The last of the Christmas gift round-up! This was another Rana project and definitely not something I would have done with the younger kids. Finding homemade gifts for men can be tricky — it’s easy to find all kinds of cutesy, frilly, girly projects, but something that a man might want or find useful can be a real challenge. Rana had pulled one of her uncle’s names for this last one. Knowing that this uncle uses a wood stove to heat his house, when I found this project for pine cone fire starters, I thought that this was something we could do.
First things first: you need pine cones. Pine cones are plentiful on the other side of the state, but over here on the Western side of the mountains, mostly all we get are fir cones. Fir cones, while bountiful, are worthless, acidic clumps of mush. Some people have to rake leaves from their lawns; we get to rake fir cones, or else they burn up your grass and you have no lawn. Actual pine trees are in sparse supply around here, so in order to get the aforementioned pine cones, we used several of those cinnamon-scented pine cones they sell around the holidays. One advantage to this versus foraging for cones in the wild is that the cones are already dried and opened up.
Other supplies you’ll need are wax (we used an old candle) and wicks (cotton yarn). The basic idea is, you put a wick on the pine cone and coat it in wax, then you chuck the whole thing into the fireplace to get your fire going. We melted down a white candle in our pseudo-double boiler (tuna can in a pot of water). Little known fact: tuna cans float. That made the whole cone-dipping process more exciting. Bobbing for pine cones.
Rana did make a cute video for this, too, but Konik is yelling at me in the background while my mom tries to shush him. Oh well.
I had visions of the cones looking as though they had been frosted with snow. Unfortunately, white wax doesn’t look white unless it’s in a solid chunk, so our pine cones just looked kind of greasy. Hm. Another one of those “live and learn” moments, I guess. Even if they didn’t turn out as pretty as we had counted on, we hope that they are at least functional!
Before Guns n’ Roses was the hip new thing at the Little Cabin in the
Timewarp Woods, Granota was all about Heart’s song “Barracuda.” I couldn’t help but sing this line to myself while working on this particular project.
Out here in the woods, we have frequent power outages. A storm kicks up and pretty soon a branch has hit a power line somewhere and we’re all in the dark. And I mean dark. And somehow, even though it usually happens in the middle of the night, the kids know instantly and start screaming. Last year, I dropped small pillar candles into tin cans to serve as nightlights. With the flame down inside the can, it’s not exposed to anything that may catch fire in the house and the can is able to withstand the heat. Of course the kids know not to touch!
Right before Sandy hit the East Coast, we had a sympathy power outage. But, all of our tin can candles had burned down into unusable lumps of wax. Not only that, they had burned so unevenly, that I couldn’t even drop a new candle in because it wouldn’t stand up straight. I had to rummage through the recycle bin to find a clean can to use for that night. The next day, after the power had been restored, I looked up how to recycle candle wax. I knew we still had lots of good wax and it seemed a shame not to do something with it. I also found instructions on how to make my own wicks.
The wicks had to be started a couple of days before I could get to the actual candle part. I have balls of kitchen cotton that I’ve used to crochet dish cloths that I thought would make pretty good wick material. From what I read, I needed to make the wicks almost twice as long as the finished candle. I measured my string up against the cans and cut off one long length of it. Then I had to soak it overnight in a salt-borax-water solution. I’m really not sure what that does, but everything I read said that this was necessary for making a good wick. Who am I to argue? I don’t know what I’m doing!
After an overnight soak, I had to let the string dry thoroughly. I hung it up on the chimney where kids couldn’t get to it and the warmth would speed the drying process.
Day 3 I was finally ready to make candles! But first, I had to extract the wax from the cans. I stuck the cans in the fire to heat them enough to loosen the wax and pour it out into a $2 pan I bought at the thrift store just for this. I don’t have many cooking pans and I didn’t want to ruin one of my good ones! I’m glad I did it, because I’m not sure I would have been able to get all the wax out. And now, with a dedicated candle wax pan, I don’t even have to try. Efficiency and laziness all rolled up into one!
So where was I? Oh yes, wax in a pan. Unsightly globs of half-burned candles.
I set the wax pan over a saucepan with water to make my own little double boiler. I didn’t want the wax to get too hot too fast. It didn’t take a terribly long time for the candles to melt and it was interesting to see how certain ones went faster than others. Once everything was nearly liquified, I had to fish out the old wicks and those little metal disks (wick holders? Is that a thing?). At first I tried using a fork, thinking that the hot wax could just drip back down into the pan while I scooped up the wicks n’ stuff. I didn’t count on the wicks also being thin enough to slip between the tines. Nor did I count on the fact that cleaning hardened wax from between fork tines is a pain in the butt. I traded in the fork for a spoon and that worked much better. When the wax hardened on the spoon, it was easy to scrape off back into the pan (Never ever ever ever put wax of any form down your sink!! I know, it looks like kool-aid and you might be lured into thinking it will always stay so beautifully liquified, but you would be wrong. Also, don’t drink it; you don’t want to clog up that plumbing, either. I have to say these things. Just in case).
The next step was to cut my wicks and dip them into the wax. They’re supposed to have a nice coating.
It doesn’t take long for them to dry, but I hung them from this sophisticated drying rack just to make sure that they would stay nice and straight.
Finally, it was time to pour wax back into cans. Oh, and for the record, these are larger than soup cans. I think they were pineapple cans in a previous life. At this point, my wax melting pan left a little to be desired: when I poured out the wax, a fair amount also dribbled on the counter. Luckily, if you peel it up when it has cooled but is still soft, it’s an easy clean-up. Just toss it back into the pan to melt again! I didn’t fill the cans to the top because I purposely wanted there to be a good inch or so between the candle itself and the rim of the can, for safety’s sake.
At this point, my internet instructions diverged into two camps: those who advocate inserting the wicks into the still-hot wax, allowing the wax to cool and harden around them, or those who are proponents of letting the wax cool and then drilling a narrow hole through the hardened wax in which to insert the wick. I liked the sound of the latter; it seemed like less hassle. But I was impatient and didn’t want to be caught in another power outage without any viable candles. Into the hot wax we go! Well, not “we.” That would hurt.
As I predicted, this was a hassle. Of course the nice, stiff wicks instantly soften once they come into contact with the hot wax. After a little bit of trial and error, I found a way to keep the wicks up and centered without me having to stand there holding them, ’cause who wants to do that? I set them outside on the porch to cool overnight. They looked like they were going to turn out great.
Until the next morning.
Every single one of them had a sinkhole right next to the wick. Obviously that’s not going to provide the most efficient burn. I needed to fill in those holes with more wax, but I didn’t get around to it that day. Guess what happened that night? Yeah, another power outage. With the help of a tiny flashlight, I found the least-sunken can candle and used that for the nightlight. Once I trimmed the wick down to a little over 1/4″, the candle burned really well. Success!
I’ve now filled in the rest of the candles and trimmed all the wicks so we are set the next time we lose power. If you have leftover candle chunks, I’d suggest doing this and keeping a few can candles around for emergencies. It’s not hard to do and it could be a real help, especially if all the flashlight batteries are dead because your kids keep playing with them during the day.
A note on candles in glass containers: I had a few half-melted votive candles and a large jar candle that had burned unevenly. One site I saw recommended putting the glass containers in the freezer for a little while; the wax would then pop right out, ready for re-use. That was fine for the votives, but the jar candle had a lip that the wax couldn’t get past. I used a table knife to carve out chunks and that was working ok until I put my thumb right through the glass. Amazingly, I didn’t cut myself. The glass was very brittle from being cold and just cracked and broke like pieces of plastic. So if you do put glass in the freezer, be extra careful!
I had one decorative glass bowl with a candle in it that had also burned unevenly that I wanted to try to pour again. I set the glass bowl into a pot of water (lifted off the bottom with a metal jar lid so that the glass wasn’t in direct contact with the bottom of the pan) and heated the water until the glass was hot all the way through. I made sure that the water level was low enough not to spill into the bowl, but high enough to heat the majority of the bowl. Then it was ready for me to pour hot wax into it without fear of cracking it from thermal shock. It worked like a charm! I also ended up with a sinkhole in this candle, so I poured additional wax into it; it’s not quite as pretty now, but once I burn it for a bit, all that wax will even out again.