Interview by Nate Kan & Adrian Wong
Translation by Nate Kan
Photos by Adrian Wong
Over the past couple months, many of us have been spending more time indoors as we look for new ways to practice mindfulness and be calm during these tumultuous times. If there’s one way to switch up the experience, it’s with candles.
Nowadays, candles have become one of the most go-to luxury items for those looking to add extra personality to their interior spaces. Nearly every natural smell conceivable has been distilled into a scent and an experience. But unlike the ubiquitous smartphone that allows nearly anyone to work with light to produce an image and even a pleasing one, the realm of scent is still highly specialized affair.
Enter WOODCO A Hong Kong-based mother and daughter duo who capture their scents of nostalgia in little ounces of coconut wax. The latter is what makes their candles stand out. Due to the coconut wax’s sustainable nature and superior scent projection, WOODCO spares no cents in creating these smoothing aromas. Furthermore, MAEKAN has tapped them for our very first candle collaboration called “HARD WORK”.
Adrian and Nate speak with Natalie and her mother Yvonne via Zoom to learn more about WOODCO’s origins, the art of candle making and the market for it, and the dynamics of running a brand with family.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Some parts have been translated from Cantonese to English.
Natalie: My name is Natalie Lee and I’m the daughter half at Wood Co. We’re a coconut wax candle company that soft launched in December 2018 before going live with our website and products in December of the following year. This is now my full-time job and my mom’s retirement job.
Natalie: We both really liked candles to begin with. My mom started buying all of these candle-making ingredients and started making them at home back in 2018. Then we would give it to friends and relatives, and after burning them, they said, “this is actually a really good product. Why don’t you try making it into a brand?” And that’s what we did.
Natalie: This is the first collection that I did so I just wanted them to all be a bit different: a little bit of fruity, a little bit of woody, a bit of florals. I didn’t have a specific inspiration, but I knew I wanted to make one that was with sea salt and ocean-based because it was my favorite.
To make them, we have a lot of fragrance oils and essential oils at home that we bought and sourced. And then we kind of just mix depending on the mood at that moment. It’s kind of like being a chef as well, where you mix two fragrances together, smell it and see what’s lacking or what would complement it. Then you just build up and layer until you like the finished product.
So each of our candles has about eight to ten different types of oils, so they’re all unique.
Yvonne: And a bit about why we use coconut oil. Most of the candles you buy elsewhere are soy wax-based and few people use coconut wax. I wanted a bit of a challenge, so we researched using that particular wax and realized the quality was better. The burn was smoother and I thought it was better than soy.
Natalie: There’s pros and cons.
“We Like Our Candles Like
We Like Our People,
— WOODCO’s motto
Yvonne: Yeah. For one, coconut is the most expensive among the waxes. But because we were making them for ourselves, we thought we’d use some better quality ones.
Natalie: One pro of coconut wax is also that it burns clean. It’s a sustainable crop. But the downside is that it melts really easily, so the melting point is quite low so that when you put it in a slightly hotter room, it will start to perspire and you’ll see water droplets.
Yvonne: The handling is harder.
Natalie: It is, so it always needs to be in an air conditioned room. Ours have a small amount of soy in them, about 2-3%.
Yvonne: You have to have a little bit in there so you can actually shape it. But I believe they actually use coconut flesh to make the wax. A lot of good brands use paraffin wax, which if you inhale too much, can be carcinogenic. So I was surprised there are people still willing to spend so much on a wax that’s of such bad quality.
Natalie: They have the branding and the history behind them and the scents are truly top notch. And the scent throw for paraffin is very heavy, so it’s strong.
Yvonne: You’ll also find when you burn a wooden wick, the feeling’s a warmer versus burning a waxed cotton wick. Not a lot of people use wood wicks, but again, we thought we’d use the best ingredients when we were making them for just us and our friends.
Natalie: It’ll also burn cleaner and won’t create as much soot. It also gives off a crackling noise that we really like. It’s like a little fireplace at home.
“Not a lot of people use wood wicks, but again, we thought we’d use the best ingredients when we were making them for just us and our friends. ”
— Yvonne, on the premium candles that would become WOODCO.
Yvonne: It wasn’t too bad. If you’re just making one or two, the amount of space you’ll need won’t be that much.
Natalie: But it’s starting to get small!
Yvonne: Because we’re starting to get a lot of orders and consignments! So we’re thinking of moving to a bigger workshop if business picks up instead of making them at home.
Natalie: It could be better (laughs). I worked with Prism, a female graphic designer who also started her own company (named Prism). We had worked together before and she was the one that did the branding for WOODCO and the illustrations you see on the tin. I wanted it to be abstract and for people to look at it and be happy. Some people say it looks like ice cream and I think that’s cool.
Natalie: We use both essential oils and fragrance oils. Essential oils are more expensive, but they’re less potent. Each one provokes a different emotion or feeling. So for instance, lavender is sleep-inducing or what MAEKAN wanted with Hard Work.
In that case, you wanted something people could burn at their desk while they were working at night, so that‘s why we incorporated jasmine and bergamot. Those are invigorating scents that would let your creative juices flow and would be good to burn throughout the day as you work.
“You wanted something people could burn at their desk while they were working at night, so that‘s why we incorporated jasmine and bergamot. Those are invigorating scents that would let your creative juices flow and would be good to burn throughout the day as you work.”
— Natalie, on the choice of scenes in MAEKAN’s Hard Work candle.
Yvonne: Wild Garden. It has a very high end, comfortable scent. Even when I do yoga, I feel very comfortable. We started with Negroni, so I liked that one the most. Then after Natalie created Wild Garden, I thought that one was the best.
Natalie: We’re going to be launching four new scents at the end of this year. The containers and everything are going to be completely different. More slick and monochromatic compared to the current ones we have now.
Natalie: So we mix it into a little beaker and then layer it with different oils. For instance, bergamot goes well with jasmine. And then we’ll try those two together and if I think it’s lacking some citrus, then I’ll try adding some tangerine peel or lemon. It really depends on that moment.
Yvonne: You do! We’ll smell coffee beans.
Natalie: It’s so taxing.
Yvonne: If not, everything will start to smell the same. We’ll say to ourselves, “huh? Why is it different now?” Sometimes I’ll even mix up Waves and Negroni.
Natalie: Which are very different.
Yvonne: I know! But I’ll get mixed up.
Natalie: You have to be patient. It’s not something you can do in a few tries and you’ll get it. There’s a lot of research and development and reading.
Natalie: We do suggest to our customers when they first buy our candles that they burn them for at least two to three hours. This is to create a pool so that the whole surface area is melted. Then you can blow it out. Otherwise, the flame’s just going to tunnel downward and it won’t reach the edge of the container and you’ll waste a lot of wax.
Natalie: Of course, there’s a little bit of bickering sometimes, but at the end of the day, we both want WOODCO to succeed. What do you think? [looks over]
Yvonne: A little. It’s been a good relationship because we have a lot to discuss and talk about.
Natalie: My mom is very art-oriented. She likes to design, she likes to make things with her hands and she’s always been in a design background. That’s why I think it works out because she’s in production and I’m more business development and sales. I had a marketing background and worked at a marketing agency.
Afterwards, I moved into real estate for a few years, but that wasn’t my passion. I was working at a real estate agency for about a year while I was doing WOODCO before leaving real estate to work on this brand full time.
Natalie: It’s pretty organic. Once dinner time comes, we’ll just stop talking about work and we’ll enjoy each other’s company. Sometimes you can’t help it.
Yvonne: Since our roles are different, we have a lot of topics. She’s good at marketing and I’m not as good, so I’ll listen to her on a lot of things.
Natalie: And then she’s really good at production and I’m not as good, so that’s how we work together.
Yvonne: When you talk marketing and promoting to the different generations and she believes in something, I’ll tell her to go ahead with it. I’m really hands off with promotion.
Natalie: That’s why I like working with my mom because it’s just more free compared to working for a company.
Yvonne: It helps her bring out the best in herself, something I’d want for her too.
Natalie: Eventually, we want to start making more products like diffusers, room sprays, pillow sprays, body sprays etc. We’d like to make a one-stop shop for all things health wellness. We also want to make things more affordable so that more people can use it.
If you buy a high-end candle, normally it’s $700 HKD (~$90 USD) for 300g, so that when people burn it, it’s like they’re burning money.
We don’t want people to think like that when they burn our candles. We want them to know they can refill it and use it again, just making it super accessible to anyone. We just started a refill program so that anyone who has used containers they want to bring back and refill with any of our scents.
Yvonne: It’s about being eco-friendly too. I have a lot of friends that have really nice containers, so I tell them they can bring them to us and we’ll refill them. That service has been really well received.
Natalie: I didn’t think anything. I just thought, “let’s go and do it.” But I didn’t think it would be recognized so quickly, especially with consignments. I’m shocked in a good way that people are liking our candles and buying them again. I’m shocked at the amount of recurring customers.