This 101 on making your own beeswax melter comes from Clare, a goat-, chicken-, turkey-, and (you guessed it) beekeeper from California’s central coast. Want to learn more about Clare? Check out our getting-to-know-you chat, part of the weekly series Meet Your Neighbors, and consult her blog at Curbstone Valley Farm for further HOMEGROWN projects. Thanks, Clare, and please keep the good ideas coming!
One of the byproducts of harvesting honey is beeswax. Even if you return your empty frames to the hives once you’ve finished harvesting, the process of harvesting can still yield a fair amount of wax just from the cappings* alone. Don't throw that gold away!
You can melt and filter the wax cappings in one easy step, even if you don't own a dedicated beeswax melter. I made this one using items I already had around the house. One note: This type of melter works best for wax cappings and clean wax, such as that harvested from honey frames. Old pollen frames and brood frames leave too much debris in the wax and will clog the filter.
*Before we start, a quick word on what, exactly, wax cappings are: Cappings are the thin layer of wax that the bees use to seal the honey cells. The wax is no different in composition than that used to build the hexagonal cells; the layer is just a lot a slimmer. This thin wax gets sliced off during a honey harvest—a.k.a. "decapping" a honey frame—to let the honey flow from the cells (usually with the help of centrifugal forces when the frames get spun in a honey extractor). But enough about how to collect cappings. Here's what to do with them once you've got them.
» small Styrofoam or plastic cooler
» aluminum foil
» paper towel
» rubber bands
» old plastic storage container or small plastic bowl
» sheet of glass or Plexiglas that fits over the open cooler
WHAT IT'LL COST YOU
Not much! I made my melter for nothing.
» cooler: scavenged from the garage; a Styrofoam cooler with a lid would set you back maybe $10
» foil: pennies
» paper towel: pennies
» storage container: scavenged from the kitchen
» rubber bands: scavenged
» glass: scavenged a 16"x20" sheet of glass from an old picture frame
WHAT TO DO: PREPARE THE WAX
When the cappings are first cut from the frame, the primary contaminant is honey. You'll want to drain the cappings in a fine strainer overnight to remove the excess honey. (See photo above left.)
Once drained, rinse the cappings in a few changes of cool water using a fine sieve. The water doesn’t need to be cold, but don't let it to get too warm or the wax will soften and melt. You can tell the cappings are clean when they become much less sticky to the touch.
Lay some paper or cloth towels over a few sheets of newspaper and spread the wax in a thin layer on top. Allow the wax to dry thoroughly for 24 to 48 hours.
The cappings must be dry before you proceed; excess moisture will keep the wax from melting. At this stage, you can store the cappings in a paper bag until the weather is warm enough to melt them. (Don't store the clean wax in plastic; it might mold.)
Choose a day when the forecasted high is at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit and identify a location where your melter will get full sun for at least 6 hours.
To assemble the melter, line the bottom of the cooler with foil. Set the container you'll be using to catch the wax inside the cooler. Pour enough water into the container to fill it to a depth of approximately 1 inch. Tip: Use a container that’s at least a little flexible. Although a ceramic container would work, you might have a harder time removing the wax once it has set.
Use a large rubber band to secure a paper towel over the top of the container. If needed, trim the edges so that the paper towel doesn't hang down and touch the foil. (If that happens, the paper towel may wick some of the melting wax onto the foil.)
Take the prepared wax cappings and squash them into a few loose balls, just until the wax holds together. Each ball should be about the size of a tangerine. Place the wax balls on the paper towel.
Place the sheet of glass on top of the cooler. One note: If your cooler has a hinged lid, like mine, you might need to place a kitchen towel over the gap in the glass, next to the cooler's hinge; otherwise, every bee in the neighborhood will try to fly into your melter to see where that enticing aroma is coming from. And yes, this is the voice of experience speaking.
As the wax melts, it filters through the paper towel into the water.
If the weather is warm enough, the first batch of wax should melt and filter through within a couple of hours. If you have additional wax, carefully remove the first batch of wax balls, replace the paper towel with a fresh sheet, and set up the next batch to melt over the same container.
Depending on your location, you might want to re-orient the melter periodically to maximize exposure to the sun.
Once all of the wax has melted, leave the container undisturbed until the filtered wax has set completely. When set, remove the paper towel and free the wax by gently stretching the sides of container, just enough to pop the wax slab loose. The water prevents the wax from adhering to the base of the container and makes it easy to remove.
If the edges of your paper towel were too long and wax wicked onto the floor of the cooler, just pop any spilled wax off of the foil once it has set and remelt those wax chips the next time you use the melter.
As you can see from that photo up top, the finished wax is gorgeous in color and beautifully filtered—and smells divine. Since the finished wax is flat, it's easy to stack and store the slabs until you have enough raw material for your next candle or soap-making project.
That nasty-looking, crusty residue left behind on the paper towel after the wax has filtered is referred to as "slumgum." You could throw it away, but even slumgum is useful. We've cut a slumgum-soaked sheet into quarters and used it to help start the woodstove in winter. Traditionally, slumgum was remelted and used to coat pinecones, another handy stove fire starter. That's the beauty of keeping bees: Absolutely nothing goes to waste!
Got a bee in your bonnet about something you read above? Or just have a question for Clare? Post it below and keep the conversation rolling. You might also be interested in checking out the Beekeeping 101 or the Honey Sticks 101, or you might consider joining the ongoing buzz in the Apiarists group. You can always find more things to make, craft, cook, preserve, plant, grow, and melt in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.
ALL PHOTOS: CLARE