By Nell Abercrombie, Central Co-op Online Communications & Events
From the moment you step inside the door of the Big Dipper Wax Works factory, you’re enveloped in a warm, delicious cloud of honey aroma. The room is filled with vats of melted wax, cooling candles, and candlemakers busy at work tables. Most have a little tealight burning at their workstation.
It took me a few minutes to realize there isn’t any machinery noise in this factory. That's because almost all Big Dipper candles are made by hand.
Big Dipper's manager, Flower, had generously agreed to host a tour for Co-op owners, a rare opportunity at this busy shop. So on a rainy February morning, we met at the Big Dipper factory in Georgetown.
Flower started with an introduction to raw wax. “I like to call beeswax the Mercedes of candle waxes,” Flower told us, because it melts easily, burns longer than other waxes, emits negative ions, and is naturally aromatic. Other candle wax is often hydrogenated, hardened, bleached, and petroleum-based. Big Dipper uses pure beeswax in all of their products.
Flower passed around four big hunks of beeswax. I was surprised that each had its own unique fragrance—one offered notes of cinnamon and spice, and another was distinctly floral, like clover. Holding up the small block pictured below, Flower explained that it was about a pound of beeswax: A season’s hard work for an entire hive, maybe 40,000 to 60,000 bees, along with about 70 pounds of honey.
Origin of the wax, clockwise from top: Canada, India, Oregon, Nicaragua. Big Dipper gets most of their wax from Canada.
Besides providing wonderful wax and honey, bees are a crucial keystone species keeping ecosystems intact; but they’re threatened, with numbers declining worldwide. To support bees, Big Dipper sponsors Seattle Tilth, and together they give away seed packets of bee-friendly plants, available at both Seattle Tilth annual Edible Plant Sales. Each year, Big Dipper also supports organizations doing the most research and education into colony collapse disorder. And they donate to Heifer International to purchase beehives for struggling families. From Uganda to El Salvador, Ghana to Poland, the hives not only provide food and income from the sale of honey, beeswax, and pollen, they can as much as double a farmer’s crop production.
To help sustain bees yourself, Flower recommends buying local honey and beeswax products, and growing bee-friendly plants in your yard, steering clear of any that have been treated with pesticides (even plants labeled “bee-friendly”).
Big Dipper Wax Works got its start in 1993, founder and co-owner Brent Roose began making beeswax candles in his garage. Flower was a friend of Brent’s, who showed her how to make candles. She started working for Big Dipper 17 years ago, during a major boom in support for natural products. “Prior to 1993, it was very difficult to find natural beeswax candles,” said Flower. “Thank goodness for the late 90s, otherwise we’d still be down at Pike Place Market.” For Flower and Brent, “it’s really been about making natural products that are affordable for everyone.”
More than that, Flower said, Big Dipper candles are “a true luxury product” that they’ve been able to bring to a wider audience. Almost every step of their candlemaking process is done by hand: Pouring melted wax into molds, placing wicks, smoothing and flattening the bottoms, dipping tapers. Extreme care and a steady hand are required, to avoid drips, pour and dip to exactly the right level, make sure wicks are straight, and get all the details right.
All of Big Dipper’s aromatic candles are scented with essential oils. “We work with what nature gives us,” said Flower. “That’s how we run the business, and it’s worked well for us.”
To make number candles, wicks are placed in the molds, hot wax is poured in, and the cooled candles are popped out, all by hand.
Big Dipper uses their own unique silicone molds for specialty shapes. This one is for their Artichoke candles.
Left: To make molded candles, rods are placed in the empty silicone molds to make a tunnel for the wick to be added later, and hot wax is poured in by hand. The molds are tough—these are about 10 years old.
Right: After candles are removed from their molds, the bottoms are smoothed by hand on a warm surface.
Dipping must be done carefully to exactly the right point each time, in order to get smooth results and avoid what Flower calls “crayon tip.”
Dipping birthday candles
We got to dip tapers! It’s harder than it looks.
Blocks of wax waiting to be transformed into candles
By the end of the tour, we all seemed to be in awe of the entire operation. Co-op owner Nancy summed it up: “This is pretty mind-boggling, to know the whole process and the evolution of it all.”
Central Co-op was one of Big Dipper’s earliest retail accounts, and we’re proud to continue working with this unique Seattle producer. Many thanks to Flower and the rest of the Big Dipper crew for their hospitality.
Big Dipper Wax Work’s beeswax and candles are available at our 16th & Madison, Seattle store.
Date: Tuesday March 01, 2016
Category: Producer Stories
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