Introduction to Wicks: What Wicks Are Made of and How Wicks Work

2-Part Wick Series:  Introduction to Wicks and How to Make Your
Own DIY Wicks
Part 1:  Introduction to Wicks:  What Wicks Are Made of and How Wicks Work

As I’m researching various topics and learning more about the art of candle-making, I am finding it all very intriguing and fascinating.  Especially the science of wicks.

I’m sure we’ve all heard about how important wicks are in the process of candle-making.  But why?  What is so important about the wick that makes it an essential component to the candle?  What does the wick do?

How do wicks work and what are they made of?  How do you choose the right wick?  Wicks are a “capillary action” channel for the wax to travel to the flame to “keep the fire burning.”  Wicks can be made of wood or, more commonly, cotton with a paper, zinc, tin, or copper core.  Wick choice depends on the wax, candle size, candle type, candle shape, fragrance, color, and additives.

There are so many different topics to learn about wicks and I know I’ve only learned the tip of the iceberg, so I thought it would be helpful to break these topics into a couple different posts. 

This is Part 1 of a 2-Part Wick Series.

This will be an introduction to what wicks are made of, how wicks work, and what makes a quality wick.

What Are Wicks Made Of?

Wicks can be made of a variety of different materials, but it is generally a string or cord material, mainly cotton.  There are also wooden wicks, which I will discuss later. 

Cotton Wicks

Cotton wicks are made of braided, plaited, or knitted fibers.

A cotton wick could also contain a core material (such as paper, zinc, tin, or copper) that works as a stiffener.  This core material helps to keep the wick straight during the candle-making process and keeps the wick from becoming too limp and buried in the wax when burned.

Cotton wicks can also be saturated with borax to help keep them straight and stiffen them for use.

Secondly, candle wicks can be treated with a flame-resistant material. 

Why is this?  This didn’t make sense to me at first, because I thought, “Doesn’t the wick need to be flammable?”  But as I learned more about it, I found that it helps to keep the wick from being destroyed by the flame as it burns. 

You don’t want the wick to burn too quickly.

I also learned wicks can be treated with other materials, which can help to improve flame quality, such as brightness, color, and continued rigidity as the wick burns. 

However, you don’t want the wick to be too rigid.  You want the wick to be stiff enough so that it stands up during the candle-making process.  Then, when burned, you want the wick to curl so that the tip of the wick is at the edge of the flame, which is the hottest part of the flame.

Good cotton wicks are meant to curl to reduce mushrooming. 

A curling wick is designed to be “self-trimming,” but the wick can become clogged due to too much fragrance or other additives being added to the wax.  This can create mushrooming, which requires trimming.

Although a curling wick is a good thing, too much of a curl would be bad, especially if it stars to dip back into the wax or curls back on itself.

Lastly, the wick can be treated with substances that will improve the “capillary” flow of the wax to the flame. 

Wicks allow candles to work by essentially being the passageway for the liquid wax (fuel) to travel up to the flame (fire) to keep it burning.

Cotton wicks can be used in all types of waxes and to make all types of candles.

Zinc-Core Wicks

Zinc-core candle wicks are a cotton-braided wick with zinc on the inside as its “core” material.  This zinc core helps to stabilize the candle wick and make it more rigid, which is very helpful during the candle-making process and makes it easier. 

Zinc-core wicks burn cooler than other wicks and have the most rigidity.  They are recommended for use in paraffin wax and can be used in gel wax.  Zinc-core wicks are NOT recommended for use with natural waxes (beeswax, soy wax, palm wax, coconut wax). 

Zinc-core wicks can be used to make container, votives, tealights, pillars, and gels.  However, zinc-core wicks are prone to mushrooming, since they do not curl as easily. 

Zinc-core wicks are popular with making paraffin container candles, but will require trimming each time it is burned.

Paper Core Wicks

Paper core wicks could be made with or without cotton. 

Complete paper wicks (without cotton) do not burn as hot as a cotton wick, but offer more rigidity than a cotton wick. 

Paper-core cotton wicks burn very hot which can yield a large melt pool and are best in large container candles, but paper wicks can also be used for votives and tealights. 

Paper core wicks are best used with paraffin waxes.

Wooden Wicks

Wooden wicks are relatively new to the candle-making industry.  Wooden wicks have become a more recent phenomenon and are purely for aesthetic, euphonious purposes. 

There are two types of wooden wicks:  hard and soft.  Soft wood wicks are considered superior.  As they burn, they emit a crackling and popping sound, like the sound of a campfire. 

Although the wick can take it, to get a good “crackle and pop,” it is recommended that you do NOT use too much fragrance.  Getting a good crackle comes from finding the right balance between fragrance, dye, and wax.

Wooden wicks can be composed of a single piece of wood or multiple pieces of wood pressed together.  There are even wooden wicks that could be specially designed, decorated, or curved.  Wooden wicks could be made of 100% wood, some wood-cotton combination, or a completely fibrous wooden material.

Wooden wicks are generally used for medium to large container candles only.  Wooden wicks are NOT recommended for pillars or votives.  If making small soy candles less than 3 inches, it is generally NOT recommended to use wooden wicks. 

Wooden wicks work great with natural waxes and can handle waxes that contain a lot of fragrance.  However, as mentioned earlier, if you have too much fragrance in your wax, you will not get a good crackling sound, which is the primary reason for using them.

Wooden wicks are compatible with soy wax and paraffin wax.  However, soy wax tends to hold in heat and fragrance, so to make sure the melt pool is wide enough, it is best to use large or extra wide wicks with pure soy candles.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of wooden wicks is that there is no mushrooming, so they do not require trimming!

These are just a few examples of the plethora of wicks that are available out there. 

5 Major Types of Wicks

The National Candle Association classifies wicks into 5 types:

  • Flat – the most commonly used wicks.  These are plaited or knitted, made from 3 bundles of fibers.  They have consistent burning qualities and curl when burning, which means they should be “self-trimming.”  These are most often found in pillar and taper candles.
  • Square – Braided or knitted. Like flat wicks they also curl to provide the “self-trimming” feature, but “are more rounded and robust than flat wicks.”  Square wicks are preferred (work better) with beeswax.  Square wicks clog less than other wicks.
  • Cored – Braided or knitted, use a “core” material, such as cotton, paper, zinc, or tin, to keep the wick straight or upright while burning.  They have a round cross-section and range in “stiffness” based on the core material.  They are used in container candles, pillars, and votives.
  • Wooden – make a soft, crackling sound and have become popular.  Wooden wicks can be made of multiple pieces of wood pressed together, a single wooden stick, fibrous material, or a cotton-wood combination.  Wooden wicks have the unique quality of being able to be specifically designed, curved, or decorated.
  • Specialty wicks are made to meet certain burn characteristics of a special type of wax or candle maker.  This could include citronella candles for their insect-repellent quality or simple oil lamps.

How Do Wicks Work?

Don’t candles just need to smell good?  What is so important about the wick? 

The wick serves as the “channel” for the wax to travel to fuel the flame.  The wick material needs to allow the wax to travel upward through a “capillary action” channel mechanism.  Cotton wicks do this very efficiently and they are made in a few different ways.

To be a little more scientific, the carbon in the wax combines with oxygen to make carbon dioxide. 

A good cotton wick will curl, so that the tip of the wick is within the edge of the flame, which is the hottest part of the flame.  The extra oxygen within the edge of the flame allows the carbon to be converted to gaseous carbon dioxide and the wick is automatically “trimmed” as this reaction is taking place.

Cotton wicks are generally composed of braided, plaited, or knitted fibers.

Plaited and Knitted Wicks

Plaited and knitted wicks have similar characteristics.  Plaited wicks are made of three strands and each strand individually consists of several fibers.  Knitted wicks are also made from three bundles of fibers.

Flat-plaited wicks and knitted wicks are fairly consistent in their burning and are designed to curl in the flame for a self-trimming effect. 

They are the most commonly-used wicks.

They are best for taper and pillar candles.

Braided Wicks

The braided version usually has four strands (two of which usually contain more individual fibers than the other two). This uneven structure enables the burned wick to curl.

Braided wicks are usually used in the making of beeswax candles. 

I discovered there are two types of braided wicks:  square-braided wicks and flat-braided wicks.  They are both designed to curl to reduce mushrooming, which helps the candle to burn cleaner.

Square-braided wicks are made of cotton.  They are used for dipped (taper) and molded (pillar) candles. 

The square-braiding technique was originally designed to be used with beeswax due to the viscosity of beeswax.  However, this technique can now be used with all types of waxes, including paraffin, soy, palm, beeswax, and other types of vegetable waxes.

Table to Summarize Info.

I have included a table to summarize this information so far.

Wick Material Wick Type Special Characteristic Best Wax to Use Best Type of Candle to Make
Cotton wicks   -Made of braided, plaited, or knitted fibers  
-Can contain a core material, such as zinc or paper
All All
  Flat -Most common wick
-Usually plaited or knitted, but can also be braided
-Curl, self-trimming
All Pillar
  Square -Braided or Knitted
-Curl, self-trimming
-More round and robust than flat
-Clog less than other wicks
-Beeswax (braided)  
-Square-Knitted works with all waxes (Paraffin, Soy, Vegetable waxes, Palm)
  Zinc-core -Cotton-braided
-Rigid, doesn’t curl as easily – prone to mushrooming
Container Votives Tealights
  Paper-core Can be made with or without cotton Paraffin Large container
Paper   -Do not burn as hot as cotton
-More rigid than cotton
Paraffin Container Votives Tealights
Wooden wicks Soft -Considered superior to hard wooden wicks
-Emit crackling, popping sound
-Need to find right balance between wax, fragrance, & dye
-Soy and other natural waxes, such as beeswax, palm, and coconut
-Also compatible with paraffin
Medium-large container
>3 in.
  Hard No mushrooming, no need for trimming!    

Characteristics of a Good Quality Wick

Selecting the right wick for the candle you are making is a process of trial and error, especially if you have never used the type of wax or fragrance that you are experimenting with.

There are other important characteristics to look for, besides the material of the wick, or what it’s made of.

Here are the other characteristics you want to consider when choosing a wick for your candle:

  • You want the wick to be able to light up and keep a flame alive.  Therefore, it must supply the “capillary action” process to move the wax through the wick to the flame. 
  • You want the wick to be flammable, but not burn too easily or quickly.  It should have some fire-resistance so that it burns slowly.
  • Wicks must maintain their shape and not be disfigured/destroyed by the flame.
  • The wick needs to have the right balance of stiffness/rigidity and curl when burned.  When making container candles, the stiffness of the wicks is important (and helpful).  You want the wick to be able to stand up within the container and maintain some rigidity as it burns.  However, the wick should curl as it burns, to prevent mushrooming and as a self-trimming feature, but it should not curl too much.  A wick that is too limp, will just fall into the wax when lit and burned.
  • Cotton wicks should be made from braided, plaited, or knitted fibers, so that it burns slowly and consistently.  Braided or knitted wicks are of higher-quality than a simple, twisted wick, which are considered “looser” and burn more quickly.  Twisted wicks are generally only used in the birthday-type candles that are placed on a cake.
  • A wick is generally coated (with wax).  The wax-coating on a wick should be hard, but pliable   with a reasonably high melting temperature.
  • You want to make sure the diameter of your wick is appropriate for the candle you are making.  Larger diameter wicks = larger flame = faster burning candle.  However, too small of a wick would cause tunneling or the flame to go out (smother).  The diameter of the wick you choose will depend on the type and size of candle you are making.

Wick Choice Factors

Finally, there are a variety of different factors to consider when choosing your wick.  Wick choice depends on:

  • Type of wax.  The first thing to consider when choosing a wick is the type of wax you will be using with it.  Some wicks work better with different types of wax, as discussed/explained earlier.
  • Candle Size/Shape/Type of Candle (Pillar, Container, Votive, Taper, tea, etc.).  The type of candle you are making and the size/shape of it will determine the type of wick you will use.
  • Candle Fragrance, Color/Additives.  Some candle fragrances could clog wicks or create mushrooming.  Therefore, if you are using a lot of fragrance or wax with a lot of additives, you will want to use a wick that is less prone to mushrooming.

Choosing the right wick for your candle is crucial to getting a clean, slow-burning that will not soot.  This is a process that may take several tries, but honorable candle-makers will complete this testing phase nonetheless to provide a quality product.

I hope you found this post on the introduction to wicks helpful on your quest to wicking your candle!

This is Part 1 of a 2-Part Wick Series. 

If you are interested in reading about a DIY project for making your own wicks, please check out Part 2.

The second article in this 2-Part Wick Series is all about how to make your own wicks.  Please check it out here.

Thanks for reading and enjoy!

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