Ted Thompson, candle-maker
Dipping beeswax candles in Cumbria
There’s a corner of our shop in Oxford which always smells amazing, especially when it’s warm – where we hang our hand-dipped beeswax candles. Made in Alston in Cumbria, by the inimitable Ted Thompson and his team, these beautiful candles have a natural tapered shape, the result of the process by which they are made. We recently asked Ted to tell us a little more about the Moorlands story:
OoU: How long have Moorlands been making hand-dipped beeswax candles?
We started dipping candles at our present workshop in 2003, and prior to that from the mid eighties I was using old oil drums in a nissen hut at Moorlands near Nenthead where I lived in a caravan. It was a much more primitive set up and often very smokey there, but at that time we had already started selling to Suma foods.
OoU: Could you talk us through the process of producing a hand-dipped candle?
To make candles we use counterbalanced circular metal carrousels and thread braided cotton wick around screws top and bottom with the required length between them. Then we dip the wick into wax at the required temperature a number of times (almost twice as many times with paraffin wax as with beeswax) allowing the candles to cool between dips. When to size the wax is heated up and the ends of the candles burned off. Very simple in theory but temperature and moisture can make for variations.
OoU: Where and how did you learn the skills involved?
I first encountered dipped candle making in the early 1970s when a friend in Denmark, Kurt Saabe was making them and selling them at the gate of a sort of commune called Vindhoj (wind hill) to supplement income for his family together with growing veg and making sculptures. Returning to the UK and living in Alston I worked as a joiner and scraped a living until I thought I'd try to make a living with candles and got the dipping machinery made by a local joiner. I knew where to buy wax, wick and dyes but it was only by trial and error I learnt, and the first year or two the candles and colours left much to be desired. I remember sending off candles wrapped in newspaper and expecting them to arrive at the purchaser's shop intact.
OoU: Do you know much about the history of dipping candles?
Dipping has long been a method of candle making, and when candles were essential to life in the country, rush lights were made by dipping the pith of rushes in mutton fat or dripping. Only the church and the wealthy would be able to afford beeswax candles. The wicks we use today are made from braided cotton bleached and solutioned in boric acid, and it is essential to use the correct wick for the diameter of the candle.
OoU: How do you procure the beeswax for your candles? How do you determine the quality of the wax? Are there ethical considerations involved in choosing where to buy your beeswax?
We have just received a pallet of beeswax from Scotland made from melting the wax from very old comb on frames which turned out to be dark and the candles we made from it sputtered so we had to send the candles along with remaining wax to be filtered down in Surrey as we cannot process it ourselves. I don't think it's common knowledge that for every ten tons of honey only a quarter ton of beeswax is produced. Larger beekeepers in this country can keep over a thousand hives and we endeavour to source as much of the beeswax we use from the UK. However there are times of the year when due to demand we can't obtain any, so have to use imported wax. Although Chinese wax is the cheapest and burns alright it has no characterful aroma so we use wax from Africa iead. David Wainwright of Tropical Forest Products has long worked with African beekeepers.
OoU: Would you say beeswax candles and the the methods used in their production are environmentally friendly? Are there any by-products of the candle making process?
We only dip candles using gas to heat water jacketed dipping boilers which also provides heating in our workshop. We still dip coloured candles from paraffin wax and theres no way we can say that burning carbon is environmentally friendly. Even the beeswax could probably be better used in cosmetics or polish, but the candles do produce light and atmosphere. i.e The Sam Wannamaker Theatre. We do have very little waste in our production as most of the wax scrapings from the floor are melted down to make our black candles.
OoU: Could you tell us a bit about your workshop and the tools that you use? How many people are employed at Moorlands?
In the workshop the only tools we use are scissors, tape measures, gauges ,mallets, scrapers, wooden spoons and strainers. The workforce is no longer those depicted on our postcard for 2017 [see image below], as young Connor has left and Chris is still out of action whilst her hip is mending. We have now recruited Lianna for a couple of days a week.
OoU: How do you feel about keeping this kind of method alive and viable in today’s economic environment? What do you think of the role of this kind of crafted product in our everyday lives?
Looking to the future and to enable for Rory and company to carry on the business when I'm retired or gone we are planning shortly to change Moorlands Candles into a Limited Company so that everyone, including myself, will be employed by the business. Beeswax candles are a luxury item and most of the shops and increasingly online shops we supply are selling to fairly well off people. I'm sure that with our more recently acquired niche markets of Theatre, Film and TV we will continue to survive just as long as the quality of our product does.