photography by PHUONG NGUYEN
Domino sat down with Sterling McDavid, the founder of The Starling Project—a line of ethically and sustainably sourced candles that provides solar energy to under-resourced countries through a partnership with UNICEF (a big deal, considering nearly 1.3 billion people are without access to electricity worldwide). Sterling schooled us in Candle 101. Pull up a chair, class starts now!
Before you light a candle, take a second to trim the wick—it should always be 1/4 inch. Sterling suggests using a nail clipper (brilliant!) for an easy, cheap option. Or, if you want something more formal you can even display as an accent piece, there are lovely wick cutters. Cotton wicks burn more smoothly, so look out for the material, and it’s a natural option.
Smoke On the Glass (And Fire on the Wick)
A smoke ring inside your glass jar is very common, and it’s pretty unavoidable. The simplest way to clean it is to take a cotton pad with mild dishwashing soap and warm water, and rub it around the rim of the glass. The soot should come right off. Then, wipe it down with a dry cotton pad.
Wax On, Wax Off
Keeping the glass after the wax is done is part of the fun of collecting beautiful candles. (And it’s great recycling!) Sterling very carefully heats the nearly gone wax in the oven at a very low temp for about 5 minutes and then cleans it with a paper towel or a sponge and dishwashing soap. It should be loose enough that you can scoop the wax out easily.
Hint: Sterling uses her clean, used candle glasses for Q-tip storage because it perfectly hides them and still looks like a candle. A pen or makeup tool holder is another solid choice.
Extinguishing the Flame
Ideally, you want to burn your candle for a significant amount of time so it is liquefied on top, and then you can just lightly blow it out. (For taller candles, it might be helpful to have a snuffer.) Place the candle where it will stay before you blow it out. While it’s okay to move a candle when it’s lit, it’s a bad idea when the candle is not lit and the wax is melted because it could cover the wick—making it nearly impossible to find again.
Tip: If you don’t want the candle to smoke, use a pencil to quickly, but carefully, push the wick into the wax, which will prevent the smoke and keep the smell of the fragrance lingering. Just be sure to pull it back out before it hardens. You can also use a candle snuffer or tweezer to literally pinch out the flame.
Justifying the Cost
Quality candles can be pricey, but for good reason. Essential oils are more costly than artificial oils. Sterling is very weary of candles that are super inexpensive—especially under $10 price point. “That probably implies that either the wax or scent has chemicals in it,” she says. “In fact, it definitely says that. And when you import glass, and it’s absurdly inexpensive, thats a red flag because that tells me there is something wrong with the labor process.” Ethical production is probably not the first idea that comes to mind when considering a candle, but there is an ethical consideration when justifying candle prices. The Starling Project candles are hand poured in Brooklyn, the process is entirely sustainable, and all ingredients are natural. It was important to Sterling to support US businesses and her community, while also helping those abroad, and she figured out a way to make them not mutually exclusive. All of these sustainable practices add costs to the bottom line, meaning the candles are a bit more expensive, but you get what you pay for.
Why Ingredients are Important
Soy wax is an excellent base for candles. As Sterling explains, “it’s nontoxic, has a lower melting point (which means it burns longer and you get more bang for your buck!), and most importantly, it doesn’t release any toxins or carcinogens into the air.” In general, soy is much healthier for the environment, which is why a lot of companies are now using it.
Health is Wealth A lot of scents are made with artificial ingredients, and that automatically means that when they are burned, they release chemicals and carcinogens into the air. Sterling looks at candles as a wellness product. “I know it seems silly because candles are such a small thing, but they have a large impact—especially on the people that are burning it every day, for instance,” she says.
Tunneling—the tragic occasion when the flame begins to drop below the top-level of wax, leaving a dry, hard ring that just won’t melt—can happen even if you do everything right. If you’re looking to blame someone, it might be the quality of your candle—either the wax or manufacturing process—but your burn time may also be the cause. “Short burns tend to cause more issues because once the wax hardens, it creates a tunnel because it didn’t get to burn all the way across the candle top,” Sterling explains. Therefore, to prevent tunneling, let your candle burn as long as possible (ideally a few hours at a time—always supervised, of course!).
How to Save a Tunneled Candle
If your candle is tunneled, there is a fix—fret not. Grab a mug warmer—yeah, the random gadget at BB&B that heats up your coffee. Place the troubled candle on the gadget until it softens the wax enough that you can take a butter knife and gently push the wax down the sides to make it more even. It won't look very pretty right off the bat, but after lighting it, it’ll even itself out. You can also do this in the oven—but with extreme caution. Place the candle on a plate or baking dish, and pop it in the oven on very low heat—about 200 degrees for 5 minutes with a watchful eye. Use oven mitts to grab the plate or dish, and then carefully push down the wax.