Galloway, the Wond’ry team design wrist-saving, wick-installing device for Thistle Farms

photo of woman reaching inside a glass candle container to install a wickFrom left, Jim Kensler, senior director of Thistle Farms Body & Home; Melissa Wert, director of systems and inventory control; Tianja Gibbs, manufacturing manager; Deanna Meador, the Wond’ry program manager; and Noah Barrow, the Wond’ry intern watch the first trial of Barrow’s new wick-installing device. (Photo courtesy of Peggy Napier/Thistle Farms)

Flat, cottonwood candlewicks are better for the environment, burn in a pleasing triangle and melt the soy wax around them at an optimal rate.

What they don’t do: Work with existing, commercial wick-setting devices.

So when the women of Thistle Farms, a nonprofit that gives jobs to survivors of trafficking and addiction, decided to release their new line using the superior wicks, it meant long days of sticking them to the bottom of the glass vessels by hand. That wasn’t going to work for orders of 35,000, like the one they filled for more than 400 Whole Foods stores in the U.S. and Canada last year using the old wicks and commercial wick-setters.

The new wicks were better but very challenging. For every 108 candles, we lost five or six, because you can’t be perfect if you’re trying to fit them by hand,” said Tianja Gibbs, who schedules workers in Thistle Farms’ small, Nashville workshop. “Some are imperfect, so the candle burns unevenly. It’s uncomfortable to get your hand in the jar, and the metal part at the bottom of the wick gives you a callous.”

Thistle Farms approached the Wond’ry, Vanderbilt University’s center for innovation and entrepreneurship, and its director of making and research assistant professor in mechanical engineering, Kevin Galloway, to find a better way.

Launched last year, the Wond’ry provides opportunities for members of the Vanderbilt community and beyond to use computer-aided design tools, 3D printers, molding equipment, electronics and other tools not typically found at home to design products that solve life’s challenges.

Galloway gave Thistle Farms’ challenge to Noah Barrow, a Big Picture High School senior who interned at the Wond’ry in the spring semester, mentoring others on how to use the tools. This was an opportunity for Barrow to help a respected nonprofit and learn skills he’ll need to be successful going forward.

“The basic design was pretty immediate, based mostly off of the old wick-setters they have,” Barrow said. “One change I made for ease of production is – instead of a large dome to accommodate different sizes of glasses – I made a device that fits perfectly over the one size that Thistle Farms uses. That will end up saving them a little bit of money and printing time.”

Barrow said one of the best parts of the process was learning how to work through iterations of his design on a 3D printer.

He and Galloway unveiled the prototype in April to a thrilled Gibbs, who immediately started using it. It was about 1/16-inch from fitting the glass vessel perfectly – a difference that could be easily made up with duct tape, Galloway joked, but Barrow will retool the device for Thistle Farms’ order of 12 units. The Wond’ry is only charging for materials, which means they’ll cost $20 each.

Gibbs used to be Thistle Farms’ sole candle maker. She is a graduate of its sister program, Magdalene House, an in-house treatment nonprofit which helps women become sober, learn life skills and gain personal independence. Now there will be 10 women doing the job under Gibbs’ tutelage, and soon most of the work will be done in a much larger, more airy building near the main campus on Charlotte Avenue.

Every candle I made, I made it with love, because it symbolizes our mission of lighting the candle and helping other women come off the street,” she said. “It is the other women’s favorite, too, for the same reason.”

Robert Grajewski, Evans Family Executive Director of the Innovation Center at Vanderbilt University, which includes the Wond’ry, said the partnership is an ideal example of how Vanderbilt can engage with the community.

“What truly makes the Wond’ry unique is our approach to serving the entire innovation spectrum,” Grajewski said. “We’re certainly there to support startup activities, but also, as with this example, we want to engage with social ventures that benefit the world.”

Magdalene House and Thistle Farms were founded in 1997 by Becca Stevens, Vanderbilt’s Episcopal chaplain. Now worldwide, the organization helps employ more than 1,800 women.

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