Flames flicker from more than 50 candles of all shapes and sizes.
Different colours, tall ones, small ones, and everything in between.
In glass containers, decorated or clear, some in tins, others free-standing.
This is Will Locke’s world.
It’s not that Will - known as Dr Will to his colleagues - likes to light a few candles while he’s at work.
This is a serious business.
We’re in the brand new state-of-the-art laboratory at Wax Lyrical, the UK’s largest home fragrance company.
And Dr Will is one of the UK’s leading research scientists in the field.
The climate-controlled laboratory at Wax Lyrical’s headquarters in Cumbria, is impressive in itself, all glass windows and white walls.
On the wooden worktop in the designated burns room, flames from more than 50 candles continue to flicker.
Closer inspection reveals that each individual candle is unique.
Whether it’s the colour, the size, the vessel they are in, the type of wick.
Those differentials streamline the candles into sets of four or five candles.
The final factor which separates them is the size of wick - from short, all the way to long.
The work Dr Will does here is key to Wax Lyrical’s continued success.
The award-winning company’s reputation is built on quality.
Celebrating its 40th anniversary next year, Wax Lyrical prides itself on its products delivering the best possible experience for its customers.
And only through such rigorous testing and meticulous monitoring at its base at Lindal-in-Furness, on the edge of the Lake District National Park, can it ensure each of its candles will burn true, clean, safe, and for the length of the time expected.
That’s where Dr Will comes in, whose CV includes a PhD in chemistry from Reading University and working on a Nobel prize-winning experiment in the physics department at Oxford University.
There’s an eye-watering amount of factors which can affect a candle’s performance.
Wick selection alone can have a major impact on performance, depending on the material used, the length, number of fibres, braiding pattern, and tension put into it.
All wicks are designed to curl as they burn. “People might think it’s the wick which is burning.
But it’s not. It’s the wax which is burning,” says Dr Will, who is Wax Lyrical’s research,
and compliance manager.
You also probably didn’t know that the type of turbulence which can affect an aeroplane on your holiday flight can also affect a candle’s performance in your living room.
It’s all down to the similar movement and conflict of hot and cold air.
The tip of a candle reaches between 1,200 to 1,400 degrees centigrade.
If a container is tall and thin, and a candle has burned down towards the bottom of the container (advice is to stop a candle burning at the last 0.5cm), then there’s more opportunity for conflict between the hot air coming from the tip of the flame and the cold air coming from a room within the space of the candle container.
This can cause the candle’s flame to flicker more than it usually would and that could lead to a more erratic burn, which can affect the length of the overall burn, and problems such as tunnelling and sooting.
Through hours of testing - a medium size candle will be burned in Wax Lyrical’s laboratory for 45 hours, a large one for as much as 150 hours (all in eight-hour cycles) - these effects can be assessed and candles adapted accordingly.
Ingredients of the candle wax can be adapted, or the size of the wick changed, to ensure every candle burns, clean, safe and true.
“We use high quality materials and have stringent safety assessments. We want to make sure that every candle we manufacture burns as best as it can, both in terms of quality and safety.
“No computer will tell you exactly how a candle will burn. There are too many variables.
“Any new fragrance or new container needs to be tested in this way.
“Most (candle and home fragrance) companies don’t have the resources to do what we do,” says Dr Will.
If Wax Lyrical products don’t pass the testing phase they never see the light of day.
Dr Will and his team of five technicians monitor:
*flame height - ideal height of flame is 45 millimetres
*tunnelling - where the burn leaves an area of wax within the vessel which resembles a tunnel, rather than the ideal level burn
*carbon deposits - where the way the candle is burning results in specks of carbon dropping off the wick and into the liquid wax, rather than the desired clear wax, free of any deposits
*heat - check vessels, whether glass or tin, are not too hot to handle (as despite warning people not to move burning candles, there’s evidence that some people do)
They also test separately for sooting, using specific equipment in the same room, burning candles for 12 hours (in three four-hour cycles) beneath glass plates to capture any deposits revealed by shining a light through the glass.
Wax Lyrical’s testing doesn’t end there.
Elsewhere in the laboratory they carry out further testing to simulate how a candle might age, and also how it will keep its characteristics when subjected to different lighting.
The idea being that customers wouldn’t want the colour of the candle to change over time once they got it home.
Nor would they want it to change colour if it’s left on the windowsill for a long time.
Wax Lyrical is again one step ahead.
Dr Will and his team carry out an accelerated ageing process on the products.
They have two ovens in the laboratory - one at 30 degrees centigrade for candles, one at 40 degrees centigrade for reed diffusers - which are turned on during working hours, with candles and reed diffusers left in them for 12 weeks to ensure that the products retain their characteristics.
They also have two light stability testing cabinets - one with ultraviolet light, one with fluorescent bulbs - and they test the product in those conditions for 24 hours.
Vessels are also tested in the laboratory to make sure they achieve the necessary performance.
Colours are also vital to the look of the candles.
Dr Will and his team will be asked to replicate unique Pantone colours for the wax which the design and development teams are working on.
To make sure their colours are aligned, the laboratory is equipped with a special light box which can be set to different settings, including daylight and standard shop lighting.
Most importantly the laboratory team and the developers can agree on which exact settings they are working on in their own areas to make sure the appearance of their colours are the same.
Once they know the colour they are trying to achieve, Dr Will and his team can dip into the boxes of dye which adorn the laboratory so that they can create the exact colour.
Just when you think you have reached the end of the laboratory testing line, there’s a whole different area dedicated to reed diffusers.
Again you might think all reed diffusers will perform in a similar way without any intervention from Dr Will and his team.
Again that would be to underestimate the science and the variables.
“Reed diffusers can perform differently depending on the solvent, the fragrance, whether the environment they are in is hot or cold, whether it’s draughty, how many reeds you have in at any one time, how long the reeds are, what the reeds are made of,” says Dr Will.
The reed diffusers are tested in the laboratory for a 17-week period. Each week they are weighed to show the weight loss, with graphs produced to show the rate the solvent is being used so the life expectancy of the product can be calculated.
There are different solvents for different markets around the world with America having far more detailed regulations than Europe, for example around the use of low volatile organic carbon, says Dr Will, who is chair of the technical committee for the British Candlemakers Federation and also sits on the equivalent European body, advising on quality and safety.
Wax Lyrical will have 200 different fragrances across its product range at any one time, with new fragrances and new products being tested all the time - again with different ingredients to appeal to different markets around the world.
So there’s always more work for Dr Will and his team.
And that’s before we’ve even got on to testing the smell of a fragrance for its suitability.
That’s one job Dr Will and his team can’t do.
Their job in the laboratory means they haven’t got the nose for it - such is the array of fragrance from the products they are testing that their sense of smell wouldn’t be true enough.
“We test people to ensure they have the sense of smell required for the selection of fragrances,” says Dr Will.
“No two people have the same sense of smell. It’s like fingerprints, a sense of smell is unique to each person.
“We have three special wooden booths and three other rooms where we test fragrances and their throw.
“We pride ourselves on the fact that our products - whether candles or reed diffusers - will throw their fragrance all the way to the end of their lifecycle,” says Dr Will.
Which again all comes back to research, development and rigorous testing and monitoring, to ensure that consistent quality experience for the customer. Something Dr Will, his team, and Wax Lyrical as a business, hold dear, and are determined will burn bright long into the next 40 years and beyond.