Snow and Fire Make Light

Ice lanterns give you a reason to look forward to the cold

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A few years ago, muttering about how incapable I was of creating anything beautiful, I decided to try something that seemed simple but different. I’d seen candles lighting up the winter night in containers of ice, and remembered how the candles’ movement combined with the variations in the ice to make something ever-changing and unique.

Glowing lantern

I ordered some star-shaped ice lantern molds, and set about doing something fun with the Upstate New York winter. They were a little smaller than I expected, but even my initial experiments turned out well. With a votive candle inside, they were easily visible from both my house and the road, flickering and different from the LED lights on the house.

A large collection of lanterns in front of the house, from the road.

A large collection of lanterns in front of the house, from the road.

Whether you live along a rural highway, like I do, or have an apartment, you can have fun with ice lanterns. Most of the instructions expect people to use them inside as short-lived centerpieces for party platters and such, though they last far better out in the cold.

A cluster of candles.

A cluster of candles.

The basics

Making ice lanterns work requires just a few things:

Molds
I went the commercial route, but friends have successfully used milk cartons and five-gallon buckets. The commercial molds are shaped to create a natural space for the candle. With other approaches, you can insert something to create a space, or you can get your timing just right and free the lantern when it hasn’t finished freezing. Break (or saw) off the top, pour out the water, and you’ll have a space for the candle. (I have three molds, but one is fine.)
Water
The instructions say to use distilled water for more transparent ice, and I’ve heard people say the same about boiled water. I just use tap water. The cloudiness or transparency seem to me to have more to do with how quickly it freezes than with the water.
Cold
I celebrate winter by putting the molds outside to freeze when the temperature is below 20° F (-7° C). At 12° F (-11° C), I can sometimes remove them after twelve hours, but usually I leave them for a full 24 hours. Artificial cold works too, of course – a freezer can make ice lanterns easily.
A light source
I started out intent on using candles, for a more point source of light that flickers with the wind. I quickly learned that not all candles, even votive candles, are created equal. After lots of experiments, I wound up with 12-hour unscented votive candles from Quick Candles. I buy them in bulk, because I sometimes go through 20 a night, but you can start with whatever you can find. You should, however, consider LED candles if you’re putting the lanterns someplace where a fire from a tipped-over candle would be a bad idea.
Freezing a set of lanterns.

Freezing a set of lanterns.

The process is simple:

  1. Fill the molds with water.
  2. Put the molds someplace where the water will freeze.
  3. Wait.
  4. Get the lantern out of the mold.
  5. Put the lantern where you want it.
  6. Add light source.
  7. Enjoy.

It’s work, but it’s not very difficult, and the rewards are beauty you can share.

Lanterns on fence.

Lanterns on fence.

Ice lanterns are also a pretty amazing photographic opportunity. If you’re an expert, you can tweak and tune color balance, composition, and exposure to get all kinds of effects from a flickering light behind ice. If you’re not, you can probably trust a digital camera on auto to screw things up in interesting ways.

Lanterns that have melted a bit are just as interesting.

Lanterns that have melted a bit are just as interesting.

I spend a lot of time in front of flickering screens, but I really prefer to spend time looking at flickering candles.

Beyond the basics

If you want to make the lanterns more striking, Jim Watters shows all kind of color options, and it’s easy to experiment with different containers and shapes.

I’m kind of conservative – I like the five-pointed stars, and think the colors of the candles and ice are enough. Despite trying to keep it simple, though, I do a lot more to keep my lanterns going.

Translucent ice glows the best.

Translucent ice glows the best.

When I can, I make three lanterns a night. The most I’ve accumulated before they melted away was 27, which took a look of work to clean and light each night. Some of the most interesting effects, though, come from the older lanterns as they partially melt, accumulate show, and generally get less and less regular.

Getting the lanterns out of the molds can be tricky. Sometimes, especially when it’s not that cold, I can just take them inside and wait a few minutes. Other times, when they’re deeply frozen, the ice clamps around the center piece that creates the gap for the candle. Hot water helps free that. Sometimes I melt too much of the center, but even those lanterns usually work well.

Melting the center of the mold with hot water.

Melting the center of the mold with hot water.

Lighting the candles, if you use real candles, can be a headache. I find it’s much better to light them once they’re in the lantern, as they tend to go out when I drop them in lit. The extended lighters for barbecues and candles can help, though many of them seem to just stop working after a few nights in the cold and snow. Long matches can also be helpful, but be careful – if you leave pieces behind, they can become extra wicks. Then your candles burn much faster and are a greater fire hazard.

Tipped candle burning much brighter.

Tipped candle burning much brighter.

One of the first problems I noticed was that candles will melt their way through the ice, and by morning their remains are locked into the bottom of the candle. This is true whether or not the candle has a cup. To avoid that, I put a piece of silicone – cut from a cheap baking sheet – underneath the candle. It doesn’t always work, especially if it’s snowing, but it does make it easier to get old candles out. That makes it much easier to reuse the lantern the next night and the next.

Lit candle resting on silicone piece.

Lit candle resting on silicone piece.

Candles really like level flat surfaces. You’ll want to freeze your lanterns on a level surface, so it sits flat. A tipped candle is a recipe for a fire, as the wax melts rapidly, forms a big pool, and can catch fire. If you look out at your lanterns and see one burning extra-bright, you may have had a candle tip. If the pool ignites, it can get hot enough to burn the silicone, which is not a good thing.

Scorched silicone after the surface of melted wax ignited. Not recommended.

Scorched silicone after the surface of melted wax ignited. Not recommended.

Hot wax isn’t always the enemy – sometimes cold water is. Rain and snow aren’t great for candles, though I’ve had lanterns continue successfully through heavy snow. I sometimes add 1/2″ (13mm) drain holes to the candles to let water out before it drowns the candle. When the temperature is close to freezing or above it, the drain holes make a big difference.

When wax instead of water uses the drain hole, the lantern looks like it's fishing.

When wax instead of water uses the drain hole, the lantern looks like it’s fishing.

I sometimes find that candles go out quickly because the metal piece attached to the bottom of the wick pulls the wick down into the wax. To avoid it, I sometimes heat the metal piece with a lighter and push it a little into the wax. Melted wax then holds it in.

Melting the metal base into the candle.

Melting the metal base into the candle.

Wind is also a problem. The lantern design helps a lot, and my house is fairly sheltered, but on a windy night you may not even get the candles lit. You can either use LED lights for those nights, or just let it go.

Contrast dimmer and more orange LEDs behind the two candle lanterns.

Contrast dimmer and more orange LEDs behind the two candle lanterns.

If you’re into more advanced Christmas light arrays, you may find ways to put lights from that into the ice lantern. While the LED votive candles are pretty dim, other electric lights can be much brighter.

However you do it, I hope you’ll consider adding ice lanterns to your winter traditions!

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