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 ;-)
EM – since you started this with trying to fix an oil lamp, not candles, did you consider using glass fibres as the wick? You’ll never need another wick after that, at least for that oil lamp. Here I can buy glass rope that is meant to seal the doors of woodstoves, and the core fibres seem pretty good for wicks with a woven outer layer. Although it would work for candles, it isn’t going to burn down so would not be as good, unless you had a system of letting in wax at the same rate as it burned. Possible but a bit more complex – better to use a liquid fuel in the first place.
I used to plait the wicks for bigger candles, but looks like the crochet will be somewhat quicker.
You can use the “reverse wrap” technique to make whatever sized twine you like from cotton thread.
I’d be a bit worried that the spoked ‘wheel’ that lifts the wick would chew loose some glass fibers; but otherwise it ought to be OK.
I knew about glass wicks. Just didn’t particularly think of looking for them. (Part of my “motivation” is toward “things I can do for myself” and making fiberglass isn’t one of them ;-)
But yes, nice idea. I ought to scout out the ‘stove parts’ at the hardware / fireplace stores for ‘suitable materials’….
FWIW, the reason I had to replace the lamp wick was that it has evaporated a tank of fuel through it on standing for a decade or two and the wick was solid / clogged. As I now have a half dozen wicks, I’m set for the next 50 years ;-) I don’t use that lamp much. It’s a ‘when the lights fail’ thing. Then again, probably going to get more use “going forward”…
Oh, and an update on the candle: The 8 ounce one has finally had the wax puddle reach the glass wall. Doing just fine. Nice big flame, plenty of light, stable burn. Wax puddle about 1/4 inch deep. As we’re into it about 7 hours now for this burn, I make it about 50 to 60 hours total burn likely from the candle (based on guessing the number of times the ‘drop so far’ divides into the ‘remaining wax height’) That could be made longer with a smaller diameter wick ( 3 thread or 2 thread) but at the risk of not melting all the way to the glass walls and making a light blocking tunnel with the flame in it. I’ll likely try one of those in a few months ;-)
One of the nice things about candles. Have a dud? Melt it and try again with another wick ;-)
So I’m quite satisfied with this result. It’s just working really well as a home made wick, better than the ‘commercial candle kludge’ (though that works well enough), and I’ve got a lifetime of wick material in my kit now…
But You’ve given me an idea… Wonder if a tight roll of fiberglass cloth would work as a lamp wick? Hmmm….
Where were you about 2 months ago?! ;-)
I’ve actually made twine from agave fibers. The agave was a little too old and had deteriorated a bit too much. But even so, it was fairly strong.
That Instructables site can be an interesting resource for all kinds of DIY level stuff. pg
Cotton filter paper. That serves perfectly. You cut the paper in long strands, twine them to get proper thickness, and wick you have.
It’s also perfect for making fuses, just soak it in a solution of perchlorate and let it dry. Burns nice and at an even rate. That’s what i used it for when i was younger.
I might have trimmed, then rolled or twisted, a bit of cotton gauze from the pharmacy…
@E.M. What is the relation between WICK and WICKED?….perhaps a wrong material? :-)
Why We Test:
So I decided to test the ‘floss’ to characterize its performance. Used a “one floss chain stitch” wick.
First off, getting it lit was problematic. Even though it had been waxed, the wick had a strange yellowish flame that ‘spit’ and sputtered. It very much wanted to die out. Took a couple of lightings to get it down to the wax and forming a wax pool. At that point it started to work “OK”, but not great. It makes a flame about double the size of a votive candle and very much smaller than an equal diameter wick of plain cotton string or stitched thread.
I suspect it has a flame retardant infused into it.
The other explanations would be things like “too fine a fiber” to conduct wax well or “too much borax / salt solution dried on the wick”. Possible, I suppose. Perhaps the floss is just way too absorbent of the wick chemicals? More experiments needed ( for example, a simple plain cotton wick sans chemical dip…)
For now, though, it’s pretty clear that the string and the thread both “work better” in the typical processing. The floss either needs different processing or is treated with something and just will never work well.
These sites are not exactly ‘roll your own wick’ but some folks might find them useful and I for one will not be rolling any fiberglass wick – ever. :)
assorted lamps, lanterns, wicks and related stuff.
blown glass candles (oil burning) – cool, not cheap.
lots of wicks and places to stick ’em :) – glass fiber wicks by the foot (10 foot rolls etc…)
dye and fragrance and wick by the roll (large rolls!)
I use the liquid dye in clear glass oil lamps. (some of the colors, like blue, fade quickly if in direct sunlight). Combine dyed lamp oil, dyed water (with a water base dye – food coloring for example), a glass wick insert from the oillampman site, and some kind of decorative bottle can make some interesting stuff. Keep the wick from getting into the water :)
The story shows that there are more in wicks than just a wick.
I have an observation regarding worse sticks in Colorado than in Denmark. The Colorado wicks tend to crumple together instead of bending out and burn away. I once read a real scientific explanation about it, that professional candle makers somehow do the wicks so that they slowly bends and get burned up just outside the flame. A very important point when you want a candle that burns stable without any care.
Maybe we have been unlucky, but anyway we bring danish candles (and made of stearin) when we visit my daughter in Colorado.
Well… Testing the floss as a single strand (not treated) in a dipped “birthday candle” size, it works fine. So less likely that it’s a fire retardant in the thread. More likely it is a matter of too much “stuff” deposited in the floss.
The Borax is there as a ‘slight flame retardant’ so the wick doesn’t burn up too fast. Too much, it’s hard to light the first time and then the melted / fused salts can clog up the wax flow in the wick.
Most likely the floss needs a non-crystallizing dip in the solution.
The wick bends thanks to a flat woven shape. It isn’t circular, so tends to bend to one side based on the thin axis and the pressures inside the weave. The chain stitch does the same thing.
Stearin makes a great candle. Higher melting point than petroleum wax, but burns clean and with a nice aroma. ( i.e. not a petroleum smell…)
There is both an art and a science to making wicks and candles. There are so many variables that finding a good mix takes some art to direct the search. Then once you have a generally good neighborhood, the control and testing of science lets you direct to a consistent product.
FWIW, I’ve also got a batch of wax that is not behaving well. I’d had some of those big Number Candles used for birthdays. About 3 inches tall and with a main body color and white edging. Used for just a little while, then tossed out as they end up looking nibbled at the top.
Decided to “recycle the wax”. Found out that the decorative color trim and the shell on the body are not very flammable. The wick only goes about 4 cm into the body and the rest of the wax isn’t good for wicks. Designed to only burn a little while, then extinguish…
I suspect I may have some of that wax in the jar used with the chain stitch floss wick. It was ‘leftovers’ form some other candles, so ought to have been OK, but could have been a bottom layer that wasn’t burning so much as extinguishing the old candles when they hit that layer. I’ll often put a 1/2 inch layer of “old wax” in the bottom of a jar to anchor the wick as that level often does not get consumed fully. Save the best wax for the top where it will be highly visible and definitely makes the flame. So I poured a load of that into a candle that was filled to the top… Adding another complexity.
So the “art” was choosing some possible materials and making some wicks and candles. Now the science is to take all the “unknowns” of that process and isolate them to find out “what went wrong”…
So some of that “suspect wax” was poured around a stearic acid candle in a 4 ounce jar. It is now burning, but the wick is ‘clogging’ with carbon deposits (makes a little disk like ‘hat’ where the wax meets the flame edge, instead of burning the wick, it deposits soot…) Flame size is about 1/2 normal. I’m making a candle with a way oversized wick ( chain stitch trussing twine) to see how it handles the ‘funny wax’ (characterized by always staying opaque when solid and being cloudy when melted…)
Ah the joys of ‘just going to make a couple of storm candles, Dear…’…
Well, the floss works fine as a “plain cotton wick”. Made a 2 thread chain stitch wick and put it in new plain old paraffin wax. Working fine in an 8 ounce jar candle (modulo that it’s only been lit for a few minutes, the flame is very large, and I don’t know how long it will last without any mineralized bits).
Other tests showed the ‘recycled wax’ was heavy on wick clogging hard to burn recycled “Number Candle” junk. Pitched it. Also one batch of wicks was a bit heavy on mineralizing. It works, but only after a bit of exterior driven burn to decompose the Borax. OK, need to cut back on the mineralizing. More dilute solution that doesn’t deposit crystals so fast… Perhaps just a quick dunk in a saturated solution and then dried. ( It isn’t strictly needed, mostly it just makes wicks last a bit longer in very fat candles).
Despite the similar sound, there is no relationship between ‘wick’ and ‘wicked’. “Wick” comes to English from old German where it means a bundle of fibers that soak up a liquid.
“Wicked” comes form old English Wicca or wizard.
That often happens in English. Completely unrelated things converge to what looks like a set, that isn’t.
Interesting set of ideas. I’ll have to try them (over a bit of time…) Could be quite fun…
For right now, I’m going to try a slightly more dilute soak on my “quick wick” method and I’ve got a couple of “recycled junk” candles to either burn up (or burn down to the cloudy layer and pitch that level…).
At least I’ve learned that it’s a Very Bad Idea to try recycling Number Candles in an emergency and don’t expect them to burn longer than a couple of rounds of “Happy Birthday”!
Nice to have confirmation that Floss works just fine, too. That it was a ‘materials issues’ with recycling and a ‘process issue’ on the second batch of wick soaking.
Petroleum wax is oxidized. The resulting OH and COOH groups are then used as “spring boards” to modify the wax with other functional groups NH2, SO3, … the list is long and wax, being a long chain molecule, can be oxidized to various degres and modified in endless ways. I don’t know what kind of wax is on dental floss, but you can bet it’s synthetic and culled from a large number of waxes to get just enough slip to get through teeth will enough grab left over to remove stuff between teeth.
All very interesting. Thanks. Several years ago I found some cotton string in the kitchen-things section of a local grocery store.
My own “no could find” episode occurred a couple of months ago when I went looking for an old-fashioned drill bit (I needed a ¾ inch hole through an 8 inch post to hang a gate). The object of my search was a bit with a ‘brace’ shank.
The standard local stores did not have any and only one of several clerks knew what I was talking about. They are still made – finding them requires a web search or travel to a specialty store (none nearby). I bought a small file to sharpen the cutter – then left that project to a more important one. Then time went by. I need to get back to the fence project. This week I would have to do it by candle light – too hot to work out in the sun. Or I can wait until mid-September.
@E.M: Yesterday while loading your page in my Safari browser it appeared a small window saying that I was about to open an “encrypted” page, with a name on it. I just accepted it, but , could it be possible that such a “name” it is the encryption key?
I did some experiments with home-made “tuna can” nightlights, using string as a wick. I had all sorts of problems; the top of the wick curling over, the wick moving sideways and sinking into the wax,… I found that using a paper clip as a “scaffold” and making a line of knots along it (running stitch?) worked well.
I also found that if the wick was too big, the wax would overheat and start evapourating: I could taste it – which isn’t pleasant, and probably not very healthy. Also, the bigger the flame, the more smokey it was – which is also probably not good.
This wick info was very useful to me; now I’m going in search of cotton string . . . :)
Does anyone know where I can find, or make, candle beads on a string? The small beads (1-2″) are strung on a long wick, and sit on a platform to burn one at a time. Saw some years ago, but do not know what they would be called now.
Nope. Sounds fairly easy to make, though. Make round balls of wax and lay a wick in them. Half round ice cube tray and ‘glue’ them together with some warm wax…
A web search on “ball candle” just gives single ones. I tried “string o pearls candle” and got a lot of jewelry hits ;-)
Thanks for the reply. For the ice trays….most of them are a form of rubber or plastic; would they be safe for hot wax?
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