Heat releases fragrance. That’s obvious when you stand in the herb garden on a warm afternoon and breathe deeply, or wander through the kitchen when herbs are simmering in a pot on the stove and the aroma is tantalizing. Another way to enjoy the relationship between herbs and warmth and fragrance is to bring your herbs close to a flame by incorporating them into candles.
The mood created by candlelight is enhanced beautifully by the gentle hint of scent that an herbal candle sends forth. Whether it accompanies the cup of tea you sip at the end of a hectic day or confers an intimate ambience at the dinner table, a candle can soften the edges of your day. You’ll find many uses for handcrafted candles that use herbs for both scent and decoration, and they make thoughtful gifts. Fortunately, they’re easy and fun to make.
Herbs and flowers can be used to dye the wax with rich and subtle earthy colors as described in Jo Lohmolder’s “Naturally Colored Candles” (October/ November 1989). This time, however, we used herbs and essential oils to embellish and scent candles, and we opted for an easier dye method or left the wax undyed, letting it dry to white with a glossy, translucent finish. Here are a few ideas to get you started on herbal candle making.
Scent has been an important element throughout the long history of candle making. Scented candles were often associated with religious ceremonies, and when the Roman emperor Constantine the Great built the first church of Christendom, he ordered that scented wax candles be kept burning there continually. Perfumed candles set into glass fixtures were a hallmark of upper-class homes in eighteenth-century Georgian England. The New World provided its own variations on the scented candle, introducing an excellent candle-making material, bayberry. Today, a simple, fragrant candle in a soft, natural color and a graceful shape is still beautiful and functional.
Adding scent to a candle can be accomplished in several ways. Because everyone reacts differently to scent, do experiment to find the degree of fragrance that pleases you most. For the strongest scent, use more than one of the following techniques.
• Infuse fresh herbs in melted wax. Heat the wax to pouring temperature (180°F for most candle waxes), and add strongly scented herbs such as rosemary, lavender, or lemon verbena. Maintain this temperature for about 45 minutes, then strain the wax, which will give off a mild fragrance. Never leave any wax unattended on a stove or other cooker.
• Soak the wick in a small amount of essential oil before placing it in the mold. This will give the candle a very mild fragrance when lit.
• Add a small amount of essential oil to the wax just before it is poured: a few drops for a small candle, no more than 1/4 teaspoon for one pound of wax. Stir well to distribute the oil throughout the wax so that it will not leave spots of discoloration, then immediately pour it into prepared molds.
Using one or more of these methods will produce a scent that is seldom overpowering, even for people who are sensitive to fragrance. Commercial candle scents tend to be much stronger. If you use one of these, start with about half the amount recommended on the package to ensure that the fragrance of your finished candle isn’t overpowering or distracting.
Fragrance is ephemeral. If you’ve added scent to the wax itself or infused it with fresh herbs, the fragrance on the candle surface that is exposed to air will dissipate, but the scent within the wax will be released when the candle burns. Storing a scented candle in a closed container will prolong its fragrance. An easy way to scent any finished candle, handmade, store-bought, or one that has lost its scent over time, is to light it, then add a drop or two of essential oil to the pool of wax that forms close to the wick. The flame will diffuse the fragrance.
Give some thought to matching the scent to an appropriate color so that the effect isn’t jarring. People don’t expect a vanilla scent, for example, from a green candle. When choosing a fragrance, take into account the scent of the wax itself. Paraffin, the most common candle wax, is odorless, but beeswax has a pleasant honey scent. Herbs blend beautifully with beeswax used alone or combined with paraffin; if you choose to scent it further, use oils that complement its natural fragrance and its pale amber color.
Herbal leaf shapes and flower forms offer an abundance of decorating possibilities. Herbs can go on, in, and around candles in many creative ways, and experimentation is the fun part. If you don’t like what you end up with, melt it down, strain the wax if necessary, and start again.
Embed a dried leaf or sprig inside a candle so that it shows through the wax with interestingly subtle, sometimes eerie effects. Using dried material (a few seconds in the microwave is all it takes) is important to prevent mildew. Place the leaves close to the candle’s surface so that they may be seen but not close enough to the wick that they can catch fire. Use the following method to anchor them in place.
Pour melted wax into the mold. When the outside has set to a thickness of about 1/8 inch, pour the liquid wax back into the container you’re using for the hot wax, leaving just a shell of hardened wax in the mold. Position the leaves where you want them. With a knife or ice pick, cut chunks from wax of the same color and pile them in the center of the mold against the leaves to hold them in place. Fill the mold with melted wax to the desired depth. Using chunks of wax different in color from that of the shell will cause dark or light spots that will show through to the outside. If you have melted all of your wax to color it, you’ll need to let some of it reharden so that you can make chunks of it.
Emboss a leaf or flower onto the surface of a candle after it has cooled and been removed from the mold. Herbs and flowers for this purpose need to be pressed and dried for a few days in a flower press or substitute, such as a thick phone book. Arrange the pressed leaves on your work surface, then dab them with a bit of white glue or hot wax and position them on the candle, pressing them onto the surface until the glue dries or the wax hardens and they are held firmly in place. Coat the design with a thin layer of wax to hold the herbs in place permanently and to keep them from being scuffed or broken. There are various ways to do this.
The simplest way is to paint hot wax onto the candle surface until the herbs are completely coated. To produce a flatter, smoother surface, you can dip the entire candle by its wick for a few seconds in melted wax up to its upper edge. Don’t fill the wax container to the top because as you dip the candle it will displace its volume in wax and the level will rise; experiment to find out how much wax it takes, and use a double boiler so that any overflow will go into the water.
If you don’t have enough leftover wax to dip the entire candle, try putting a smaller amount of wax into a container of hot water; the wax will float to the surface. Dip the candle into the wax-covered water. The candle will pick up the surface wax as you pull it out slowly. Watch for water bubbles, and smooth them out or redip if necessary.
Adding crushed dried herbs to the wax just before you pour will give the finished candle an interesting mottled look. Use loose dried leaves of an herb such as rosemary, matching the herb to an essential oil added to the wax for scent. The crushed herbs or leaves will tend to drift toward the bottom of the candle, creating a lovely effect, particularly with homemade molds such as milk cartons in which the mold and finished candle have the same orientation.