“There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.”
- Sun Tzu
Just as the ancient Chinese general said (though he may have counted his musical notes wrong; there’s 12 by modern standards or 8 if you just count the natural notes), the most simple ingredients to anything can yield such delicate and immeasurable combinations that extend forever in any direction you care to imagine. Sun Tzu goes on to describe the combination of colours and flavours. We’d like to add scents to that list – there are so many different scents in this world, and so many more possibilities to combine them. We’re pleased to work in a field with such immeasurable opportunity, and this ties in wonderfully with what we want to talk about today: how scented candles are made.
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Scented candles are made out of – more or less – three very simple ingredients. There’s the perfume itself, then there’s the candle wax, which is made of (surprisingly enough) wax of some form or another; and finally there’s the wick, which is made – mostly – of a rope infused with oil for burning. But the subtleties and opportunities for change that arise from these three ingredients allows for a vast, vast amount of different candles and ways of releasing the scents contained within into the outside world.
Of course, within these three cardinal ingredients of scented candles, there’s one area that stands out as particularly open to exploration and creativity – the choice of scents that are infused within the candle is really the most important part of the process, and what defines and really makes the candle what it is. Within just the possible scent of one candle, there’s more notes and textures and layers than can possibly ever be smelt. The process of actually deciding what scents go in your candle is a complex one. Master pairfumers can work for months or years on developing a certain combination of scents, and once they decide on what they want to capture within a candle, the really hard part – of extracting and developing the scents they’re hoping to capture – begins.
It’s useful here to have a brief aside and talk very quickly about scent chemistry. Scents are – of course – all chemicals that have one way or another made their way into our noses, which are filled with a huge variety of detectors that are designed to recognise a particular chemical. When you recognise the smell of coffee, what’s happening is the hot coffee is giving off a mixture of oils and esters in such small amounts that we can’t see them, but as you breath in through your nose, some of those oils and esters make their way into very, very sensitive areas of your nose, which, when stimulated, sends a message to your brain in the form of a smell. Incidentally, this is why sugar or fruit or freshly cooked food smells so good and plastic or rocks don’t smell at all – your body isn’t really interested in plastic or rocks from a biological perspective, and so your nose hasn’t developed the sensors necessary to smell them.
So, back to the extracting of the perfume. The things that smell good in, for example, wheat, are for the most part oils and esters that come from the natural components of wheat. Everything else is – as far as perfumes are concerned – a bit useless. To separate out these essential oils in the past, pairfumers would have to boil the ingredients in a pressurised container for days and days, and eventually skim the oil off of the top. Nowadays, manufacturers tend to use more gentle versions of the same techniques to help them extract a certain scent.
Once the concentrated mixture of oils and esters is obtained, next comes the testing. What a maker is looking for here is to get the exact right concentration of the oil in a single candle so that it complements everything else without overwhelming another scent, and is nevertheless strong enough to give whoever lights the candle at the end of the process a valuable experience. After working out the right concentrations, the same process is repeated for another scent ingredient (each ingredient, generally, is called a ‘note’ in the overall perfume). At the end of all this, a complex mixture of hundreds of different chemicals, each with their own scent, is the result. This oil mixture is then ready to be mixed with the wax and the wick, to finally make our candle.
Choosing the right wax in a candle is another really important part of the process. Generally, the wax is designed to complement the infused scent, and has to have very little water in it in order to encourage the wick to burn properly. As well as encouraging the wick, however, the wax has to burn slowly enough that the candle doesn’t bust into flames when it’s lit, or burn down in the space of a few hours. The right wax is important, and every one is very, very carefully chosen by experts in the field.
Finally, the wick is the last piece of the puzzle. Whilst most manufacturers use more-or-less the same type of wick (natural grade rope soaked in an alcohol solution before being added to the candle holder and having the wax mixture poured over it), some are more adventurous. WoodWick (the clue is in the name) make novel, interesting wicks which smell great because of their more natural components and flicker and spit like a fire might, making for an interesting difference.
After the components of our candle are combined, all that’s left is to let the wax set, pack them into our delivery boxes, and let you enjoy them!