Light ‘Em Up – candles in Christmas trees – Blog Advent (20)

Like Scrooge, we’re all haunted, a little bit, by the ghosts of our Christmases past.  In my ‘Blog Advent’ post on December 6, I wrote a little about my memories of St Nicholas, from the time I spent growing up in Switzerland as a young child.  These were my formative Christmas memories, so of course I hark back to them every year.

A very Swiss tree

One tradition which is still widely practiced in Switzerland and Germany – and not at all, in the UK – is the habit of putting real candles in domestic Christmas trees.  I love this – it feels so utterly ‘proper’ and festive to me!  Yes, of course it’s a fire risk – but so is any lit candle or open fire.  Our neighbours, in the small Swiss village where we lived, seemed to manage to avoid setting fire to their houses every year!

Tree candlesHubby is very British about this – the whole idea seems to him like a huge fire hazard just waiting to burst into a ball of flames.  I asked him to suggest a title for this post and his suggestion ‘Flaming Torch of Christmas Death!’ rather sums up his position on the issue!  It’s not so black and white, to me – after all, people were managing to set fire to their living rooms with the small incandescent Christmas tree lightbulbs well into the 21st century.

But all good relationships are about compromise, so while I wait for him to come around to my way of thinking (this, folks, may well be some time!) I picked up these pretty hanging baubles designed to take tea light candles.  Rather than equip them with a naked flame, I’ve used some LED tea lights which, while not *quite* convincingly the real deal, flicker gently with a warm golden light, and, at least out of the corner of your eye, might just be little candle flames in my tree.

Compromise candles

Not many days left on the advent candle, either!  I had so many bits and pieces I wanted to get done today – my last weekday off between now and Christmas – but instead I spent most of it gently nursing this nasty cold.  Here’s hoping it’s gone by the weekend!

Advent - day 20

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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Take Your Medicine – my perfect hot toddy – Blog Advent (18)

One of the Christmas traditions I don’t relish, but seem to ‘enjoy’ every year all the same, is my traditional pre-Christmas cold!  Well, it’s here again, and almost perfectly on schedule! You have to look for the silver lining at times like this, and the up-side of a filthy winter cold is the perfect excuse for a beautiful hot toddy.  It’s medicinal, honest!

Toddy ingredients

My toddy is whisky based.  But don’t use your best single malt – if your nasal passages are as stuffed up as mine, there’s no chance of you knowing the difference!  You also need some honey, a lemon, a few cloves, three or four whole allspice berries, and a cinnamon stick.  Oh, and some hot water.

Cut two thin slices from your lemon and stud each with a couple of cloves.  Put these in your glass (I use a big red wine glass which I know can take the heat – they’re the glasses I use for mulled wine – but a tumbler or a glass with a handle are more traditional!) along with your allspice berries and cinnamon stick.  From what’s left of your lemon, cut a wedge amounting to about a quarter of a lemon and squeeze the juice into the glass.  Add two teaspoons of the honey (more or less to taste – that’s my personal preference) and a double measure of whisky, and stir with your cinnamon stick until combined.

Now top up with water from the kettle, which you’ve allowed to go just off the boil.   If you’re not *that* keen on cinnamon, take the stick out at this point, otherwise leave all the whole spices in.  Stick your nose in the glass and breathe deeply – you should be able to appreciate the spicy aromatic hit through even the thickest head cold.  Then sip, and enjoy.  All the Christmas spices with a bonus dose of vitamin C, and some lovely soothing whisky.  Drink it while it’s still piping hot.

How could something that tastes so wonderful fail to be good for you???   You know, I think I may be poorly enough that I need to take a second dose!

Advent - day 18

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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Mon Beau Sapin – Blog Advent (15)

Grabbing a few quick minutes to blog this evening before some very lovely former colleagues turn up for food, drink, and hopefully some special memories (ahem!).  Since I’ve been tidying ahead of their arrival, I thought I’d show you this year’s Christmas tree.  Here he is – isn’t he grand?

The Christmas Tree

I’m very pleased with how he’s turned out – and that he fit! Is it just me or do they always look much smaller when you’re choosing them than when you get them home?  Every so often I consider choosing a smaller one, but then where would I put all my beautiful decorations?

The title of the post, incidentally, refers to the French language version of ‘Oh Christmas Tree’, to the same tune – I grew up with the francophone version, and have always preferred the lyrics.  They seem less contrived, somehow!

Only ‘ten sleeps’ ’till Christmas now.  Hasn’t it all come around fast? The advent candle is more than half way burnt down!  Hope all your Christmas plans are coming along nicely!

Advent - day 15

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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Like a Candle in the Dark – Blog Advent (1)

It’s the first of December, and secular Advent is with us at last.  Kids (young and old!) all over the world have broken open the first window of their Advent calendars this morning, and the countdown to Christmas is well and truly on!

Advent candle

I started candle making last year, in a very small way, and mused at the time whether my advent candle, this year, might be home-made.  Well, here it is!  I’m quite pleased with it!

Advent - day 1

Candle making is a great little craft, though it can be a bit time consuming.  I’ve had an Advent candle for many years, and it’s such an important part of my pre-Christmas traditions that I wanted to get it right.

Incidentally, these instructions are equally relevant to making almost any sort of pillar or taper candle.  My consumables (wax, transfers etc) mainly came from Making Your Own Candles (see the suppliers list for more details).

Candle moulds and wickTo make a candle like this one, you’re going to need the following –

  • A taper candle mould (mine were cheap, plastic, and came from eBay – more sophisticated models are available!)
  • Appropriate candle wax – I used 90% of a paraffin pillar blend, and 10% beeswax
  • Candle dye and scent (optional)
  • Waterslide transfers for the Advent days (you can skip this if you’re just making dinner candles!).  You can buy waterslide transfer papers for laser printing yourself, or buy the transfers already printed from a candle supplies shop.
  • Wick – I used LX8 for these taper candles – wick sustainers and mould seal
  • Basic candle-making equipment – some sort of double boiler (mine is a large tin can in an old pan), a jam thermometer, an a stirring stick of some sort.  These should not also be used for food!
  • Kitchen scales, hob, fridge and freezer.

Wax beads with stirrer and dyeFirst, assemble your moulds if required, and then work out their volume (I filled them with water, and then weighed the water).  This will let you work out how much wax they will take to fill.  Wax is about 10% less dense than water, so reduce your weight by 10% and that’s the amount of wax you need.

Each of my taper moulds took about 60g of water, which I adjusted down to 55g of wax made up 50g of paraffin and 5g of beeswax.  I also added a 1g chip of fudge-coloured dye to the 110g of wax (that’s the orange thing you can se in the wax tin).  Now warm the water in your double boiler up until the wax starts to melt.  This should start at about 65C.  Try to keep the water below 75 to ensure the wax stays safely below its flashpoint (the temperature at which it’s at risk of catching fire).  The lower the temperature you keep your melted wax while working with it, the less shrinkage will happen as it cools, which is likely to give you a better result, so be patient and let it melt slowly!

Wick fixed with mould sealMeanwhile, prepare your moulds, feeding the wick through the wick hole at the bottom and plugging this with some mould sealant (I use generic white-tack of the sort you’d use to fix posters to the wall, and this seems to work fine).  Then turn the moulds the ‘right’ way up, and secure the other end of the wick to a wick sustainer, again using some of the tack.

If you’re adding scent to your candle wax, do this now, just before pouring, to reduce the amount of scent you will lose by evaporation from the hot wax.  I added a few drops of sweet orange and ginger essential oils to give a gentle festive scent – but there are lots of commercially prepared specialist candle scents, which, unsurprisingly, you should use according to the directions that come with them!

Moulds ready for pouringOnce your moulds are ready, you can start pouring the melted wax.  Do this carefully but steadily.  You can see that I placed my moulds in a tin just in case the mould seal failed, to avoid molten wax going all over the kitchen.  Fill both moulds all the way to the top.  You will have some left over wax, if you’ve calculated right. This is good news.  Put your filled moulds somewhere cold such as the refrigerator, or outside, for about an hour.

Candles with voids around wicksMeanwhile, either keep your wax melted (this involves watching it carefully all the time) or pour it out into a container like the tinfoil tray and let it set for now. After about an hour, retrieve your candle moulds.  You’ll notice that there’s a massive great ‘well’ in the centre of your candles.  Give this a bit of a poke with a kebab skewer to make sure there aren’t any hidden voids, then re-melt the wax you have left over, and use it to top up the moulds again, right to the top.

Finished candles in mouldsReturn the candles to your cold place to finish setting for a few hours.  When you get them out again, they should look a bit like this.  Now you need to release them from their moulds. Shrinkage is your friend here, so I stuck mine in the freezer for about half an hour.  Then I could pop the cap from the bottom of the mould and gently ease the candle out – well, that’s the theory at least.

Candle free from mouldAs you can see from this next photo, on this particular candle – the first I made, I ended up accidentally breaking the rounded top of the candle in the process. Well, you live and learn, and subsequent efforts were more successful!  Freezing is a big help, as is giving the mould a brisk but gentle tap before gently pushing up from the ‘pointy end’.

You can tidy up and ‘finish’ the bottom of the candle by trimming the wick and then melting the bottom against a hot iron or any other hot surface to melt it down flat.  Obviously, choose your hot surface judiciously and don’t use your laundry iron or anything that’s for food use!

If you’re just making a dinner candle – congratulations, you’re done!  If it’s an advent candle you’re set on, there’s just one more step to go.

Plain candles with waterslide transfersApplying the waterslide transfers turned out to be surprisingly straightforward.  Cut these to size, if required, then soak the transfers in a bowl of tap water for about a minute.  This will allow the clear film which forms the transfer itself to come away from the paper backing.

waterslide transfer soakingThen, very gently place the film on the surface of the candle and smooth it out.  It won’t stick down fully for a couple of minutes as it dries, so you have plenty of time to straighten it out and get rid of any bubbles or wrinkles, I found wiping it gently with a damp piece of kitchen towel was very helpful.

I’m really happy with mine – isn’t it gorgeous!  It’s a lovely warm honey colour, and has a gentle fruity scent from the essential oil additions.

Candle and calendar

Of course, many people prefer an Advent calendar to a candle – those of you who were early readers of this blog may remember my fabric Advent calendar project from last year.  You can see more photos and instructions for the calendar over here.

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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Relight My Fire – DIY recycled wax and wood-shaving firelighters

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!

Firelighter burning well

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…

Equipment and 'ingredients' (1)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.

'Ingredients' (2)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!

Melted wax with about half the shavings addedOnce 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).

Firelighters settingMy 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?

Setting fire to the lighter & kindlingBuild 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.

Keep those home-fires burning bright!

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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Feedback on Country Skills – hyacinths, candles and chickens

I love hearing from my blog readers, especially if you’ve tried out something I’ve written about!

After I wrote my butchery tutorial ‘how to portion a chicken’, blog reader asciiqwerty contacted me to me to let me know how she’d got on following my instructions, and sent me this photo of her finished portioned chicken.

Portioned, skinned and boned out chicken

This time the portions have all been skinned, and the thigh portions have the bones removed – this would make them great for using in a stir-fry or a curry.  She commented particularly on the size of the chicken breasts – which weighed in at about 200g each.  A supermarket pack of two chicken breasts will usually be about 250g in total, so you can see how much more you get for our money.  Well done asciiqwerty, and I hope it was as tasty!

Moving away from food, back at Christmas I made hyacinth bulbs with hydrogel beads, in recycled jam-jars, as gifts for friends and relatives.  I kept one for myself, of course, and thought you might like to see how it all worked out when it came into flower a few weeks ago.

Hyacinth bulb in flower, with hydrogel beads

The smell was amazing, and after this flowerhead died back and I cut it down, the bulb produced a second unexpected bonus flower!  The hyacinth stayed nice and compact and didn’t fall over despite not being secured by anything other than the roots in the jar of beads, which I was very pleased with.

Finally, the recycled chunk candle I made a few weeks back.  I was amazed with this, it turned out so much better than I’d anticipated.

Recycled wax chunk candle

After looking initially as if the melt pool would be a bit pathetic in the centre, it actually burned down very nearly edge-to-edge leaving a thin shell which the candlelight flickered through like stained glass.  I burned it every night for several hours after work, and it lasted a whole fortnight – I’d estimate around 45 hours burn time.

I’d love to hear about any successes (or otherwise!) you might have had trying out country skills – either in the comments, @countryskills on twitter, or by email at countryskillsblog@gmail.com.   Or perhaps there’s something you do that you think I should try – I’m always happy to hear new ideas, so please get in touch!

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Waxing Frugal – making a recycled scented chunk candle

Everyone loves a candle, they cast a lovely warm flickery light, and, chosen carefully, can fill a room with beautiful scent (sure, sometimes they can fill a room with the scent of cheap pot-pourri, but this is a matter of taste!).  After Christmas, we had several left over candle ends around the house, and rather than throw them out, I wanted to do something creative and recycle them.  But while there are lots of great candle-making kits out there, I didn’t really want to spend any money on the process.  So this is a candle-making project that, with the exception of some wick and a wick sustainer, you can do entirely with things that you already have around your home and kitchen.

Recycled chunk candle, burning

For this project, you will need –

  • Two old candle-ends, preferably one coloured & scented and one plain, total weight 300 – 400g
  • Empty Pringles tin (I recommend starting with a full one, and working on it!)
  • Large saucepan, a trivet (or an old saucer or side plate), and a large empty tin can (I used an empty malt extract can from home brewing, but any large catering size tin can will do)
  • Stirrer (I used a large wooden lollipop stick, anything will do but not something you plan to use with food!)
  • Chopping surface (again ideally not one you plan to use for food use in future)
  • Large knife
  • 6in length of appropriate wick, a wick sustainer, and something to use as a wick pin (a kebab stick is ideal)
  • Kitchen hob
  • Scales
  • Jam / sugar / preserving thermometer, old tea strainer (recommended but not absolutely required)

Basic equipmentGather up your equipment, starting with the knife and the pringles tin.  Cut the Pringles tin down to about 4″ high using your knife, and make a couple of ‘notches’ in the top on opposite sides of the top.

You’ll need to get an estimate of the capacity of your candle mould, so put a sandwich bag inside the Pringles tin, put it on the scales to zero, and then fill the bag with water to about a 1/2″ below the top.  The weight in grams of water is a good estimate of the volume in mls, as wax is slightly less dense than water (it floats on water, after all), you can reduce this estimate by about 10% to get the weight in wax required to fill the mould to this level. I came up with 300g and used around 270g as a target weight of wax.

Prepared waxNow, cut up your coloured candle.  Try to cut it into even cubes a bit bigger than half an inch cubed, but it’s likely you’ll struggle, and if the pieces are a bit rough, don’t worry. From what you’ve chopped up, sort to one side and weigh all the sensible chunks, leaving the dust and small fragments aside (wrap these up for another project).  Weigh your coloured chunks (mine weighed about 140g) and put them in the mould to check how high up they come. Ideally this will be about the target ‘fill’ level.  Now roughly chunk up your white wax candle.  It doesn’t matter what size and shape these pieces end up, but the smaller they are the faster they’ll melt.   When working with old candles, try to avoid including the ‘melt pool’ from the candle as this will be dirty wax and may well include bits of old burnt wick and suchlike, which you don’t want in your shiny new candle.

A word about wicks, before we go on – the size and construction of wick you need depends on the chemistry of the candle-wax and the width of the melt pool you want in your candle (which is closely related to the diameter of your candle, usually).  When working with recycled waxes, the chemistry involves a fair bit of guesswork.  I assumed the waxes were a basic paraffin pillar blend, since this is the most usual situation for commercial candles manufactured to a price point.  There’s a useful wick size guide here.  (See my suppliers list and library for more reading.)  I used an LX16 wick which should have been a good match for the ~70mm diameter Pringles mould.  Secure the end of the wick into the wick sustainer using pliers.

Melting waxNow, start melting your wax.  Put the white wax into the large tin, and put the tin inside your saucepan on the trivet.  Fill the saucepan with water so that it comes up the side of the tin about an inch and a half.  Use the thermometer, if you have one, in the water.  You don’t want this to boil, but ideally it should stay around 75 degrees centigrade, which should be enough to melt the wax without risk of overheating.  The flash-point of wax is quite close to the melting point, and at the flash point the wax is at risk of catching fire, particularly if you have a naked flame in the vicinity (for instance, if you’re using a gas hob), so be careful and heat the wax very gently.

Primed wick in situOnce the wax is melted, you need to prime the wick, which just means dipping the wick into the wax so that it can be absorbed onto the surface of the cotton.  Also dip the sustainer in the wax, and use this to secure the sustainer to the centre of the bottom of the Pringles tin.  Stretch the wick up vertically and wrap it around the wick pin to keep it centred in the mould.

Chunk candle with poured waxNow, arrange the chunks of coloured wax in the mould around the wick, trying to make sure you don’t close off any pockets which would prevent the melted wax filling all the gaps.  When you’re happy, pour about 90% of the melted wax into the mould, pouring through the tea strainer if you see any ‘bits’ in it.  Keep the remaining 10% over a low heat to keep it liquid, and continue to keep a close eye on it.

Cooling candle by immersionThe wax will shrink as it cools and this will form a dip or a ‘well’ near the wick, which will affect the candle as it burns.  Encourage the candle to cool by putting the mould inside a plastic bag and immersing it into a bowl of water.  You will need to weigh it down to keep it immersed, I used a marble pestle, but anything heavy will do.  This is of course quite faffy, and if it’s a nice cold day, you’d probably do as well to put the mould outside for half an hour or so.

As the wax sets and you start to see a well forming near the wick, make a couple of holes in this area with a skewer.  Once the surface of the wax is springy but not hard to the touch, pour over the rest of the wax tapping the mould to make sure it goes into the holes you’ve made near the wick.  Now set the mould somewhere nice and cold to set – in the fridge if it’s a warm day, or outside if it’s January in the UK.

Candle cooling in mould

After a couple of hours the wax will have set hard.  I was expecting to have to sacrifice the Pringles can at the end of the moulding, but the wax had shrunk back nicely from the sides, and I was able to ease the candle out without having to destroy the mould – however your results may vary and I wouldn’t lose to much sleep about it if you have to break the mould away from the candle.  Trim the wick so that about 1cm is proud from the surface of the wax.

Recycled chunk candleRecycled chunk candleI’m thrilled with the results, which I think are very pretty for a first effort.  The white wax is a little bit ‘dirty’ which I probably could have concealed by using a little bit of ivory or honey-coloured candle dye.  I poured the bulk of the white wax in two ‘goes’ and you can see the line between them, which is something I’d avoid in future.

Recycled chunk candle, with melt pool

My only real criticism of the finished candle would be that I chose too small a wick – the melt pool the candle produces is quite a bit narrower than the body of the candle, and stops short of the sides by about half an inch all the way around.  I suspect this is to do with the chemistry of the original white candle, which we stopped burning for a very similar reason – lesson learned!  If I re-make this candle with the remains of the white wax from this batch I’ll use an LX20 wick which may give a better result.  The melt pool is very pretty though, a lovely dark pink colour from the mixed waxes and gives a gentle berry aroma.  For the cost of a new piece of wick, and a little bit of kitchen chemistry, it’s a beautiful, and extremely thrifty, scented candle.

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