DEL MAR — December is the busiest time of the year at Knorr Beeswax Products, a family-owned candle factory nestled in a leafy clearing off Via de la Valle in rural Del Mar.
Above the entrance, a painted beehive and trailing flowers meander across the building's stucco walls. Inside the gift shop, the sweet fragrance of beeswax perfumes the air and candles flicker. In the factory beyond, 30 employees process Knorr's distinctive beeswax candles, working methodically to melt wax into colorful cylinders that are cut, tapered, wicked, polished, wrapped and packaged for shipping nationwide.
What's the best part of the chandlery business?
"Christmas," said Steve Knorr, grandson of founder Ferdinand Knorr. "People really like our product, and there's so much entertaining between Christmas and New Year's. Then in January, beekeeping starts."
Outside the candle factory, a great Torrey pine dwarfs the buildings below, its branches sheltering the house, shop and outbuildings. The tree, well over half a century old, is a measure of time, marking three generations of candle-makers--Ferdinand, Henry and Steve, the current owner.
A yellowed photo shows Ferdinand (Fred) Knorr, a tool and die maker, beside the then-gangly four-foot sapling he planted when he bought the Del Mar land and took up beekeeping as a hobby in the '20s.
"My grandfather came to this country from Poland in 1904, escaping from czarist Russia," said Steve. "He kept 500 hives, which, for those times, was a lot."
"Pretty soon, Dad was getting too much wax," added Henry, who bought the business in 1956 from his father and operated it until Steve took over two years ago.
To deal with his oversupply of wax, Fred put his knack for working with machinery to practical use. The result was a processed version of the bees' natural honeycomb, and his first beeswax candles in 1928. A friend who owned the Rancho Santa Fe Inn began ordering a steady supply of candles. Orders from gift shops and beekeepers followed, and a business was born.
Today, Knorr Beeswax Products is well-known not only for its beekeeping supplies, but also for its 100% beeswax candles in 31 vibrant colors.
While Steve thrives on the business aspects of candle making, Henry is happiest working with the machines, most of which he or his father built.
"To make something and see it work . . . I get a lot of satisfaction from that," Henry said. The factory's machine shop overflows with sturdy vintage machines--milling machines, surface grinders, drill presses, band saws, hacksaws and lathes. In this workshop, tools, work benches, spare parts, piles of metal shavings and more sprawl in ordered disarray.
"I don't really have to send out to have anyone do anything for me," said Henry, who handles repairs himself.
"Being from the old country, my father hated to part with a nickel. He'd rather make something than buy it. . . . When I bought the business from him in 1956, nothing was standard. I couldn't go down and buy a replacement bearing because he'd gotten them in odd sizes at scrap yards or second-hand stores."
Henry opted for standardizing the machinery, but still painstakingly constructed the machines himself, combining an eclectic assortment of gears, pipes, dies and tanks to produce more candles more efficiently for an increasing market.
"There isn't any part (of the business) that I mind doing, from the dirtiest part, the filtering, to running the foundation (for the beekeepers) or packing the stuff to ship it out," said Henry, comfortable in his work clothes and cap. "I want to keep things moving."
"My dad feels as though he's retired now--he's only working 40 hours a week," Steve quipped.
Free self-guided factory tours draw visitors (as many as 100 a day) to Knorr's as much as the spacious gift shop. On this day, in the candle-making room, a gaggle of young Brownies watched melted wax push slowly through fluted dies like giant soft red licorice whips. These extruded candles' cross-sections are shaped like wagon wheels. In a corner of the room, a beekeeper mannequin watches over a small glass-sealed beehive where live bees instinctively build the hexagonal wax cells for honey or larvae.
Showing the Brownie troop a honeycombed wax sheet, longtime employee Vic DuShaune explained that this beeswax foundation "gets things going quicker for the bees."
The candle-making process actually begins out of view of the public in a labyrinth of old buildings. In an open back lot, raw beeswax stacked on pallets resembles huge chunks of cheese. The range of natural colors, from toffee to deep caramel, is dictated by the plants frequented by the bees--sage, alfalfa, buckwheat, clover, almond.
"An almond grower may call in a beekeeper to pollinate his crop," Steve said. "Beekeepers aren't in the wax business, but for every 60 pounds of honey, you get one pound of beeswax, the byproduct of making honey. For every 10,000 pounds of beeswax we buy, we sell back 5,000 pounds to beekeepers as foundation frames for their hives."