Concrete & Wax INTERVIEW
The making of handcrafted candle holders and candles
We'd like to welcome Alex and Laura, AKA MR Concrete and Mrs Wax to the latest SGB craftsmanship interview.
SGB: So let's start at the beginning. What inspired you to start Concrete & Wax?
Alex: Well we’ve worked together running our own fashion design and trend consultancy since 2004, but after we moved from the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam to the sleepy Suffolk countryside in 2010 and our daughter was born in 2013, we knew that we needed a shift in career so that we travelled less. We batted around a few ideas over the years but never both felt equally passionate about one in particular. A close family illness at the start of 2018 meant Laura was away for long periods of time and in the evenings, I got into tinkering with concrete in the garage.
Laura: When I returned one weekend, I was massively inspired by what Alex had done. I just loved the shapes, forms and textures of the concrete creations he’d made. We got talking about what we could do and somewhere, somehow this led me to start experimenting with wax, believing that the two contrasting materials would work beautifully together. It was like a ‘POW!’ moment for us – we knew this was what we wanted to do. Alex suddenly became Mr Concrete and I became Mrs Wax! But it was only then that the hard work really started…
SGB: How did you go about getting Concrete & Wax off the ground?
Alex: I found that my interest for modular, intelligent design in clothing transferred easily into designing the stackable, interchangeable collection of holders and candles that we have today. The design started on paper with detailed technical drawings of each modular piece. I then searched out local craftsmen to make the prototypes for us, from which we could cast the moulds – at this point we had no idea if any of it would even look good and stack properly.
Originally, a local carpenter formed both the concrete and candle prototypes from layered plywood. These horizontal layers transferred into the moulds (which we also hand pour in our workshop). We loved the texture the layers gave to the surface of the wax, but not the surface of the concrete. So, we thought some more and then commissioned a local engineer to turn the prototypes from aluminium instead. The result was very smooth moulds which in turn create a smooth and luxurious concrete surface.
Laura: When we were talking about the brand name and identity, we wanted to keep things simple – because the collection is made up of inherently very minimal and simple shapes. Concrete & Wax was our first thought and we couldn’t believe our luck to discover the brand name, domain, social media handles – literally everything that you need - were available. It was obviously meant to be!
We designed the logo and all the packaging in-house and sourced it as locally as possible (tubes from Essex and labels from our nearest town). We also designed our website (a huge learning curve!) and then initiated ourselves little-by-little into the world of instagram. Marketing is not our natural strength, but we’re getting there – and it’s fun to learn new skills. I recently taught myself how to use video-editing software – ok, I probably only know how to do three things, but they are the three things I needed to know to make a snappy video to show how our product stacks.
It’s been a busy couple of years that’s for sure, but we are very proud to have done everything ourselves. It might not be possible for us to continue as a two-person operation much longer as we grow, but our dream was, and is, to employ locally, source locally, grow sustainably and keep our footprint small.
SGB: How many experiments did you do until you found the final shape and materials to make both your modular holders and hand poured candles?
Laura: Our first experiments were hilarious in a way – we poured concrete and then wax on top into empty Twiglets and Pringles tubes. The results were dodgy to say the least, but they proved to us that there was real beauty in combining the two materials. Despite the fact the wax pulled away from the concrete and the candles didn’t burn properly, this gave us the oomph and inspiration to experiment further. Then came the concept design of the collection and then the development of our recipes and brand identity really began to take shape.
In terms of candle experiments – I have boxes of failed candles. Candles are a funny, fickle friend and it has taken many months of development to get each one just right. Quite often a lesson learnt in wicking one candle correctly is not a transferable lesson to the next. The development time spent may seem arduous, but to get the perfect burn and a gorgeous candle end result really does take time and dedication. I massively respect all the chandlers out there who take the time and give the love. I feel that you can see it in the product.
Alex: It took me quite a lot of experimentation to come up with the perfect concrete recipe. I tried various types and combinations of cements, sands, aggregates, but in the end found that ‘Snocrete’ (white cement) and pre-washed plastering sand gave me the texture and feel that I wanted to achieve after mixing. I have a shelf in my workshop full of my early experiments – some are great, most not-so, but they are all an inspiring reminder of the journey we’ve been on to get to the end result.
SGB: With all that experimenting, what is a typical day in the Concrete & Wax workshop?
Laura: I’m not sure there is a typical day in our workshop. I’d love to say I serenely pour candles in the morning and process customer orders in the afternoon, but in reality there is a child to look after, social media posts to prepare, admin to do, moulds to wash, subscriber newsletters to write, wholesale customer discussions to have, material reorders to make… Our to-do list is epic and so we pretty much work 7 days a week to ensure we process any customer orders as a priority, keep stock of everything and maintain our sanity in the process. Wouldn’t change it for the world mind you.
SGB: What is the most satisfying part of the process?
Laura: Definitely 'demoulding' my pillar candles. I always melt and pour in a specific, tested way, but it’s only when I peal back the moulds and release the beauties that I can really see (and smell) their potential.
Alex: Ditto for me – the most satisfying part is definitely 'demoulding', especially when I’ve been experimenting with one-off colourways and new techniques. The most exciting part of the process is developing new products.
Laura: Also, one of our absolute favourite things is seeing what our customers do with the products they’ve chosen - how they stack and style them in their own personal way. Got to love social media for making it so easy for our customers to tag and share, which they seem to enjoy doing in abundance and we thank them all for that.
SGB: What is your personal favourite tool in your arsenal?
Laura: Slightly weird to say, but it’s my potato peeler. I use it to lightly shave any rough edges off the top of the pillar candles (all shavings I keep by the way to use again). It’s not so much the tool but the process of calmly smoothing the tops so they look perfect, or I should say, perfectly imperfect in that handmade way.
Alex: My paddle mixer – when I got it a few months ago it was a real game-changer. Before I’d been mixing all concrete using my drill with a mixer attachment! It was a very over-worked drill! The paddle mixer has allowed me to upscale, but I still revert to my trusty old drill attachment when making our camo concrete or any new trials.
SGB: It is hard to boast but what makes the concrete candle holders special?
Alex: The look, but most importantly, the touch. It’s been the biggest surprise for so many of our customers to date. The feedback we’ve had has been all about that (whenever it’s not been about the candles smelling amazing!). Bottom line is, when you think concrete, the perception is usually rough. Ours isn’t. And I spent a long time developing it not to be. It’s smooth and more luxurious somehow, though keeps all the hardwearing and enduring qualities that concrete should have and some great surface characteristics like tiny surface holes created from air bubbles that form during the curing process. Each piece really is unique.
Laura: From the outset our motivation was absolutely not to bring another candle company into an already saturated marketplace, but instead to deliver interesting and unique products that are built to last. The fact that all the holders are designed to fit any standard tealight as well as our candles is not just a design detail, it’s because we fully appreciate the fact that the concrete will always outlast the candle and, rather than our customers being tied to us to buy replacement candles, we wanted them to be able to pop in any standard tealight for all eternity.
I also think the modular design aspect that Alex created is really special. It allows our customers to put together their candle arrangement depending on their mood, in the same way they might pull together an outfit from their wardrobe. It kind of aligns our past career with our present one in a really neat way 😉
SGB: What craftsmanship methods do you utilise to achieve this?
Alex: A lot of hand processes that take time and quite a bit of “learnt-on-the-go” skills. Some moments I feel like a scientist or mixologist, others a creator, but mainly a grafter to work through all the processes necessary to finish the concrete holders once they are poured. In terms of craftmanship methods I hand pour everything to my developed recipes and it then cures for 2 weeks, I then sand, wash, apply the cork feet and finally apply a natural protective coating to each concrete item before again it is left to dry another week. Laura hand pours each of her candles to her exacting recipes and test-test-tests all the time.
I’d like to stake a claim in the beautifully tissue-wrapped first impression of our products that customers receive, but that’s all down to her.
Laura: Aw thanks love. In truth the first test order I sent to a friend (so we could test to see if our products made it intact though the courier network) was sent out tissue wrapped rather like fish and chips! My friend’s feedback about the product was lovely, but not quite so generous in terms of my wrapping skills. Needless to say, many YouTube tutorials about tissue wrapping round objects followed, but now I’ve mastered the technique, I absolutely love it. I find it therapeutic.
My candle making process is all centred around taking the time to do things right. I hand dip the wicks and then ensure they are central by pre-setting them in a small amount of wax. This way I can pull them tight when adding the remaining wax for a truly straight wick, which is critical in a pillar candle – as no-one wants it to collapse. The wax is melted and poured at very specific temperatures in small batches. Once I have 'demoulded' the set candles, I batch stamp each one and, as mentioned above, smooth the tops by gently shaving off any rough edges (I’m not obsessed with my potato peeler honestly!) They then cure for a couple of days before I wrap them and add hand-written fragrance labels. Two weeks later they are ready to ship and burn.
SGB: When it comes to inspiration what makes you want to create?
Alex: That’s a very good question. For me, my whole career has been about creating. In the past it was clothes, but there I was only one part of a process, inspired by the latest technologies available or trends of the time. Product designed. On to the next season. Now it’s completely different. To be able to develop something and follow a process fully from start-to-finish and to be hands on and play a part in every step of a products’ creation is truly inspiring and motivates me to want to keep on creating.
Laura: It’s hard to narrow down because inspiration comes in many forms and quite often from the most unlikely place. Take for example, our splatter concrete coasters – these were inspired by an off-piste home-schooling lesson during lockdown when our 6-year old asked to learn to pour concrete like Daddy, but a bit like Jackson Pollock too! So, it’s things like this that make me want to create. And Alex, who is my constant source of inspiration – he is the most creative person I know.
SGB: Do you have any brands, designers or makers that inspire you?
Alex: Too many to list, but originality is key. If someone sticks to their guns, has a strong design ethos, a worthwhile and functional product and a care for the environment then they have my respect.
Laura: Yep. Mine too.
SGB: How do you make the Concrete & Wax workshop an inspiring place to work?
Laura: Music and laughter are the main ways. There are so many processes that in reality are quite mundane and repetitive – the little jobs that customers probably would never really notice in detail, but that all help to elevate the final look of the product – such as stamping our logo on the bottom of each cork foot, adding ribbon to the tube lids so they are easier to open, or cutting out tissue paper to the right size to wrap each product with minimum wastage. These are the things that happen late at night in bulk and we keep inspired by having a banter and a giggle and singing loudly and badly whilst doing them!
SGB: How do you want people to feel when they use your concrete holders and candles?
Alex: We want people to feel that they have invested in something timeless that will endure. We also hope that they love the tiny differences that they will find in each piece.
Laura: Happy and relaxed.
SGB: Can you let us into any future plans for Concrete & Wax?
Laura: It’s very hard to be concrete (pardon the pun) about future plans at the moment, but one thing is for sure, we will keep creating and developing new concrete designs and fragrances. We already have a Christmas candle fragrance in testing and off the back of the huge success of our coasters are considering placemats, plant pots and other interior items. The world of concrete objects is our oyster
Concrete & Wax are not your usual candle company. Pushing the boundaries of craftsmanship when it comes to concrete. The perfect combination of modernity with a rustic touch. Hand crafted in Suffolk.
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