Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

Candle making in Zurich

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Just before Christmas last year, Eileen and I rode the train to Zurich to visit my cousins Peter and Sara and their four boys. We brought Christmas gifts and a surprise: Eileen is pregnant! With their four boys under the age of 10, Peter and Sara are about as extreme an example for Eileen and me of “what are we in for?” They must brew strong coffee to absorb and channel the boys’ energy into a daily routine.

Along with meals around their big, lively dining table and several great conversations about parenting, Peter and Sara animated our visit with a family candle-making session at a local workshop. Peter said candle-making is a Christmas tradition in Zurich, and indeed the workshop was busy and his boys seemed experienced. Candle-making appealed to me, but I decided I would enjoy photographing the colourful activity more than participating, so everyone in our group but me bought a piece of string and tied it around their index finger.

It is unsurprising, but I had never thought about it: handmade candles are just lengths of string dipped repeatedly into coloured wax. Here is Eileen’s candle in its infancy, after only a few dips:

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At this workshop, they had two dipping products: beeswax and paraffin. Beeswax is the slower melting material, but was more expensive and was only available in the stock yellowish colour. Cheaper and available in multiple colours, paraffin was more popular and had two dipping stations. Here is one of them, with different colours beneath each of the holes:

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The two older boys Liam and Conan were serious and ambitious candle makers. They did not stand around for Sara’s patient tutorials to Eileen and the younger boys. Strings on fingers, they moved expertly through the dipping-drying cycle. The session lasted roughly two hours and ended when the slower candle makers had finished one candle. In the same time, Liam and Conan had finished three or four candles each. Here is Liam during the early stages of one of his candles, after perhaps 10 dips:

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The younger boys Gillian and Noel seemed to enjoy the motion, colour and fun of the activity more than focussing on the finished candle. Peter and Sara supplemented Gilly and Noel’s wandering attention span, sharing time between dipping their own candles and the boys’.

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Making a candle requires diligence. As well as the many dips, the maker must ensure that the wax cools and hardens after every dip, especially for the early layers. Each dip into the hot wax can liquefy an underlying layer that has not fully cooled, and once the weight of several layers gathers onto a soft inner layer, the outer portion can slide off. At the workshop, the impatient candle makers walked their candles a short distance outside the door to cool in the December air.

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The surer cooling technique involved walking around the outside of the building to some large buckets of cold water.

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Next to the cooling buckets were some drying racks, as it is a no-no to have water on your candle when you dip it into the wax.

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And so, dip by dip, the candles grow and the makers experiment with different layers of colour.

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Of course, the dip-dry, dip-dry routine can become dull, so it was not all about candles. There was some running and squealing as well, especially when the candles reached an hour or more of thickness.

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Once the maker has a candle of the desired size and finish, he must choose whether to leave it as is, or risk transforming it. The transformation can be gentle and aesthetically pleasing, but it can also ruin the candle, either making it ugly or too feeble to stand. The workshop staff were very helpful and typically performed these transformations themselves – smart on their part, to avoid having a room full of heartbroken children with ruined candles. Eileen chose not to risk her handsome candle, with its well executed colour scheme:

Eileen's completed candle

Peter created little divots in his candle with his thumb when the outer layer was still soft:

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The next photo shows one of the staff ladies adding sparkles to one of Conan’s candles, a relatively minor and risk-free transformation:

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Conan was a bold candle maker. Of his three candles, the sparkles were the least risky transformation. For the next candle, he had the same lady slice some multi-coloured rounds from the bottom of the candle and then melt them onto the sides:

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Conan’s third candle was even more ambitious. He had the lady cut into and down the sides of the candle, rolling out each of the “peels.”

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Unfortunately, not all of the transformations in our group were successful. Once Gillian saw Conan’s peeled candle, he wanted the same for his. But the interior layers of his candle were not as solid as those in Conan’s. After the staff lady cut into Gilly’s candle and curled back the peels, the candle was too weak to stand. Sara cradled the sickly little candle home so that Gilly would not see it bend or break.

No one from our group chose to flatten their candles, but that was a relatively common request. For thick, well hardened candles, simply pressing down with your hands is not enough to flatten them, so the staff enlisted the weight of the kids themselves:

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Liam was very industrious, creating four candles, one of which was giant and two of which he twisted together. Here is his quiver (?) of candles:

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Unlike for most productive activities, the waste from candle making can be as beautiful as the intended product. On the table where the staff carved, shaved and cut the candles were several buckets containing a cornucopia of discarded wax waste.

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Our colourful candle-making session with the Narbutas clan proves that the festive season in Switzerland need not be limited to drinking too much mulled wine at the many excellent Christmas markets. You can stay warmer and soberer at one of the candle workshops in Zurich. And if you are diligent about cooling each of the candle’s 40-50 layers, and don’t cut too greedily when shaping it, you return home with a handsome souvenir of your efforts.

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Written by Kris Terauds

April 29, 2013 at 11:14

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