Burning Candles

This probably seems like a grade-school level subject, but I’ve tended to have a lot of difficulty burning candles efficiently.  Boredom with the bad weather has encouraged me to relieve my ignorance.  It turns out there’s a lot more to burning candles than just lighting the wick.  And there are lots of articles on the internet about how to burn and maintain candles for optimal light and burn time, not to mention safety practices.

One of the main points (there are many!) is always trimming the wick.  As I was reading an article, I was burning an Amish stearic acid carriage lamp candle (really!) in a little kerosene lamp that I converted for the candle.  This candle was burning flawlessly (my last try with the candle that was just open to the air was a failure, yet these candles burn handsomely in carriage lamps!).  To my surprise, when I looked up from reading about burning candles, the candle (which had been burning about an hour) was really “chugging” and smoking a bit.

So one of several rules about burning candles is that depending on the candle, it’s going to need its wick trimmed during extended burn times.  After burning an hour the wick was about 3/4″ long! This candle looks like it needs attention about every hour.

I’d encourage folks who have a stash of candles for emergencies, but never actually gave a thought to burning them, to look up the many articles on burning them safely and correctly. This is a pretty good place to start.


  • Comments (17)

    • 2

      I like burning candles. My mom always had one going while I was growing up so guess it’s engrained in me. I’ve never trimmed the wick though in fear that I would not have enough to burn the candle, but that is a silly excuse if you think about it. The wick should always be long enough on it’s own if not too long and not burn itself out because it will be wicking up wax. 

      I’ll definitely try this trick to extend the life of my candles. Thanks!

      One thing that I had a question on: is there a minimum amount of time a jar candle should be burned for for maximum efficiency? My thought is that if you only burn for a short period of time it will only melt the wax around the wick and not reach the edges of the candle. The result would be the boring down through the center of the candle and leaving the edges unmelted. 

      In the past I’ve taken old candle scraps and melted them down into new candles, but makes for some funky smells if you are mixing various fragrances. 

      • 3

        Robert, the article says that in general, candles should never be burned for more than four hours, and if that long, need to cool for at least two hours before being relit.  I can see why – probably the wax just ends up getting too hot.  And in general, the wax just needs to be completely melted from edge to edge (the article seems to relate mostly to jar candles) to prevent the tunneling.

    • 3

      @Barb Lee,

      I agree. My wife burns mostly natural candles all the time. She asks me to light one on top of the stove when I get up in the morning. Wicks behave very differently from candle to candle. Many ‘mushroom’ or split and curl and that creates smoke initially, before it stops and burns brightly. I knock off the mushroom before lighting now.

      I bought some wicks so I could put all the leftover wax from several candles into one small jar and see how it goes.

      • 2

        Shaun, I’m sure there’s no “engineering” to the cheap candles I buy at the grocery store and now that I’m looking at candles for emergency lighting rather than just ambiance, I want to learn more about matching wicks to the expected finished product.  I sure don’t want to pay $15-20 for a high quality candle, but neither do I want to have candles that don’t burn worth a darn in an emergency!

        I restored horsedrawn carriages for about 40 years. There were countless trades  involved in their construction.  I know a lot of seemingly “simple” technologies from the past were actually so complex that some of them can’t be replicated in the modern world.  So I’m not the least bit surprised that there’s a lot more to candles than meets the eye!

        This little candle lantern works on the same principle as a candle powered carriage lamp. The candle is pushed up into the burner by a spring.  The surrounding metal creates a little pool of liquid wax that’s always level.  I’ve had three pairs of carriage lamps and they never required a second of fussing.  Maybe the odd wick trim.  I don’t know if you have to buy their specific diameter candles for the lantern, but I’m pretty sure there’d be a workaround for that. I’m kind of tempted…

      • 2

        Screenshot from 2022-12-30 13-11-51

        The ol’ candle reflector will improve light output if using them for illumination rather than creating a pleasant atmosphere. Placing a mirror or piece of aluminium foil behind will work in a pinch.

      • 2

        Definitely a burning issue here, and I must say I prefer a LED lantern/light, preferably solar power capable, which is somewhat safer (not that electricity doesn’t have safety concerns).

        Doesn’t any open flame produce CO, even in very small amounts?  I have never heard f an issue with candles, however…..

      • 2

        I look repeatedly at solar, but we just don’t get sun during this time of year, when power outages are most frequent.  I looked at the Luminaid lanterns and they take 3-4 days of being out in the sun to charge. What I should do is create a little power generating turbine on our little seasonal stream!  Would probably get an equivalent amount of charging.

        I had occasion to break out the CO monitor during a power outage this past week.  The butane stove generated about 2ppm.  Same for the Coleman. I haven’t thought to set it under the candles, which I burn almost nightly.  Will do that tonight. It appears that beeswax produces fewer toxins, according to one of the articles I read.

        I’m kind of thinking about multiple sources of light.  We proved to ourselves this week that the Coleman LED lantern will be our first go-to, followed by the older fluorescent.  Each takes eight D-cell batteries, at about $2.25 each, and good for roughly 80+ hours at full intensity (300 lumens, about 40-50 watts).  I’m stocking up on batteries.

        Then I’ve got two Aladdin mantle lamps, good for 12-16 hours on a fill of kerosene, which makes them cost about the same to run as the lanterns and produce about the same amount of light, plus the benefit of considerable heat.  They are fussy devils, and can really be a fire hazard if they’re not adjusted carefully.

        When the batteries and the kerosene run out, it would be candles, which is why I’m spending these dreary rainy days figuring out how best to burn them.

        We also have a small generator that we could power a lamp with while it’s running the freezer or something (Charging on a Luminaid lantern would be 3-4 hours).  To power just a lamp, it would be extravagantly expensive.

      • 2

        @Barb Lee,

        I have seen the lanterns but have not used one.

        My assumption is that we will use candles during a lengthy power outage in the house. For anything mobile, we will use flashlights or Coleman gasoline lanterns or a few kerosene lanterns (although kerosene is very expensive compared to unleaded gas).

        The most cost-effective candle for lighting I have found is a tealight candle.  I have (2) bags of these. Each candle is good for about 4 hours so (2) bags of (100) is 800 hours. The unscented pillars are nice too but not as cost effective. Tealights can be dropped in a shallow jelly jar. You can put a bit of sand in the bottom to keep them centered too.

        Some have talked about using mirrors to direct the light output and it’s a good idea.

        I do not keep candles in the trunk for lighting or heat. The idea you can adequately heat your car during a winter storm is an urban myth – there simply aren’t enough BTUs. The best solution to heat your vehicle during deep winter weather is a Montana heater.


      • 1

        Someone on the forum before mentioned buying a 6 pack of emergency 4 hour candles from the Dollar Tree and its been on my list to buy whenever I go there next. But for that same $5, the Walmart 100 pack of tealights seem like a better deal. 800 hours of tealights vs 96 hours with $5 worth of Dollar Store candles. 

        Thanks for the recommendation Shaun

    • 2

      I just held a CO monitor over a small, single candle that I’ve been burning and it read 12-13ppm CO.  So yes, there’s another aspect of burning candles for light.

      • 2

        Probably the best strategy is to have a variety of sources for light and heat.  I just got a Coleman propane lamp, somewhat like the Colemans I remember as a kid..

        The key to using LEDs is a stock of spare rechargeable batteries and robust power banks, replentishable from the grid or solar panels.  This will take care of any surplus spare change that is in your way….

      • 1

        Those levels seem small, but looking at the chart on this site even small doses like that can lead to health issues and creep into impairing someone’s performance. Am I over worrying or being precautious?

      • 1

        Robert, the readings were taken directly over the flames.  When I set the monitor alongside the devices the readings were zero throughout the time they were used.

        Last night I burned two well-tuned Aladdin lamps on low for a couple of hours.  Held directly over the chimneys (about two feet up because of the heat), I got readings of 2-3ppm.  Set alongside the lamps the monitor read 0ppm throughout the burn time.

        So essentially the devices are sending a miniscule volume of CO into a very large volume of air in the room.  The wall-mount CO alarm, hanging near the woodstove, has never gone off.

        Now if the ROOM air read 2-3ppm, I’d probably take measures to increase ventilation, but I don’t think I will worry about burning my devices, for ambiance, or for emergencies, making sure there is adequate ventilation.

    • 2

      A friend of mine is a candlemaker and she taught me the wick trimming trick, which makes a huge difference. She also taught me to let the wax melt from edge to edge, as mentioned by others in this thread. I buy only unscented soy wax candles OR 100% beeswax candles, with the idea that I can melt and mix “leftovers” for reuse (which I have never done, but I have great intentions…..).  I find scented candles extremely annoying.

      To me a candle adds a major level of “cozy” to a room, even if it is just a little tea light, so even though I use solar lanterns for emergency lighting (I’m a big fan of MPowerd), I keep a huge stash of candles in my preps and even keep an emergency candle in my car so I can heat water over it if absolutely necessary. (I also keep a single-wall stainless steel bottle of water plus a little camping grill to set it on).  One day I’m going to get motivated to test cooking with a row of tea light candles underneath a roasting rack to see how well it does. 

      • 1

        M.E., you might like this post Jay made about cooking over a candle. 

      • 2

        I did! I might try making a can / candle omelet this week just for grins!

    • 3

      I’ve always liked candles for their dancing light ambiance. But for prep, I have several lighting options: headlamps, flashlights, candles, lanterns. I will save the recharging of batteries for my phone and computer during sustained power outages.   I have a few electrified Alladin mantle oil lamps that I use normally and can convert them to lamp oil.  I also have a couple   The lamp oil is refined kerosene IIRC and burns cleaner.  I like that it puts out 400+ lumens.  I also have candles and a wick trimmer which make that maintenance easier when reaching down a pillar or in a jar while it is burning.  I also have olive oil lamp kits.  The fuel is something I already have, and it can be improvised with some wire (paper clip in a pinch) and an empty jar or small glass.  One of the beautiful features is that it goes out if tipped over.  I think someone reported in a thread that they get hot when the oil runs out and suggested adding some water to the jar to prevent scorching of surfaces and the jar breaking.  The oil will float on top and burn as long as the wick is suspended in the oil.