I just got back from a super awesome weekend at Madiera Beach with my wife and parents. While my wife can lay in the sun for hours and my folks are happy to sit in the shade sipping beer and listening to Jimmy Buffet, I get kinda antsy after a while and I have to make something. Since there's nowhere to plug in a soldering iron and the noise of power tools tends to annoy the other vacationers, I tend to do crafts when I'm on holiday.
One of my favorite beach crafts is making sand candles. They are easy enough that the kids can make them but artsy and satisfying so anyone can join the fun. Sand candles are a good souvenir or a nice gift for the neighbor who feeds the cat while you're gone.
OK, let's make candles!
We'll need wax, wick material, a beach and some kind of improvised double boiler
Step 1: Time to Come Out of Your Shell.
Sand candles are made by pouring hot wax into a hole in the sand. By lining the hole with carefully arranged shells we end up with a candle with a layer of shells on the outside.
The shells are the most important part! You can line your hole with random shells or just one kind. You can select one color or arrange small colored fragments for a mosaic effect. Use your imagination and have fun. I really like hunting for shells. It takes what I like to call 'mindless concentration'- a zen like state of automation that lets your mind wander and think all kinds of thoughts. Mindless concentration is why washing dishes in a busy restaurant was one of the most enjoyable jobs I've ever had.
While you're picking shells and thinking about new ways to stack shipping containers or whatever, think about your candles. This is the design phase of the project. How big will it be. Will there be more than one? What shape will they be? What kind of color/pattern/texture do you want to achieve with your shells?
I decided to use squarish pieces of ridged shell in orange and white that are pretty common on the Gulf coast. These large clam shells break up as they tumble through the surf and rocks. They wear smooth and look kind of like broken Ruffles potato chips. I also collected some smaller bivalve shells for some smaller candles.
When you have enough shells give them a good rinse with fresh water and lay them out to dry completely. The sun will do the job on a clear day but I used the oven in our beach rental to speed the job up.
Step 2: Can You Dig It?
Find a nice sandy spot under your umbrella or behind your beach chair or some other shady spot. Use your favorite digging tool to make a shallow hole. Moisten the sand a little, but keep it firm- like what you'd build a sand castle with. If the sides are too steep the shells won't stay put and the sand will cave in. Play around with hole shapes and see how they work with the shells you have and the type of sand your beach has. Push the shells into the sand slightly so they stay in place. Take your time and be patient- you'll cave in a hole or two before you get the hang of it.
I ended up with a shallow, smooth hole about seven inches across and two and a half inches deep. I also made a couple of three inch by one inch holes for any leftover wax. I lined them with shells and put my beach chair over them to protect them while I went on to step 3.
Step 3: Wax On...
Now it's time to melt the wax. You can use sealing paraffin, candle making wax beads or even old or broken candles. You can also use crayons to add color and essential oils for a pleasant odor. I had an old block of sealing wax leftover from some canning I did and a couple of broken tapers. Chop up your wax into smaller pieces so it will melt quicker. If you are using candles carefully remove the wick so you can reuse it.
If you are in a very hot place on a very sunny day you can put your wax in a Ziploc bag inside a black container and leave it on the sun- it will eventually melt. Since this is afternoon thunder shower season in Florida I used a simple double boiler set up on the stove. A double boiler, or bain marie, is used in cooking when too much heat will ruin the dish such as when making hollandaise sauce or melting chocolate. It is basically a pot of boiling water with another pot suspended in it which contains the product being heated. Since the temperature of water will not exceed the boiling point, the temperature in the inner vessel never goes above 100 degrees Celsius.
I cut the tops off of a few soda cans and placed the cut up chunks of wax in them. I placed them in a shallow saucepan full of water and brought it to a simmer. I placed a folded piece of aluminum foil on top of the cans to retain heat as the wax melted.
Now is a good time to be patient. Don't turn up the heat too high or the water may boil over or even spill the wax into the water (which is a nightmare to clean out of the pot when you are done- trust me). When all the wax is melted carefully remove the wax container from the hot water. Since I was three floors up and several gates away from the beach I poured the melted wax into a plasic container and put it in a cooler so it wouldn't start setting on me before I could get back down to the beach.
The wax could also be melted on a grill or camp stove but always use a double boiler of some kind and lots of caution to prevent accidents (like boiling wax bubbling over and sticking to the skin of any bystanders ending a nice day at the beach with a trip to the burn ward). Don't let your kids' 'What I Did on Summer Vacation' paper include the words 'skin graft'.
Step 4: Wick-ed
Since I was using some broken candles for their wax I used the wick as well. Wicks are usually made from cotton string treated to burn slower. You can soak cotton string in a solution of borax and salt and then let it dry to make your own or buy premade wicks at your local craft supply. If you do make your own you will want to do so well in advance.
Step 5: ...Wax Off.
Now it's time to pour our wax.
Cut your wick material so that it is a little bit longer than the depth of your hole. I used bamboo skewers the hold the wick upright while I poured the wax. I bent one end of the wick over double and looped it over the skewer which was laid across the hole. I stuck the other end into the sand in the bottom of the hole.
When your wick is in place slowly pour the wax into your hole. If your sand is very fine you can place a shell in the bottom of your hole to pour your wax over so the pressure of the wax doesn't mess up the hole. When all your holes are filled you can leave them to cool off or you can drop whole shells or bits of coral into the wax so that they will be uncovered as the candle burns.
When you are satisfied with your work cover or otherwise protect your candle from debris and wait for it to cool and solidify. Do not leave it unattended as no one want to step in a slightly concealed puddle of molten wax. Again- be patient. Digging up a candle before it's done can ruin it or even cause burns. Wax cools from the outside in so even though the candle feels solid enough to pull out of the sand it can still have molten, liquid wax inside, just waiting to drain out onto curious fingers.
Step 6: Good Things Come to Those Who Wait.
When your wax is completely cooled and solid you can carefully remove it from the sand. Carefully brush off the loose sand and then rinse your candle. Ta Da- you made a beach candle!
These candles create a nice glow as the light shines through the wax and the shell pieces cause shadows in the flickering flame on your table. They're a great way to bring a little bit of the beach home with you. They are also a beach activity with something for everyone- art, science, cooking, digging, finding and fire. Be sure to check out the video and have fun making your own.