Turning ordinary animal fats into candles for emergency lighting is one of the easiest self-reliance skills to master. These plain, old-fashioned candles begin by rendering fat into tallow, and then forming that tallow into candles using minimal equipment. The final product requires little to no out-of-pocket expense. And while it’s true that paraffin and beeswax candles have been around for many years, animal fats remain the most reliable candle base in times of need, due to the relative ease of access to leftover fats.
Finding Raw Material
Free to the hunter or livestock owner, and often free for everyone from the local butcher, any animal fat — deer, cow, goat, elk, even bear — may be used for candles. The most noticeable difference is the hardness of the cooled fat. For instance, lard made from pork fat is much softer and faster burning than tallow from beef or venison, and as such is limited to use in container candles. Tallow, however, makes excellent pillars or dipped candles — regardless of its source — and is the fat I prefer for my own emergency candles.
Once you’ve acquired a source of fat, you’ll want to select the densest fat possible. This will often be the fat located along the back, as well as the leaf fat, or the fat found around the kidneys. If your fat is coming from a local butcher, you may not be able to ask for fat from specific areas. If that’s the case, don’t worry. Just select the hardest sections of fat you can find to render. Most of the time, you’ll notice little difference in the finished candles, regardless of the exact location of the fat.
From Fat to Tallow
Once you get the fat home, you need to render it into tallow before making the candles. The rendering process melts the fat and allows for the removal of impurities that would otherwise interfere with efficient candle burning. First, partially freeze the fat to make it easier to work with. Then, trim off as much tissue, skin, and other nonfat material as you can. Cut the trimmed fat into small pieces, or pulse it a few times in a food processor. The smaller the fat pieces are before heating, the faster the rendering will go. I like to pulse the fat until it almost resembles ground beef.
You can choose to dry or wet render the fat. To dry render, you’ll place the cut pieces of fat in a crockpot, stockpot, or skillet, and slowly heat it over low to medium-low heat without adding water. This eliminates any concern of water remaining in the finished product, which may make candles go rancid prematurely, and is the main reason many homesteaders prefer dry rendering. Because there’s no liquid in the pan initially, however, heating at too high a temperature or stirring too infrequently greatly increase the chances of burning the fat. (And that’s a smell that’s hard to get out of the house.)
To wet render, add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of water to the pan with the fat to help avoid burning. As long as you let the fat render fully, the water will evaporate and won’t pose any rancidity issues. The added water does allow for less stirring, especially when using a crockpot. However, it’s still advisable to start at a very low heat to avoid scorching the fat.
In both methods, you’ll notice gradual changes in the fat as it melts. This melting process may take half an hour to several hours, depending on the size of your batch and whether you’re using a crockpot, stockpot, or shallow pan. As the fat melts, watch and listen closely for when it starts hissing and spitting. This is the fat releasing its impurities, such as water and tissue that didn’t get trimmed away. You’ll also begin to see small pieces — sometimes called “cracklings” — float to the top. With a slotted spoon, carefully remove the floaters and either discard them or lightly salt them and enjoy them as an old-fashioned snack. Other impurities will remain in the bottom of the pan and will need to be strained out later.
Once all the fat is melted, remove it from the heat. Allow it to cool just enough to handle, and then strain it through a cheesecloth-lined colander before it cools enough to thicken. After the tallow is fully strained, you can proceed with the candle-making process or pour the tallow into a skillet or cake pan and allow it to cool. Once it hardens, pop it out and freeze or refrigerate it for later use.
Choose a Candle Style
After you have a stash of tallow, determine if you want to make pillars, containers, tapers, or votive candles. Each has its own merits and downsides, so it’s wise to have a variety whenever possible. For low light that doesn’t travel far, small votive candles 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 around.
Molds and containers may be made from readily available materials. Potato chip containers, waxed drink boxes, and even sturdy paper towel rolls will work. These will, of course, be single-use molds, because they’ll 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, and tape a circle of cardboard to the bottom. Once the wax hardens and cools, cut the tape away and pull the candle out. For container candles, almost any non-flammable container will do. Old jelly jars, mason jars, soup cans, and even sturdy, heatproof pottery will work nicely. Be creative, and you’ll find molds and containers just about everywhere.
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 of wicking work best with each particular base, most don’t list animal fats as an option. My general rule when using tallow is to choose wicking made for soft waxes, such as soy or vegan. However, this doesn’t always work. So, it’s best to experiment with a few small batches to determine which wicking works best for your situation.
If you’re unable to access premade wicking, you can use cotton material, such as old cotton clothing, bedsheets, or even cotton yarn. While the burn won’t be as efficient as with premade wicking, handmade wicks work just fine for emergency lighting. Simply cut thin strips of material and braid or twist them tightly together. Soak handmade wicking in tallow for several minutes, remove, and hang or lay flat to harden. Roll longer lengths of homemade wicking into a loose ball for easy storage, and cut lengths as needed. Again, experimentation is key.
Make the Candles
Now for the fun part. Gather together your molds or containers, tallow, and prepared wicking. Line the work space with newspaper to catch any drips and make cleanup simple. Set the molds you plan to use, as well as the wicking, on the newspaper. Locate an old double boiler that can be repurposed solely for candle making. Alternatively, set a tin coffee can in an old pot containing a couple of inches of water.
Next, cut wicking several inches longer than the depth of the mold you intend to use. If you’re making dipped candles, double the length you’d like each finished taper to be, and then add another 4 to 5 inches to allow for space to hold the wicking when you dip the ends into the hot tallow.
To keep the wicking straight, either in a mold or for dipped candles, tie a hex nut or other small, heavy item to the end of the wick and/or to both ends of wicking intended for dipped candles. You’ll be able to remove the hex nut from the hardened taper or recycle it after the molded or container candle burns out. Alternatively, purchase wick tabs and glue dots to fasten wicking to the bottoms of molds or containers. Wrap the top of the wicking for molded and container candles around a pencil, bamboo skewer, or other long item that’ll span the top of the container to keep the wick centered until the tallow hardens.
After you assemble all your molds and wicking, place the desired amount of tallow into the top pot of the double boiler. Place the double boiler over medium heat until the tallow is fully melted. If you aren’t concerned about blemishes or air pockets, a thermometer won’t be necessary, but don’t let the water boil. Hot water splashing into the tallow can then splash hot tallow onto you.
Slowly pour melted tallow to the desired depth in the molds or containers you’ve assembled, leaving at least 2 inches of wicking free for lighting and trimming. It’s best to allow molded tallow candles to cool overnight to give the internal tallow time to set up. Unmold the candles, trim the wicks to about 1 inch, and enjoy.
For dipped tapers, dip each pair of wicks just once into the pot of melted tallow and hang them from a rack until fully hardened. Repeat the dipping process multiple times — always allowing each layer to completely cool before dipping again — until the taper is of the desired thickness. When the tapers are fully hardened, cut the nuts from their ends, and enjoy.
Old-fashioned candle making using tallow and a few pieces of equipment is both a fun and useful skill to have on the homestead. When burning your own creation, you’ll discover a sense of comfort knowing you can fulfill the need for lighting in a pinch, no matter the situation.
Kristi Cook is a GRIT blogger. She and her family have been building their homestead for many years, and she shares their vast experiences through her articles, workshops, and her blog, Tender Hearts Homestead.