Wicks, Sticks and Beads - A Stationer's Comparison


Sealing wax has been around since the 16th century, when letters would be sealed with a signet ring to signify to the recipient that the message had not been intercepted and opened. 

Nowadays, with global postal systems, wax seals are used much more commonly for decorative purposes, and a change to the wax itself became necessary if seals were to survive the largely automated mail sorting system unscathed.  Modern sealing wax is less brittle than its ancestor, and this slight flexibility protects the seal whilst retaining the stamped impression. 

Sealing wax in the 21st century is now available in three main forms: the wick stick, the hot gun stick, and the bead.  We set out, armed with a glue gun and tealights, to find out the pro's and con's of each type. 

(Please note, all of these methods involve heat in some form, and any use of hot wax carries a real possibility of getting burnt.  If you'd rather not run the risk, in recent years there has been an increase in the availability of self-adhesive 'peel-n-stick' wax seals, which are available here.

 

bronze wax dripping from the nozzle of a hot glue gun

The Hot Gun Stick Wax

First up, was the stick wax produced for use in glue guns or specifically-created 'sealing wax' guns.  These are also the type we are most familiar with, as this is what we use in the studio.

This method is great if you are producing a large batch of wax seals - think 50 or more.  If you have batches of a few different designs to make, again this method is ideal.  The sticks often come in two widths; an 11mm for standard-size guns, and a 7mm for the smaller craft gun - bear this in mind when purchasing a hot glue gun for melting wax. 

However, with this method, it is good to be aware that most of its positives can also become negatives. 

The wax heats up quickly (along with the gun itself), allowing you to move on to the next seal as soon as your previous one has cooled enough to lift the stamp - have some ice to hand to cool your stamp!  If your wax heats up too quickly, though, it can either bubble or - worse - come back up the gun and find its' way into every crevice.  This can cause nasty burns, or become even more dangerous if the wax finds its way into the housing for the electrical components of the gun.  This tends to happen if your stick is even just a fraction thinner than it should be.  We tried this out with some 10.7mm sticks, and speak from experience - trying in vain, with burnt fingertips, to access the fuse box to turn your lights back on is not a barrel of laughs!

Another reason that this method is a favourite with stationers is the ease with which more wax can be fed into the gun - provided that it is the same colour.  If you're wax sealing at home and planning on using multiple waxes, this may not be the most cost-effective method for you.  As they can't be cleaned, you are left with two options: 1, purchase a new gun for each colour you plan on using, or 2, pass a clear glue stick through the gun before changing wax.  Option 1 is costly if you are only planning on using them once.  Option 2 will can cost you up to a whole wax stick before all of the melted glue is pushed clean of the chamber.

Finally, the accuracy and ease of dispensing the wax using a glue gun means that it is much easier to create consistently round seals, with a good smooth edge.  Pour and dripping methods tend to produce a more rustic, old-fashioned look where the seal might not be perfectly round, but has its own beauty and individual characteristic. 

Overall, if you are looking to make quite a large quantity of seals, all in the same colour wax, then this method is the go-to.  If you're looking at a smaller quantity, or want to change or even marble colours, we recommend using a melting spoon as below. 

PROS:
  • Wax melts quickly and can make large numbers of seals with ease.
  • Easy to refill the wax (sticks often make 8-10 seals each).
  • Most readily available, in a huge range of colours. 
CONS:
  • Using the wrong size wax can cause the wax to back up the gun. 
  • Can't be cleaned easily to allow for colour changes. 
  • The most expensive method of the three.

 

sealing wax spoon filled and surrounded with white sealing wax beads

The Melting Spoon and Beads

This is the slowest way of producing wax seals, as you have to wait for the wax to melt all over again for each seal.  However, if you're planning on sealing to bind together string or a stack of paper, this could be ideal as it gives you plenty of time to make sure you have everything just right before it is sealed.  There is also something quite relaxing and oddly satisfying about watching the beads melt and swirl together in the spoon.

This method is really accessible to everyone - wax beads and melting spoons are readily available, and easy to find online, such as on Amazon.  If you can only find glue gun sticks in the wax colour you require, no problem!  Just use a pair of scissors to cut off a small chunk of the stick, and voila you have a wax bead! You can also buy a relatively inexpensive 'furnace' to rest your spoon on over a tealight candle, which saves you having to hold the spoon as it heats up. 

This is the method we use for marbled wax seals, as it is by far the easiest way to get two or more colours mixed together in the same place.  You can use something to then swirl the colours together in the spoon just before pouring - we use bamboo cotton buds (just snap the cotton end off first!)

Cleaning the spoons can be a little messy and carries the risk of burning, but as long as you are careful it shouldn't pose a problem.  We found that using something small but thick helped - like a cotton wool pad to wipe the excess wax out of the spoon, the candle soot from the bottom, and any excess wax around the top of the furnace.  Also, periodically wipe the bottom and sides of your mixing spoon as you go - we found that sometimes, as you pour your wax, the soot or discoloured wax from the bottom of the spoon can creep into your pouring wax and ruin an otherwise-perfect seal. 

PROS:
  • Cheap and easy to get started.
  • Perfect for smaller numbers of seals.
  • The best way to marble colours together.
CONS:
  • Much slower than using a glue gun. 
  • Can create quite a bit of mess.
  • Difficult to get a perfectly round seal. 

 

wicked wax stick burning, with smoke coming from the wick

The Wick Wax Stick

This is the closest thing modern sealing wax offers to the antique waxes of the 16th century.  The 'vintage' sealing method, if you will.  What is more romantic than watching the small flame dance on the wick, watching the melted wax cascade down onto your page and form a shimmering pool, only to be extinguished with a single wisp of breath?  Can anything better this method, used by lovers to seal their secrets for centuries?

Well, yes, actually. 

We had generally stayed away from this method of sealing, as it had little to offer us in the studio that couldn't be done with spoons or glue guns.  However, when I knew I would be writing this post, it became apparent that this would need to be included as they are abundantly available, and many people can be drawn in by needing nothing more than this stick and a lighter. 

True, they require almost non-existent set up.  And true, they are easy to get your hands on in a multitude of colours.  The sticks are not big, so you would need quite a few of them if you're planning on doing 30 or more seals, but they are easy to use.  Light the wick, drip the melted wax, stamp, and blow out the flame.  Easy, right? 

The first time we lit the wick, it took almost immediately.  However, if you down stick long enough for the melted wax to solidify, you will come back to a small battle on your hands.  Do you try to melt the build up of wax away from the wick with your flame and risk getting burnt - and why is it not melting as fast this time around?!  Or do you try to dig the wick out of its wax prison with your nails? 

Getting the wax to pool nicely also proved a challenge.  We found that on multiple occasions, in the time it took to get a decent sized pool of melted wax for stamping...it was no longer liquid.  The stamp would glide through the newest, top layer of wax, only to be stoppered by a lump of hardening wax underneath with an unsatisfying smush.  So, to avoid wasting that wax, we remelted it in the melting spoon - seems to negate the point of using a wick wax stick in the first place, doesn't it? 

On the occasion that we did manage to get a nice (read: still hot) pool of wax, we found ourselves crossing fingers and toes that the burnt excess of the wick wouldn't spontaneously fall right into the wax and ruin it...again.  Any successful seals hardened and cooled, and then seemed to have an oddly powdery finish and feel to them, like they had been lightly dusted with talc powder.

And finally, extinguishing the flame.  Now, I know how fire works, and I fully expected a little bit of smoke to come from the wick; the sort of smoke you get when you put out candles, perhaps. 

That is not what I got. 

At first, a few gentle wisps of smoke rose from the wick.  Then more, and more.  And more.  And then some more.  It was in equal parts concerning, mystifying and somehow impressive, the sheer amount of smoke produced by something so small.  While it does not produce huge billows, in the time it took for the smoke to stop we had achieved a definite smog-effect in the studio air.  So when I lit this little stump of wax in my home office to take the above photograph, I knew what I was getting myself into.  

If you choose to seal using this method, all I can say, is be prepared for the smoke.  Open windows, grab inhalers, make sure you aren't sitting directly under a smoke alarm.  

I know it may seem like i'm exaggerating about the amount of smoke, so let me afford you a glimpse into my Sunday morning at home.  I set up, puffed out the flame and let the smoke begin. I took the above photo along with about 20 others and some slow-mo video.  Then downstairs, reviewed the footage I had taken, cropped and brightened the above image, sent it from the iPad to the laptop, let the dog out, dyed my hair, washed the dye out and showered, and when I emerged from the bathroom and checked on the office - it was still smoking. 

PROS:
  • Easily available.
  • No set-up required.
  • Vintage, traditional method. 
CONS:
  • Messy, the wax drips and dribbles everywhere along with the ash.
  • Inconsistent, difficult to get a decent seal. 
  • Produces an unbelievable amount of smoke.  

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