An Imbolc Activity: Making Gel Fuel for Easy Indoor/Outdoor Fires

Happy Imbolc, one and all!

Happy Imbolc, one and all!

Happy Imbolc!  This has always been a favorite Sabbat of mine, and I’ve definitely had a blast checking out all the various rituals and activities other Pagan Bloggers published this week.  It’s certainly opened my eyes to how varied everyone’s practices are.  In particular, I found Jason Mankey’s post “The Confusion of Imbolc” to be quite though provoking.  Mankey writes that he’s always found the Sabbat to be theologically confusing in that Imbolc doesn’t have a clear meaning that is consistent no matter where you live.  For example, where he grew up in Michigan, Imbolc was the coldest Sabbat, smack dab in the heart of winter.  In San Francisco, where he currently resides, the Sabbat marks the opening days of spring.  Moreover, as he points out, a lot of Pagans use this holiday to pretty much give the goddess Brigid exclusive praise and devotion–and it doesn’t particularly make tons of sense to worship a “mature, womanly goddess” now, since it certainly “doesn’t coincide with how many of us view The Wheel of the Year in February.”

What Jason ends up with in his post is noting that in his practice, his Imbolc rituals draw more from Christian Candlemas than anything else.  In Catholic practice, Candlemas marks the end of the Virgin Mary’s 40-day ‘unclean’ period in Mosaic law which follows the birth of a male child.  At this time, she took a sacrifice to the temple for her purification, and then officially presented her son to the temple to complete her ritual purification and to perform the “redemption of the firstborn” ritual.  The Catholic church chooses to mark this particular Mass with blessing all the beeswax candles that will be used in services for the following year.  In effect, the church is saying that the “light of the world”, which was born in December, is now healthy and strong enough to really start shining.

Obviously, the Catholic Church is using “light” metaphorically here, but it’s no coincidence that it matches up with the Return of the Sun, too.  As Jason notes, “Yule works well as a “return of the light” holiday as well, but at Imbolc it’s easy to see the days getting longer and the sun getting stronger. It’s no longer a hope or a wish like at Midwinter, but an actuality.”  In other words (really, a paraphrase of Ellen Cannon Reed), Imbolc fulfills the promise of the Sun’s return set at Yule, and it makes a promise of it’s own:  that the world will begin to quicken and fertility will return.  You can find signs of fertility’s return with the first setting blooms and the opening song of spring if you’re in a warmer climate, and if you’re in a colder one, you can see it in the livestock that are beginning to breed and the tiniest of buds that are just beginning to form on the trees.

A commercially prepared gel fuel.

A commercially prepared gel fuel.

In Hartwood Grove, our physical practice involved blessing our own beeswax candles for ritual use in the coming year and for ritually blessing any seeds we may use in our gardens or homes, then symbolically planting a seed.  (The fulfillment of that promise would clearly be seen by the seedlings that would sprout by Ostara.)  This year, cleaning out V.’s mason bee houses and prepping an area of her yard to become an orchard was part of my Imbolc work.  In circle, I intend to not only bless my ritual candles, but to also make up a batch of gel fuel to use as my ritual fires throughout the year.

It’s been an old witch’s trick to throw some salt into a cauldron, pour a 90-99% isopropyl alcohol over the salt, and then light it on fire to produce a smokeless ‘bonfire’ which could be used indoors or out with fairly little fuss and a high amount of theatrical drama.  The last time Hartwood used this trick in ritual, though, someone bumped against the cauldron and I experienced a huge moment of terror thinking that the cauldron might tip and release a pool of flaming liquid onto the carpeted floor.  Another disadvantage is that the liquid alcohol burns up fairly quickly, so we might go through an entire bottle for a 15 minute burn time.

A basic remedy for this is to use a gel fuel, which won’t spill when tipped, burns more slowly, and still provides the same smokeless flame.  Gel fuels can be found an any big box store these days, thanks to the growing popularity of personal fireplaces and larger fireplaces that need no gas line or chimney to burn.  They can be purchased under the brand names Sterno, Heat-It, Safe Heat, Easy Heat, FireGlo, to name a few.  Unfortunately, they’re pretty expensive:  a dozen 13-ounce cans of FireGlo will set you back $100 at Target.  On the other hand, a 10-ounce bottle of 99% isopropyl alcohol (found in the automotive section) is just $1.99, and a 32-ounce bottle of 91% isopropyl alcohol is $3.99 at Walgreens (generally accompanied with a “Buy One, Get One 1/2 Price” sale).  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out you could save a lot of money by making your own gel fuel.  Better yet, the process of making your own gel fuel is so easy, high school chemistry teachers often use it as a basic demonstration.

What You’ll Need to Make 1 Gallon of Fuel:

  • White Distilled Vinegar: 4 Cups/1 Quart
  • 90-99% Isopropyl Alcohol: 1 Gallon (four 32-ounce bottles)
  • Calcium Carbonate: 1 Cup (Can purchase 1 pound for about $5 through Amazon or local homebrew stores)
  • Metal containers if you want to burn directly from the container or an empty 1-gallon metal paint can to store the entire supply.  Glass mason jars will work for storage only.
  • A 2-quart (8 cup) measuring cup to make the calcium acetate mixture
  • A 6-quart pot or container to stir the alcohol and calcium acetate mixture together

Optional:

  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil (such as canola)
  • 2 tablespoons table salt, washing soda, borax, or calcium chloride
  • Cheese cloth and strainer to help remove extra water from the calcium acetate mixture
  • Large mouth funnel to transfer the gel to its storage containers
  1. Isopropyl alcohol forms a gel when mixed with calcium acetate.  Unfortunately, calcium acetate is hard to find and fairly expensive to purchase.  Luckily, it can be easily made by mixing calcium carbonate (what many chalks are made of) and acetic acid (or vinegar).  To make calcium acetate, you mix 1 part (by volume!) calcium carbonate to 4 parts (by volume!) of white vinegar.  You may wish to do this outside in case the smell bothers you or you’re worried about making a mess.  The mixture will bubble up, so you should ad the vinegar to the calcium carbonate a little at a time.  Keep adding and stirring until the bubbles disappear.  When that happens, you’ll be left with a mixture of calcium acetate and water.  It’s the solid (Calcium Acetate) you want. You can either wait for 75% of the liquid to evaporate in the sun, cook it in the oven for a few hours at 200 (98 degrees C) or speed up the process using a cheesecloth as a strainer. You will need some of the residual water to create the gel, but in limited amounts.  In fact, what you want is 1 part water for every 3 parts of solid.  That ratio will act as the thickening agent for the gel fuel.
  2. To make the gel fuel, you will mix 9-parts isopropyl alcohol to every 1-part calcium acetate/water mix.  To make it easy, if you have 1 gallon (16 cups) of isopropyl alcohol, you will need 1.78 cups of the calcium acetate mixture (or 1 3/4 cups plus 1 1/2 teaspoons).  Mix the alcohol and the calcium acetate/water mixture together and you will have a gel fuel.
  3. If you’d like your gel to crackle like a wood fire, add in 2 tablespoons of cooking oil for each gallon isopropyl alcohol (or about 1 teaspoon per 12 oz of fuel gel).  If you’d like it to be scented, pick up some aroma oils at Michael’s, JoAnne Fabric or other arts and crafts retailer and use this in place of part of the cooking oil.
  4. One of the big issues with fuel gel is that it can be difficult to see its pale blue flame.  You can add the following compounds into your fuel gel to create a flame with color and density that can be seen.  Adding a couple tablespoons of table salt (sodium chloride) or washing soda (sodium carbonate) will make a yellow flame.  The flame will be more orange if you use a couple tablespoons of calcium chloride (a cheesemaking supply), and it will be more green if you use a couple tablespoons of Borax.
  5. Transfer the gel to storage containers and scoop what you need into a burning vessel when you’re ready to use it.

It may help to see someone do this process.  If you’re a visual learner, please consult this video.  As a bonus, it shows an easy visual technique to use if you only want to make a jar’s worth at a time:

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