The chimney sweep came this week, and with the equinox just passed, the nights are palpably drawing in. We use the wood-burning stove in our living room for an awful lot of our heating in the winter – the alternative for us, living off the beaten track (and off the gas main!) is our oil-fired boiler, which is both expensive and not terribly environmentally considerate. But even if you’re not using your fire daily, there’s nothing better than a real wood fire as the nights get colder and darker!
We have a fire most nights in the winter, and that brings with it a requirement for firelighting. We cut our own kindling wood from our log supply (well, I say ‘we’ – Hubby does it!) so it’s not as tinder-dry as the bags of kiln-dried kindling sticks you can buy at great expense. While I’ve succeeded in lighting the fire with newspaper, cardboard and kindling, it’s a frustrating exercise, doesn’t always work first time, and we tend to use a firelighter to get the kindling going nice and quickly and conveniently. There’s only one downside – the white firelighter blocks you get from the co-op or the garage *stink* of kerosene. I don’t want them in my living room! And while I occasionally see the nicer wax & sawdust type for sale locally, I can’t buy them reliably.
But they gave me an idea – with the waste-wax I have available from old candles (believe me, I’m really bad at throwing things away, even stuff like this!), the really grotty old stuff that really can’t be recycled into new candles, from melt pools, stained with soot, with old wick and ash and even match-heads in it, in different colours and scents, could I make my own?
The answer is resoundingly *yes*, but with a caveat…
You want about equal volumes of wax and closely packed wood shavings. I was hoping to use some wood-shop waste, to make the whole thing completely free and recycled, but the stuff I could get hold of was too fine and dusty and mixed with big chunks of ‘stuff’. I think the shavings produced when hubby breaks out the wood-turning lathe would be ideal, so I’ll save those in future.
For this batch I used a cup of wood shavings I stole from the supply we keep for the henhouse, it’s a tiny amount and probably cost a couple of pence at most (and technically I suppose is a recycled by-product, anyway!). You also want an egg box (I had a few old dozen-sized egg boxes that have been damaged beyond useful re-use), and a double-boiler arrangement for melting your wax, preferably with an inner container you don’t want to use again for ‘clean’ candle-making, and a thermometer for safety.
Take your dirty grotty old wax and put it all into the double boiler, and heat the water up to about 75 degrees celsius. This should allow you to melt the wax down without getting too close to the flash point of your wax. I’ve used an old can which previously held malt extract for home-brewing, it’s about the perfect size for melting candle wax. Really, any dirty old wax goes here, and don’t worry about trying to remove old bits of burnt or unburnt wick, wick sustainers, matchsticks, or anything like that. Add more wax in stages as the contents of the can melt down, until you have the sort of volume of melted wax you need (it was about 1/3rd of the can, once melted, for me).
This part of the process is where my caveat comes in – it took a bit over an hour to melt down all this wax, during which I couldn’t really leave the wax unattended on the stove (though I did get the chance to have a nice chat on the phone with my little sister). The time investment in making these as a standalone project probably, for me at least, make the cost / benefit of this project a bit suspect! There may be ways around this, more of which later!
Once all your grotty old wax has melted down (it will smell quite peculiar if, like mine, it contains fruity, citrussy and maple-syrup scented candle-waxes!), add your shavings in batches, stirring as you go. You want most of the wax to be absorbed into the shavings, leaving just a little bit of ‘free’ wax to set the mix as it cools. Pack the mix into the wells of the egg boxes, filling them to the top, and squeeze down the contents with your fingers (wait for it to cool partially before doing this, if you like).
My mix made an almost perfect dozen firelighters (I also made two ‘experimental’ lighters with rolled-up cardboard in the well). Allow the firelighters to cool, and then separate them (tear, or cut into the underside of the egg carton to get things going). Mine look like rather suspect pink raw minced beef products because of the red waxes that went into the mix! There’s a very subtle smell about them if you stick them right up to your nose, but nothing unpleasant.
So far so good, right? But it’s all ‘for nowt’ if they don’t actually light fires! Would they do the job? Would all the wax melt and dribble out and make a mess of my lovely newly-serviced wood stove?
Build your kindling ‘jenga pile’, and nestle the fire lighter in the centre. Then set fire to the cardboard edge of the lighter with a match, and watch it go! It burned amazingly well, cleanly, with no wax dripping, and got up to a really good temperature, the kindling wood was snapping, fizzing and crackling almost immediately and the fire got off to a roaring start!
I suspect actually about half the total volume of firelighter would have done the job – a whole egg-well seemed a bit generous. I might under-fill the wells a bit in future and see if it still does the job.
But ‘in future’, if the process is this time consuming? Well, if the performance of these firelighters weren’t quite so good, I suspect I wouldn’t be making them again. I think it will be a task that I do ‘in the background’ in a second can when I’m using the double-boiler for clean candle-making anyway (I’ll be doing quite a bit of this in the build up to Christmas!). If you’re doing any similar candle craft, and have space for a second melting pot (or if you have one of those natty thermostatically controlled wax melting gadgets that you can set-and-forget to a greater extent) then I can thoroughly recommend making these free, recycled little firelighters.
Enjoy your fires this winter, folks (and have a look at my useful little tip for cleaning the glass on a wood-burning stove, while you’re at it)!
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