Encaustic Tools for Heating: How to Play it Safe

10 Jan 2014

Lately I've been looking at art and my goals for making art and have come to the following conclusions:

1. You don't really need much time if you make art a priority and set up a space (however small) where you can easily access your materials.

2. Note every art-making experience has  to produce a masterpiece, or even a finished product. It's enough to plunge in and play.

authentically me encaustic art by tiffany teske
"Authentically Me," encaustic art by Tiffany Teske.
The next step in making my art goals a reality is setting up those work spaces. One area I plan to get back to this year is encaustic art.

This should be easy as I have almost all the encaustic supplies I need to make some get waxy with it: encaustic medium, pigments, fusing tools, found papers and fabrics, porous substrates, natural brushes, hand tools for scraping and incising, small metal containers for melting wax and paint, and found items.

What I don't have is a safe method of heating the encaustic wax and keeping it at a consistent temperature. (I'm not even going to tell you what I've used in the past because I don't want you kids to try it at home.)

Encaustic paint melts at about 160 degrees (71 C); for the paint to be molten, the heating element is usually held at 200 F (93 C). If the wax or paint is too hot, it can burn, produce smoke, and possibly catch fire. If the heat is too low, the wax won't flow easily and the art will suffer.

Here are the encaustic tools that for heating and melting that are safe when properly used, according to Daniella Woolf, encaustic artist and author of The Encaustic Studio: A Wax Workshop in Mixed-Media Art:

Electric palette: This device (often made specifically for encaustic art use), heats your paints and encaustic medium to the correct temperature and warms brushes and tools.

heating encaustic wax
An electric skillet, palette, or griddle plus a
thermometer provide safe ways of heating
encaustic wax medium or paint.

Skillet: A common electric skillet or wok is useful for melting in a variety of situations, such as when you need a lot of medium or beeswax for sizing your panels or pouring surfaces. Use a candy thermometer to make sure the temperature stays at an optimal 200 degrees F (93 C).

Griddle: An electric pancake griddle is an inexpensive and lighter alternative to an anodized aluminum palette. A griddle can be just as efficient,  and is easier to obtain (you can get them at discount or big-box department stores).

Even if these tools have built-in temperature controls, you must still use a thermometer with them to make sure you are heating the wax or paint to the proper temperature. On flat surfaces like the griddle or palette, use a flat thermometer that sits right on the heating surface. Use a candy thermometer in a skillet.

Note: It's economical to purchase used griddles or skillets from thrift shops or yard sales. Just clean them up and use a thermometer to make sure the heat setting is accurate. However, do not cook or serve food in used or new appliances or metal containers once you've used them for encaustic.

As soon as I get an electric skillet and thermometer, I'm going to set up my encaustic studio in our sun room on a fire-safe surface with a fire extinguisher and fan (to vent fumes) on hand. Then there will be no excuse for not producing the rich, glowing artwork that comes from encaustic techniques.

To me, Daniella provides the perfect mix of inspiration and encaustic technique, plus practical safety tips, in her book and DVD. You'll find The Encaustic Studio and many other resources for encaustic art in the Cloth Paper Scissors Shop.

P.S. What's your preferred method of heating encaustic medium or paint? Leave your answer below.

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Gennyb74 wrote
on 10 Jan 2014 12:29 PM

I heat the wax in a glass jar that I place in a pot of water on the stove. I put the flame on low heat so the wax melts slowly. When I drip wax in the pot I don't worry - it's an old one that's used only for encaustics!

on 10 Jan 2014 4:22 PM

I teach elementary students. The way I prepare encaustics for my students is that I build a box out of 1x 6 pine boards. I mount a ceramic fixture on the inside and use a 100 watt bulb. The box is cut to support an aluminum muffin tin on the top. I use the mini muffin size. The heat of the bulb safely (but slowly) heats the crayons and holds 12 colors at the ready at one time. I usually set the frame on foil to protect the table. The bulb must be plugged in for an hour or so before use. The muffin tray is warm but not hot enough to easily burn a student. The students use Q-tips to paint (I put one in each cup and ask them to keep the colors separate). I have two of these built and I set this up as a center that students can rotate through. Two students can easily share the tray. At the end of the lesson, unplug the bulb and let the tray cool in place. Once cool, the trays can be stored until the next use--just plug in and go! Also, the cups of crayons pop right out and can be used as a new crayon shape for a thick line or custom mixed colors.

on 10 Jan 2014 4:41 PM

I have "the Encaustic Studio" along with two other great books.  I use an old large sauce pan (for plain encaustic) on an electric griddle (all very inexpensive!).  I use the built-in-chord thermometer, along with one on the skillet.  I should use a candy thermometer, too, but have done pretty well keeping things at correct temp.  I put brushes on an old pan or aluminum to keep warm as the skillet burns them.  My work station is in the garage with a big fan, bucket of water, extinguisher and safe, heavy duty extension chords.

I'm still a novice to this art, but can't wait to set aside dedicated time! My ideas are really piling up!

kimmys0311 wrote
on 10 Jan 2014 6:59 PM

I have a cheap pancake griddle with a temperature setting on the plug,  I also have an expensive encaustic plate with an electric burner underneath, however for some reason it does not have a temp setting on it other than Hi Med Low!  I have a surface thermometer that sits on it, and I can adjust accordingly.  I prefer the cheaper one!!  i also have both a heat gun and butane torch I fuse with... I much prefer the torch (I was nervous to use it for a long time!) :)   My biggest challenge is keeping the wax off the floor and from traveling all over my house!!  I LOVE encaustic!

on 11 Jan 2014 2:06 PM

I took a class on encaustic mediums and the teacher suggested small, very small crock pots to warm and store the wax in.  I haven't found them yet but am looking forward to experimenting more with encaustic wax in the near future.  It's a very interesting medium.  Thank you for the additional suggestions.

Thebragal wrote
on 11 Jan 2014 5:19 PM

Why not just use a Melting Pot by Ranger? It has a specific setting for wax so no need for a thermometer at all! And it has replaceable pans so you can swap it out for other uses like chocolate, UTEE and other meltables then go back to the wax with no waste.

Hsobel wrote
on 11 Jan 2014 7:07 PM

In my setup I have a hotplate made from an inexpensive food warming tray. It's large, has an aluminum surface and, a temperature control. I put the waxes in silicone muffin cups on top of this. I have an inexpensive heat tester which you just aim at the surface and it tells you the temperature. This entire setup cost less than fifty dollars- less if you can find a buffet server used at a thrift shop.

MozziMac wrote
on 14 Jan 2014 6:02 AM

I have a very small 'slow cooker' that I have used successfully many times - I have recently been given a shallow batik wax heater.

on 16 Jan 2014 10:08 AM

i use a candle warmer (without the candle)  so far, it has worked great!

on 16 Jan 2014 1:43 PM

I would like to add the Roland Hotbox™ to your list of safe encaustic heating equipment. This uses 4 lightbulbs to produce even heat for encaustic monoprinting. It is insulated, safe, and extremely versatile for encaustic painting and especially designed for encaustic monotypes. Hundreds have been sold! I also have an excellent instructional DVD for this process, great workshops, and all on the website RolandWorkshops.com or write paularoland@yahoo.com

jeballard8 wrote
on 8 Feb 2014 11:43 AM

I have a mini crock pot for regular encaustic medium and an electric skillet for colored medium. I got both for less than $5 each at thrift stores. My mini crock pot holds about 1 pound of medium. When I am finished, I just unplug and let the medium harden with the brush right inside. It has never gotten too hot. The skillet has a thermostat that I can set. Both handy.

Mll66 wrote
on 8 Feb 2014 9:05 PM

I have been doing encaustic for about six years.  My first classes were with Patricia Seggebruch we used a heat gun.  Then later I took more classes with Martha Pfanschmidt and she had us working with propane torches.  I like both, but think I prefer the torch.  Ventilation is imperative and a clutter free work area,  since there is more risk of fire. I have just ordered 'The Encaustic Studio' and can't wait until it arrives.... I have found my crockpots at thrift stores, griddle at Walmart, and incising tools are from my clay days and dental tools from swap meets.  I purchased dry pigment and make my own paint, using old muffin tins, electric frypan and spoons from my kitchen.  (Never to be used for food again). I purchased small flat bottomed tins with lids at Daniel Smith's, they are great because when everything cools you can put the lids on Crockpots and tins an keep dust out.  I have a brush for each color + extras which I store in a flower pot and cover with a plastic bag when they have cools.  It looks like a colourful pot of funny flowers.  I cut a lot of my canvases/boards from Birch plywood.   I love every part of encaustic, especially the feel of the finished surface. 🎨