Flannel Jammies Farm

...praising God on our 1/5 acre of suburbia

Thursday, February 5, 2015

solar wax melter (mis)adventure...

What’s an urban homesteader to do in Winter?  Well, here at Flannel Jammies Farm we’ve been battling flu, celebrating holidays, eating too much, planning new raised beds, checking on our honey bees, taking inventory of canned goods, moving the mini greenhouse, pouring over seed catalogs, making salves and balms, stitiching, AND helping our darling daughter plan her Spring wedding!  Winter is a good time to complete nagging projects or reflect on a previous project.
Since we started keeping bees we’ve been collecting beeswax from stray and wonky comb and queen cells built by our overzealous workers, from the scraps left from uncapping and scraping comb to reveal the sweet honey for extraction, and from comb that was damaged.  We’d take beeswax scraps, place them in containers, and store them in the freezer until we figured out what to do with the wax.  Well, the ratio of beeswax to food quickly grew in our freezer.  Something had to be done!  We started to research rendering wax for use in candles, salves, balms, for waxing thread and cloth, and soon found that (just like beekeeping) if you ask 3 people how to do something and you’ll get 4 opinions!  We visited a dear friend and beekeeping mentor to watch her process of melting and straining wax.  We watched too many YouTube videos.  We investigated retail offerings of solar melters.  Then we took all of that research and came up with a project plan:  we’d build a solar wax melter!

Come along on our journey, learn from our mistakes, tweak our process, and build your own solar melter!  Here are the steps we took…

Create a wax strainer/separator/holding pan to place inside your solar wax melter.  You’ll need a pan or baking dish and a screen that covers the top of the pan completely.  We used an ancient Corning-ware baking dish and an old window screen that fit together nicely, both unearthed from our possessions.

(LESSON 1:  Plan and build your solar wax melter FIRST, then find a pan and screen to fit inside.  Items can be scavenged from your home or found at your local thrift store.  If you assemble the pan and screen first, then build the melter, you may end up with a melter the size of your dining room table… don’t ask how I know this…)

Add about an inch of water to the pan/dish (this will allow the clean wax to ‘float’ after melting making it easy to remove and not permanently adhered to your pan/dish).  Tape the screen to the top of the pan/dish.  Red duct tape seemed like a swanky choice.  Atop the screen, spread a couple of layers of paper towel (this will be unusable following the melting process, so a cloth towel is not a good choice).  Make sure the paper towel fits nicely and covers the screen surface above the pan/dish.  Set your newly created wax strainer/separator aside and move on to washing your wax.

Wax scraps are messy!  They are sticky from nectar, pollen, and honey, and are strewn with dearly departed bees or bee bits.  This will not do!  We want our finished wax to be clean and bright and free of all foreign matter.  Next job:  wash the wax!  We spread our wax scraps onto a screen and sprayed them with water.  

(LESSON 2:  Do this in an area far from your hives, lest lots of bee friends join you and snack on the sticky buffet you’ve set before them.) 

After this first rinse, the wax scraps went into a 5-gallon bucket for repeated spraying, stirring, and draining.  This process removes the sticky honey and larger bee bits and debris.  Drain the wax scraps well.

Carefully pile the wax scraps atop the paper towel covered screen attached to the dish. 

Ready to melt!  Um.  We don’t have a solar wax melter yet.  Hhmmm….

Maybe the hot interior of the Suzuki Samarai parked in the sun would work!  Ok.  Place your wax strainer/separator pan/dish thing in the level back portion of the interior of your 1986 Samarai.  Add a thermometer to gauge the temperature and close the door.  Wait.  And wait.  And wait.  Now remove the wax strainer/separator still mounded with unmelted wax from your 1986 Samarai.

(LESSON 3:  Build the solar melter before beginning to work with the beeswax.  A Suzuki Samarai will not work.)

The hubs built a solar wax melter that would hold our rather large wax strainer/separator pan/dish thing (and a complete Thanksgiving dinner).  Our solar wax melter was constructed from oriented strand board, 4-sides and a bottom.  The sides were angled to efficiently catch the hot rays of the sun.  The dimensions of our solar wax melter were determined by the large glass window we used as the top, again a piece unearthed from our “treasures”.  The inside of our solar wax melter is painted black to absorb the heat.  We recommend adding foam weather stripping, folded cloth, or some other material to the top edges of the 4 sides of the solar wax melter; this will provide a seal between the wood and the glass top, keeping heat inside. 

NOW, place the beeswax-mounded wax strainer/separator pan/dish thing into the solar wax melter on a hot, sunny day, being careful not to spill the water in the bottom of the pan/dish.  Close the glass top securely.

(LESSON 4:  A smaller wood-framed window, hinged to a smaller solar wax melter box, would produce a more manageable and easier-to-store model.)

Pretty soon, the sun’s hot rays begin to melt the wax.  As the wax melts, the paper towels between the wax and the screen filter out any impurities, allowing clean, bright wax to flow into the water in the pan/dish below.  Occasionally rotate the solar wax melter to keep up with the movement of the sun across the sky.  By the end of the day, all the wax has melted and filtered into the pan/dish, leaving the unwanted debris behind on the paper towels.

LEAVE EVERYTHING ALONE overnight.  This time allows the filtered wax to cool and harden while floating in the water in the pan/dish.

The next day, open the solar wax melter.  Gently lift the (disgustingly dirty and sticky) paper toweling from the screen; discard.  Untape the screen and remove. 

There, floating freely atop  the water in the pan/dish is the most beautifully clean and golden beeswax, ready for use! 

(LESSON 5:  Don’t store your hunk of gorgeous wax on an easel in a sunny room for all to admire; it goes a bit wavy.  Again, don’t ask…)


Tessa Zundel said...

This was a great post - I love it when people share the real story! That wax is so beautiful after all that hard work. I picked this as my featured post from last week's From the Farm hop - hope to see you this week!

Donna Rae Barrow said...

Tessa, thanks for popping by! So glad you enjoyed the post! We have lots of fun and we like to keep it real. :)