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Archive for May, 2010

Huh?  That’s the highly scientific name for the infamous June bug (namely the one that haunts the northeastern United States).  By the way, am I the only person in America who’s terrified of these monstrous insects?  The fact that they come out of the night like phantoms and thump against your body is disturbing enough, but when a hoard makes contact with the vinyl siding on my house, the stony snap of misguided projectiles with writhing little legs is downright nightmarish.  For the record, they’ve always scared me, and I don’t know why.  I remember as a kid scrambling through St. Peter’s baseball field down the street from my parents’ house in Ogdensburg, New York, screeching, “Is it on me?  Is it on me?  Get if off!  GET IT OFF!”  And, of course, by then it was no longer a quarter-sized, hard, brown-shelled creature in my adolescent mind, but a heavy, flesh-eating goblin sucking on my Trans-Am t-shirt (it was the ‘80s).  The only help I got from my friends was point-and-laugh intervention.  The memory still makes me sweat.  

Through education, “they” say, we learn not to fear…Well, not a chance; I still fear June bugs, and I’m even a teacher!  Oh, the irony…First of all, adult June bugs are about one and a quarter inches in length and make a loud buzzing sound, so you can hear them coming, though you can’t see them.  But even more unattractive is the sickening reality that their larvae are two inches long, are thick and white, and have dark heads.  These nasty things make cheesy SyFy “original” special effects look good.  At any rate, the larvae have legs, too―six of them―that are basically useless, so they flop onto their backs and wiggle around upside down.  (This is all true; I did the research.)  Talk about a freak show!  And if you’re looking to buy tickets, just check out your local compost pile sometime around late spring or early summer…right around JUNE!  

From childhood trauma comes a recipe for distress in adulthood.  But it’s just a bug, right?  In the end, the nightmare wins:  I begin to dread June in March, though I know full well that at my house, they always come in May!  

FREE STUFF CLAUSE:  June bugs give you the creeps?  Do you dislike them as much as I do?  Hey, maybe you really like the gross critters.  Either way, join my “June Bug Therapy Group.”  Visit our little soy candle shop at Country Wickhouse Candles, place an order, and enter the phrase JUNE BUG in the “instructions from buyer” box during checkout―or email us the phrase at countrywickhouse@gmail.com after you place your order―and I’ll refund 10% of your total charge.  That’s right, I’ll take 10% off your sale and give it back to you!  Just don’t tell my wife that I’m giving money away…

This offer expires on June 30th at midnight, the official end of the horrid June bug season!  But don’t worry, it’ll be back next June…

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Soy is a bean.  And like any good bean, it must be grown.  Hello!  But how does this bean become soy wax, you ask?  Well, here’s a crash course in soy wax production and its ultimate dependence on America’s wonderful farmers.

Soybeans are either crushed mechanically or solvents are used to extract soybean oil.  After some color modification (bleaching) and refining, the oil is hydrogenated to make it more solid.  Hydrogenation is nothing more than the process by which poly- and monounsaturated oils are solidified, thus increasing viscosity.  All that’s needed to do this (just in case you have it laying around the house and want to try making soybean wax) is hydrogen, heat (somewhere in the vicinity of 280 – 500° F), and a nickel catalyst.  A nickel what?  I don’t know either.  At any rate, the whole experiment makes saturated fats that can be used as soy wax.  The drawback?  Soy wax is super soft with a low melting point, so any creative soy candle maker usually works with a soy blend that contains not only soy wax, but also other natural botanical oils.  Incidentally, what’s left of the bean after the beginning stages of the process is recycled as cattle feed.

So, what’s this got to do with farmers?  Let me remind you that soy is a bean that must be grown by the millions, and hence soy candle makers and enthusiasts must depend on the commitment, hard work, and responsibility of our nation’s farmers.  These men and women, after all, are not in the business of deciding whether we make a votive or a tealight, but rather they plant and produce a renewable resource that is all-natural and environmentally friendly.  America’s soy farmers may not be erecting solar panels or windmills (though thousands of them have and will!), but they are contributing to the ecological well-being of our planet.  And to me, that makes them heroes.  Their product is renewable, so they’re not involved in the depletion of our natural resources.  Soybean husks are recycled as cattle feed, thus nourishing livestock while offering the world a commodity that is both waste-free and biodegradable.  And like many vegetable farmers, stalks and other “plant parts” are composted, which dramatically decreases the need to use chemical fertilizers.

Ultimately, American soy farmers pose virtually no threat to our environment, and instead produce a useful vegetable from a renewable resource whose primary use is dietary and not wax.  At Country Wickhouse Candles, we may make what we believe are the best soy wax candles on the market, but we owe much of our success to the farmers who complete the dirty work none of us is willing to do.  And this isn’t just the case with soy farmers.  Each and every one of us should count ourselves grateful for the dairy, cattle, and vegetable farmers of America.  As candle makers and general consumers as well, we honor and thank our farmers.  We’d literally be nothing without them.

But perhaps Thomas Alan Orr, in the poem “Soybeans” from his work, Hammers in the Fog, captured the soybean farmer the best.  In his poem, he illustrates not only the plight of the farmer, but also how underappreciated many of them are.  Farming is not easy, and in hard times (like the ones we’re still having) it is often a battle simply to survive.  I’ve included the text of the poem below.  I hope you read it.  Its message is powerful and memorable.  Oh, and the next time you’re taking a quiet drive through the country and you see some guy or gal in a tractor in a field, pull over and thank them.  They’re most likely American farmers.

The October air was warm and musky, blowing
Over brown fields, heavy with the fragrance
Of freshly combined beans, the breath of harvest.

He was pulling a truckload onto the scales
At the elevator near the rail siding north of town
When a big Cadillac drove up. A man stepped out,
Wearing a three-piece suit and a gold pinky ring.
The man said he had just invested a hundred grand
In soybeans and wanted to see what they looked like.

The farmer stared at the man and was quiet, reaching
For the tobacco in the rear pocket of his jeans,
Where he wore his only ring, a threadbare circle rubbed
By working cans of dip and long hours on the backside
Of a hundred acre run. He scooped up a handful
Of small white beans, the pearls of the prairie, saying:

Soybeans look like a foot of water on the field in April
When you’re ready to plant and can’t get in;
Like three kids at the kitchen table
Eating macaroni and cheese five nights in a row,
Or like a broken part on the combine when
Your credit with the implement dealer is nearly tapped.

Soybeans look like prayers bouncing off the ceiling
When prices on the Chicago grain market start to drop;
Or like your old man’s tears when you tell him
How much the land might bring for subdivisions.
Soybeans look like the first good night of sleep in weeks
When you unload at the elevator and the kids get Christmas.

He spat a little juice on the tire of the Cadillac,
Laughing despite himself and saying to the man:
Now maybe you can tell me what a hundred grand looks like.

—Thomas Alan Orr, “Soybeans,” Hammers in the Fog 

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I’ve heard it said that there is nothing common about common sense, and I fear this notion to carry with it a certain element of truth. After all, there’s a reason two-liter bottles of soda bear a caution on their labels about pointing the cap away from the face when opening in order to avoid losing an eye. And “hot” coffee, when ordered, is obviously “hot,” but sometimes a small reminder like, “CAUTION: COFFEE IS HOT!” is a comforting sight printed on steaming cardboard and styro-foam coffee cups. In the end, the lack of “common sense” humans sometimes practice can cost a lot of companies a lot of money. For those of us farther down the food chain without a corporate reputation to protect, ignorance just costs us inconvenience, loss, and even pain.

Regardless, we could make light of scenarios like those above (what some of us refer to as “Jedi Mind Tricks”) all day. For example, consider how entertaining this lapse in common sense is…A young man, completely distracted, decides to drive a Ford F-250 pickup truck (a multi-ton projectile as solid as a tank) at speeds in excess of the city speed limits all while using his cell phone! Hilarious, right? Probably not. Most definitely not. Why? Because when your sister-in-law is sitting in her car, stopped in traffic, and that truck strikes her, throttles her seventeen feet down the street and into the rear end of a car carrying an elderly couple, and everything she feels and thinks from that moment on is as painful and twisted as her damaged spine, her fragile psyche, we shudder at the thought that the boy’s sense in that moment was frightfully common. That’s right, common. The number of drivers—civilian, official, and law enforcement alike—who have or will text or talk on a cell phone while behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, is staggering. Seriously.

If the accident that crushed my sister-in-law had happened on a highway, no one would have survived. No one. I guess on that day, we were all lucky. Instead of finding herself laying down inside her car, eyeglasses somehow on the hood of the truck that had hit her, foot locked down on the brake, dazed, frozen, confused…Instead of still picking glass out of her hair hours later, or easing her into an ambulance to get her to the hospital…But there’s no need to imagine a scenario that’s becoming all too familiar in this country. Somewhere, on some city street or interstate thoroughfare, people are dead and people will die because of cell phones and automobiles. And we will pretend that there was and is nothing we could or can do. We will continue to wonder how these things could happen, and thus only validate the maxim that there is absolutely nothing common about common sense.

The bright side, at least for us? My sister-in-law will smile again (she’s already started to). Someday, though she doesn’t quite believe it now, she’ll walk a little farther than a handful of steps, and she’ll get her balance back. She won’t always have to sleep sitting up in a recliner. Someday, she’ll be able to dance again…she’ll drive again without panicking. She’ll be able to at least ride as a passenger in a car without losing her voice to the paralysis of fear. Someday, the countless injections of steroids and painkillers, the trauma and discomfort of the multiple surgeries to fuse vertebrae and screw bones together, will only be a memory, less painful, less horrible. She can’t turn her head just yet to look over her shoulder to catch a glimpse of that danger she doesn’t realize isn’t really there. But someday…yes, someday.

So, drive…go for a ride. Go to the store, to the movies, to school…to the prom. But turn off the phones. No call, no text is ever as important as your life, our culture, my sister-in-law. Let’s make sense common and think about the consequences of our actions before acting. Let’s try to live by the very lessons that we demand our children learn. Why not? It just makes sense…right?

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We often get questions at Country Wickhouse Candles about how properly to burn soy candles.  If a single, common issue exists, it’s with the challenge of getting an even burn with the soft wax.  This should never be a challenge, however, since any candle must be enjoyed under certain conditions.  Below you will find some helpful hints on how to burn soy candles more evenly, thus making your experience with them more enjoyable.

Soy Just Ain’t Paraffin:  I know, horrible grammar!  But you get the point.  One of the most important things to remember when dealing with soy candles is that they DO NOT burn the same way paraffin candles do.  Some (if not all) paraffin candles contain PETROLEUM, and I don’t know about you, but if I were made of petroleum, I’d burn hot and completely, too.  Unfortunately, so many people own petroleum-based candles that they have become the standard by which all candles are judged and used.  When considering the environmental impact of paraffin candle products (not to mention the smoke and soot their wicks produce), EVERYONE should be burning SOY candles instead.  With all this in mind, let’s talk about properly burning soy.

Wick Length:  NEVER follow the 1/8-inch wick rule with soy candles.  Instead, keep your wicks at 1/4 to 3/8 of an inch long for an even burn.  Most wicks in soy candles already come in these lengths.

An example of an even burn in a soy candle tin.

Tins (and Other Containers):  Again, mind your wick length and keep it at 1/4 to 3/8 of an inch long.  ALWAYS place any container on a LEVEL surface, and NEVER burn longer than 1.5 hours at a time.  And of course, never leave a candle unattended.  Another great idea for more evenly-burning candles is the use of a CANDLE TOPPER, which will more evenly distribute wick heat.

A votive holder.

Votives:  Follow the wick rule above and ALWAYS burn votives in VOTIVE HOLDERS.  These holders act like small containers, and as the container heats, it helps in the proper melting of the soy wax.

The metal wick tab at the bottom of a tealight cup.

Tealights:  This is a common concern among folks who’d like to see every ounce of soy wax melt and disappear.  The bad news is, this will never happen.  Use the same wick lengths as above, and as soon as the tealight extinguishes itself, the show’s over.  The metal wick tab at the bottom of the tealight container will never burn (unless you use a blowtorch), so for safety reasons, throw the tealight away when it burns down to this point and puts itself out.  It may be hard, but it’s time to say goodbye and move on when you can see the wick tab.

Unburned (Unused) Soy Wax:  But wait!  Just because ALL the soy wax in your container hasn’t melted doesn’t mean that it’s been wasted.  Remember that soy wax is all-natural and biodegradable.  It is also one of the best NATURAL SKIN MOISTURIZERS on the planet.  Claw it out of your containers and rub it into dry skin.  It even replenishes cuticles.  And it smells good, too!  Go ahead, it won’t hurt you…it will only help!

Hopefully these tips will aid you in burning soy candles more successfully.  The most important thing to remember is that soy is VERY SOFT, and hence we must take some unique (albeit subtle) approaches to using them.  Follow the tips above and you’ll have no problems with any soy candle product you ever own…and if you do, let us know.  We’d be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Burn on, wise soy candle-burning person!  You care about yourself and your environment…Thank you!

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…You get the idea, and maybe even a vague recollection of the famed (or not so famous) rhyme.  So, my wife makes candles―SOY candles―and good ones, too.  They smell great, are all natural, environmentally friendly, hand-poured, handmade…but we once had a heck of a time trying to figure out the wick-to-wax mystery as we tried to solve what we called the “posthole” or “well-digging” effect.  In other words, some of our candles (mostly the larger tins) were burning straight down the center, leaving about a pound of wax untouched, as if the wick were digging a well or preparing a hole to set a post into the middle of the wax.  Not only was this frustrating us, but also we learned that many folks making soy candles were experiencing the same disappointment.

Back to the drawing board again, and again, and again until at last the code was cracked, which we did over the course of a few months and hundreds of trials.  Why so many attempts?  Because we reevaluated everything, trying not only different types and sizes of wicks, but also various blends and types of soy wax, all the while praying to remember from experiment to experiment what combinations we’d already tried so as NOT to repeat the failure.  (Taking notes throughout each experiment might have been helpful, I know.)  In the end, we solved the problem, and that very solution some might think painfully obvious.  But there is as much science to candle making as there is art, and the process by which one creates a truly fragrant, even-burning soy candle in a tin is not quite as simple as it sounds.  Nevertheless, to make your craft more enjoyable and less frustrating, I’m about to pass on what my wife and I learned while pursuing the aforementioned mystery.

Our first assumed culprit in the “posthole” conspiracy was the wick.  Why not?  Always blame the wick!  Anyway, the more our candles burned straight down the center, the more we figured that the wick was not big enough.  Beginner’s error.  At one point, my wife would have no doubt been willing to stick a piece of towrope into the tins in order to get the wax to melt more evenly.  However…point to consider:  A larger wick does not mean a more even burn, especially when working exclusively with soy.  Soy is a very SOFT wax, and the hotter and stronger a wick burns, the less time the soy wax has to melt.  It’s literally like passing a red-hot knife through butter.  Because of the extreme heat and the added element of a very soft medium, only the immediate point of contact is affected.  There is simply no time for the outer wax to burn.  What we needed instead, was a smaller wick that burned longer at a lower temperature, thus giving the surrounding soy wax a chance to melt.

If you can’t blame the wick (which we kind of did, anyway), blame the wax.  Mostly logical, right?  Well, in this case the wax had a hand in the scandal, too.  We soon discovered that soft wax subjected to high heat burns very fast, a point established already with the wick problem.  SOFT WAX + HOT WICK = WELL-DIGGING CANDLE!  Unacceptable.  And so we realized that we had to “meet in the middle” and more appropriately mate wick to wax.  Luckily for us, soy wax is available with a few different melting points.  Soy wax labeled “125,” for example, melts at about 125° F.  This is very soft soy wax, and unfortunately the only type we thought was available.  Wrong!  Darned beginners!  Looking back now, I’m amazed at how far we’ve come…Second point to consider:  Wax products with low melting points burn very easily, and when matched with a large, hot wick, hardly have a chance to exist.  And now to our happy medium.

Many of you (especially the seasoned candle makers) might be shaking your heads by now, wondering how we ever survived in this business.  But soy is a tricky thing…really.  Our conclusion came slowly, yet it came, and we discovered that the secret to an evenly-burning soy candle in a tin is a matter of a smaller wick and a soy wax with a higher melting point, say 135 – 145° F.  By manipulating the melting point of our wax, and maintaining a medium wick, we could control the size of the wax pool during burning.  We could even get the wax to burn right to the sides of the tin.

In all seriousness, candle making becomes much more of a challenge (especially in the nuances of the craft) when working exclusively with soy.  Many blends are available from pure soy to natural botanical blends.  And each kind may have various melting points.  The trick is patience and the endurance to try and try again.  In the end, you won’t just have a good candle, but a perfect one.

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It seemed appropriate, considering the name of this blog, that my first article (“Man, That Smells…Good!”) should have been about “smells” and their influence over the body and mind, since scent surrounds me and you everyday and everywhere.  But very rarely do we appreciate the environmental stimulants coursing around us, or how they make us feel and act. 

Though my intention in this forum is far from an obsessive tendency to blog about candles (even if my wife and I are relatively passionate about the soy candle craft), I did intend to offer a place where we could chat about things like candle science and the obvious presence of candles in our lives.  After all, as many people in this country who own a pair of underwear also have a candle of some kind around the house, whether for ornament, emergency, or necessity.  So, we’re blogging about one of the most familiar objects in our culture, as well as in the cultures of many people on our planet.  We also wanted a spot to bring to light issues like the environment, conservation, recycling, and respect for our world at large.  So, we’ll be blogging these things, too. 

NOTE:  In case you’re wondering whether I have a clue as to how to use pronouns correctly, “we”  refers to me and my wife, the beautiful young lady (see her up there in the picture next to the good looking, very lucky guy?) who actually and brilliantly runs Country Wickhouse Candles.  She proofs each and every blog post, and is actively involved in the ideas and elements that make our modest business what it is…Oh, and she says, “Hi.”

BUT…our primary focus here is to have fun, meet interesting people (no matter what your opinions), and share some of what we know (and don’t know) about all sorts of things.  For this very reason, I have a file in my File Cabinet (over there on the sidebar) called “I’m Babbling Again…What?” that will contain snippets of thought and snapshots of life that might strike me from time to time. Also in the File Cabinet are all my files on candle science (“Soy Dork:  Candle Science”) and reasons why we should all value soy candles (“Why You (Really) Need Soy Candles”).  Of course, like any fragrant flower, the File Cabinet will grow…

On these notes, let me personally welcome you to “Life Smells, So Smile!”  Hello!  Nice to meet you; we’re so glad you came.  And we wouldn’t be a little country candle store if we didn’t remind you to come again…and often.

Read on!

Brian & Kelly Doe

(Yes, that really IS our last name.  I don’t think you could come up with a joke we haven’t already heard…really.)

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With the great amount of research that has been conducted on the subject, there’s no doubt that fragrances, or pleasant scents, can dramatically influence the human mind and emotions.  This reality has been known for literally thousands of years.  Greek physicians and philosophers mused over and wrote about the phenomenon as far back as 500 BCE, noting the emotional and mental effects of certain combinations of leaves and flowers worn as garlands.

What is immeasurable, however, is the influence different scents will have on each of us personally since we all experience our environment in unique ways.  For some of us, the smell of lilac may have a calming effect, while the scent of cotton candy may inspire memories of a childhood adventure at the county fair.  I know that the memory-sparking effect of some fragrances is true in my life every time I put one of my wife’s handmade orange creamsicle soy candles to my nose.  The recollections come easily as I remember my Uncle Whit’s tiny store at the north end of Ford Street in the city of Ogdensburg, New York. 

There was never much of anything on the dusty shelves save the bare necessities—cans of vegetable beef soup, singly wrapped rolls of toilet paper, bread, matches.  I’m not sure why I remember these particular images, but they are forever woven with the picture of that ice cooler at the back of the store, the one holding the loose orange cream popsicles (in an era when you could still buy many items individually and not gathered or lumped together in a case, box, or bag for mass consumption).  My little brother favored the rocket pops—rocket-shaped flavored ice on a stick colored red, white, and blue.  But not me…

“What’ll it be, Doe-head?” Uncle Whit, snowy-headed and the size of giant, would ask loudly, even though I was already at the old cash register with nickels and an orange cream popsicle…which, of course, always leads me to the memory of the Red Man we got from the same store and the afternoon my brother and I spent vomiting behind Dad’s garage…but that’s for another day.  Anyway, I love the smell of that orange creamsicle candle my wife makes, and everyday I take a good, long sniff of the one that I keep in my office, that I’m unwilling to burn lest I destroy the memory.

The point is simply this:  Good or bad, scent affects our moods, jogs our memories of people, places, things, and experiences, and causes us to connect to a very ancient part of the brain that has already associated the fragrance to our personal existence before we’ve even identified the particular scent wafting into our nostrils.  This is because our sense of smell is something like 10,000 times more powerful than our sense of taste.  How?  Our “olfactory receptors,” or smell receivers, are directly connected to the limbic system, which is not only the oldest part of the brain, but also the center of emotion.  Only after the deepest parts of the brain are activated does the smell sensation travel to the cortex to be recognized as a familiar (or unfamiliar) fragrance.  Consequently, our process of “smelling” is fascinating and the most intimately wired and powerful sense we possess as human beings.

Cheri VanWinkle, on her Colorado Adoption Consultants website, goes even further by relating scent identification and effect to children.  Under her link to Country Wickhouse Candles she states:

Recent studies suggest that a newborn infant can recognize his mother’s milk from that of other women based on his sense of smell.  In adoption, it is very important for your smell to be imprinted on his brain as his new parents.  Pick a scent and stay with it so your child will associate that scent with the safety of being in your care.  Candles are one of many ways you can do that! 

What an amazing thought.  Each and every one of us, from infant to grandparent, really should “stop and smell the roses” just to see how it makes us feel, what memories it inspires, and most importantly, what part of our personal existence it will reveal or to which it will forever link us. 

So, keep smelling!

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