Design: Waxing lyrical about the light

Once an emergency light source, now a top home accessory - the candle comes into its own.

Candles haven't been this popular since the dark, cold nights of the miners' strikes. Then it was a matter of stark necessity - shallow, luke-warm baths by the light of a couple of stubs stuck on saucers. Today it's a matter of style. Flick through any of the design magazines - candles have migrated from the back of the kitchen drawer and the formal dinner setting to the mantelpiece, the hearth and the coffee table. There are scented candles, floating candles, garden flares and night-lights. Shops like Angelic sell nothing but candles. Price's Patent Candle Company has opened gift shops. People give them as presents instead of soap or flowers.

Smartest and most desirable of all are church candles, plain, cream, natural, a fashionable blend of the sensual and the minimal. Pillar versions are particularly covetable. These are candles fit for cathedrals, designed to burn slowly with an even flame, emitting a faint whiff of monastic beeswax.

Sad to say, not all so-called church candles deserve the name. Most, however big, fat and creamy, contain not a smidgen of beeswax. Far from burning with pious dignity, they make a fuss about it, smoking and spluttering, and disappearing with unseemly haste. While even the finest candles drip and gutter in a draught, badly made ones do it anyway, producing Seventies wine bar-style stalactites and stalagmites of beaded wax. Pillar candles are particularly vulnerable to unsightly distortions. If the wick is not sufficiently absorbent, a pillar candle will burn down its middle, leaving wobbly walls of unburnt wax which obscure the flame and spoil the image. Before you know it, your clean, simple, late-Nineties icon has melted to form waxy sculptures like something nasty from a Dali poster.

It was with these impostors in mind that brother and sister Elizabeth Carruth and Simon Tyler of E & S Churchill took up the challenge to make the perfect church candle. They are far too modest to pronounce their products "perfect", though customers say they are near-as-dammit - glossy with an almost luminous sheen, a pale golden colour, honey-scented and engineered to burn with almost 100 per cent efficiency, given ideal conditions. Clients who make repeat orders can even benefit from a virtually bespoke service. The new bar/restaurant/gallery at 291 Hackney Rd, London E2 - appropriately enough, a deconsecrated church - burns their pillar candles with wicks specially adjusted to compensate for the ecclesiastical draughts.

Back at the experimental stage, Elizabeth and Simon's first priority was to get the mixture of waxes right. In the heyday of the great monasteries, monks made candles using pure beeswax from their hives, dipping long cotton wicks into vats of melted wax until they achieved the desired size. At a time when all but the very wealthy had to rely on rush lights and tapers, which burned animal fats and were extremely smelly and inefficient, the church candle was a luxury. It was also highly symbolic - a light in the darkness of a sinning world.

At some stage, the beeswax itself took on symbolic significance. One story is that bees were absent from the Garden of Eden and so escaped the taint of sin. Another - too charming to dismiss - is that medieval biologists thought that bees reproduced by immaculate conception. For whatever reason, the beeswax content of a church candle came to signify purity.

Most churches have ceased to insist on any beeswax content. Charles Farris, a division of Prices, which has a virtual monopoly as suppliers of candles in this country, still make some candles by hand. These contain up to 25 per cent beeswax. Their machine-made church candles contain 10 per cent. According to manager Alan Matthews, only the "staunch old-timers" of the Roman Catholic church continue to request 25 per cent beeswax.

Unbleached beeswax makes a candle smell good, lends it a delicious shade of pale sunshine, and burns well. Despite its expense, Simon and Elizabeth decided their candles should contain 30 per cent beeswax. It arrives in their tiny, lean-to workshop, looking for all the world like yellow lentils. They mix it with stearine, a palm oil derivative, and paraffin wax, melting their ingredients to a golden liquid in two Baby Burco boilers which slurp and steam continuously as they work.

The only other component of a candle is the wick. E & S Churchill use two types of wick, both cotton, plaited or square braided. They are supplied by Yorkshire rope and braid makers, W R Outhwaite & Son.

The number of individual strands in a wick determine its absorbency. Adding or subtracting a few of these tiny strands can make the difference between a candle that drips furiously and one that hardly drips at all. More than this, a wick must curl as it burns to ensure that its tip will burn off in the hottest part of the flame. To achieve this curl, the plait or braid of a wick is always woven asymmetrically, with a few extra strands in one of the threads.

After being cut to length, wicks are dipped in molten wax to ensure that one end will be stiff enough to poke through the hole at the bottom of the mould, and then whisked outside the workshop where they are swung back and forth to shake off the excess wax.

The glass candle moulds are made locally, by a glassmaker who specialises in making test-tubes. The smaller, dinner candle-size moulds sit in holes drilled through a workbench. The wicks are dropped in and manoeuvred through the small hole at the bottom of the mould which is then plugged by a blob of gardener's putty which also holds the end of the wick in place. The other end of the wick is wound round a small metal rod and secured with a clothes peg. Now the moulds are ready to receive the molten wax which Elizabeth scoops from a Baby Burco with a tin jug before pouring it carefully into each mould.

Even though she has pre-warmed the moulds with a fan heater balanced on a cardboard box, the wax begins to set almost immediately, clouding from the bottom upwards. While the wax is hardening, the candles need constant attention to ensure that no air bubbles are formed as the liquid shrinks and solidifies. This is the stage they refer to as "wick-wiggling", an entirely self-explanatory technique and essential to the production of a good candle. As the wax settles, the mould needs topping up and, with the last wiggle, Elizabeth must ensure the wick is hanging straight and centrally.

Fatter candles are made in moulds that sit on the bench top where a wooden frame has been constructed to hold the wicks in place. These larger candles need more drastic treatment than a bit of wick wiggling. As they set, Elizabeth continually pokes deep into them with a wooden stick, again ensuring that all air bubble are released.

Once the wax has set, the dinner candles, still in their moulds, are put in the freezer for about half an hour to ease their release from the mould. They slip out, shiny and unblemished, ready for finishing. From this point until sale, no one touches the surface of the candle. Elizabeth handles them with a satin petticoat as she smoothes off their ends against a hot iron, or lifts them by their wicks for packing. They are pristine, smooth as silk - perfect.

The workshop may be tiny, the equipment unsophisticated, but E & S Churchill are turning out and selling more than 300 handmade candles a week. Moreover, the small scale of their business means that they can make candles of any size to order (although one-offs are unlikely to be economic).

Their next project is a candle made from 100 per cent beeswax. The prototype has been a success - in fact they rave about it. It doesn't smoke, it's very long-burning, and it has an amazing aroma. It will be expensive, they say, but then perfection always has its price.

E & S Churchill candles are supplied direct from Camden Lock Market (West Yard) on Saturdays and Sundays, Spitalfields Market on Sundays, Greenwich Market on Saturdays and Sundays, and by mail order (0171-739 2684)

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