This essay is a draft – it will change, disappear, reappear, and probably get retitled, so don’t get too attached.
How to use a candle: light the wick.
Candles for magic take more work than your birthday candles or the ones on your dinner table. You want them to burn evenly, without extinguishing themselves, flaring up, or drowning in wax.
One major exception: some magical practices require examining the way a candle burns. If this is your practice, you will have instructions about how to prepare and light and observe the candle that may contradict what’s here. In these situations, follow the instructions given to you, unless they seem unsafe.
The Basic Rules
- Trim the wick to about 1/4″ before you burn your candle, every time you burn your candle.
- The first time you burn the candle, you need to let it burn long enough to liquify all the wax on the top of the candle. It will normally take about an hour for each inch of diameter.
- Snuff candles, NEVER BLOW THEM OUT. Blasting a lit candle with a stream of air can result in spilled wax and a damaged wick, and the act of blowing out a candle has magical implications.
If your magical tradition or your work requires that you blow out the candle, take every precaution to ensure safety.
- Don’t burn candles more than four hours at a time. Is the candle more than four inches in diameter? Pick a different candle, that one isn’t meant to be burned.
- A candle is considered “done” when there’s 1/2″ of wax left. If it burns down any further than that, it can damage the container it’s in or the surface it’s on. The one exception to this is tea lights, because they’re so tiny to begin with. Those can be allowed to gutter completely.
- Never leave a candle unattended. Even if it’s well protected. Even if it’s safe. Even if it’s in a secure holder.
- Watch your candle for any issues that might develop.
Before You Light Your Candle
Trim the wick. No, really. Trim the wick. You might get lucky and have a perfect time with your candle if you don’t, but odds are there’s going to be an issue if you don’t start with a wick that’s the correct length. Grab some scissors, trim it down to 1/4″.
Your wick controls how hot and how fast your candle burns. If it’s too long, the wick will develop carbon buildup. You’ll have soot buildup in a filled candle, and the wick may “mushroom” and flare up, or fall over and extinguish itself. Carbon buildup can also cause one side of the wick to burn hotter than the other, and the wax will melt unevenly. If it’s too short – well, it’s just going to burn itself out pretty much immediately.
This is a list of common candle issues, their causes, and possible solutions.
After You Light Your Candle
Any non-tapered candle can tunnel. The wick melts the wax around itself, and sinks deeper….and deeper….while the larger surface of the candle remains pristine and untouched.
There’s a number of ways to fix tunneling, so it’s got a whole page dedicated to it over here.
Remember how you were supposed to trim the wick? Might have trimmed it too far – a lot of commercial sites recommend trimming to 1/8″, but a bit longer than that (1/4″) is usually the best way to go.
The wick might also have been left “unprimed” by the candle maker. Wicks are supposed to be coated with wax so they’ll burn evenly and easily. If the wick is left uncoated, the flame may burn down to the wax and go out. This is pretty easy to fix, by liquifying the wax with a lighter and making sure the wick is coated, then letting it cool before relighting.
The other problem could be candle construction. The burning temperature of the wick has to be high enough to melt the wax, and many mass-produced paraffin candles have wicks that just don’t get hot enough.
The wick length issue can be addressed by using a heat source like a lighter to liquify the wax directly around the wick to make it longer. A candle construction issue isn’t able to be fixed by the user.
Smoking or Soot Production
This may be another candle construction problem – if there’s too many additives, dyes or fragrances in the wax, it can smoke as it melts. The candle may also be in a draft, or the wick needs to be trimmed further. Move the candle, trim the wick, and if the problem persists, decide if it’s something you can live with or if you need a new candle.
Flame Is Too High
If the wick is too big for the candle, the flame will be bigger than needed. You can trim the wick further, but it may be that the wick used is generally too big for the candle. This is one issue where you really need to discard the candle entirely if trimming the wick doesn’t do the trick. Candles that burn too hot or too high can crack their containers – especially if they’re in glass – and can be dangerous in other ways.
Candle Burning Unevenly
Even if you don’t feel a draft, the flame may be in one. Move the candle to another location. Still burning unevenly? It may be where the wick is located in the candle. It’s possible to try to reposition the wick when the wax is liquid, but that’s a tricky, fussy, messy business. If you’re not terribly attached to the candle, try another one.
Either there’s something in the wick – if you’re anointing with oil, do keep it well away from the wick – or it’s an air pocket in the wax that just fed some additional oxygen to the flame. This is another “keep a close eye on it” situation, because sputtering can lead to jumps in burning temperature.
Candle Burning Too Fast
Commercially made candles can end up with air pockets around the wick, which can cause them to burn too fast. The wick may also be too big for the candle and the candle may be burning too hot, but the most common reason the candle burns too fast is that the wick and the wax are mismatched. If the candle is burning a lot faster than you think it should, verify that the wick is a reasonable length. A 1/4″ wick that burns the candle faster than 1″ per hour is probably burning too hot.