Wax is a general term used to refer to the mixture of long-chain apolar lipids forming a protective coating on plant leaves and fruits but also in animals, algae, fungi and bacteria. Some waxes are of mineral origin.
The word "wax" is derived from the old English weax for the honeycomb of the bee-hive.
In the beginning, there was tallow...
From these primitive candles made of rushes dipped in animal fat to today's very trendy vegetable waxes, made popular by the will to use renewable resources, and, of course, the 19th century discovery and ever growing popularity of paraffin, candles have an extraordinary history!
Every era has had its preferred type of wax (which was often the only one available, mostly for economical or practical reasons) and today, three main categories of waxes are available to the candlemaker.
These three families are animal, mineral and vegetal waxes.
As I stated in the introduction, tallow, an extract of animal fat, has been used for a very long time as the main "fuel" for what could not be called candles yet. In the best cases, people used rushes or reed stems and dipped them repeatedly in melted tallow. These rush lights were used to create some light at night in cabins and cottages.
As you can imagine, if tallow was inexpensive and easy to find, it also had lots of disadvantages: it did not burn consistently, didn't shed much light, had a very unpleasant smell when it burned and, to make it even better, spread a thick and bitter dark smoke. Not exactly the idyllic picture we now have of a candlelight dinner!
Beeswax advantageously replaced tallow but was more expensive and, to many, unaffordable. Another animal wax slowly started replacing tallow: beeswax. Definitely more pleasant to use because of its sweet odor and lack of fumes and, not a negligible advantage, burning longer and cleaner than tallow, this "luxury wax", unfortunately, wasn't affordable by everyone. Still, and for a long time, the poor - and they were a majority - had no choice but continue using tallow, while beeswax was reserved for the wealthy and the Church.
Another type of animal wax, produced almost exclusively in China, is insect wax (nicknamed Chinese wax) and is produced, as the name suggests, by an insect named Ericerus pe-la (or another called Coccus ceriferus), that produces a waxy substance. Most candles made in China are made of this insect wax. Interestingly, 1500 insects are needed to produce 1 gram of wax!
Yet another animal wax, fortunately not produced or used anymore, is Spermaceti wax. It is extracted from a substance found in a big cavity in the head of Sperm whales (an average of 3 tons of Spermaceti is produced by a 15 meters animal) which is now (or should be) a protected species.
Spermaceti wax is now replaced by a synthetic version based on Jojoba oil or other substances.
In the early Eighteenth century, the discovery of paraffin wax radically changed the face of candlemaking.
Nowadays, the large majority of candles sold throughout the world is made, totally or partially, of paraffin wax, widely available, inexpensive and (relatively) easy to work with.
Growing interest for increasingly beautiful, original and perfumed candles stimulated manufacturers into developing and releasing more and more different varieties of paraffin waxes: some of them are specially formulated to make one specific kind of candles, for instance container candles or Hurricane shells...
These paraffin waxes, usually called pre-blends, are available in different brands and versions (which can be confusing) and allow candlemakers to create stunning candles without any knowledge of - even basic - chemistry.
Microcrystalline waxes also originate from petroleum but have a different molecular structure. Candlemakers will be mostly interested in the hard and the soft versions, which will typically be used as additives to paraffin or in specific applications.
Thanks to a wide interest in candlemaking, specially formulated waxes, called special effects waxes, have been developed. With these blends, you can create stunning candles with a marbled, snowflake or crackled appearance.
In the United States, in the good ol' pioneer times, fruits of the bayberry (also called waxberry, tallow berry or candleberry) were set to boil in order to isolate the waxy substance that covers them. This wax was used to create very odorous candles with an excellent burning behavior.
Bayberry wax, nicknamed "Queen of waxes", is still produced today but because of the large amount of fruits needed to produce a relatively small amount of wax, it is probably one of the most expensive waxes around.
Although paraffin is widely available and quite inexpensive, it is still derived from petroleum, which is not a renewable energy source. This has led people, and not only candlemakers, to lobby for a more "natural" product made of renewable resources. And because where there's a demand, there's got to be an offer, some producers have experimented with and successfully developed a soy based wax (which makes me wonder what on earth cannot be made with soy). Soywax not only is 100% natural (though the energy needed to grow soy and make it usable as a wax is not to be underestimated), it also has the reputation to produce much less soot than paraffin wax.
Another vegetable wax is produced from a palm tree typically found in Brazil, the Copernica prunifera, and is called Carnauba wax. This waxy substance is found on the leaves, apparently in an attempt from the tree to defend itself against the hot winds and droughts of its native habitat.
Other palm trees, like the Ceroxylon alpinum, are also susceptible to produce wax. This wax is then called palm wax.