One of the byproducts of harvesting honey is beeswax. A couple of weeks ago we took the last of our honey for the season from our hives. Although most of the frames will be reused for another year, a couple of frames were damaged during the extraction, and we also finished the honey harvest with a large bowl full of capping wax.
There’s not a lot of wax in the cappings, but the wax does add up over the course of a sizable honey harvest. The question was, what to do with the wax?
Obviously at some point we’d like to make candles, lotions, or soaps, but first the wax has to be rendered, and the impurities removed.
When the cappings are first cut from the frame, the primary contaminant is honey. The cappings were first drained in a strainer overnight to remove the excess honey. Once drained, using a fine sieve, the capping wax was then rinsed in a few changes of cool water.
Once any excess honey residue was removed, the wax was laid out on the counter, on some paper towel over a few sheets of newspaper, and allowed to dry for 48 hours.
With the wax dry, now it was time to melt it. We could have melted it on the stove, but it honestly didn’t seem worth messing up a pot for, and I don’t yet have a vessel that I can devote to the task.
As the temperatures had recently been soaring into the low 90s in the garden though, it seemed like perfect weather to try using a solar wax melter.
I poked around a little online, and found a number of ready-made solar wax melters, but they’re not cheap. I also found various DIY plans for solar wax melters, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be tripping over one in the workshop during the 360 days a year that I’m not using it.
The trouble was, I was too
lazy busy to build one, and too cheap impatient to order one. That left me with the option of cobbling one together myself.
Solar wax melters aren’t a modern invention. In fact I found references to solar wax melters dating back at least to the early 1900s.[1,2].
There are also various sources online for what is known in beekeeping circles as ‘Paul’s Solar Wax Melter’. The construction seemed straightforward enough, so I scrounged around for some suitable components, and set about making one. All I needed was:
- Styrofoam Cooler
- Aluminum Foil
- Paper Towel
- Rubber Bands
- Sheet of glass or Plexiglas
I didn’t have a styrofoam cooler, and quite honestly, providing the container is insulated, I didn’t think I really needed one. Instead, we have a few coolers around in various shapes and sizes, so I opted to use one of those.
The instructions for some versions of this homemade wax melter suggest painting the cooler exterior black, but that’s really not necessary in this case as the walls of this plastic cooler were heavily insulated.
Aluminum foil of course was easy to source from the kitchen, as was the paper towel.
Next I needed a container to catch the melted wax in, and a long-since-lidless plastic container fit that bill perfectly.
My greatest challenge was finding a large enough rubber band to fit around the rim of the container, as most of our rubber band supply went to our apple-grafting project.
The plastic container was filled with about an inch of water, and the paper towel was set over the top of the container, and secured with the rubber band.
Finally I needed a piece of glass that would be big enough to cover the top of the cooler. Eventually I scavenged a 16″x20″ piece of ‘low-glare’ slightly frosted glass from an old photo that was gathering dust in the back of a closet. Even though the glass was textured, I expected it would work fine.
To assemble the wax melter, the foil was used to line the bottom of the cooler to reflect heat, then the container with the water was set in the bottom of the cooler.
The clean, and dry, wax pieces were squashed into a loose ball, just enough to hold their shape, and each ball of wax was set on top of the paper towel.
The final step was to place the sheet of glass on top of the cooler, and find the sunniest spot in the garden.
Note, if you use this method, and your cooler has a hinged lid like ours did, you may need to place a kitchen towel over the gap in the glass next to the hinge, otherwise every bee in the neighborhood will try to fly into your melter to see where that aroma of beeswax is coming from. Yes, that is the voice of experience!
As the weather was really warm the day I did this, all the wax was melted within a couple of hours, while I was off getting other things done.
When I came back all I could see was dark slumgum adhered to the paper towel. Slumgum is a term for the impurities and debris left behind when the wax is rendered, which as you can see had formed a dark brown crust on the surface of the paper towel.
All the wax had melted, and been filtered through the sheet of paper towel, down into the water below. The trouble was, at that point, it was still so hot under the glass that the wax wasn’t set. It just looked like an oily layer floating on the surface of the water.
Leaving the wax to set, after the sun had gone behind the trees, I went back out and found the wax had set up enough that I could bring the container inside.
Gently stretching the sides of the container outward, the wax layer popped free, and the water prevented the wax from sticking to the container floor.
The color of this capping wax is gorgeous, beautifully filtered, and smells divine!
Next time I’ll be sure to trim the overhanging paper towel. As it was a little too long on one side, a little of the wax wicked through the towel, and down on to the foil at the bottom of the cooler.
I’ll definitely use this method again as I still have a few frames of wax to process. I just need the weather to warm back up as it’s been a bit cool the last couple of days.
However, I have read that this method works less well for old dark brood nest wax that contains more debris. For relatively clean wax, from honey frames, or cappings, it seems to work very well.
Maybe down the road if we have a lot more wax to process I’ll build a melter that’s better suited to large volumes of wax.
For small volumes though, this solar wax melter was efficient, and we won’t have to trip over a melter in the workshop, as all the component pieces have been returned to their original task…except the paper towel of course.
I saved that, as it’s now wax-soaked, and will no doubt be useful for starting the wood stove on a cold winter’s night.
 Hamlyn-Harris, R. February 13, 1902. “Gleanings from Foreign Bee Journals” British Bee Journal & Bee-Keepers Adviser, Volume 30,pg. 69
 Root, Amos Ives, and Root, Ernest Rob. 1908. Solar Wax Melter. The ABC and XYZ of bee culture: a cyclopedia of everything pertaining to the care of the honey-bee. The A. I. Root Company. pg. 444