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Caring For Candles — Q & A

Candles are a quick and easy way to bring color, fragrance and warmth into any room in the house, especially during the holidays. But there’s more to maintaining your candles than lighting them and blowing them out once you’re done. And there are a few misconceptions out there about candles, wax and wicks.

Let’s clear them up so that you can enjoy your candles without worry.

Q: Is paraffin wax causing my candles to put out sooty smoke? Should I buy only soy or soot-free candles, instead?

A: Absolutely not. While candles of old were crafted from tallow, tree nut extracts and spermaceti, the wax found in the head cavity of the sperm whale — today, most candles available are made of paraffin, soy, beeswax or palm’s wax — all of which are non-toxic and perfectly safe to use. ”Soot-free wax candles” are nothing more than an advertising ploy. As an organic compound, wax, naturally, gives off some soot (carbon) when burned. But, chances are, that soot you see isn’t from the wax as much as it comes from a raggedy wick, or because you’ve placed the candle in a breezy spot. To eliminate smoking, keep the wick trimmed to about 1/4-inch. Pinch or clip the top of any wick that looks puffy because that extra unraveled wick will act as a mini torch, giving off too large a flame and dark smoke.

Antique brass wick trimmer from Wickman Products.

Antique brass wick trimmer from Wickman Products.

Unlike a regular pair of scissors, a wick trimmer has a specially angled tip to make cutting the wicks easier.

To keep your candle smoke free, don’t forget to get rid of any debris in the wax pool, like the black flecks you see in this candle:

Q: OK, the wax is safe, but what about those lead wicks? I know those can’t be good for you.

A: Lead wicks were given the boot in the U.S. 10 years ago but, prior to that, most candle makers in this country had already stopped using lead in their wicks. About 80-percent of the wicks made in the USA are made of cotton or cotton and paper. When you do see metal wicks, often in votives or soft gel candles to keep the wicks erect, the material is zinc and tin, both of which are safe.

Q: I heard blowing out candles isn’t a good idea? Why?

A: Because when you blow out the flame, you can end up splattering small amounts of wax onto your furniture or walls, or onto the candle holder, which could cause it to smoke. Rather than blowing, it’s recommended that you use a snuffer. I know. It looks a little fussy, but you’ll be pleased when you’re not cleaning wax out of your grandmother’s antique linen tablecloth.

Biederman & Sons silver candle snuffer.

Biederman & Sons silver candle snuffer.

Q: Scented candles are pretty expensive. Is there any way to decorate with good-quality scented candles and not blow my budget?

A: I’ve got an easy solution for you. When you arrange your scented candles, whether in jars, on candle plates or pillars, however you choose to decorate with them, include some less expensive unscented candles in the mix. Think about it. Let’s say you’re entertaining, so you want your house filled with the warm glow of candles — maybe a dozen or more. Imagine how overwhelming it would be for your guests to walk into your house and get clobbered with the crushing bouquet from a entire lavender field. Great in Provence, not so much in your living room, next to the buffet table.

Closing with my favorite candle tip:

When I first heard about battery operated candles a few years ago, I immediately dismissed them. Fake candles? Never in my house, thank you. I gladly swallowed those words at the first sign of a flicker, then embraced them with intense zeal when someone had the bright idea to make the candles out of real wax instead of horrid fake-looking plastic. And they took me directly over the moon when the flickering, waxy candles came with a remote control and a timer. Beyond brilliant — as long as you follow one simple rule:

Do not place battery operated candles on low tables or counters at eye level, where the fake flame can be seen.

It’s like letting your blonde ponytail stick out from your cute auburn pixie wig. Look, I know it’s not your real hair, we all know, but it’s a fantastic look, and I’m happy to keep the mystery alive.

That’s how it is with battery operated candles.

I like to place them in spaces where I could never use a real flame. I’m a big fan of these flickering, wax, battery operated candles in this china cabinet. They add a touch of drama, and I don’t have to worry about burning down the house.

How do you decorate with candles? Are you on the side of scented or do you prefer yours plain? Have you tried the battery operated candles? Love ‘em or hate ‘em? Let us know. Send your photographs to or post them on Instagram with the hashtag #AJCdiy.

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July 8th, 2014
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