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Not All Candle Makers Are Hippies

Posted Feb 10 2013 2:43pm

When you picture someone making candles, what do you see?  Admit it…you imagine a hippie with a long gray ponytail, decked out in tie-dye, dipping taper candles into a big vat of wax.  Hell, even I used to think that.  Every time we see a candle maker, or chandler, in a movie or TV show, that’s how they’re portrayed.  Well, I’m here to tell you that most of us are not hippies.  And I haven’t worn tie-dye since junior high in the late 70s.

I realized I never really talk about my day job here, and that’s mainly because for many years our candle business was really booming.  I didn’t want to take the chance that a customer might somehow happen upon my blog.  Oh, believe me, I had some stories to tell!

Now though, the business is winding down.  It’s been about a year since we’ve made candles with wicks; we stick to tarts (or melts) now, which is scented wax that you melt with a (usually electric) burner.  You’ve heard of Scentsy?  That’s what we make.  (Except better than Scentsy, of course!)  We sell the electric melt/tart/candle warmers, and the ones that work with a tealight too, although I prefer the electric ones because I think they’re safer.

Anyway, we knew we’d lose a lot of business narrowing our focus the way we did (although the melts are hugely popular, which is why we stuck with them instead of just closing the business altogether).  It worked out well because it gave us time to focus on the house updates we needed to do, and it’s better that we aren’t so busy with Dave’s Hepatitis treatment on the horizon.  So it just feels like I can talk a bit about what it’s like to make candles now.

When we first started, it was just a hobby.  I love candles, scented ones especially, and in 2000 that was pretty much what I told everyone I wanted for Christmas.  Just a month later I picked up a book on candle-making, thinking it would be fun to just make them.  Well, I was hooked.  I mean, obsessed.  I joined forums and mailing lists, bought all kinds of wax and fragrance oil samples, and went to town.  And I learned pretty quickly that it was NOT cheaper to make my own.  But that didn’t stop me!

Dave got involved, especially in the technical aspects of things.  We found out that you need a different kind of wax to make different kinds of candles – they have different melt points.  A lower melt point would be used in a container candle, for instance, but not a pillar…because you wouldn’t be able to get the candle out of the mold.  It would be too sticky.  And once you add fragrance oil, it can further change how the wax behaves.  And wicks!  There are so many kinds of wicks, for every type of candle and size of container.  It was mind boggling.

I never planned to turn my hobby into a business, but I got laid off in April of 2001 and used my free time to set up a website for the candles I was making.  We’d been testing them for four months at that point and felt confident in what we were producing.  I just happened to get the website out there at the right time, and had enough free time to get links to the site on a bunch of craft mall sites and similar type places.  Without even trying, we ended up at the bottom of page one on Google if people searched for ‘candles,’ which is a really generic but popular term.  It made our business skyrocket, and then word of mouth and loyal customers just furthered the momentum.

As a side note, it’s not like that anymore…we don’t even show up in Google if you search for scented wax melts, which is our specialty now.  Google has changed a lot over the years and screwed the small businesses like ours, and it’s a big reason our sales have declined.  It’s a sad development but there’s not much we can do about it, so we just stick with our loyal customers and do what we can.

Anyway, a day of candle making involves a lot of measuring and a bit of math.  You have to have grungy work clothes that you don’t mind getting smeared with wax and fragrance oil.  Your fingers end up dyed from the dye blocks and liquid dye.  But you smell really good!  I remember going out after we finished working and having people sniff the air around us and comment on how good we smelled.

In the summer, it was HOT.  We had a makeshift oven we used to keep our glass pouring pots warm, and I would put the container candles in there so they could cool off slowly (it helped prevent sink holes).  We had melt pots going for four different waxes (pillar, votive, container, tarts) and in the beginning, five melters because we made gel candles too.  We use Presto pots to keep our wax warm (the only wax you can microwave is soy wax, which we tried and abandoned because it performed terribly compared to paraffin).  All these melters were going and we had heat guns blasting (to heat the sides of the molds)…it could be brutal in the summer!

Everyone always thought it was so easy, but so much went into every type of candle we made that it was impossible to have someone help us if we got swamped.  You had to measure the melted wax, keep it at a certain temperature, add a certain percentage of fragrance oil based on the size and type of candle you were making, know what wick to use and how to center it and keep it centered so it wouldn’t pull to the side while the wax cooled.  It was also dangerous; more than once, I grabbed a bottle of fragrance oil or liquid dye and shook it up, only to have it fly everywhere because the cap was loose.  One time a pot of wax tipped over – we had turned the pots on to get the wax melting and then left the workshop for the time being.  We came back and the pot was overturned, with wax all over the floor.  Never did figure out what happened there – we can only imagine one of the cats did something to knock it over.  Because we just never could be sure what might happen, and the wax we worked with was over 200 degrees, the kids were not allowed anywhere near the shop when we were working.  I always cringe when I read about people having their 5 year olds make candles with them!  As the kids got older, they did help us with chunk candles and party favors – they would put labels on the bottom of the votives, put chunks of wax into the molds, things like that.

I loved the creative part of it, especially getting new fragrance oils and testing them.  We learned some interesting things – certain scents would burn with a ‘fuel’ smell to them, especially citrus and peppermint.  We really worked to find oils that burned true in those areas.  It was so, so hard to get fuschia, a color that was fairly frequently requested.  It’s a dark pink, and it’s really hard to get that without veering into red.  We also had a lot of people request periwinkle…but everyone has a different idea of what color it really is.  Some people imagine more of a blue, others more of a light purplish color.  We learned to always ask for a color sample from people asking us to make finicky shades like that.

Speaking of color…argh!  Nothing was trickier than color.  I toyed with the idea of putting a color chart on the site, but it was just impossible.  We could use the 3 drops of red dye in 12 ounces of container wax and the same amount in the same quantity of pillar wax, and we’d end up with pink containers and red pillars.  (Container wax always gives more pastel shades.)  There was no way to consistently get the same shade time after time.  If we got an order for two votives (the little guys that you put into small cups to burn), I’d shave off a little bit of block dye with a knife.  You couldn’t use liquid dye for such a small amount of wax; it would clog the wick and the candle wouldn’t burn properly.  So there was no way to give that person the same color if they came back and ordered 12 of the same votives…for that much wax, I’d use liquid dye.  I could talk for days about the different things that affected color, but mainly it was the type and quantity of wax, and the fragrance oil.  Some oils were clear and some were almost dark gold; you couldn’t get white candles from a dark fragrance oil, even with white block dye.  You could get an off-white, maybe.

We had one customer, in the early days, who ordered a peach-scented pillar.  Peach is another weird color; everyone has different ideas of what it should look like.  Most commonly it’s a light orange with slight pink tones, which is what we made.  (We used liquid and block dyes that were aptly named ‘Peach.’)  We sent off this pillar, and a couple weeks later we got it back in the mail.  The customer had not contacted us first, so we were really surprised.  She included a nice note with the candle, and a color swatch from her wallpaper.  Turns out she wanted the candle to match her wallpaper, which was a very light tan color.  She never mentioned this, ever, when she ordered the candle.  (I guess we were just supposed to read her mind.)  We did do color matching, and this was well-explained on the website; we required that people send us a sample and not, for instance, a link to a website.  We got this a lot from brides; they would send a link to a bridesmaid dress or flowers.  Monitors are so different, though, that we insisted on an actual color sample, something we could take down to the workshop and hold up to the wax as we colored it.  Anyway, we got a good laugh over the wallpaper we were just supposed to know we needed to match, and refunded the lady’s money so it all worked out fine.  But you’d be surprised how many people ordered candles purely for décor!

We learned the hard way not to promise to carry specifically-requested scents.  In the early days, we eagerly bought any fragrance a potential customer requested.  I’d do research online and if I was lucky enough to find the scent, I’d order enough to have for testing and actual orders.  Then we’d let the person know…and they would never order.  So I’d be stuck with this fragrance I didn’t really want.  After this happened three or four times, we stopped advertising that we’d carry any fragrance a person wanted.  I would do it for regular, loyal customers if one of our regular suppliers carried the fragrance, but  that was about it.

We had lots of fun with goofy, creative candles that we’d carry for a while and then discontinue because they were too much work and not popular enough to warrant the hassle.  For a while we made pillars that looked like cats (eyes and whiskers), and we had marbled pillars that were gorgeous but so, so fussy to make.  We had a lot of fancy gel candles (fruit salad, pies, fishbowls) until we got so busy we just couldn’t justify the time it took to make the gel candles and fuss over the bubbles in the wax, etc.  We used to make hurricane shells which were so tricky but really pretty.  It was a ton of fun, but really eye-opening when you’d get an order for 15 marbled hurricane candles when it took a whole day just to make one.

Tapers?  Those tall, skinny candles you see all the time?  Total pain in the ass to make.  We did get asked about them and we looked into it, but it was so hard to find a wick that burned properly, and almost impossible to find molds for them.  Forget dipping them, that ubiquitous image you always see (long wick, dipping it over and over into a vat with more wax adhering each time).  It would take days just to make one candle!  Beeswax was also a no-go; talk about sticky and hard to work with.  But we gave it a try, just the same.

In the end, it worked out well that we scaled back the business when we did.  In the beginning, we could order a case of wax for about $30-$35 and get free shipping.  When that supplier did away with free shipping after a year or two, we found a supplier that had a warehouse just about a 20 minute drive from our house.  That was awesome –we’d stock up and get 5 or 6 cases at a time.  When they closed their warehouse after a few years, we would drive to a couple of suppliers (the only ones in Illinois that carried the wax we used) and pick up the wax.  They were much farther, though, about a two hour drive round-trip, and each case of wax weighs 55 to 60 pounds, so it was hard on the car (no truck for us).  After a while we bit the bullet and had it shipped.  That added a good $30 or more to the price of each case of wax, because shipping prices were going sky-high.  Then the wax prices ended up tripling over the last 10-12 years; what used to cost $30 is now around $97.  It was just getting too expensive to keep all the various supplies in stock, and as I mentioned earlier, we were losing visibility thanks to all the changes Google was making.  Nobody could find us anymore; our regular customers were pretty much our only business.

So it was fun while it lasted, but definitely not an inexpensive venture.  We still get a lot of questions about starting a candle business; we were interviewed a few years after we started, when business was truly phenomenal, and we still have people contacting us from that article.  It’s great to see that entrepreneurial spirit alive and well!  We’re working on an e-book about our experience, to make it easier to share our information with people who want to give it a go.

We’re still alive and kicking at http://www.contemporarycandles.com and we have a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ContemporaryCandles where we share coupon codes and specials.  We may not make candles with wicks anymore, but we make some truly awesome tarts and bricks.  :-)  Dave’s favorite fragrances are Caramel Apple, Fruit Salad and Pure Seduction.  I’m partial to Cranberry (it has a little spice to it that I just love), Moonspice and Pink Lemonade.  I have to say, though, we used to carry some scents that we couldn’t really stand but were so popular that we hesitated to discontinue them.  One was Mediterranean Fig – I remember getting a favor order for 200 votives in that scent, and it was slightly agonizing having to smell that for days.  I was never a fan of Gardenia but it is still super popular; same with Nag Champa.  Dave couldn’t stand Sandalwood Vanilla, but I loved it so I was happy to work on the orders for that scent.  He also really disliked one vendor’s Apple Pie – I thought it smelled fine but he thought it smelled rancid.  (Needless to say, we switched vendors!)

Even though the days of our big all-encompassing candle business are behind us now, we still have so many good memories and wouldn’t have changed anything.  It was fun and satisfying, and enabled us to be home with the kids while they were growing up, which was the most important thing.  Here’s to candles!


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