How to Prevent Candle Tunneling

Have you ever burned a candle and had a ring of dry, hard wax around the outside edge that just wouldn't burn? It's so frustrating! Eventually the candle becomes difficult to light and drowns out from the wax melting down on top of it. It's such a sad situation. Before we started this business I thought that was just the way candles burned. I didn't know any better.

Photo above: The candle on the left is tunneling - you can see the flame below level of the wax. The candle on the right is burning evenly and completely with no residual wax. 

Luckily, one of the first things I learned, before we even opened our store, was how to burn a candle properly. The first time you burn a candle sets the stage for the life of the candle. The size of the wax pool on the initial burn is pretty much the size of the opening from there on out. So if you only burn the candle for an hour or so, and have a really small wax pool, the dry hard wax around the outside edge will almost never burn.

Candle Tunneling - This is NOT how a candle should burn.

When you spend a lot of money on a good quality candle that has a long burn time, you want to be sure to get everything out of it. Plus, it just looks pretty when it burns properly. A well constructed candle with the proper size and type of wick for the wax, fragrance and vessel, should burn evenly and completely. There should be about 1/4" melted wax across the top of the candle with no soot on the glass. A tough challenge for any candle maker! If they've done their job right, then it's all up to you from there on out.

Candle burning evenly, completely and cleanly. Perfection!

How to prevent candle tunneling

  1. The first time you light the candle, don't trim the wick. This is the ONLY time I recommend NOT trimming the wick before you light a candle. Depending on the wax and size of the vessel, you may need a flame that burns large and hot enough to melt the wax all the way to the edge. If you trim the wick too short, the flame might be too small to melt all the wax. This is particularly true of really wide candles like Lafco. If, after you light the wick, there is any smoke at all, then extinguish the flame and trim the wick slightly. You never want any soot or smoke at any time - ever.
  2. Let the candle burn long enough to get the entire top liquid wax. This takes about an hour per inch in diameter of the vessel. So if your candle is 3" wide, let it burn for at least 3 hours. If it doesn't melt all the way to the edge don't panic, but get as close as you can. Sometimes the last 1/4" will burn as the candle goes down. It won't burn evenly across the top, but it will burn completely.
  3. After the first burn, try to let the candle burn for long stretches as often as you can to keep that really wide opening and prevent tunneling later on.
Note: If you burn candles on your dining table for just and hour or two each night, opt for taper candles so you don't have to worry about tunneling. Pillar and poured candles are best for longer burn sessions.

How to fix candle tunneling

There isn't a pretty or easy way to fix candle tunneling. Your best approach is prevention following the steps above. However, here's how you can try to fix a candle that has tunneled:
  • Put the candle inside a hurricane or vase and let it burn for a few hours. The hurricane keeps the heat around the candle to help melt the excess wax. I've also seen people wrap the top of the candle in tin foil (with an opening at the top) to get the wax to melt while burning. You may have to carefully remove some of the liquid wax as you go to keep the flame from drowning out. Let the candle burn until the entire top becomes liquid wax about 1/4" deep. This resets the wax and decreases your chances of tunneling in future burn sessions. If you just remove the dry hard wax down to the wick, it will likely tunnel again the next time as the wax around the edge still has never melted. Wax has a memory which is why it's important to set the stage right on the first burn. 
If you can't fix the candle there's still ways to enjoy the fragrance. You can either place the candle on a candle warmer and melt the wax that way without lighting the candle. Though you won't be able to enjoy the ambiance of a burning candle, you will be able to enjoy the fragrance.

You can also remove the dry, hard wax and place it in small portions on the top of a tealight warmer. This is another way to warm the wax without lighting the candle. A nice little tealight candle under the warmer adds some ambiance and candlelight while the scented wax on top provides fragrance.
Use caution with all these techniques to ensure the wax doesn't become too hot and ignite. Always follow the manufacturers instructions for maximum burn times.

Hopefully these tips have been helpful. Feel free to share your tips on how to fix candle tunneling by commenting below.