Of all the self-reliant skills I’ve learned over the years, one of my favorites is turning ordinary animal fats into emergency lighting. I’m talking plain, old-fashioned candles using whatever animal fat is on hand just as our ancestors did. This often free and readily available material makes creating candles in a pinch an easy task to accomplish, with the added bonus of requiring only basic equipment commonly found in the kitchen, a few items from the tool shed, and purchased or handmade wicking material.
While paraffin and beeswax candle bases have been around for many years, animal fat remains the most reliable material in times of need. Free to the livestock owner and hunter, any animal fat — sheep, elk, caribou, bear — may be used with mostly minor differences. For instance, lard made from pig fat tends to be softer and faster burning than tallow from beef or venison, thus making it difficult to create pillars or dipped candles. However, this softer fat is well suited for container candles that have the added benefit of being tidy and drip free. Tallow, on the other hand, makes excellent pillars and dipped candles perfect for situations when drips and melting tallow can be contained.
Molds and containers may also be made from readily available materials. Potato chip containers, waxed drink boxes, even sturdy, old paper towel rolls will work. These will, of course, be one use molds as they will need to be pulled off the candle prior to lighting. Other options include PVC pipe sliced down the middle to make a two piece mold. Just duct tape the two pieces together with a piece of cardboard taped to the bottom. Once the wax hardens and cools, cut the tape away and pull the candle out. For container candles, almost any nonflammable container will do. Old jelly jars, mason jars, soup cans, and even sturdy, heat proof pottery works nicely. Be creative, and you’ll find molds and containers just about anywhere.
Wicking is, perhaps, the most difficult aspect of candle making to master. The problem lies in the fact that each base (paraffin, soy, beeswax, etc.) and candle size requires a different type of wicking to produce the best burn. And while manufacturers have suggestions for which styles work best with each particular base, most do not list animal fats as an option. As a result, my general rule when using tallow and lard is to choose wicking made for softer waxes such as soy or vegan, yet this does not always work. So its best to experiment with a few small batches to determine which wicking works best for your situation.
If, however, you’re unable to access pre-made wicking, just find sources of cotton material such as old cotton clothing, bedsheets, or even cotton yarn. While the burn will not be as efficient as with pre-made wicking, handmade wicks work just fine when the need for emergency lighting becomes real. Simply cut thin strips of material and braid or twist together tightly. Soak wicking for several minutes in your candle base, remove, and hang or lay flat to allow to harden. For longer lengths, roll into a loose ball for easy storage and cut as needed. Again, experimentation is key.
Once you have everything in place, determine if you want to make pillars, containers, tapers, or votives. Each has its own set of benefits and downsides, so it’s wise to have a variety whenever possible. For low light that doesn’t travel far, small votives placed in a mostly covered container work quite well. For the brightest lighting, tapers and pillars seem to work best in a glass "lantern" style holder with reflectors. And yet, I like tin can or container candles best when little ones or pets are running underfoot.
Old-fashioned candle making is both a fun and useful skill to have using materials you may already have at home. When burning your own creation, you’ll discover a sense of comfort knowing you can fill the need for lighting in a pinch no matter the situation.
Candle Making Process
Using a double boiler, place rendered tallow, lard, etc. into a large pot. Heat over medium heat until fully melted. A thermometer is not really necessary for emergency candles since you’re not concerned about blemishes.
While fats are melting, cover workspace with paper to catch any drips, and set out/prepare molds and containers.
Cut wicking several inches longer than needed. Tie a hex nut or other small, but heavy item to the end of the wick to keep the wick from floating in the container or curling when dipped. The hex nut will be removed from the hardened taper or recycled after the candle burns out. Alternatively, purchase wick tabs and glue dots to fasten wicking to the bottom of the container. Use pencils, bamboo skewers, or other items to keep the wick centered until the wax hardens.
Once the base melts, add beeswax or stearic acid, if using, and gently stir until fully melted. Slowly pour wax into mold or container or begin making dipped tapers.
If making dipped tapers, dip quickly and hang wicking from a rack until hardened. Repeat dipping multiple times until taper is of the desired width. Once completed and fully hardened, cut the nut from the end of the taper and enjoy.