Of candles, science, and flaming stuff

white candles burningCandles. Science. Flaming stuff. Why would I bother to research and write about such an obscure topic? You would be surprised just how much there is to know about the humble candle!  I hit the Google search button and within seconds got 103,000 possible sites listed. On candles!
Candles and  science
Yes, there is a whole website dedicated to this.  Prepare to be dazzled by candle science. For instance, did you know that C31H64 is a typical component of paraffin wax ? That’s what most modern candles are made from.
 You may have noticed that a candle flame is not just one colour. No? Light one and have a good look.
About the candle flame
If you look closely at a candle flame, you’ll see a blue area at the base of the flame. There’s lots of oxygen in that bit. It starts to break down into hydrogen and carbon atoms and other chemically  things happen as a result. Above that is a small dark orange-brown section, and above that is the large yellow region that we associate with candle flames.The inside of the flame is a dark brown or red. It burns at 1000°C (1830°F).  There is very little oxygen in this zone apparently.
The next bit, a reddy orange  only gets to 800°C (1470°F).  The candle proper is a modest 40-50°C (104-122°F). However,  were you to touch the melted wax in the candle it would burn you at 60°C (140°F). And of course there’s a whole lot of sciencey stuff that happens in all of the different zones of the candle flame.
Did you  ever wonder why the candle flame always points up ? I must confess the thought had never entered my head. However, there is a bonafide scientific explanation for it. It’s to do with the cycle of convection currents around the flame.
NASA scientists were so curious about this they conducted a few space shuttle experiments. They wanted to see how candle flames behaved in something called microgravity. And do you know what? The shape of the flame changes to spherical – because there is no gravity. So there’s no ‘up’ for warm air to rise and create that convection current. Now isn’t that a bit of interesting trivia?!
red candles
Candle history

Tallow. That’s what the Romans used to make candles around 500BC. What is tallow, I hear you ask.  It’s rendered beef or mutton fat. solid at room temperature, it doesn’t need refrigeration if stored in an airtight container. That means it won’t get stinky.

Various Chinese dynasties back around 200 BC were using whale fat and beeswax. Japanese candles have been found that used wax extracted from tree nuts. In India cinnamon was boiled and the extracted wax used for temple candles. Tibetans used yak butter. Indigenous peoples form Oregona and Alaska lit a dried fish on the end of a stick.

Chandlers in the middle ages plied their trade with tallow candles. Too smelly for use in churches, beeswax was restricted for that purpose.  Candle making in England and France was so highly regarded that by the 13th century it became a guild craft. In 1456 The Tallow Chandlers Company of London was granted its own coat of arms.  The first candle moulds were made in France in the 1500’s.

With the booming whaling industry in the 18th century the availability of spermaceti was widely used in candle making. It made a better quality candle that did not smell and shone brighter. By 1800 an even cheaper and better alternative was found in colza and rapeseed oils. In 1825 two French chemists patented stearin. Candle making was revolutionised in England with the development of a patented machine. Industrialised marketing was established by the mid 19th century. This in turn heralded the mass production and marketing of candles that were affordable and readily available.

An offshoot of the petroleum industry was the discovery of paraffin wax. ‘Paraffin could be used to make inexpensive candles of high quality. It was a bluish-white wax, burned cleanly, and left no unpleasant odor, unlike tallow candles. A drawback to the substance was that early coal- and petroleum-derived paraffin waxes had a very low melting point. The introduction of stearin, discovered by Michel Eugène Chevreul, solved this problem. Stearin is hard and durable, with a convenient melting range of 54–72.5 °C (129.2–162.5 °F). By the end of the 19th century, most candles being manufactured consisted of paraffin and stearic acid.

By the late 1800’s candles were replaced by more superior lighting methods such as kerosene. Candle were confined to decorative and other uses such as in churches. By the 1990’s candles had taken yet another twist with  scented, coloured candles being made by blending oils such as soya, palm and flax seed oil in paraffin wax.

smoking candles
Candle trivia

Does your candle create tunnels and become lopsided when it burns? That’s because it it is not burning evenly. To prevent that happening let it burn long enough so the whole top layer of wax becomes liquid.

Does your candle smoke when its burning? The wick is too long. Let it cool then trim it to about 1cm.
Have you been told that freezing a candle makes it last longer?  Maybe for a few minutes more but only until it reaches room temperature.

What is the best way to put out a candle? Use a candle snuffer. It suffocates the candle and stops it from producing a lot of soot and smoke if you blow it out. As well as retaining the integrity of the  candle energy.

The romantic,magical,  esoteric and mystical candle

Candles evoke mood, mystery, a sense of the sacred. Hence their use during romantic dates and dinners, in churches, temples, religious and spiritual ceremonies, rituals both public and private. I use candles often at home. Always during meditation.

The lore of candles here takes on a whole new and different perspective. The flame becomes a symbol of creation, inner light, Soul. When it comes to candles  the colour and style of the candle is important. Colour and the role it plays in our lives is a whole big subject all of its own. I have explored the notion of colour therapy in Musings on Green Therapy.
This is a list of the symbology of candle colours –
spiritual blessings, purity, healing, rest
understanding, patience, honour, tranquility, wisdom
finance, health, prosperity, fertility, balance
courage, clarity, focus, communication
love, affection, passion, strength, control
love, healing, family, friendship
wisdom, spirituality, inspiration, enchantment
luck, kindness, celebration, abundance, optimism
grounding, concentration, protection
protection, honour, respect
luxury, power, confidence, success
I bet the next time you light a candle you will look at it with new eyes –
and deep respect!
heart and candle
©  Raili Tanska
Image – Pixabay

History of candle making

Things you didn’t know about candles 








44 thoughts on “Of candles, science, and flaming stuff

  1. Wow, a lot of ‘flaming stuff’ goes into the whole business of candles. Delightful read as I love candles. And with autumn darkness, nothing beats the cosy feel of a candlelit dinner for two. 🙂

  2. Fascinating post! Very interesting about candles in space. I’d love to see that! If it becomes spherical, I wonder if it melts faster… I’ve been aware for a long time of the meaning of pink and purple candles as they are the colors always used for Advent wreaths. One other thing for you to research: how the oils AND the wicks in the candles affect people. There’s a lot of debate about those two things. They can be toxic to some people. Some candles even have wooden wicks now. Loved this post, Raili!!!

    1. Thanks Calen. It was fascinating to research! Wicks have come in all sorts of materials over the years but I didn’t delve into that. However, the oils used in scented candles ARE usually chemically derived and therefore full of all sorts of nasties. Cheap candles also contain lead. Didn’t go into the health hazards of candles with this post. I suspect it’s a veritable minefield. That is one of the reasons there is a big swing to soya candles. But I would think most scented candle makers do not use 100% therapeutic grade essential oils from a reputable source. I try and avoid them but get gifted the occasional one. It feels disrespectful to throw them out or not use them – but I seldom burn them

  3. Yup! There was certainly a lot in that post that I didn’t know – AND you put in that lovely colour therapy bit.
    I know someone who lies with her eyes closed in a blue room, and thinks of blue, to get rid of a headache. She says it works better than analgesics.

    1. Now that’s interesting! I find acupressure points good. I have treated Markku’s migraine by rotating each of his big toes clockwise and anti-clockwise. It worked !

      1. I used to use accupressure on myself when I went to the dentist, but my current (East European) dentist is so gentle that I don’t bother these days. She has magic hands – she does it without analgesics.

      2. Yes, I have been to some in the past who have been like that. It’s great not to have half a numb face with spittle falling randomly down your chin while your tongue is dancing to some strange inner rhythm.

  4. candle making was an important trade given that it was the source of light before electricity. It is good for meditation purpose and to get a woman feeling things are romantic

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