Lately, making beeswax ornaments has been my passion. I love the simplicity of this natural material — the way it takes detail, its lovely sheen and translucency, its sweet faintly honey scent. Lots of people imagine that beeswax is fragile, but they really aren’t. With proper care, beeswax ornaments can last for generations. In Germany, where red beeswax ornaments have been traditional for hundreds of years, there are examples in museums that go back to the 18th century. And customers have shared photos with me of beeswax ornaments that have been in their families for decades.
My particular niche is dog, cat, and other animal designs. But these directions apply to any type of beeswax ornament..
First, you need a model. I carve mine in the same hard green jeweler’s wax that I use for my jewelry models. You can also use polymer clay (Sculpey, Fimo, and the like.) Carve your design with hand tools or a dremel, or a bit of both. Four or five inches across and about 1/4″ thick is a good size.
If you don’t want to make your own designs, you can use natural objects like shells or pine cones. And some American Primitive fans use antique chocolate molds, springerle cookie molds, and the like. (But please be sensitive to copyright. If the artist is living — or might be — the design falls under copyright protection, even if you can’t find a copyright notice on the work. Copyright is automatic, and extends for the lifetime of the artist plus 35 years. Brown Paper Bag cookie molds, for example, are copyrighted!)
Making the mold
Next, you need to make a mold. I use a commercial two-part silicone compound, or make my own less expensively out of silicone caulk from the hardware store and cornstarch. The homemade molds are economical but short-lived.
Unglazed stoneware clay molds also work well. Stoneware can be pre-chilled in the freezer to make the wax set up faster. However, fired clay molds are rigid, so designs have to be carefully planned to avoid undercuts. If your design can’t be pulled straight out of a mold without any little overhangs to hold it back, it has undercuts and has to be cast in a flexible mold. For example, the open mouth and indented nostrils of the Irish water spaniel head shown above would make it impossible to pull out of a stoneware mold.
To make a silicone mold, put the model face up on a piece of wax paper and coat it with a spray-on silicone mold release. Let the mold release dry, then press the mold compound over the model, working it firmly into all of the crevices. Be sure you have at least 1/4″ of mold compound surrounding the model in every direction.
When the mold is cured, lift it from the waxed paper and work your model free. Use a pair of embroidery scissors to trim away any extra mold material that worked its way under the model. Wipe all traces of the silicone mold release out of the crevices in the mold. Wash the mold to remove any excess cornstarch, and let the inside air cure overnight.
Now it’s time to cast your ornaments. I use 100 percent pure beeswax — expensive but worth it. Beware of buying beeswax online or in big chain hobby stores, especially if you’re shopping by price points. After trying several brands, I’m very sure that a lot of what’s sold as “pure beeswax” is actually mixed with paraffin. Not only is paraffin a petroleum product (exactly what I want to avoid), but it’s brittle, and often breaks coming out of the mold. Pure beeswax is strong but flexible. Your best assurance of ending up with real beeswax is to buy it from a local beekeeper. It’s a win-win, because by buying this byproduct of the honey business, you’re also helping a farmer’s bottom line.
If you want a color other than the yellow-gold-buff shades of natural beeswax, you’ll need to dye your wax. I buy dedicated wax dyes, again avoiding petroleum-based products. The dye description should specifically mention that it works with beeswax. If you use food colorings, you need to look for commercial/professional paste concentrates. You get brighter colors from “purified” white beeswax, but most of the “white beeswax” I’ve tried behaves like there’s paraffin in it.
Heating and pouring the wax
Beeswax has a low melting point and darkens if overheated. Your best bet is to buy a small electric wax pot with a thermostat and pouring spout, but if you’re doing this on a budget, you can form spouts in recycled cans and set the cans in an inch or two of boiling water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or skillet.
Heat the wax slowly to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. You don’t need a thermometer, just heat the wax gently in a double boiler over low heat. To avoid overheating, stop when the wax is about 90 percent melted, and let the remaining bits finish melting on their own.
While the wax is heating, spray a little olive oil cooking spray into your mold (NOT more silicone!) Let the olive oil soak in to the mold, and wipe away any excess. (If you leave too much, your first casting will be gummy or lacking in detail. Throw it away and try again. You’ll likely need to refresh the cooking spray every few castings, so it’s worthwhile to develop your touch with the cooking spray.)
Pour the wax slowly into the lowest point of your mold, letting it self-level. This helps eliminate air bubbles. If you still see bubbles, tap the mold or use a toothpick to release them. It’s unlikely that the back of your homemade mold will be level, so if the wax starts pouring over one edge while another edge is still high and dry, stick something under the low side to raise it. You’ll get to know the peculiarities of your molds as you go along.
And unless you plan to just drill a hole through your ornaments to hang them, you need to embed a wire loop in the back of each ornament. I find this to be the trickiest and most time-consuming step of casting ornaments. The wire has to be inserted while the wax is still liquid, but not so liquid that it drops through and is visible through the front of the ornament. You can use a piece of thin metal rod to suspend the loop halfway into the wax.
The finished ornament
Let the wax sit in the mold until it is completely cool. You can set it in the freezer for a few minutes, but be aware that this will make your mold stiff as well. Work the piece gently loose from the mold onto a piece of wax paper. When you’re absolutely sure it’s cool, trim any flash around the edges with a utility knife and smooth with your fingers.
The only exception to the rule of leaving your ornament in the mold until it’s fully cool is when you’re making blackened beeswax, which is rubbed with cinnamon. You’ll want to sprinkle on the cinnamon while your piece is still a bit warm and steamy. Let it sit until cool, then work the cinnamon into the surface with your fingers.
Store your ornaments in a cool dry place between layers of cellophane or waxed paper. Avoid attics and garages, for example. Over the years, beeswax ornaments may develop a “bloom” of fine white powder on the surface. Only pure beeswax does this! You can get rid of it by rubbing the surface gently with your fingers, or by playing a hair dryer over the surface on its lowest setting until the shine returns. (Don’t overdo it!)