Being a prepper, I’m used to stockpiling food and gear for uncertain times, but I also like to stockpile skills that will be useful for my family during a long-term disaster. One of my favorite self-sufficiency skills is converting common animal fat, beeswax, and paraffin into emergency lighting that does not require stored batteries, solar chargers, or hand cranks.
Picking a base
Paraffin is the easiest of all candle bases to work with. It is commercially available, and its principal advantage is the ease of access during non-emergency situations.
Paraffin makes a clean-burning candle with little to no smoke or odor, is easy to release from molds, and is suitable for containers, pillars, and dipped tapers.
Recycling candle stumps and container wax is a fantastic technique to extend paraffin supplies, and the frugal pioneers did it on a regular basis.
Beeswax is another commonly available candle foundation that may be acquired locally or online. This natural wax has a higher melting point than paraffin and animal fats, resulting in a harder, slower-burning candle. With the correct wick, beeswax candles release a mild honey scent and produce very little smoke.
The most significant disadvantage is its high cost and potential difficulty in acquiring in unusual circumstances. As a result, old-timers used their limited beeswax supply as a hardener in their paraffin or tallow/lard bases to enhance burn time while lowering their candle-making costs.
Animal fat, my personal favorite, is most likely the oldest candle base, and it remains the most dependable material in times of need.
Any animal fat like sheep, elk, caribou, bear, and so on may be used with only minor variations by hunters and livestock owners. For example, lard manufactured from pig fat is softer and thus faster burning than tallow prepared from beef or venison.
Simply remember that the softer the fat, the faster it burns and the less likely it is to form appropriate pillars or dipped candles unless a hardener such as beeswax or commercially available stearic acid is used.
These softer fats, on the other hand, are more suited for containers, which have the extra advantage of being neat and clean with no wax leaking.
In terms of smoking and odor, none of the ones I’ve produced thus far have had either, with the exception of a very tiny “food” fragrance when extinguished. However, this smell has never remained for more than a few seconds.
Rendering tallow or lard
Before you can produce tallow or lard candles, you must first remove the impurities from the fat. It’s easy to do, but it takes some time. Here are the steps to follow:
1. Fat can be obtained from any portion of the animal. However, the toughest and cleanest fat is leaf fat (fat from around the kidneys). Remove as much tissue, skin, and non-fat particles as possible. It is easier to do this if the fat is almost frozen.
2. Cut the fat into small pieces or toss it in a food processor until it looks like ground meat.
3. You can render either wet or dry. Dry rendering is the process of slowly heating fat in a crockpot, pan, or pot without adding any water. The advantage is that there is no worry about water lingering in the finished product, which could cause candles to become rancid. The disadvantage is that it can easily scorch if heated too quickly.
Wet rendering is similar to dry rendering, except that you add ¼- to ½-cup water to the pan to prevent burning. If you allow the fat to fully render, the water will evaporate, and there will be no rancidity issues.
Slowly heat the fat in both techniques, stirring occasionally. As the fat melts, you’ll notice changes. Depending on the quantity of your batch, this could take anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours.
4. Watch the pot and listen for the fat to start hissing and spitting. This is the fat-releasing pollutants, water, and so on. Small chunks, known as cracklings, will float to the surface. Remove from heat once all of the fat has melted. I like to filter the fat through a cheesecloth-lined strainer as soon as it starts to cool.
5. At this point, you can start making candles or pour the hot fat onto a skillet or cake pan to cool. When it has hardened, take it out and freeze it or store it in the refrigerator for later use.
Selecting molds and containers
Molds and containers can also be constructed from common materials. Cylindrical potato snack containers, waxed drink cartons, and even robust old paper towel rolls will suffice.
These will, of course, be one-time use molds because they will need to be removed off the candle before lighting.
PVC pipe split down the middle to produce a two-piece mold is another option. Simply duct tape the two sections together and tape a piece of cardboard to the bottom. Cut the tape and remove the candle once the wax has hardened and cooled.
Alternatively, if you’re planning emergency lighting ahead of time, you can buy pre-made molds to match any candle design. Almost any non-flammable container will suffice for container candles.
Old jelly jars, mason jars, soup cans, and even heat-resistant earthenware work well. If you’re inventive, you can find molds and containers in almost any place inside your home.
Making the wick
Commercial wicking is more dependable than handmade wicks since manufacturers recommend which styles perform best with which wax/base. The exception is animal fat, which is not listed as an option in most recipes.
When using tallow and lard, my general rule is to use wicks meant for softer waxes, such as soy or vegan, but this doesn’t always work. For example, I have some zinc-core wicking that is labeled as only suitable for paraffin wax, but it works perfectly in my tallow containers.
As a result, it’s best to test a few tiny batches to see which wicking works best for your candles.
If you can’t find ready-made wicking, look for sources of cotton material. You can use old cotton garments, bedsheets, and even cotton yarn. While the burn will not be as effective as with pre-made wicking, handmade wicks will suffice when an emergency lighting need arises. Simply cut tiny pieces of material and carefully braid or twist them together.
Soak the wicking in the candle base for several minutes before constructing the candles, and enable it to solidify as straight as possible. If your lengths are particularly long, roll them into a loose ball for easier storage and trim as needed.
Again, experimentation is essential here. However, before a grid-down crisis comes, it’s advisable to experiment to improve your handmade wicking skills. In this manner, you will be adequately prepared in a disaster when resources are exceedingly restricted.
Picking a style for your candles
Once everything is in place, decide whether you want to create pillars, containers, tapers, or votives. Each has advantages and disadvantages, so it’s best to have a mix whenever possible.
Small votives placed in a mostly covered container work nicely for a dim light that doesn’t spread far. Tapers and pillars appear to operate best in a glass, lantern-style holder with reflectors for the brightest brightness. Nonetheless, I prefer tin can or container candles when children or dogs are present.
Making candles – The step-by-step process
1. In a double boiler, place the tallow/lard, beeswax, or paraffin. If you’re using beeswax or paraffin, select a pot that can be used specifically for candle production.
Heat until completely melted over medium heat. Because you’re not worried about blemishes, you don’t need a thermometer for emergency candles.
2. Cover the workspace with paper to collect any drips while the candle base melts, then prepare molds and containers. Keep a pair of potholders on standby in case you need to move the hot pots before the wax cools.
3. Cut the wicks a few inches longer than needed. You can tie a hex nut or other small but heavy thing to the end of the wick to keep it from floating or curling when dipped. After the candle burns out, the hex nut will be removed from the hardened taper and recycled.
Alternatively, wick tabs and adhesive dots can be purchased to secure the wicking to the bottom of the container. Keep the wick centered with pencils, bamboo skewers, or other materials until the wax solidifies.
4. When the base has melted, add the beeswax or stearic acid (if using) and carefully mix until completely melted.
5. Pour the wax slowly into the mold or container, or start manufacturing dipped tapers.
6. Dip rapidly and hang wicks from a rack until hardened to produce dipped tapers. Dip several times more until the taper is the desired width. When finished and properly hardened, remove the nut from the end of the taper.
7. Allow the wax to cool completely before using it for molds. To remove the candle, disassemble the mold or lightly tap it on a hard surface.
Candles can be burned right away or stored for later use. To avoid softening during warm weather, keep tallow and/or lard-based candles in a dark, cool location such as an additional refrigerator, root cellar, or basement.
Making old-fashioned candles is a fun and useful skill to have that can be done using items you already have at home.
When you burn your own creation, you’ll experience a sense of comfort in knowing that you can meet the requirement for lighting in an emergency, no matter what.
Furthermore, it rekindles our ancestors’ ancient skills and the light source they constantly relied on long before flashlights and batteries were invented.
Useful resources to check out: