It all started with a rat in the attic. When we brought down our Christmas decorations this year, we found that the old advent candle stand I had built from pine some years ago had been gnawed all over by a rat and ruined. So if we were going to celebrate Advent according to custom this year, I would have to make a new candle stand.
This was my original design, which I still find visually interesting but a little too bulky and angular. (We couldn’t find the right color candles that year, either.) And while I do like pine, I feel that a nicer hardwood would be more appropriate for what I hope will become a family heirloom.
If you’re not familiar with the season of Advent, or with Advent Candles, here’s a brief explanation: Advent is the four weeks leading up to Christmas, and it is traditionally a time of both repentance and anticipation as we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus. Repent, John the Baptist told the crowds, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. It is at once a more severe and a more hopeful message than the flurry of commercial activity that consumes us all this time of year.
We commemorate Advent by lighting candles each Sunday until Christmas. The traditional Advent Wreath has five candles, arranged as you see above. There are four tall, thin candles, one for each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Each Sunday has a different theme: first hope (a purple candle), then peace (another purple candle), then joy (a pink candle), and finally love (a purple candle again). On the first Sunday, we light only the first candle; on the second Sunday, we light the first and second candles, and so on until Christmas day, when we light them all, including the large, white candle in the center called the Christ candle.
Now, a personal confession: the asymmetry of the traditional, circular arrangement of the Advent Wreath has always bothered my aesthetic sensibilities. Four candles in a square, burning at different lengths, looks wrong to my eye. And every year, I always forget where to begin lighting the candles. (For the record, you start with the candle that’s caddy-corner from the pink one.) Additionally, my wife asked me to make a narrower stand so that we could keep it on the table for the whole season and still have space for food.
I began sketching out different possible arrangements. Eventually I lit on an elliptical design, with the Christ candle in the center and the other four candles lined up behind it. Then it occurred to me that I had very nearly drawn the Icthus–the “Jesus fish” symbol that you may have seen on the backs of cars. It’s an ancient symbol of Jesus that has probably been used since at least the second century AD, and it is even older than the symbol of the cross. It seemed a fitting base shape for the Advent candles, so I added a tail to complete the design.
I began with a 1″ thick cherry board I had left over from the table I built–a fitting choice, since the candle stand would go on that very table. I planed them down just enough to see the grain direction clearly, then glued it up. The dimensions of this piece are about 7″ wide and 13″ long.
I planed the top smooth and leveled out the bottom so that the stand would sit flat and stable. You don’t want a wobbly candle stand!
Drawing the design was a little tricky, but with the fish shape, all you really need is a single curve, which you trace out four times, flipping the paper each time. I drew several on paper, cut out the one that looked right, and started to trace.
I had to erase a few lines here and there, but this is what I eventually came up with. The “football” shape that makes up the body is what I traced out. I just followed my lines visually to add the tail. The center will be cut out, and is just large enough to hold a standard pillar candle. The top needs to be wide enough for the holes that will hold the candles without making the walls of the holes too thin. It’s about 1 3/4″ wide all the way around.
I used my bandsaw to cut the outside to rough shape, and I drilled small holes on the inside so as I have a place for the coping saw blade to start when it came time to cut out the middle.
I wasn’t sure what size to drill the holes for the candles. The butt ends of most candles are tapered, so after measuring the candles’s ends and experimenting in some scrap, I decided to drill stepped holes. I drilled about half way through with a 7/8″ Forstner bit, and then drilled the rest of the way through with a 3/4″ bit.
I happen to have a nice reamer, so I reamed out the holes a little–even though the candles would have stood just fine in the stepped holes. But after reaming the holes to ease the step in the hole, the candles go in a little easier.
I cleaned up the band saw cuts with my spokeshaves, followed by a file for the corners and a card scraper. (As you can see, I’m writing this out of order. But with this project, order of operations isn’t critical.) I’d have to pay close attention to grain direction and cut only “downhill.”
I sawed out the center with a coping saw. Cherry is a hard wood, and this stock is more than 7/8″ thick. I broke two blades before I finished. I did manage to get a spokeshave inside to clean up some of the saw marks and fair the curves, but it was mostly file work.
I wanted this candle holder to have some visual depth, so I decided to under-cut the “joint” where the two sides of the body meet to form the tail.
I made a stopping cut with the chisel and then pared into the stopping cut. I had to go down pretty far in order to get the shadow I wanted, maybe 1/4″. It was also important to make the cut slope down in a curve rather than go straight down.
As with any carving, a razor-sharp chisel is critical to success.
With a spokeshave, chisel, and card scrapers I relieved the sharp edges inside and out. There are a few uneven spots, but by this time it was Saturday night before the second Sunday of Advent, and I was already a week late. The wood was smooth enough from the cutting tools, so I didn’t even take time to sand it. A couple coats of paste wax are all the finish it required.
New candles would have been nice, but the old ones will do for now. The Advent Candle Stand is now in the middle of the dining room table.
O come, O come, Emmanuel.