Category Archives: Wax

Light my fire

If something is described as a “A triumph of form over function it looks better than it works. Here’s the diametric opposite – something that works really well, but looks a bit rubbish.

Re-using dark wax

Wax extracted from old brood frames is often too dark to use for candle making. You can exchange it for cash or new foundation at Thorne’s – either at one of their regional stores or at the big beekeeping conventions. However, if you use a lot of foundationless frames you’re unlikely to need much foundation (by definition 😉 ). If you have the patience of a saint you could consider making your own starter strips. As an alternatively you use can this old, dark wax to prepare perfectly good firelighters for a wood burning stove. With British summer time ending in a couple of days sooner than you think§, now is as good a time as any to prepare a stock for the winter.

Guess which are handmade ...

Guess which are handmade …

There are lots of suggested ‘recipes’ for these on the web. Many of these combine wax with pine cones, sometimes with the addition of a wick. By adding a few drops of essential oils to the melted wax you can create both an attractive and fragrant item to decorate your home.

Note I said “decorate your home”, not “light your wood burning stove”. Take it from me … they’re pretty hopeless as firelighters. Been there, sent a postcard. I’ve collected pine cones, dried them for weeks in the boiler room, wrapped a wick around them, dipped them in scented wax and been wholly unimpressed at how poor they are as firelighters.

Flamers

Flamers …

Don’t bother.

Commercial firelighters for wood burning stoves are usually composed of a wax-dipped, twisted wood shavings. Flamers work very well. However, at £24 for 200 they’re not inexpensive – particularly for something that’s going to just sit next to the stove in a bowl and then, in the space of a few minutes, literally disappear in a ball of flame.

Roll your own

Elm bowl ...

Elm bowl …

You’ll need some wood shavings, egg boxes and molten beeswax. You can buy the coarsest animal bedding material or – better still – find a friendly wood-turner and ask them to save some of their discarded shavings (which will also work well in your smoker). Melt the beeswax in a slow cooker or Bain Marie. Stuff the wood shavings reasonably tightly into the wells of the egg box and dribble liberally with melted wax.

Job done.

If you want to make them slightly fragrant then add a few drops of juniper or patchouli essential oils to the melted wax before pouring it over the wood shavings. They’ll smell nice but they’ll still look rubbish.

Come on baby ...

Come on baby …

Tear and share

These are not the sort of things you’ll see featured in Homes and Gardens or Country Living. They are a triumph of function over form. Hide them away somewhere close to the stove. When needed, simply tear a ‘cell’ off the egg box, stack it onto the pile of kindling and logs (I’m an advocate of the ‘top down’ or Swiss style method of firelighting), light the blue touchpaper and retire to an armchair to enjoy the fire.

I claim no originality for this idea. There are loads of websites with similar suggestions, using everything from sawdust to the lint from a spin-dryer as the flammable material. Some of them look even worse than mine 😉

Ugly but fully functional ...

Ugly but fully functional …


This phrase is a bastardisation of the term form follows function originally used by the architect Louis Sullivan in an 1896 paper The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered. It became widely associated with modernist and industrial architectural design in the early 20th Century, essentially meaning that the shape of a building should reflect its primary purpose.

§ This post was written in the chilly early Spring with the intention of publishing it sometime in October (when BST ends). However, an extended period of travelling in late August and much of September meant I had to bring the date forward to post something vaguely useful (I hope) and  topical when I’d been doing no practical beekeeping for 3+ weeks. Coincidentally the date this appeared (22nd September 2017) is the autumn equinox … the date at which day and night are of approximate equal duration everywhere. About the time I’ll get the wood-burning stove going regularly.

 This phrase used to be the safety instructions on fireworks (and may still be for all I know) and became widely used as doing something incendiary. ‘Touchpaper’ was the paper fuse soaked in potassium or sodium nitrate.

Colophon

Light my Fire was a 1967 song by The Doors that first appeared on their self-titled debut album.

But you knew that.

Wax processing

Wax can be relatively easily reclaimed from used frames, brace comb, cappings and – depending upon the quality – used for candle making, cosmetics, polish or traded in to buy foundation. Since I’m not interested in producing show quality candles or preparing vast quantities my wax processing routine is relatively simple.

  • Frames (brace comb, failed candles etc.) for processing are loaded into a home made steam extractor.
  • The molten wax is collected in a honey bucket containing a small amount of rainwater. If the frames have large amounts of stores, pollen, brood etc. in them the bucket will also contain all the big bits not filtered out … and can be pretty messy.
  • After a couple of rinses in clean water the set wax disc is broken into pieces and added to a slow cooker containing a couple of centimetres of rainwater. Slow (Slo?!) cookers go in and out of fashion and can be picked up at car boot sales or via Freecycle easily and/or cheaply.
  • After a few hours on the ‘high’ setting, perhaps with the cooker being topped up with additional wax, the slow cooker is turned off and the wax allowed to set overnight.
  • The resulting wax block can easily be tipped out and the dirty water discarded. The bottom of the block usually has a layer of crumbly propolis that has collected at the water/wax interface.
  • Scrape the propolis off with a hive tool or paring knife to leave a block of sufficient quality for trade-in for new foundation.
  • Alternatively, having cleaned out the slow cooker, put the clean block of wax back to remelt (on ‘high’ again) then filter it through something suitable … 2-3 sheets of kitchen paper, J clothes etc. depending upon the quality of wax you want to produce. I do this filtering in my honey warming cabinet set on ‘high’ (about 60ºC) directly into an old ice-cream container sprayed with silicon release agent … ideally I’d do this in the kitchen oven at a slightly higher temperature, but wax gets everywhere. You have been warned 😉
  • The resulting wax blocks are easy to store and of good enough quality for preparing furniture polish and day-to-day candle making. Darker ones are used for homemade foundation strips or traded-in.
The finished product

The finished product

Steam wax extractor

Steam wax extractor

Steam wax extractor …

You can easily extract wax for recycling from old brood frames, cappings or offcuts of brace comb collected during the season. On a hot sunny day a solar wax extractor works well, but needs regular turning to the sun for maximum efficiency. These are also the days on which bees will be flying and the inevitable smell of hot wax and residual honey can be a bit of a bee-magnet. I prefer to do my wax extracting in the autumn or winter, using a steam wax extractor which also sterilizes frames ready for the next season. Thorne’s sell one of these (Easi-Steam), consisting of a modified roof and floor to add to an existing brood box. These are nicely made but not inexpensive, and it is relatively straightforward to build your own.

Earlex wallpaper stripper

Earlex wallpaper stripper

Steam is generated using a wallpaper stripper. The make is unimportant but ensure it has a reasonably sized reservoir and so generates steam for a long time. I bought an Earlex SS125UKP which has a 4 litre tank and runs for a little over an hour (~£20). It takes about 30 minutes to extract 11 brood frames and quite a bit of brace comb which, with a 2kW element, makes it economical to run. You only need the tank and hose from the wallpaper stripper so might even be able to pick up one with a missing “business end” from a car boot sale. If you are going to buy one ensure it has an auto-cutoff should the tank run dry – this allows you to run the steam extractor unattended.

The design is straightforward. You need a solid floor, lined to prevent wax sticking to it, some sort of mesh screen to prevent too much contamination of the melted wax with propolis, cocoons or lumps of pollen, a brood box and a tightly fitting lid through which the steam is piped. I just use a sheet of ply for the lid, held on securely using ratchet straps.

Extracted wax

Extracted wax …

It’s worth using thick ply for the floor and lid to minimize warping from the repeated exposure to steam. I used 12mm ply, but thicker would have been better. I added a lip of 22mm softwood around the lid to provide some rigidity. Using the same sized stripwood I added a lip around three sides of the floor, together with two angled pieces that effectively form a “spout” through which the melted wax will pour. I lined the floor with a suitably shaped piece of metal from the side of an old washing machine, bending the edges up to provide a wax-tight (more or less) base. Take care cutting sheet metal – use thick gardening gloves to protect your hands. I originally used an old travel screen to prevent too much rubbish contaminating the wax. However, it quickly gets clogged and this year I’m going to use some galvanized flooring mesh (see photo).

Hose attachment

Hose attachment …

The last thing to arrange is to secure the steam hose to the lid. The best way to do this would be to fix a threaded tube to the lid. However, I’m still searching for something that fits properly. In the meantime I created two Perspex “clamps” through which the hose end fits, with the Perspex bolted through the lid to hold everything in place (see the photos as it’s easier to illustrate than describe).

To use the steamer place the floor on a hive stand, add the mesh and a brood box (either dedicated for the purpose or one that would benefit from being steam sterilised – I use a plywood bait hive that’s a bit deeper than a normal brood box, allowing me to add frames and some brace comb scraps). To extract from frames simply fit them into the brood box, squeezing a dozen in if you can – there’s space above and below for the steam to circulate well. If you’re extracting from offcuts of brace comb, grafted queen cells and all the other bits scraped up and collected during the season, simply spread these across the mesh. Fit the lid in place and clamp the entire thing together with some ratchet straps. Finally, add a block of wood under the back of the box to tip it up and encourage melted wax to pour out of the spout. Place a container with an inch or so of water under the spout and turn on the steamer.

Wax being extracted

Wax being extracted

It takes 10-15 minutes to get to temperature. During this period honey and condensation may run out of the spout. Once a higher temperature is reached the wax pours out. Once the wax has reduced to a trickle you can turn it off, let the entire box cool to avoid scalding (the inside of the box will reach 105oC) and only then open it up. With brood frames you’ll be left with black, papery thin cocoons, bits of wire and softened propolis. All of this is easy to discard (though a bit messy) and, after a quick scrape with a hive tool, the frames are ready to be reused.

Cocoons and crud ...

Cocoons and crud …

The wax generated is not particularly clean and will need further filtering. If there was residual honey in the frames you will also need to wash this away. Thorne’s reckon that wax recovery with steam is about 95% efficient. It probably doesn’t need adding … run the extractor out of doors! Not only does it generate a lot of steam, but it tends to irregularly drip from various unsealed (i.e. poor quality) joints and can pong a bit. Actually, it can be pretty rank. Don’t use it when bees are flying or you’ll be inundated.

After quite a bit of use I’d noticed that the flush joints between the floor/mesh, the brood box and the lid provided opportunities for the steam to escape, so lowering the temperature and making the extraction less efficient. To avoid this I added strips of rubberized self-adhesive draft excluder to the upper surface of the floor edge lip and the lower surface of the lid edge lip. This is not really suited to high temperatures, but appears to do the trick.

As an aside, a slow-cooker provides a great way to melt wax. These can be picked up very cheaply from car boot sales or for nothing from freecycle.org.

Remember “Measure twice, cut once, swear often”.