Most of us, I am sure, would consider honey as being the principal product of the hive, and yet, pound for pound, beeswax is nearly four times more valuable. It is a commodity, which is often overlooked by beekeepers, yet it has a variety of uses, and is greatly sought after by many artisans. It is used in encaustic wax painting, and in the restoration of antique furniture. It is used by wood turners, saddlers, blacksmiths, seamstresses, candle makers, polish makers, and even to wax the mouthpiece of your didgeridoo. With all these uses, we should not allow a single piece to be wasted.
There are two areas from which we tend to harvest beeswax. One is from old combs and bits of brace comb gleaned from hives during manipulation, and the other is from cappings, at the time of honey extracting. The best of this comes from the cappings, as it is all new wax, but there is also a market for darker wax, which comes from old combs. A cabinet-maker working with dark timber will not want a bright yellow wax for his finishing. A dark colour would be far more suitable. The two harvests are dealt with in different ways.
Dealing with old combs is quite often a job, which is relegated to winter. It is usually tackled during the winter clean up, when equipment removed from the hives during the busy summer period, is cleaned up, given a coat of wood preservative, old comb cut out, and frames rewaxed with foundation in readiness for the coming spring. This old comb is usually darkened by age and the presence of many pupal cases adhering to the inner walls of the cells. Nevertheless, there is usually sufficient wax in the structure to make it worth harvesting.
Hive scrapings of brace comb are usually collected through the course of the summer, and saved until there is sufficient to warrant processing. The manner of processing is dependent upon the equipment available. By far the easiest way of recovering this beeswax is by the use of a Solar Wax Extractor. This comprises a sloping stainless steel tray, housed within a wooden box, with a straining plate at the lower end through which the molten wax flows into a receptacle beneath. The box is covered by a double glazed lid, and positioned in a sunny spot in the garden. Wax scrapings and old combs can be placed on the tray, and the rays of the sun through the double-glazing will raise the temperature sufficiently to melt the wax. If the pieces of wax and old comb are put into old nylon tights or stockings (I think black ones are best, but that might be just a personal problem), a more refined wax will be produced, with the dross being left in the tights for easy removal and disposal. Large blocks of wax can be produced in this way, and although it might contain a little sediment on the bottom, it is insignificant, and will be of a suitable quality to return to the foundation manufacturers, in exchange for new foundation. If however, it is going to be turned into small wax blocks or candles for sale to the general public, then further refinement will be necessary.
The disadvantage of a solar wax extractor is that, in this country, it can only be used during the summer. If all the year round wax extraction is required, then the use of a Steam Wax Extractor might be preferred. This consists of a stainless steel cylinder, which houses a basket at the top, which holds all the pieces of wax, and a water reservoir below with an electric heating element. The steam rising from the reservoir melts and cleans the wax, which flows through a spout into a suitable receptacle, leaving the dross in the basket.
If small amounts of wax are involved, not warranting the use of extracting equipment, then they can all be put into a pan of water, and heated until the wax is melted. (CAUTION. Do not use your wife’s best saucepan). This will result in the wax floating on the surface, and much of the dross sinking to the bottom. However, there will be some floating dross, and after cooling and setting, this will be found adhering to the bottom of the cake of wax, from which it will need to be removed by scraping. Beeswax melts at 63c, so temperatures too far in excess of this should be avoided, as overheating will damage the wax. If clean rainwater is available, this is to be preferred to tap water, as lime deposits also do nothing to improve the beeswax.
The wax retrieved from cappings, following honey extracting is of premium quality, and is usually that, which is used for candle making etc. If an uncapping tray and separator has been used, then the wax is already in convenient blocks, but if the wet cappings have been put back over a crownboard for the bees to clean up (see “How to Harvest the Crop”), then the resulting crumbs of wax can be melted in a pan of water, or if reasonably clean, can go straight to the final refinement stage.
Final Refinement and Moulding
Whichever point of recovery the wax came from, it should now be in blocks, which are of a convenient size to handle. It will also be reasonably clean, but will still contain small particles of dross, which must be removed. For this final stage, the block of wax should be melted down in a bain marie, or a saucepan within a saucepan. The pan into which the wax is placed should be surrounded by water, and not applied to direct heat. Care must once again be taken not to overheat the wax, and the water in the lower pan should not be allowed to reach boiling point. A block of beeswax will melt in its own time, and cannot, and should not be speeded up. Wax preparation does take time.
Once the melting process has got under way, attention can be turned to the other preparations necessary. As with honey, wax preparation usually takes place in the kitchen, and as with honey, the assumption has to be made that if accidents can occur, they will occur. All vulnerable surfaces therefore, should be covered with newspaper, to catch any drips or splashes of molten wax. The process from molten wax, through final straining, and into the mould must be a fairly slick operation, as the wax tends to cool quite quickly once it leaves the heat source. For this reason, the strainer, through which it will pass, and the jug, into which it will flow, needs to be kept hot. The strainer normally used is a metal kitchen strainer, and the jug is usually also metal. I use a stainless steel gravy boat for this purpose, as I find it an ideal shape for pouring into narrow candle moulds. The kitchen cooker is being well utilised therefore, with wax melting on the hob, while utensils are being kept hot in the oven, which should be set at around 75c. To avoid drips of wax in the oven, it is advisable to use a tray to contain the utensils, and if this is covered with tinfoil, at the end of the operation, the tinfoil can be removed and disposed of, leaving the tray unblemished. So, we have wax melting on the hob, a strainer and jug being kept hot in the oven, and a table covered with newspaper. All that is left now, is to prepare our moulds.
If 1oz wax blocks are being produced, there is very little preparation necessary. Simply lay the moulds out on the table making sure that they are reasonably level. If candles are being produced, there is a little more to do. The easiest form of candle mould are those made from silicon rubber, and it is these that we will dwell on here. These moulds are fairly robust, and the short ones are free standing, but the taller ones will need some support. The mould is split lengthwise in order to receive the wick, and is then sealed by the application of several rubber bands. Care needs to be taken that the rubber bands at the base of the mould (which will be the top of the candle) is firmly applied to avoid leakage. Before we can proceed to this stage however, the wick should be waxed. Our finished candle will light much easier, and burn smoother with a wick, which has been previously soaked in wax. First of all a suitable wick should be selected. This is dependent upon the diameter of the candle being produced. For a ½ inch candle, No1 wick is required, for 1 inch No2, for1¼ inch, No3 etc. It is important to use the correct wick if the candle is to burn smoothly without excessive drips, and right to the circumference. By now we should have some molten wax in the saucepan. Candle wick is usually bought in 5metre lengths, and this should all be immersed in the molten wax leaving the tip just hanging over the edge of the pan. This can then be grasped by one hand, and drawn between the gloved fingers of the other hand, squeezing out excess wax. This can be a painful experience if a suitably thick glove is not used. A smooth waxed wick will be the result of this operation, and this can then be cut to the correct length, which should be about an inch longer than the candle mould. The wick is then fitted into the mould allowing about a half inch at each end, before sealing with the rubber bands. The wick is held centrally at the base of the mould by the mould itself, but at the upper end, where the wax will be poured, another means must be found. It is essential that the wick is held in a central position, well clear of the sides of the mould, otherwise the candle will be ruined. I find that the easiest way to achieve this is by the use of a hair grip. Laid across the top of the mould, it will hold the wick in place, and will have a firm enough grip to provide sufficient tension to keep it away from the sides.
With the moulds supported, if necessary, in an upright position, we are now ready to pour the molten wax. This is where the old nylon tights come into play again. The jug and strainer are taken out of the oven, and a part of the tights stretched across the top of the strainer, utilising the elastic in the tights to hold it in position. The molten wax is then poured through the tights, through the strainer and into the jug. It is then quickly transferred into the moulds, using a piece of kitchen tissue to catch any drips, which might run back down the jug. Needless to say, because all the utensils are hot, this is best done with the help of an oven glove. As the wax cools, it will contract, and in long thin candles, a hole will sometimes appear in the base of the candle (the top of the mould). This can either be filled with a little more wax, or trimmed off after completion. After the wax has been allowed time to set firmly, the candle can be removed from the mould. Great care should be taken in doing this, for two reasons. Firstly, the mould can be damaged. During stretching to release the candle, the split at the base of the mould could be lengthened, resulting in leakage during subsequent use. It has to be said though, that the majority of any leakage problems is usually as a result of overheated wax rather than faulty moulds. Secondly, the candle could be damaged. Unless one is extremely patient, (an area which I have a problem with), the wax can still be soft during removal, which could result in a bent candle, or the wick pulled out. Once the candle has hardened, the base can be trimmed with a sharp knife, and the wick trimmed on top. The candles can then be packed in pairs, or sold individually. When packing in pairs, I find florist’s cellophane a useful packaging medium, and there are many forms of candle decoration, which can be applied to enhance the presentation.
Wax blocks are generally less fussy to deal with. Once the wax has set, and can be seen to be contracting away from the sides of the mould, it is a simple matter to turn the mould over, and bang it flatly on top of the table. The blocks will usually come out quite readily, but if there is a stubborn one, submerging the mould in cold water will usually result in the block floating out. Wax blocks are usually sold unwrapped.
Having produced our beautiful waxen images, we are now left with the onerous task of cleaning up. Well, not that onerous actually. With the use of loads of kitchen tissue, the job can be finished quite quickly. Don’t use water to clean utensils. This will only result in the wax sticking firmly to everything it touches. Whilst they are still hot, just wipe them over with lots of kitchen tissue.
There are of course, other ways of making candles, and other forms of wax utilisation, but we are interested here in presenting wax in a marketable form, and simplicity is the keyword.