Motivated by news that a friend’s child-crafted Model Magic menorah caught fire last night, I offer some tips. Not in the superior tone of the irksome “You’re Doing It Wrong” trend, but as a fellow parent of children who come home from Sunday School clutching hand-made Judaica meant to contain naked flame. (Not just menorahs go wrong: Shabbat candleholders are a staple of curricular Shabbat kits and boxes year ’round.)
And, as they say, “it happened to me.” Years ago, a wooden menorah with wooden candle cups came home from shul and, assuming it was meant to be used, we used it. Of course, it did the logical thing and caught itself and everything around it on blazing fire. What was this, a craft from Chelm? Yes, and those same wooden candle cups are still sold by several vendors and with no warnings:
Consider this post a public service announcement from someone who burns candleholders on purpose—not just the candles, but the actual holders. As a DIYer and programmer of projects, I do not want to believe that my favorite clays are fire hazards, so I test them. Of course, everything burns if it gets hot enough, but some things burn quicker than others. I was saving this post for something more comprehensive, but the time seems right to let this fly now.
Warnings are in two groups: USE and MATERIALS:
- Never leave the room with flames present. To paraphrase Andrew Carnegie, put all your candles in one menorah and watch that menorah. (He really said eggs and baskets, but the advice stands.)
- Always place menorah on a foil-covered tray big enough to catch the whole thing if the dog knocks it over.
- Wood candle cups are dumb, but if they are already in situ, give them a generous lining of foil or if there’s room, foil bobeches. Also, ask the art teacher to rethink the design.
- Hex-nuts—the classic—must be affixed as perfectly horizontal as possible, else the candles will lean and merge, then fall to doom.
- Metal candle cups too big, too small, or too shallow: slightly melt the tushies of each candle as it is pushed in to place. Adults only, because timing and placement is everything. I hate fiddly menorahs like this, but we all have them.
- Clay: Unfortunately, three of the easiest-to-procure and funnest-to-handle clays are not rated safe near flames: Crayola Model Magic, Crayola Air Dry Clay, and polymer oven-bake clays. I list these in order of likelihood to catch on fire.
Here are some experiments on my glass-topped oven (another product of Chelm. Whenever I put a heavy pot on the glass, I expect the whole thing to give way like ice on a half-frozen birdbath). These were casual experiments: no timers, no control groups. Just me and a match.
The first is Model Magic, which comes in packs labelled with dire warnings not to use near flame. I turned my subject upside down the better to ignite it with a match. On fire within 10 seconds. They could repackage the clay as fuel inside Sterno cans. FYI: the plastic pony beads burned, too, and melted in a slow-mo Raiders of the Lost Ark Nazi-Face kind of way.
Next is polymer, which is also accompanied by warnings, but a quick online image search shows a bazillion candleholders made from the stuff. Polymer is not nearly as ready to ignite as is the magical model above, but when the candle burned down, the clay slowly caught fire.
I admit we have a student-made polymer clay menorah (candles inside levelled metal hexnuts), but it is never left unwatched.
As for Crayola Air Dry, it depends. My experiment with a candle that burned down by itself yielded nothing. But when I held a flame to the dried specimen, the clay scorched right away, smoked, and then sorta exploded. Nothing terribly dramatic, but small chunks of my candleholder began flying off the foil. I guess it is something to do with variable moisture content, but it’s enough to put me off. As per the manufacturer’s warning, of course. Crayola company, you don’t need to demand I remove this post because I am with you all the way.
That being said, below are Kindergarten air dry candleholders meant for wax tea lights. Tea lights are “safer” than naked candles because they are cradled in a metal dish. If the clay is nowhere near the top of the metal, things should go according to plan. If the holder is deep, and the tea light doesn’t extend above it, I’d worry. Also, grownups will have to make absolutely sure the tea lights will sit level in the holders: no slanting. Slanting means that flame might slant, too, and lean over to catch the clay or those infamous pony beads alight.
Bottom line for people who program crafts is that it is hard to find a safe, easy-to-work material for kids—or anyone—to make DIY candleholders. I’m still looking. I am determined to find a clay suitable for candleholders that does not need to be fired in a kiln. Air-dry or oven-baked is what I’m after.
Please let me know if you use something fabulous.
Bottom line for parents whose kids come home with candleholders: beware.
Meanwhile, let’s read the directions before we program crafts, and all use common sense. Be safe.