Tag Archive | power outage

Burn, burn, burn it to the wick

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!

2 Tbsp borax, 1 Tbsp salt, 1 cup water, and one long cotton string.

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!

The can is not actually on fire, but it does look kinda cool.

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).

Pretty! Not yummy!

The next step was to cut my wicks and dip them into the wax. They’re supposed to have a nice coating.

And we’re dipping…

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.

We’re state-of-the-art here.

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.

Still hot

Less hot

Until the next morning.

Not what I had envisioned.

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.

Yes, it used to be pink. Now the top of it’s white. Guess what? I don’t care.

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.

Hot glass, hot wax, A-OK.

Happy candlemaking!

Survival of the most prepared

I suppose I’ve always had a bit of a survivalist instinct in me. I remember as a kid, sitting in my room, planning for the end of the world or some other catastrophe and deciding that the bathroom was probably the best room in the house to be. There’s water, you could pad the tub with towels and make a nice bed, and there was toothpaste to eat. I may not have thought that scenario all the way through… My plans have grown in sophistication since then and, while I’m not where I’d like to be as far as disaster preparedness is concerned, it is a lot better than counting on toothpaste for sustenance. The recent power outage brought to light (in the midst of the darkness, ha!) just exactly where we were lacking.  I also had plenty of time to reflect on how much knowledge has been lost thanks to our modern conveniences. Face it — we’re pansies. And ignorant ones at that.

Mr. Gren hauling up river water to flush the toilets.

The day before the power went out, I had just finished reading “Little House on the Prairie” to the girls. When we first started the series, shortly before moving to the cabin, I had pointed out to the girls the way that the Ingalls did things that are different than how we do them nowadays. More people have lived without electricity in the whole history of the world than currently live with it and the human race didn’t die off for lack of toasters or hair dryers (solution to both: Fire). Rana was ready to smoke meat in a log and wash our clothes in the river months ago. While dipping my hands in glacier water is not my first choice of ways to spend a day, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. And there are better “primitive” ways of doing laundry than that, too.

Melting a pot full of snow to use for washing hands and dishes.

I started making a list of things that would have been helpful during those four days. In the case of laundry, we could put that off, but if we were going to truly prepare for a prolonged outage or a Volcano-Tsunami-Earthquake Trifecta (oh yeah, we get it all in the PNW), a large washtub would come in handy for a lot of things. While I did manage to cook a few meals in the fireplace with my solitary cast iron skillet, it was not an ideal situation. As imposing as that fireplace is, it’s not really set up for cooking. In order to really make it work, the mouth would need to be much larger to accomodate a hook and arm and so I could see what the heck I was doing. My family appreciated the warm pancakes I made, but they came out looking like Othello chips, although I think they tasted better, especially with butter and maple syrup. The cabin would have stayed a lot warmer if it were smaller, like the Ingalls’. If the well had a hand pump, we would have had less trouble getting water. Lots to contemplate for the day we get to move into our own house, whenever that may be.

No grill? No problem. I used my cookie cooling rack. It's a little worse for the wear now, but it served its purpose well.

So what business does all this survivalist-apocalypse talk have on a crafting blog? Creativity is the link. It takes a certain amount of creativity to figure out how to cook, read, and wash up with no power. What do you eat? How do you stay warm? How do you provide clothing and blankets? It’s that can-do attitude that so many crafters possess that has helped progress civilization as we know it. Something that began as a necessity (ie. I need a covering to stay warm), evolved from mere utilitarianism into works of art (intricate afghans and colorful quilts). I enjoy making things for the challenge of seeing if I can do it and also to see if I can improve some aspect of our lives through my craft or innovation, and then bring a bit of beauty to our home in the process. The “simple living” movement has tapped into this growing realization that centuries worth of knowledge has fallen by the wayside. Self-sufficiency isn’t goofy. Maybe you will never need to put up food for the winter or mend a pair of shoes to make them last, but wouldn’t it be good to have that knowledge, just in case?

Cold and dark

Last Wednesday evening, Mr. Gren and I were watching a movie when the lights started flickering. We gave each other a knowing look and made sure we had a flashlight nearby and candles within easy reach. When the lights go out in the country, it’s a complete blackness. We barely finished the movie when the power finally did go out. Time to go to bed! It came back on a couple of times through the night and Thursday morning we woke up to the heaters running. Mr. Gren started a fire and shortly afterwards, the power went out again. This time for good. The sun wasn’t quite up yet, but even with the sun, it stays pretty dark in the cabin with just four windows. We have a box full of votive candles that we bought at Ikea that turned out not to fit in any of our votive holders. But a quick raid of the recycling bin provided enough tin cans (tin cans again!) to hold candles, which we distributed in key places in the house. Knowing it was going to get cold soon without the heaters running, we put a gate on the stairs and kept the kids upstairs in the loft all day. By the end of the day, all of us except Granota were wearing three layers of clothing and a hat to keep warm. I have no explanation for her; she’s nuts.

It all started out so beautifully

Outside, things were even more exciting. We had had several inches of snow early in the week, but then Wednesday night the freezing rain started. All the majestic fir trees shrouded in their coats of snow were even further burdened by the layer of ice the rain had created. When we woke up Thursday morning, I commented to Mr. Gren that I had heard rifle shots in the woods. He listened again and said, “No, those are trees breaking.” Treetops, branches, and limbs cracked and broke in a rushing, rattling cascade of needles, ice and snow. It was actually fairly dangerous to be outside, although Mr. Gren and I did have to venture out a few times. The cabin is on well water, so when the power goes, so does the pump. I ran outside several times to fill pots with snow to later melt and use for washing-up water. Meanwhile, Mr. Gren had to make a few trips down to the river with a bucket to fill so that we could flush the toilets. All the while we could hear trees breaking near and far and when the first chunks of snow began to fall, we would hightail it to a clearing as fast as we could. Harder than it sounds when we’re surrounded by trees! It was an eery and disturbing sound. I stood out in a safe spot once and counted seconds between the cracking — trees broke every 5-30 seconds.

And then it got crazy out there

As you can imagine, all that damage worsened the power situation. Power lines were being pulled down all over the place, tree limbs were  in the roads and then… the rain came. Friday, it rained enough to melt the hold the ice had on the trees. Good for the trees, not good for anyone unfortunate enough to be under them. This time, there were no warning cracks before softball-sized chunks of ice cascaded down, pummeling anything below. Those suckers hurt. One got me on the shoulder as I struggled to tromp through half-frozen snow. All day in the cabin, the roof would rattle and shake; the children would stop playing and run to the window to see and marvel. It felt like we were under siege.

It missed our neighbors' house by about two feet.

Day number three without power, the wind came. The wind was both helpful and further damaging. Many of the branches that had broken two days earlier had gotten caught high up in the trees, on wires, or on our roof. The wind helped blow many of them down. But with it came more trouble for the work crews who were out night and day trying to restore electricity to hundreds of thousands of people. I don’t envy them their jobs (but maybe their overtime paychecks).

This one eventually ended up on the power line in front of the cabin

On the fourth day without power, we had some friends who invited us to stay with them until power was restored to the cabin. Really, we had been doing alright up in the loft, dimly lit with candles and an oil lamp. But it was such a relief to be someplace warm, to be able to see, to be able to flush the toilets, and to eat at the table without huddling in coats and stocking hats. Monday morning, Mr. Gren took Rana to school (which had regained power two days prior) and went on to check things at the cabin and was thrilled to find it toasty warm when he opened the door. The heaters had come on! The rest of us returned later that day. It took us some time to resume life as normal. I think we’re finally feeling like we’re back in the regular routine, though. All week I’ve felt like I’ve been playing catch up. So now you know where I’ve been! Next week I’m really going to try to get back on my regular schedule with some actual crafting!