. There is no reason for it. I suppose if your niche is recycled or, even better, upcycled, then it’s perfect. But that’s not the reason every candle maker feels compelled to pour into mason jars and boring Dollar Tree glass. It is simply what everyone does and the 'monkey see, monkey do' effect has shaped the U.S. candle market into the laughing stock of the developed world. Europe and Australia don’t do this! Why should we?

When I first began making candles, I too bought awful containers that I didn’t like because they were cheap. I felt that my newbie creations weren’t good enough for beautiful glass, so why waste the money? A lot of candle makers in Facebook groups made fun or talked down to people who spent money on nice glass. New people like me were intimidated. "You'll never be able to sell that. It's too expensive," they told the newcomer. Never mind that the container in question was usually around five bucks. (Quick aside: I will tell you that the first candles I ever sold were three, 16 oz. candles for $60 each!) Additionally, it was terribly difficult to find beautiful glass in the U.S. I figured that when I got better at my craft, I would buy nice containers. The problem with my beginner’s philosophy was I spent all my time and money learning to wick containers I hated! Remember, every time you use a new container you have to test everything all over again. I was making candles in containers I didn’t like enough to give away, let alone sell. What a waste.

My advice is to find containers you love. You will be so much happier with the entire process as well as your finished product. They don’t have to be Sixteen Seventeen containers, but you do need to love them. When you order new containers, get one that is just for testing. It’s going to get pretty barked up during the testing process and you won’t want to sell it or give it away.

We all have personal preferences when it comes to containers and I will tell you what has worked for me. I prefer thick glass with a bit of heft to it. Every once in a while, I will choose to work with a thinner, more delicate glass because it’s just so darn pretty. Thicker glass feels good to me, it feels like quality, but it is also a bit more forgiving when it comes to temperatures. Thick glass doesn’t get as hot to the touch if the candle is a teensy bit overwicked. I also strongly prefer to work with colored glass or ceramic. Not only is it more visually pleasing than clear glass, but it hides adhesion issues. You will never be able to overcome adhesion issues because none of us can change the laws of physics. Wax contracts and expands as temperatures change, and this is why you will suddenly have ‘wet spots’ when yesterday you had none.

Size really DOES matter---The wider the diameter, the better the hot throw, in general. Containers with narrow tops just don’t to throw as well as wider diameter containers. I prefer containers that are 3 inches plus. If I am working with an even wider, shallower container, in excess of four inches, I love to triple wick! There are stunningly beautiful containers with diameters less than three inches and I will happily work with them, but they are ‘bedroom candles’ for me, not living room or great-room candles.

These container tips and tricks have worked for me but may not be your experience. If you take nothing else away from this section, I hope you, at the very least, now feel you deserve to truly love the glass you are working with. Candle making is an art and you are the artist. After all, no one expected Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel with crayons.

I am so grateful you took the time to read this and I welcome you to the candle making community!