Introduction: Fire From Soap! Tealight of the Apocalypse

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Zombie Apocalypse? Century-class Solar Storm? Attack of Enormous Ants, or Unruly Avians? Chez Green, we laugh in the face of these catastrophes, not because of a defect or lack in our human sensibilities, but rather, because we are well prepared! While others on this site, and the Internets, will help you to improve your arsenal of pointed sticks and matches, I will teach you how you may beguile the weary hours during an apocalypse with this charming tealight and its unique holder! Best of all, it can be made from the detritus of our own crumbling civilization!

And when you walk around with it, it doesn't blow out!

Step 1: Tools and Materiel

The items needed to produce this charming accouplement of glass and fire are easily procured, and quite inexpensive!



Glass cutter

Glass cutting jig (homemade or store-bought)

Sandpaper (in various grits: 150, 400, 600)

Silicone sealant (optional)

Apocalypse Candle:

Stove (for heating water)

Glass or Steel containers suitable for heating water



Blu Italy Sparking Water bottle (glass version)

Whole Foods 365 Organic Spice bottle

Sweetleaf Tea bottle (glass version)

Paraffin Candle:

Paraffin block


Weight (homemade, store-bought or salvaged)


Apocalypse Candle:

Soap scraps (or a bar of soap (for extreme recycling, see note on step 7))

Magnesium Sulfate (Epsom salt)

White Vinegar

Wick (or cotton string)

Weight (as above)


This instructable requires one to cut glass, sand glass, boil water and light candles on fire. If you feel unequal to any of these, please proceed no further!

Step 2: Tealight Holder: Thoughts on Bottles

Our raw materials for the Tealight Holder will be a "Blu Italy Sparkling Water" (available at many Trader Joe's) the generic Whole Foods 365 brand spice bottle, and the top to a Sweetleaf Tea Bottle that I found in the recycling at work. This is just one combination that fits together well. There are many others that are equally charming.

The Blu bottle will be scored about ¾” (2 cm) from the bottom, below the small ridge where the glass narrows. The spice bottle is slightly higher, but less than an inch. If there are gaps where the score line disappears, you can connect the broken line with a hand-held glass cutter. The Sweetleaf bottle is scored just under the bulbous bit that reads "Homemade Goodness." I believe the meanings of both of those words have changed significantly in recent years, such that the phrase now is read "Factory-made Wretchedness."

In my masterwork on cutting bottles, "Bottle cutting: some thoughts," I advocated using a glass cutter and a simple jig from various bits of lumber to score the bottles (picture two), and the hot/cold water method to make the actual cut. For those who wish to delve more deeply into this ancient and delightful art, please refer to my previous, and highly-regarded, monograph on the subject. I would also turn your attention to these other fine instructables:

My first exposure to the water method was from Green Power Science:

Since that time, I have acquired, at a second-hand emporium, a bottle cutting jig for $3.00. It is better than my previous jig for two reasons:

  • side to side wobble of the glass cutting wheel is reduced;
  • the bottle is held more securely.

However, in the absence of a store-bought jig, my home built jig, anyone else's home built jig, or frankly, no jig at all, is entirely adequate. The first bottle I cut was a coke bottle. I held it down flat on a piece of cardboard and turned it with one hand while pressing a glass cutter to it with the other. The glass I made wasn't gorgeous, but it was entirely usable. For extremely curvy bottles, the store bought jig is a non-starter, and the home made one rules.

More important is the water. You need lots of it, both hot and cold. The hot water should be between 175 - 185 degrees Fahrenheit, and the cold, about 100-110 degrees less (65-70 F). A reader (C I A H) of my previous instructable suggested using an automatic coffee maker for the purpose of heating the water, and I am happy to report that C I A H's suggestion was an excellent one!

After making your score, slowly heat up the score line by pouring hot water in a steady stream on it, turning the bottle all the while. Then put the bottle under cold water, running from the tap, again while turning the bottle. It generally takes two or three cycles for the bottle to break in two.

I have also had entirely acceptable results using the hammer method. With that method, you use the ball end of the glass cutter, preferably wrapped in electrical tape, and tap the inside of the bottle along the score line. This method is loud, and produces a slightly less clean cut, but is a useful one to know. It can be combined with the water method for stubborn bottles.

Most important, whichever method you use, is that you use a light touch. After the first hot/cold cycle, treat every drop of hot water as though it were a tiny hammer-blow. When you then go back to the cold water, turn the bottle in the stream from the faucet, holding each end in one of your hands.

Did the bottle split in two? Wonderful! Now, be careful! Those edges are sharp!

Step 3: Tealight Holder: Continued

We now have all the parts required. All we need to do is finish them and assemble. In the past, I've use 120 grit sandpaper for the initial shaping, and 220 to create a matte finish for my drinking glasses. While this is acceptable from a tactile standpoint, it just doesn't look as nice. I proceeded with these from 220 to 600 grit, and as you can see, the surface is smooth and quite transparent. In the first picture, you can see the effect of sanding briefly with 120 grit (top right corner), extensively with 220 grit (top left), and 600 grit (bottom, center). Do the same for the spice jar and water bottle.

The top (Homemade Goodness), is just sanded to 120 grit, as the rim will be facing down. To ensure a snug fit, I ran a bead of clear silicone caulk around the rim. This is entirely optional in many cases.

When the spice and water bottles are finished to your satisfaction, glue the former to the latter. I used super glue (cyanoacrylate). Liquid Nails, silicone, glass glue and many others could also be used. Gorilla Glue would also work, but the foam would be visible, and a clamp would be necessary to prevent the glue's expansion from shifting the parts unacceptably.

Step 4: Candle the First: Paraffin

The easiest, cheapest and brightest option for candle material is nearly always going to be paraffin. One pound (about .5 Kilos) is going to set you back anywhere between $3-$7 USD. Grocery stores carry it in the canning section. If you're feeling fancy, you can get soy wax or other types of candle-making wax from hobby stores.

Cotton wick is also important. You need to be able to wick the wax up and allow it to volatilize if you want it to be on fire. Paracord and other plastic-based cordage is probably not going to be your friend here. It doesn't smell nice when it's burning. Probably not very healthy either. Store-bought wick is excellent quality, and is not terribly expensive.

You will need some form of weight to keep the base of the wick from floating on top of the wax. I used a curled up paperclip, but have also used pieces of soup can, a penny, a tab from a soda can, and salvaged weights from store-bought candles.

Now, we're at the fun part! We get to make the candle!

Break off a candle-sized chunk of wax, and cut it into smaller pieces. Now, using my patented plastic-baggie-in-boiling-water-in-mason-jar method, place the wax in a plastic baggy, in hot water (at least 180 F) in a jar or mug. When the wax has melted, pour it into the candle holder (spice jar piece). Pour a small amount over the weight first, then top it off once the first bit has started to solidify. Trim the wick. You're done! Now light it on fire!

Step 5: Apocalypse Tealight: From Soap to Hope

All of this is well and good, but how will one entertain guests during a catastrophe? How will papa read edifying and ennobling material to the children when the paraffin runs out? One could burn olive oil, or some other comestible, but then one is taking food out of one's stomach, plus it's smelly. Hardly ideal.

What else is there to be done? What will fill the void? Soap!

The science is quite straightforward: soap consists of sodium (and sometimes potassium) salts of fatty acids. For example: palm oil (a blend of fatty acids) is mixed, in the soap making process, with sodium hydroxide (a base). The acid and base neutralize each other and produce a salt, such as sodium palmitate. Because we all love chemical equations:

NaOH + CH3(CH2)14COOH --> CH3(CH2)14COONa + H2O

When one is mixing the naturally-occurring oils, they are usually in triglyceride form. A triglyceride is something called an ester. An ester is a compound created by joining an alcohol and an acid. In this case, the alcohol is glycerin (glycerol) and the acid is palmitic acid. The sodium hydroxide combines with the acid, and sets free the glycerin and creates some water.

The beauty of all of this is that, while it is difficult to turn the salts of fatty acids back in to triglycerides, it is very easy to turn them back into fatty acids and other salts.

Here's how:

1. Dissolve the soap in hot water

Soap dissolves slowly and with difficulty in cold water, but dissolves very nicely in hot. Either shred or cut up one bar of soap. Then pour hot (near-boiling) water on it. The soap will dissolve quickly. If you let the mixture cool down, you get a gel-like substance that is fun to poke. Heat it back up, and the mixture becomes clear again. Put your soap solution in a large bowl.

2. Separate the fatty acid salts from the other ingredients in the soap.

Besides our lovely salts of fatty acids, there are also all sorts of perfumes, stabilizers and other additives that will not enhance our experience or promote ignition. Let's remove them.

While sodium and potassium salts of fatty acids are soluble in hot water, magnesium and calcium salts are not. We call these salts of fatty acids "soap scum." Let's make some together! Dissolve as much Epsom salt (AKA Magnesium Sulfate - MgSO4) as you can in two cups of hot water. Pour this mixture into the soap solution. Instantly, we get a delightful white precipitate, which is comprised of magnesium salts of all of the fatty acid salts in the original bar. Common ones will be magnesium stearate, magnesium palmitate, and magnesium laurate. Here is the reaction with salts of palmitic acid:

2CH3(CH2)14COONa + MgSO4 --> Mg(CH3(CH2)14COO)2 + Na2SO4

Step 6: Apocalypse Tealight: Scum, Marvelous Scum!

We have made our delightful soap scum, but are now presented with a problem. How do we remove our scum from the solution of water and non-helpful ingredients? The first two pictures here demonstrate one possible route. Run the scum-slurry through coffee filters! Lots and lots of coffee filters! Eventually you will get two lovely cakes of soap scum. You will waste lots of time and money on filters, and of course, during an apocalypse, time and money are two things everyone has in excess. What a charming approach.

Clearly, this is not to be thought of.

Fortunately, there is another approach which I hit upon quite by accident. Although the magnesium salts of fatty acids do not dissolve appreciably in water, they melt delightfully in hot water. When they melt they become very sticky, and if you are clever with a butter knife, you can get all of those globs to stick to each other. Then, just fish them out and voila! Separated scum!

The next bit is slightly stinky, but very easy. Once you've rinsed your scum clumps with cold water, crumble them up, place them in a bowl and cover them with white vinegar. Very soon, you'll see a layer of oil rising to the surface. If you pin some scum against the bottom of the bowl with a spoon, the effect is mesmerizing. Sort of like a smelly lava lamp, with little blobs of oil collecting on the scum, then rising up to the surface. Soon you will have two layers in your bowl: a watery layer with dissolved magnesium acetate (and some other water soluble additives that managed to get trapped in the scum), and an oily layer, comprised of fatty acids and a much lower amount of additives and perfumes. Here's a lovely equation of the reaction, again using magnesium palmitate:

Mg(CH3(CH2)14COO)2 + 2CH3COOH --> (CH3COO)2Mg + 2CH3(CH2)14COOH

Place the bowl in a cool place, and the fatty acids will solidify. You can then pop off a very nice, oily disk, that has only a faint smell of soap.

Step 7: Apocalypse Tealight: Fire Makes It Good!

Now, lets make our candle! We need a wick. This can either be a store bought wick, cotton string, even a twisted piece of paper. On larger candles, there's frequently a thin metal wire that keeps the wick from flopping over. I tried a wire from a twist tie, and I'm happy to report that this was an utter and complete fail. It caused quite a bit of guttering, and I believe caused a cooling of the candle flame, as the metal absorbed heat, radiating it down into the fuel, and the weight. Silly and unnecessary.

The weight I used here was a penny that I drilled a hole in with a pair of scissors. Sort of a "because I can" moment. The wick was some cotton string.

Using the same baggy and coffee cup method detailed earlier, fill up the tealight holder. Our new candle has a lovely, creamy color. Touch a match to it!

It burns! You just lit soap on fire!

(As a side note, those who want to do a complete recycle for this project, here's another reason to not wash your tub: you can scrape the soap scum off the sides, and skip straight to the vinegar treatment. If you're lazy/dedicated enough, you may even have enough for an entire candle!)

Step 8: It's Called a Snuffer, Damn It!

This is really more of an addendum. You can always blow out your candle, but a snuffer is a lovely thing, and it adds such symmetry to our creation! For your snuffer you can use the lid of the Sweetleaf Tea bottle, or any other appropriately-sized lid. I sanded away the inside, but I think that it was probably unnecessary. The plastic seal thing was removed with some acetone, and some scraping.

As a side note, devotees of Harry Potter will almost certainly know the irritation I experienced with Dumbledore's most famous magical invention - the one with which he puts out streetlights. It is one of the instances where Ms. Rowling's remarkable imagination seems to have utterly failed her. In the first book, she refers to it as a "Put-outer." Wince. But we give it a pass, in much the same way we give Diagon-alley a pass. Later in the series it reappears, again with the unprepossessing name of Put-outer, and (in the Order of the Phoenix) as the "Unlighter." More winces. Finally, in the last book of the series, it is revealed that this object is, in fact, a "Deluminator." Outrage. We have soldiered through thousands of pages, bearing up under the burden of puns and pointless wordplay, all the while ignoring the sheer vapidity of the neologisms "Put-outer" and "Unlighter," only to have the name change, yet again, in the last book, to an equally vapid, and equally made-up word, when a perfectly serviceable word already exists in the English language, a language with which, we are led to believe, Ms. Rowling has a passing familiarity.

It's called a snuffer, damn it. A snuffer.

Step 9: The Gentleman's Tips

  • Don't use Ivory soap. It will always smell like Ivory soap, and when you light it on fire, it smells like burnt ivory soap. For those looking for a milder smelling (and non-animal fat based) soap, the Trader Joe's Oatmeal soap is a nice alternative.
  • In the picture, the two left-hand bars are soap. The one on the right comes from a hotel, and is made by a company we shall refer to as "The Corporation." The Corporation assures us that some of their ingredients are all-natural, and that they don't use "banned pthalates." Since, to my knowledge, the U.S. doesn't ban any pthalates, this claim doesn't really encourage my adoption of their product. It will go in the trash where it belongs.
  • Related to this, don't use detergent-based soaps. These contain sodium laureth/laurel sulfate (among other detergents). These will not convert back to lauric acid, at least not by using vinegar.

This instructable is entered in the apocalypse preparedness contest. If you like the tealight, please vote for it!

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