Oil lamps provide low level, alternative light to a home, while lending an elegant and pleasant ambiance. Properly fueled and maintained, they may help save on electrical bills, and stand ready to provide illumination during power outages.
Our family has collected and used oil lamps for many years, and has learned a bit about how to get the most out of them.
With the current fossil fuels and electricity costs, it takes some research to decide whether or not oil lamplight is economical for one’s uses. The quality and intensity of light certainly cannot match today’s standard home lighting. However, electricity isn’t always available; familiarity with alternative lighting helps prepare against unexpected disruptions in “normal life.”
A basic lamp consists of a reservoir to hold fuel, a burner that adjusts the flame, a wick (or wicks) to draw fuel up to the burner, and a glass chimney, which provides oxygen to the flame and diffuses light.
Where to find them:
Oil lamps are commonly found used in thrift stores and garage sales. Some have been gifted, and never used. Others have been passed down from the era in which they were a home’s best lighting, and can be found in very good condition after years of proper use.
Hardware stores may also carry oil lamps, although care should be taken to ensure that you choose lamps that are built to be used regularly, rather than those manufactured as mere decoration.
What to look for:
Whatever your source, don’t just buy any lamps you find; care in selection will ensure the best results.
First, make sure all of the components above are present. If not, you can often purchase replacements; chimneys are usually fairly easy to find, as they’re fragile and require occasional replacing.
Look for lamps with solid brass burners. Burners that are brass- or nickel-plated will work, but indicate that the lamp is more for decoration than use. Solid brass holds up well even through years of regular use.
Play with the wick adjustment to make sure that it operates smoothly. A jammed or jerky adjuster is a real pain! It might just be a mangled wick that’s causing problems—that’s easily remedied. Avoid damaged or heavily corroded burners.
Whenever possible, buy lamps with transparent, or at least translucent reservoirs. It’s hard to gauge the amount of fuel in a lamp if you can’t see the fluid level! Also, a solid reservoir will cast shadows on the surface on which the lamp rests, which may make it hard to work or read by its light. Sadly, many hand crafters make beautiful metal or ceramic oil lamps that are difficult to resist, but hard to use.
Consider the size of the reservoir. Larger capacity means less-frequent refueling.
To the extent possible, examine the reservoir for evidence of leakage. Reject any with cracks, liquid stains or other hints that it might not be tight. Also check that the burner fits properly—it will most likely screw onto the reservoir, and should do so tightly. This isn’t a decoration, it’s a tool, one that uses fire! It must work well in order to be safe.
Beware of lamps with specialized wick sizes. A “number two” burner, which takes a ¾-7/8” wick, is probably the most common, which means that replacements are available.
Oil lamps will theoretically burn any combustible fuel, but for safety reasons it’s unwise to use anything that’s more volatile than kerosene.
Kerosene smells bad because it contains sulfur. Even an unused kerosene lamp can be unpleasant. If you use kerosene, find the highest quality available. Lower quality kerosene has more sulfur. K-1 or heating fuel grade is the best that’s commercially available. Look for “water clear” unless you prefer the decorative value of red-tinted kerosene. If in doubt, try to look at a sample of the kerosene in daylight. Beware of yellow tint, which indicates higher sulfur content. The clearer, the better!
We spend a little extra for a kerosene-like product called Klean-Heat, which has almost no odor at all, and is as clear as water. Even with our frugal lifestyle, we feel it’s worth it to avoid the smell.
Liquid paraffin is clear, smokeless and odorless, but it’s expensive, doesn’t travel well up the wick, and solidifies at surprisingly high temperatures. If you use liquid paraffin, be particularly careful to keep your reservoirs full to improve burning.
Keep your reservoirs filled ½ to ¾ full for best operation. Don’t allow the fuel to drop below half full. Fuel must travel up the wick to be burned. If it has to travel very far, it does so less efficiently, and your wick burns instead of your fuel.
When filling your lamps, lay out adequate newspaper to catch spills, then burn the paper as soon as possible. Wearing rubber gloves avoids getting the smelly fuel on your hands. Fill your lamps outside if possible, or in a well-ventilated, well-lit room. We wear a headlamp to ensure we see clearly what we’re doing. A properly sized funnel can also be very, very handy!
If you’re switching a lamp from one type of fuel to another, empty the reservoir thoroughly and wipe it out well if possible. Allow it to dry completely before adding the new fuel. Replace the wick with a new one. Never wash a reservoir inside with soap and water, as this risks introducing water into the fuel.
Lamp wicks, like candle wicks, don’t actually burn after lighting. Liquid fuel rises (wicks) up to the flame, and is consumed rather than the wick itself. Lamp wicks can be trimmed in a variety of shapes for different qualities of light. Consult the Internet or your library for the advantages of different trims.
Cutting a lamp wick with scissors often makes fringes on the wick, making a less-clean burn. A clean, “tight” cut works better. I use a pair of end cutting pliers, which is reserved exclusively for wicks to avoid nicks in the blades. A couple of quick clips make a perfect edge. Keep your wicks from developing an ashy, burned edge with regular trimming, and make sure your wick level remains low enough to avoid charring the wick. If you find this happening too often, your expectations of light level may be too high!
When lighting an oil lamp, start with a very low wick. It should just appear in the slot of the burner. Most burners adjust the same way: turn the wheel clockwise to raise the wick, counterclockwise to lower it. Light the wick and replace the chimney. Note that the chimney immediately feeds oxygen to the flame, enlarging it drastically—this is why you start with very little wick! Allow the low flame to warm the chimney for a moment before adjusting the flame to proper height. This prevents fogging, which “catches” smoke from the flame, smudging the chimney. Shortly, you should be able to adjust the flame to the height you need.
Maximize lamplight by keeping your chimneys clean. Even the best-trimmed wick will smudge a chimney over time. Periodic swabbing with a tissue or paper towel helps keep your chimneys clear. If a chimney gets dusty or particularly smudged, it can be carefully washed in dishwater. Rinse thoroughly and dry well to avoid water spots.
Safety should always be your first consideration. Always remember that an oil lamp is fragile, and uses flame—then act accordingly. As with any flame, place your lamp on a steady, solid surface away from room traffic. Don’t burn them near flammable furnishings. Don’t leave them burning unattended. Make sure you have enough ventilation. Use common sense.
Never light a cold lamp. Warm your lamps to room temperature before lighting, so there is less risk of cracking.
Oil lamps are actually much safer than they would seem from news reports. Many home fires in the third world are attributed to exploding oil lamps. These reports rarely mention that the lamps were generally filled with gasoline. These regularly heat up and explode—virtually a “Molotov cocktail” in the home! Oil lamps can burn almost any liquid fuel, but kerosene and similar fuels are far less volatile, and much safer.
The Book of Non-Electric Lighting: The Classic Guide to the Safe Use of Candles, Fuel Lamps, Lanterns, Gas Lights, & Fireview Stoves, by Tim Matson (available through your local bookstore) is the best guide we’ve found for use and care of oil lamps and other “alternative light styles.”