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Posts Tagged ‘environmental’

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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…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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