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History and Types of Candle Wicks


candle wick

Candle wick

Sami Sarkis / Getty Images
In the little system that is a burning candle, the wick acts as the pump and pipeline that delivers the fuel (the melted wax) to the engine (the flame) through a process called capillary action.

Different styles and sizes of wicks act as different kinds of pipelines. Some allow lots of fuel to flow quickly through a big “pipe”...others pump more slowly through a smaller “pipe.” Just like the engine in your car, if you give the flame too much or too little fuel, it will burn poorly, or sputter out. The balance of fuel and flow needs to be just right - and that is the wick’s primary purpose - delivering the melted wax to the burning flame.

A Brief History of Candle Wicks
The first candles, called “rushlights” by the Egyptians, were reeds soaked in animal fat. The reed acted as a primitive wick allowing the fat to reach the flame. (Believe it or not, rushlights continued to be used in parts of the word until the mid 20th century!) The Romans improved upon the rushlights by weaving natural fibers together and created the first “wick” candles and torches. Candles were made with these plain twisted fibers until the early 19th century when cotton mills (developed by Samuel Slater) began to develop more tightly woven and braided cotton wicks. Braided wicks and the development of paraffin wax in the mid 19th century really bring us to the era of “modern” candle making.

Types of Wicks
In general, there are three major categories of wicks used in candles today - cored, flat and square/round wicks.

  1. Cored wicks
    Cored wicks have a rigid core in them made of zinc, paper or cotton. This core keeps the wick standing up straight even in a melted container of wax - like in container candles, votives and devotional candles. There was much controversy a number of years ago about lead-cored wicks. The lead was found to be present in the smoke from the candles. Candle makers largely self-banned lead-cored wicks in the mid 1970’s. In 2003, lead wicks were officially banned in the U.S. Scientific studies have repeatedly shown both zinc- and tin-core wicks to be safe.
 (More information about lead in candle wicks)

    The metal-core wicks sometimes found in candles are typically zinc- or tin-core wicks. They are most often used in container candles and votives to keep the wick upright when the surrounding wax liquefies. Scientific studies have repeatedly shown both zinc- and tin-core wicks to be safe.

  2. Flat wicks
    Flat braided wicks are like a braid of hair - a three strand braid made of many tiny threads. They burn very consistently, curling in the flame just a bit to “self-trim,” and are among the most commonly used candle wicks. They come in sizes that indicate the number of plies or strands in the wick: 24 ply, 30 ply, 36 ply etc. Flat and square braid wicks tend to curl into the flame, causing them to burn cleaner. Cored wicks will not curl, so they are commonly used when curling may cause problems such as deep melting jars or votives.
  3. Square and round wicks
    These braided or knitted wicks also curl in the flame, but are larger and more rounded - allowing for more fuel to flow through them. Square wicks have been used for beeswax candles, but can also be used in other candle applications like tapers and pillars. Rounded wicks, like RRDs are often the wick of choice for candle makers using more viscous waxes like palm and soy waxes as, like the square wicks, they allow for the thicker wax to flow better through the wick.
Chances are that your candle wicks will fall into one of these categories. Approximately 80% of the wicks manufactured in the United States are made of all-cotton or cotton-paper combinations. The remainder are primarily metal- and paper-cored wicks. Whatever category they fall into, it’s important to remember that the wick is one of the most important components in the “system” that is a burning candle. It has to be the right wick for the right type of wax, blend of fragrance and size of container.

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