I appreciate that this may look like a 1950’s satellite, or a space rocket from the Clangers, but it is actually a pasta pan on a Christmas tree holder, all purchased (separately) from my local flea market for a few quid.
So why would beekeepers be interested in such second hand junk, regardless of how tastefully arranged? Well because this is my steam powered beeswax melter and purifier (Mk 2).
The perforated inner pan of the pasta pan.
I have visited beekeepers who have dustbins and bin liners full of loose wax they have been collecting for years, and a constant source of irritation to them as them never quite seem to get around to do anything with it. They always have plans to make candles out of it for Christmas presents.
Why do we need to process wax? Simply because unprocessed wax begins to fester, to smell, and attract undesirable insects.
Once processed it can easily be stored indefinitely until you have a use for it.
You may have noticed that this is the MK 2, so obviously not my first attempt.
My initial wax melting energies were focused on solar melters which are ok, but just ok. I know this is going to sound obvious, but they only work when the sun is shining, which means that half melted combs and fermenting honey residue can be hanging around in them for days, even weeks, attracting bees, and less desirable creatures, from far and wide. If you get a really cracking summer then they are great, but how often do we get them?
I liked the idea of being able to melt a complete frame of wax but the solar melters don’t fully extract wax from brood comb as the brood casings absorb the molten wax making a soggy stinking mess which sets hards within 4 seconds of lifting the lid of the solar melter, and then welds itself to the equipment, and your fingers. Much scraping and chuntering then ensues, usually amongst a cloud of circling, covetous bees. You do slowly get lots of wax from a solar melter but then it needs cleaning and purifying.
Steam was the possible answer!
On YouTube I found a few English lads using a steam wall paper stripper plugged into the top of a full brood box, and with tinfoil on the hive floor, and so I gave it a try. It does indeed extract all the wax, even from brood combs, but it takes an hour, and stinks. On the plus side it sterilises both frames and brood box, ideal for dealing with a bad case of nosema.
The down side is that the steam will warp old brood boxes and cause them to part at the corners, So sash clamps and long thin screws need to be at the ready, before everything cools.
So it’s a less than ideal technique but using steam is good because the water replaces the wax and carries it out, still leaving a soggy stinking mess behind but one which doesn’t set hard, is easy to remove, and makes perfect compost.
Progress of sorts and I got more wax than by solar means.
Wax obtained by solar energy carries with it lots of organic debris. This is also true of the steaming brood box method. So once you have your extracted wax, by solar melter, or by the brood box method above, there then comes the problem of cleaning it.
The traditional method is to gently melt the wax in water so that the impurities settle out into the water. You are supposed to use rain water because tap water contains chemicals which react with the wax. Oh and the tail feather of a unicorn to stir it with. But you don’t get completely clean wax with this method as you end up with black fur on the pitted bottom of the resulting solid block. So you scrape off the worst and melt it again, and again. But you never get it really clean, even after hours of melting, and I wanted very pure clean wax for making cosmetics.
There had to be a better way and as luck would have it a member of Halifax Beekeepers Association was due to give a talk on making wax suitable for showing, and he had so many wins to his name that he had also become a beeswax judge (who knew such things existed?). This would be good I thought, he’s bound to have a quick and easy method.
I was wrong, very wrong!
It took him days of melting, slow cooking in the oven, numerous pans, thermometers, different filters, scraping, sanding, worrying, and a pyrex glass dish in which to pour the purified finished wax. Though his flawless, shiny block would be a show stopper for several seasons he admitted that it nearly cost him his marriage from all the kitchen resources he had used, without permission, and subsequently ruined. He eventually acquired his own set of pans and amassed an impressive array of bits and pieces to go with them, a mini industrial processing set. I think he loved the process more than the finished product. I was amazed that he had any time left for beekeeping.
I picked up a few good tips on things to use as filters but I wouldn’t be bothering with all that nonsense, all that heating up, cooling down, cleaning, waiting and marital disharmony.
Why couldn’t it just be steam heated once and then allowed to pass, under the influence of gravity, through filters into a receptacle below, all by itself?
Well one problem is that beeswax, as soon as it makes contact with something slightly cooler than itself, sets instantly, blocks the filter and prevents further progress.
So what you need is a heated filter and I was confident that by directing steam downwards, through the melting chamber, it could be used to continuously heat a filter so that the wax was carried downwards on the water, and remained melted until it hit the collecting container below.
I drew up a sketch and began looking for a suitably tall, narrow box or cylinder, made from stainless steel. I managed to acquire the burnt out remains of an industrial wet and dry vac but it was too short for a complete frame, let alone a filter system below, so it became a shiny plant pot.
The search continued until one day, at the local flea market, my eye fell upon a pasta pan, a tall thin cylinder with a removable inner, a smaller perforated pan. That’s exactly what I needed, only 10 times bigger. I bought it for four quid with the intention of making a working scale model to test my theories.
I got my boat builder mate to weld on a horizontal steam inlet tube, and an escape tube in the bottom for water, steam and wax to exit.
Horizontal steam inlet tube at the top
Escape tube for water, steam and wax.
The complete modification
As a first test I put a pile of old, manky brood comb, about a pound of it, inside a canvas bag and squashed it into the inner part of the pasta pan. The canvas bag would prevent the worst of the solids from passing into a fine filter below, but this first test run would be without a fine filter just to see if the contraption actually worked.
All the equipment, ready to switch on
I then inserted the flexible wall paper stripper tube into the horizontal inlet and switched on the wall paper stripper, a glorified electric kettle, and waited for steam to form. Eventually, after some very satisfying Wallace and Grommit style gurgling in the pipes, the steam entered the pan and swirled around the gap in between the outer pan and the inner perforated pan.
Clear condensing water trickled out of the bottom outlet pipe into the large silicone cake mould below and I thought that perhaps I’d created the most perfect, but pointless, water condenser. Thankfully, after only a few seconds the water turned milky as the wax began to flow with the hot water.
As the device warmed up the water flow lessened and the wax flow got heavier, pouring into the collector below, clean and bright. Within 15 minutes it was done, about a pound of wax, melted and cleaned in one pass. The bottom of the resulting cooled wax block was smooth and was nearly as clean as the top, with just a little very fine residue which easily washed off. Not only had I made a very efficient wax melter, and purifier, I had also found a practical use for a pasta pan. I only eat pasta for the interesting bits in between, pasta being the edible equivalent of a bran tub. It’s a lot easier, in my opinion, just to have a plate full of the stuff that’s in between.
The wax flows so fast that it remains molten in the silicone cake mould for a while, making it solid and smooth.
My original plan was to use a canvas bag as a primary filter and then use the steam issuing from the tube below to warm a fine metal filter, but there didn’t seem to be any point in adding a second filter now as I had the cleanest wax I’d ever had, at my first attempt, and in only 15 minutes. Perhaps all I needed to do was experiment with the bag, to try different textiles.
Cooling! A thin skin has formed on top of the molten wax.
First pass filters for very dirty wax
I found that all those odd socks that accumulate in your sock draw, and that you save for years in the hope that the lost one will turn up make excellent first pass rough filters, if your wax is really dirty. These can be simply thrown away after use, conscience free.
I stuff the socks half full of wax and drape the top of the socks over the top edge of the pan. The socks improve the lid seal. As the wax melts and the weight in the socks decreases and the natural elastic tension with the socks draws them upwards, eventually suspending them and allowing every last bit of wax to drip away.
Clean socks half filled with dirty wax, and draped over the edge of the pan, ready to begin primary filtering.
The reason for using socks is that their weave stops all the big stuff but allows the wax to flow freely. The sock filter won’t block. You don’t need to bother with a first pass if you have plenty of old pillow cases or sheets.
Final pass filters
Old pillow cases make excellent final pass filters. Use pillow cases that have been washed so many times that they have absolutely no lint left in them at all, the faded ones destined for the bin. You can use them as they are, or you can sew them, or old sheets/duvet covers, up into smaller bags. They will block easily if you are using very dirty wax but it doesn’t matter if you have plenty of filter material.
Making little bags allows the steam to circulate more freely around the wax, and you can dangle them from the edge of the pan which allows the molten wax to drain more freely.
Four clean bags, half full of wax, ready to begin filtering
I have re-cycled these little bags but I have so many old pillow cases, sheets and duvet covers, used for covering and storing stuff, that I discard them now. It’s easy to run them up on a sewing machine. And impregnated with wax residues they make excellent fire lighters.
Once the wax has gone the residue is left behind in the bottom of the bag. The filter has done its job.
So if you, like nearly every beekeeper I have ever met, has amassed an impressive amount of wax in a shed or garage, which you have been meaning to do something with, for years, but haven’t got around to because its just too much bother, then worry no more, your troubles are over because Lane’s Lazy Wax Melter can completely change your life.
If I could only develop a way of separating the wax from the water whilst in a molten state, then I could run the wax straight into candle moulds, but I think that would just be showing off.
Remember that this is a scaled down version of the beeswax purifier I had in mind, an experiment, and I still aim to build the full sized version when a suitably big stainless steel box/locker/tube comes my way. One which can take multiple frames and loose beeswax. I have completed the design with multi stage horizontal filter. The design was directly influenced by the experience I have gained with this, and other experiments.
note: A few years after making my contraption I came across this in an old beekeeping book.