Preparedness Skills: The Crayon Candle

Howdy muchachos!

Got something little different for you today!

I figured I’d try something more useful than just posting a blog about preparedness. So today, I’m happy to introduce a new category of posts—it’s still about being prepared, but now I’ll actually be explaining practical real-world skills along the way.

I by no means am what you would call an expert—in just about any field you care to pick—and so I figured it would be handy to have sort of an everyman’s guide to being prepared. That’s right, yours truly has officially announced that he is an Average Joe!

So what’s first on the agenda?

Let’s take a look at some of the priorities for when the power goes out or there’s an emergency situation or even—God forbid!—the grid is down or there’s some other large-scale catastrophe. You’re going to need food, water (most importantly), shelter, and a source of heat and light.

I’m sure I’ll get to the other topics at some point, but today I wanted to focus on light and/or heat. What’s the most economical source of heat and light? Fire. Now, in a relatively benign situation—like a temporary power outage caused by a thunderstorm—I would first go for an LED flashlight, or even regular flashlight for that matter. However, sometimes that’s just not possible.

When my wife and I endured the 2004 season of never-ending hurricanes on Florida’s Gold Coast, we quickly ran out of batteries and over the course of the first couple storms somehow never got around to getting more. I know, I know, rookie mistake. However we did have plenty of candles. She likes all the foo-foo scented ones, so the house smelled like lavender and vanilla for a week, but we had light—at least the few times the power flickered out for an hour or so before coming back on.

In this post I want to explore different expedient forms of light in the form of ready-made survival candles. First up is one that I’ve read about, but never decided to test until now: the crayon candle!

First time I heard this I thought to myself, that can’t be right. So here’s how I tested it.

Materials

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  1. One can of tuna fish (after lunch, cleaned and dried).
  2. Three different crayons (a broken large generic crayon, a skinny regular Crayola crayon, and a jumbo Crayola—snapped in half courtesy of my youngest son).
  3. A trigger-style lighter.

The Test

First up I tried the generic half-crayon. I needed a way to attach the candle to the bottom of the tuna can. Since this crayon was a broken half with the point mostly intact, I use the lighter to melt the entire tip of the candle, making sure to pool a nice blob of melted wax in the center of the of the can. I immediately turned the crayon over and stuck the base into the melted wax. In a few seconds, the wax hardened and the crayon was secured.

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Next I said about lighting the top of the crayon. The melted wax from the tip made a nice little lake of molten wax, concealed by the wrapper. It took about 15 seconds of continuous fire on the crayon to get the paper wrapper to ignite, soaked as it was in the melted wax.

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Finally, it did, and the flame grew quickly to match the length of the crayon and then some!

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This completely surprised me. As you can see in the picture, the fire put out by the crayon was impressive. It lasted for a few minutes and then snuffed itself out as the wax level dropped too far for the fire to catch up.

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Next I tried the skinny Crayola candle. This time, vowing to be prepared for the large flame, I had my stopwatch handy. I followed the same procedure, melting the bottom of the crayon until I had a puddle of wax in the middle of the can and then securing the crayon in place.

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This crayon had a rounded top instead of a pointed tip, as it was well used by my kids. I lit this one and it only took about 10 seconds to catch the paper on fire. However, once this crayon caught, I noticed an interesting effect: little bits of wax popped out of the central column of the crayon leaving tiny smoke trails as they fell down inside the tuna can. They didn’t go more than about an inch away from the crayon, but it made an interesting visual effect.
I also heard a little pop every time one of these little pustules jumped off the crayon. I’m not sure if it’s something with this particular crayon—did it roll around with the other crayons and get something stuck to the outside?—or maybe it’s some chemical reaction from the interior of the crayon itself. Either way, it was kind of neat to watch. Once the candle had been going for a few minutes, this popping stopped.

The flame was easily as long as the crayon itself for the first few minutes.

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Then it shrunk down to about half the size of the crayon. You can see the rate at which this sucker burned in the time lapse pictures below. All said, it took 15 minutes for this skinny crayon to burn itself out in a puddle of melted wax at the bottom of the tuna can.

5 minutes…
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7 minutes…
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12 minutes…
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13 minutes…
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15 minutes…
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16 minutes…
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The paper wrapper did not disintegrate and stood up all the way until the very end as a charred husk. As the flame extinguished, the husk fell over and cooled.

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I then repeated the process with the half jumbo Crayola crayon. Once secured in the middle of the can, I lit the top of this one on fire, which took at least 20 seconds to get going. Definitely something to keep in mind. You’ll want to have a decent flame source to light these things on fire. A lighter, or a long burning stick or something. I don’t know if a match will last long enough to get one to catch. That’ll be the next experiment.

The flame on this crayon was quite impressive! It was at least 4 to 5” high throughout the entire test.

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I also decided to try something new and used a bamboo skewer to knock down the pillar of ash and charred paper as the wax melted in the central part of the crayon.

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Doing this seemed to keep the flame at a constant height instead of wavering up and down like it did when I let the charred paper remain. It was pretty simple—every few minutes I just knocked down the charred paper, keeping it at a uniform height.

1 minute…
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6 minutes…
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8 minutes 30 seconds…
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This one really burned hot—I could easily feel the heat from it about a foot and a half above the top of the flame.

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In a power outage or grid-down situation, this thing would put out quite a bit of light.

The interesting thing happened toward the end: the residue from the other candles began to heat up as the flame from the final candle reached the bottom of the can. The remains of the first two candles then caught on fire, creating a flame that spanned the width of the tuna can.

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It wasn’t a very high flame, but the can began to heat significantly and got hot enough I decided to get it off the surface of my oven and put it on a trivet. This continued past the 16 minute mark.

Lesson Learned

Here’s where my Average Joe experience comes in! I have learned something about candles and fire—when you have a lot of wax, you don’t pour water onto it! I grabbed a pair of kitchen tongs and carried the flaming tuna can over to the sink. Every time I jostled it, that flame shot up about a foot high. Finally I grabbed the faucet on the sink, turned on the water and doused the flames. I expected a cloud of smoke, instead I got a cloud of fire.

The tuna can erupted and created a small ball of fire about the size of a basketball that quickly dispersed, after it singed the hair off my hand (about 10 inches away at the end of a pair of kitchen tongs!). No harm no foul, but the kitchen smelled like burnt hair!

I had quite a bit of melted wax on the sink and floor to clean up. No problem there either, a dish rag soaked in hot water did the trick and cleaned up the mess. Pretty funny all around, but I learned a valuable lesson: wax, fire, and water don’t mix.

And hopefully now that you’ve read this post you have too—crayons can be used in an emergency situation as a fire source. Does this mean that I think you should give up buying emergency candles? No. However it’s good to know that should you run out of those, or should you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have candles or LED flashlights or anything else, if you can scrounge around and find some crayons, you have some candles. Remember, a full crayon will last about 20 minutes. Half crayons will last about 10 minutes. Half of a jumbo crayon, will last about 15 minutes, so I’m willing to bet that a full jumbo crayon may last anywhere between 20 and 25 minutes. Also it doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s Crayola or some name brand—they all seem to burn about the same, except for the jumbo sizes.

Considering a box of these things only cost a couple bucks, you’re looking at potentially hours of emergency illumination and heat should the need arise. I don’t know about you, but I think I’m going to add a box of crayons to my emergency kit. Not only does it serve the purpose for providing entertainment for the children, but should the power go out and we get desperate, you can have a candle and draw with it too!

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