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Monday, October 19, 2015

Processing Beeswax

There seems to be as many ways to process wax as there are beekeepers. Some people like to use a crockpot or a double boiler or a regular or pot, some use solar melters, still others melt wax on the hob. Some people melt wax indoors but cover every surface with paper or a dropcloth. Others insist on performing this messy process outdoors. Whatever method you choose, there are really only a few basic steps.
  1. Melt wax.
  2. Strain wax.
  3. Cool wax.
  4. Scrape garbage off wax.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 until you are happy with the end product.
One of these days, I'd like to make a solar wax melter. However, for now, I still use my good old range to process wax. Here are some photos to show what I do.

Step 1: Melt the wax.

I have a cheap pot that I bought at Walmart (believe it or not, it was cheaper to get one there than at a thrift store in my fancy little town!) that is specifically for melting wax. Do not use anything for rendering wax that you ever plan to use again for any other purpose. Wax is a pain to clean!!! Anyway, I add about 1-2 inches of water to this pot.

Add about 1- 2 inches of water to pot

Like many folks, I used to rinse my wax first. I don't anymore because I think the honey pretty much dissolves in the water, so that's work saved for me. I simply dump my wax into the pot and turn on the heat.

Stay close to the pot, though, because wax is flammable, and if it boils over, you're going to have a huge problem. Actually, I don't let the wax get to a rolling boil either. I think I read somewhere that it shouldn't get hotter than 155 deg F (don't quote me!), but I've never stuck a thermometer in mine.

Add wax to the pot

I like to stir the wax up every now and then because I find that the bottom and sides of the pot melt nicely where the wax is closest to the heat. However, the top tends to melt and cool immediately. Stirring (with my dedicated "wax spoon", of course) seems to help keep the temperature even throughout.

Let the wax melt completely. Stir it up a little now and then to help it melt.


Step 2: Strain the wax.

When all the wax has melted, I strain it into a container. You can use a bucket, a pan, a milk carton with the top cut off... Just choose something that won't melt or burn when all that hot wax goes into it.

At this point, I use a metal sieve because I just want to get rid of most of the bee parts and cocoon pieces. The sieve is fine enough to hold back most of the gunk, but the holes are big enough that the wax doesn't stop them up and hold up the process too much at this point.

Later, when I repeat this entire process, I'll use something finer to strain the wax, like a pantyhose, coffee filter, paper towel, juice strainer, or piece of butter muslin. Butter muslin, aka grade 90 cheesecloth, is much more closely woven than the normal grade 50 or grade 60 cheesecloth you get at the store. You can use regular cheesecloth, too, but you might have to fold it over a few times.

Strain the wax. This photo shows two sieves, but just one is fine.
You can also use cheesecloth, a nylon stocking, or a paper towel.
BTW, that gunk in the strainer (see image above) is covered in beeswax. If you have a fireplace or like to go camping, you can use chunks of the sludgey leftovers to help get your fire going. If you use a natural material like paper or cotton to strain your wax, you can throw that into the fireplace, too. It's highly flammable.

Also, just wanted to note that the bucket in the photo is too big for the amount of wax I was processing, but the bucket was already messy with wax from a previous use. What I've found is that if the container the wax cools in is too big, the underside of the wax gets kind of pebbly. My guess is that it cools too quickly because the heat is dispersed too fast. A smaller container, I think, holds the heat in better so that the wax doesn't break up into pebbles.

Step 3: Let the wax cool.

Wax is a lipid, so as it cools, it floats to the surface and separates from the water. It's really important to let it sit undisturbed until it's completely cool so that you don't get weird little pockets of air or icky water inside the wax. It's nice if you can melt your wax in the evening because by the next morning, it's nice and cool.


If your container is transparent, it's neat to watch the wax separate and harden.

Step 4: Scrape the garbage off your wax.

After the wax has cooled into a nice little disc, I remove it from my bucket. Some nasty water is at the bottom, and some gunk is on the underside of my wax disc.

The gunk just gets scraped off. A quick rinse to lift some of the crud out of the inevitable dimples on the underside of the wax doesn't hurt either. The water goes into my garden or compost. :-)

Scraping off the gunk.
The wax "pebbles" in this snap show that the container the wax cooled in was too large.

Step 5: Repeat Steps 1-4 until satisfied.

I continue repeating all the previous steps until I'm satisfied with the purity of my wax. The one change I do make is to Step 2. When repeating this process, I use a much finer filter than the metal strainer. As I mentioned before, pantyhose, coffee filter, paper towel, or butter muslin will all work. Usually, I only have to repeat this process once or twice.

I like this nylon juice strainer I found at my local Ace Hardware because
 it fits tightly over the metal strainer.


Cleaning Up

Ok, not technically a step in processing wax, but a very important task -- especially if one is using the wife's kitchen.

If some hot wax drips onto a surface where it shouldn't be, try to clean it up immediately. As it hardens, it becomes harder to remove.

To clean my strainers, I run boiling water through them. If wax falls on some fabric, iron the fabric between sheets of paper. The heat of the iron will melt the wax while the paper absorbs it.

Weiman's Wax Away is one of my favorite products for dissolving wax off of things. To be clear, I'm not getting paid to recommend it, but I've been using this product for over a decade to wipe wax off of tables, counters, and candlesticks. It's awesome!

My bottle has a blue label.
Weiman seems to have updated their packaging.

Using Your Wax

Once your wax is nice and clean, you end up with a lovely golden block that smells oh-so-heavenly!!! You just have to pick a project from all the unlimited possibilities for using it -- lotion, lip balm, polish, candles, crayons... the sky is the limit!



Well, that's how I process my wax anyway. But you know what they say -- Ask 5 beekeepers and get 6 answers. So what's your favorite method?

5 comments:

  1. I've enjoyed your "processing" posts lately, thank you for sharing. Enjoyed your note on the honey press as well. One alternate approach I've seen is to melt the wax in a nylon or other bag to begin with, as you do in a pot of water. That way after the wax melts away you lift out the bag of gunk and leave mostly wax. I have yet to harvest honey let alone wax, so no idea how well this works.

    Thanks again!

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    1. Thanks for sharing that processing tip! See -- there really are a zillion ways to do it! :-)

      I tried doing that once -- putting the wax in a bag in a pot of water -- and it melted the wax well enough, but I found that when I pulled the bag out, a lot of wax (i.e., a measurable amount of wax) was stuck to the bag. Maybe I just didn't do it right -- could have been too little water, too big a bag, etc. However, the wax in the pot *was* pretty clean, so it definitely worked. :-)

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    2. Yes, if I recall that was one of the downsides.... Wax sticks to pretty much anything. I like the idea of metal filters/strainers for this reason, and wonder if you could heat them ahead of time to reduce the wax buildup. Looking forward to try it someday.

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  2. I use a solar wax melter made out of an Omaha Steaks styrofoam shipping box that my neighbor had. I got the idea from the blog Linda's Bees:

    http://beekeeperlinda.blogspot.com/2006/10/building-solar-wax-melter.html

    http://beekeeperlinda.blogspot.com/2007/06/video-on-how-to-use-simple-solar-wax.html

    I never painted mine black, but that sounds like a good idea!

    The original plans call for using a paper towel to strain the wax, but (like Linda) I got tired of it absorbing so much of my precious wax. This year, I replaced it with a paint strainer (like I use for straining honey), figuring it would do just as well and it does. Less wax lost and it doesn't really stick to the mesh bag. I don't wash my wax first like Linda does - I figure (maybe mistakenly) that the water in the container will clean that out. When I crush and strain, I put the drained wax out to be gleaned by the bees (far away from my hives of course), so they get most of the honey and then the leftover wax goes straight into the melter.


    A couple of notes:

    - this is a slow process, so not good if you want to process a bunch of wax at once. But, over the course of a week of hot weather, I can go through a 5 gallon bucket of comb. The tailings from crush and strain can be done in one or two batches (depending on how much you have).
    - I find that I have to have temps around 90 degrees for this to melt all the wax in one day, so it's only good in the summer. Maybe painting the box black would help.
    - I line the entire insides with foil.
    - total cost was less than $10 - most of that was the glass. Other materials (plastic container, box) I just recycled from what I had lying around my (and my neighbor's) house. So, you could easily have several of these going at the same time.
    - not good for a windy day - I came home to find the last batch I did strewn over the lawn with bees and yellowjackets buzzing about. I'm afraid to put a weight on the top for fear of breaking the glass, but I could probably tie it down somehow.
    - Old comb doesn't break down as well as crushed wax. It looks like it's still intact, but I think that it is mostly the cocoons still holding shape while all the wax has melted out.
    - Cleanup is a snap!

    Now I have to start making candles!

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    1. Like the solar wax melter! Looks really easy to make! Saw a similar one on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSekQk2Zc9Y) that I've been wanting to make, but instead of painting it black, the inside of the styrofoam container was lined with aluminum foil -- like you mentioned doing for your own.

      Thank you for sharing those notes! I'm especially glad of the review since they directly relate to what I was thinking of doing. :-) You have me rethinking my plans, though, since I'm not sure if I want to keep lots of wax in the freezer all winter & spring. Thought that was interesting, too, about the cocoons. I don't get much wax from old comb, either. Thanks again for those great tips!

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