Candles Are a Multi-Use Tool for Off-Grid Living

Candles aren’t only mood-setters. Light a room, add serenity to your bath, cook food, cover up odors, or keep you and your pipes from freezing.

Reader Contribution by Jo deVries
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Photo by Jo deVries
Parafin: pretty on the outside, but drippy and toxic.

It’s been 21 years since my son Jordan, then nine, and I moved to my cabin in the woods to live without electricity. I’m still off-grid, but a couple of years ago, I purchased a very small solar panel, a marine battery, and the connectors, which enable me to run my laptop and charge my phone.

Prior to that, I charged anything electronic, in my vehicle, while driving. Vehicles are great multi-tasking power sources. You can keep food warm or dry clothes on the dash, listen to the radio, and be as comfortable as in most living rooms — or sleep soundly, parked wherever you feel safe.

On occasion, during a cloudy stretch, I’ve sat typing my blog in my van while connected to an extension cord plugged in at a friend’s home. I remember one miserable time, with no sun for days and a vehicle with no heat. I was cramming to meet a deadline, sitting in my cold van, a typical Canadian snowstorm blowing all around me.

Other than that, I’ve never really missed having electricity. My woodstove heats the house, cooks the food, and keeps large pots of water warm for dishes and bathing. I have a large root cellar to keep food cold and a large assortment of beeswax candles for lighting. I know there’s a power outage when I notice that the neighbour’s bright yard light is out or hear his generator start up.

Candles are Multi-Purpose

I’ve been using candles for lighting ever since we moved to the cabin. I’ve tried oil lamps but prefer the simplicity of candles. Prior to living here, I enjoyed burning candles purely for the ambience.

But candles aren’t just mood setters. A candle can light a room, add serenity to your bath, cook food, cover up odours with your favorite fragrance, or keep you and your pipes from freezing. Candles can also be a method of keeping time. Beeswax candles can be used to polish furniture, wax a snowboard, or restore wooden or bamboo knitting needles.

Paraffin Versus Beeswax

The most common candles on the market today are paraffin and beeswax, and while they might look similar, the material content is drastically different.

Paraffin wax is a petroleum byproduct that releases carcinogens into the air when burned. Paraffin candles are also usually coloured and sometimes scented, which add to the toxins being released.

Beeswax candles are made from wax cappings that have been removed from honeycomb. Not only do beeswax candles have the aroma of honey and an especially warm glow, they offer the health benefit of reducing the dust in the air by making it heavier so that dust falls to the floor.

Not all candles provide the same light. Various candle waxes and oils burn at different temperatures. Beeswax burns hotter that paraffin, producing a brighter flame. The colour of the candle also plays an important role. A white paraffin candle will burn brighter than a blue beeswax candle, simply because the light is reflected better. The lighter the candle colour, the brighter the light.

The shape of the candle also affects the light it delivers. Any shape other than thin cylinder shapes reduce the light being emitted. Tapers provide the brightest light, as the wick doesn’t drown in the melted wax pool. Here at the cabin, I usually read a book by the light of a single beeswax taper.

Understanding Candleholders

There is a large selection of candleholders on the market, but not all are practical, or even safe. Candleholders must allow sufficient air to circulate around the candle. Candles in jars or lanterns without airholes near the base result in improper combustion, causing smoke. A wavering candle flame is evidence that the fire is struggling due to a lack of oxygen or in a draft and getting too much air flow.

Not all candleholders are made of heat-resistant materials, and therefore, they require the removal of the candle before it has burned down low. There are some metal-looking and metal-feeling candleholders that aren’t really metal at all.

I recently had a scare when I realized one of my candleholders was turning to liquid on the top of my cookstove. I immediately opened the door of the cabin to vent any harmful gases that may have formed. Then, I grabbed an oven mitt and tossed the remains of the candleholder outside in the snow. I quickly swept the liquid on the stove to the floor. The liquid metal turned to a tinfoil-type substance the second it made contact with the cool tile floor with a crisp, crackling sound. This candleholder had been made out of what is called “white metal” — the material which trophies and costume jewelry are made of.

Melting Candleholder

Always use caution when working with hot surfaces and watch out for bogus, imitation metal candleholders. Safety is a serious part of burning candles, as being careless could cost you everything. Burning candles safely requires responsibility and sobriety. Always check that your candles are not placed near anything flammable, including curtains, pets, or people with too much hair spray. Always check that the flame of the candle is not flickering, and never leave a candle burning, unattended.

Candle-Burning Techniques

Tapered candles are the only candles which should be lit for repeated, short periods of time. Votives and pillars should be allowed to burn until the walls of the candle are pliable and can be safely bent inwards to avoid dripping, or the sink-hole effect, making them hard to light.

A tealight candle is hard to re-light if it has already burned more than halfway and then been extinguished. Extinguish a candle by bending its wick into the pool of melted wax surrounding it with a used matchstick.

Save all bits of old wax to make new candles or wax bars.

Loving Simple Living

I have never regretted using beeswax candles for lighting or longed for electric lights. I’ve gotten used to soft lighting and am usually in bed soon after the sun sets anyway. When by myself, I rarely light more than one candle. My company on the other hand are not used to sitting in the dark, so I’ve got candleholders that hold multiple candles.

I’ve learned that placing a candle in front of a mirror provides twice the light. Three mirrors provide the light of six candles or more if the mirrors are positioned properly. Even windows reflect candle light.

Candle means “to shine.” The candle is a symbol of holy illumination of the spirit of truth, light in the darkness.

Next month, I will provide instructions for making simple, hand-dipped candles at home, from all those bits of wax that accumulate. Why not plan a family candle-making workshop for the dull days of February? Start collecting your old candle stubs in clean, large, empty juice cans, but only fill three quarters of the can to ease pouring when melted.

In the meantime, stay warm and during these dark times, let your light shine all the brighter.

Jo deVries (Jo of the Woods) designed and helped build her off-grid Ontario home, where she and her son have enjoyed a pioneer-type life-style without electricity. She is the author of Does Your House Know Where South Is? and generously shares what she has learned during her on-going journey of turning a piece of bush land in to a self-sufficient homestead. Connect with Jo of the Woods and read all of Jo’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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