Early in life I learned how to make candles. Maybe 8 year old? I made some of my own wicks from plain old cotton string. The kind used for kites and sold just about everywhere. Toy store. Hardware store. “Five and Dime” store.
Plain old cotton string was dirt cheap ( IIRC it was a dime for a fairly large ball of it.) One of those “staples of life” that is just always there. It can be used plain for a mediocre wick that tends to burn up in use ( so best in small candles that burn fast) or it can be treated with mineral salts so that it is more durable and tends to hang around ( best in larger slow burning candles). Typical mineralization is boron based (boric acid or borax ) often mixed with a plain salt.
So a couple of months ago, I needed a new wick for an oil lamp. It took a 1/8 inch round wick. Off to the hardware store. No 1/8 inch round cotton cord. No cotton rope. No cotton string. Yikes! The whole section had gone largely to polyester, nylon, and other synthetics. (In fairness, at the second hardware store, OSH, they had some cotton rope. A large one of about 3/4 inch. I suppose I could have bought a few feet and unwound it, but then I’d have a bunch of spiraling strands to iron out… Had I known how hard it was to find cotton string, I likely would have done that. I figured “Hey, just off to the crafts store”…
But the die was cast.
I’d begun a “Quest For Plain Cotton String”.
The short form is that I could not find it anywhere. Toy stores had plastic kite strings. Craft stores had commercial manufactured wick, at best. Hardware stores had plastic strings and ropes. Camping stores. Cheapo Cheapo discount places. It’s just gone.
I figured I’d have to find “another way”.
Why bother? Because I had a SKILL that is now useless without it. I’d been robbed of an ability. Sure, it’s highly unlikely that the End Of Modern Society will happen in my lifetime, but “I’m Prepared!” to make emergency and survival candles on demand. Heck, I even have a glass jug with 1/2 gallon of Borax in it. (Useful as ant poison as well as making candle wicks…) So I decided I’d just have to “make string” (or something close enough to be usable as wick material.)
At a local fabric store I “got close”. In the ‘make your own drapes’ section they had various cordage for edging. Some was cotton, some was polyester. Unfortunately, the only cotton they had was too large. While, by then, I’d already picked up some 1/8 inch commercial round wicks (at ACE hardware store for pretty cheap) I would still have liked to find a dozen yards of it cheap and generic. Just on principle.
What they did have was plain cotton thread and cotton floss for embroidery. The embroidery floss is about right for small candles, but not for large pillar type ( 2 to 4 inch diameters need larger wick diameters). I bought some, figuring I could weave it up if needed. Later (much later, in fact, just a few days ago ) I had a ‘brain wave’ and figured that you couldn’t get foodies to use plastic for trussing meat. Sure enough, Bed Bath and Beyond had plain old cotton string of a nice diameter for wicks. Terribly overpriced for string; but for $5.00 I have 500 feet of it. At a penny a foot, it’s pretty cheap wick material.
Well, having the material in hand, I decided to see if I could make a decent wick out of thread anyway. An hour or two of “trying things” (while waiting in the car for the spouse on various errands…) and I’d figured out that a simple “chain stitch” made a nice fatter line out of both the thread and the floss. The floss was about the right size with just one set of knots. The thread was about as thick AFTER knotting as the floss started out… So how to make it even fatter? I tried just re-knotting the knotted line. That worked, but ‘irregularities’ added and you have to start with a rather long bit of thread to end up with some wick. It took a bit long too. Even then, it might have taken 3 passes to make a really fat wick.
( I’ve used three passes of a ‘chain stitch’ on ropes as a way to store them. A very long rope can be stored in a non-tangle way starting from any end, and without the need to rotate the line, this way. Just pull the end line through ‘the wrong way’ to lock the stitch. To undo the rope, just pull that end back and pull… ( depending on how you do the ends, you can stop at the middle stages for “very strong” though shorter lengths of chain stitched rope…)
But it occurred to me that simply doubling the line might work better. All I needed was ‘more bulk’, not a particular knotting pattern. Just having more threads would give more diameter and bulk. I tried 2 threads, 4, and 6. The easiest way to do that is to loop the thread over an object ( I used a pencil ) and make a large loop. Tie off the two ends (and any loop ends away from the pencil) then slip the other ends off the pencil. Now you have multiple parallel threads. I used about 2 feet for the bundle (so about 8 feet total thread for a 4 thread bundle).
It’s a bit more ‘touchy’ to do the crochet by hand ( I didn’t bother using a crochet hook, just make a loop, reach through, and pull the standing part through to make another loop. Repeat. ) The multiple threads can get out of sync and leave one poking out a bit, so be careful to pull them all taught prior to cinching down that section of stitch.
Click for a double sized image.
Here you can see a bit of chain stitch on the end of the floss. The #5 floss was large enough for wick for small candles as is, and with a single pass of chain stitching would be suited for a ‘couple of inch’ candles. I could have been done here. But I’d already bought the thread… so I also made some sections of chain stitch thread.
Finally, I made a bit of wick solution, soaked, dried, and made wick. I’ve not made a candle out of the floss yet (as, frankly, it was a better wick so ‘not a challenge’ and if the harder stuff worked well, it would work better, so why bother testing it?). In the end, the 6 thread wick was a bit thicker than I needed for my test case ( made in a 4 oz canning jar ) so I used the 4 thread one. It is the lower wick in the following picture. The sharp cutoff on the left is due to me cutting the wick there with a scissors. (One end gets ‘tacked’ down into the jar with a bit of wax, then small bits more get added with a spoon, letting it set between bits. Eventually a thick enough layer is down that you can add a lot of wax at once. I often set the jar on a cold source to make this go faster….)
While some of the ‘fuzzy’ in this picture is the lower res and possibly less than ideal lighting / focus, a lot more is due to the deposit of mineralization on it. The solution I used was 6 ounces of warm/hot water, one Tablespoon of table salt, and 2 Tablespoons of Borax. Turns out that starts to crystallize rapidly on cooling. I soaked the wick for about 2 hours, then stuck it in the oven at 250 F for about 10 minutes. (Many places say to soak over night and hang to dry for days… I’m just not patient enough for that ;-) The result is a fairly decent layer of salts deposited on the threads. Be careful. I squeezed hard and pulled it though between thumb and fingers to smooth and got a shallow (not bleeding) cut in my thumb from one sharp crystal. Skip that or use a spoon ;-)
The results? I made a candle from some of the “trussing” string and from the 4 thread chain stitch. The string is front left, the chain stitch is front right. Rear left is a commercial ‘votive’ candle. Rear right is a commercial candle in an 8 ounce low profile canning jar (wide mouth). The two commercial ones for comparison. You can see that the chain stitch candle has not burned long enough to make much wax puddle. It continues to work well, even as a puddle forms.
Here is a picture of the same candles taken with a flash and from a lower angle (so relative hight of flame is easer to see) and with a pen for size reference.
The two in front are 4 ounce small mouth canning jars, the perspective makes the 8 ounce right rear look smaller than it ought to look in comparison, but it still is clearly a bit larger.
I’ve also made an 8 ounce version of the chain stitch wick candle since taking these pictures and it is working fine too. As of now I’ve got about 6 hours on it without problems. It has about 1/4 inch to go to reach the jar wall, but looks like it will ‘make it’. These things burn for a very very long time. Days. I make them with some added head space and put a book of matches inside for survival candles. The “easy way” is to just pick a modestly large wick candle ( 1 inch ‘utility’ candles work well) and glue it to the bottom with a bit of melted wax. Then pour more wax around it to about 1/3 inch below the rim. Light the commercial candle and wait for it to burn down… ( I usually saw them into chunks about even with the jar top using a steak knife, just because I don’t like waiting to burn the excess from a full candle height ;-) Nice trick if you don’t want to make wicks.
The jar is water proof, and if they melt in the car trunk in “Phoenix in summer at noon” the wax stays in the jar. Let set and light… Wrapped in some crumpled paper in a box or can: they are highly impact proof too. I’ve never successfully used one entirely. I’ve burned some for ‘several days’, but they still are about 1/2 full ;-) and I move on to other things… Maybe someday I’ll light one of the 1/2 used ones and try to reach the bottom… A couple of 8 ouncers makes for pretty long lived and very usable emergency lighting in power outages. You can set the jar on top of the lid as a heat shield for less heat resistant surfaces. Cheap. Effective. Durable.
But using smaller commercial candles, the wicks are ‘challenged’ with the wax diameter of an 8 ounce wide mouth jar. You can “stretch” a plain candle (one not made with a ‘shell’ of harder to melt wax) to about 2 x the design diameter, but then you really want a bigger wick. Making my own will let me make better use of the wax and give a larger flame / less wick clogging.
Along the way I ran into some useful background information sites.
How to do a Chain Stitch:
It is a much nicer and regular product if you use a crochet hook as shown here:
Though for ‘rough cuts’ you can just make the loop really big, reach through and grab the string with your finger tips, pull and tighten. While the result can be a bit lumpy (and ‘interesting’ if you vary how the loop twists while doing it… i.e. not have a regular pattern…) they work fine as wicks or for cord storage.
How to make wick solution:
Has some interesting ideas about using other salts to ‘color’ the flame. I had about 1/4 the recommended Epsom Salt laying around so tried it. It does ‘whiten’ the flame a little bit. “Someday” I’ll try a more Epsom Salt rich blend (perhaps even the one they recommend ;-) and see if it whitens it enough to be a feature. Don’t know how well the “purple” formula will work. Seeing a potassium flame even in a Bunsen Burner is a challenge. As Potassium Chloride is widely available as “No Salt Salt Substitute”, just swapping it for the table salt might be interesting.
Let the cotton soak in one these solutions all night:
One Tbs salt, two Tbs boric acid (makes the flame deep red), and 1 c. warm water
2 Tbs salt, 4 Tbs Borax (makes the flame yellowish green) & 1 ½ cups warm water
Two and a half tablespoons of salt with five and a half tablespoons of Borax in two cups warm water.
Choose one of the following for a different color flame:
A tsp of calcium burns reddish orange.
A tsp of table salt brings a yellow flame.
A tsp of Borax has a yellowish-green appearance.
Add a teaspoon of potassium sulfate or saltpeter (potassium nitrate) for a purple flame.
A tsp of Epsom salts burns white.
A tsp of alum burns green.
The next morning, take the string from the solution and hang until dried completely – for as long as five days.
As we’ve already mentioned, not being inclined to having stings dripping for 5 days, I just bake in the oven at 250 F for a few minutes ;-)
At some point I might try making a “round braid” to replace that 1/8 inch commercial wick in the lamp. Don’t know how much floss it would take, and not interested in it right now, but for ‘how to make a round braid’ see:
Some Notes On Chain Stitch
I’d been worried that perhaps the chain might come undone as the wick burned. I fretted for a while over which way the loops ought to point. “pull thread” up or “knot end” up? After the salts are deposited, the thing is pretty much glued together and during the burning the salts fuse and so does the carbon to some extent. They just don’t fray at all. Ought not to have worried about it.
A chain stitch is just a whole lot faster to do than a weave. It still gives a semi-flat profile so the wick ‘behaves’ well in burning, making a gentle bend into the flame edge at about the right height.
A chain stitch does make volume go up fast. I’d expected to need at least 6 threads for an 8 ounce wide mouth candle size. 4 is working just fine and I suspect that 3 would likely be reasonable too. 3 or less would likely be better in the 4 ounce jar size.
All in all, I’m quite satisfied with the ‘chain stitch thread wick’ solution. I’ve yet to try the ‘floss’, even though it looks like a smoother and nicer product.
I tried making a chain stitch wick from the string. It’s very large. It works, but I’m going to need something more ‘torch sized’ to justify that big a wick ;-)
Why do this?
Well, it’s kind of a semi-compulsive thing. Once I’ve “got something”, I really don’t like it when that capability is removed. Sure, I’ve got 100 hours of candles in jars already made. Sure, I’ve got enough IKEA Strearic Acid candle to serve as wicks in a few dozen more jars. (A great candle, BTW. Low on odor and smells like Crayola Crayons ;-) But it’s the principle of the thing.
So now my 500 feet of string and a large spool of thread can join my 1/2 gallon of borax in the “someday box”… unless I get the urge to play with some flame colors… and I can go back to more “sciency stuff” or things that have more generalized value.
I’ll likely play around with making a few more candles for a while (just because once I’m in an area, I tend to play there a bit) but mostly this “urge” has now run its course. I’ve got my answers (as do you ;-)