Trimming Oil Lamp Wicks for More Efficient Burn

By , November 10, 2014

We will very likely rely more heavily than usual on our cabin’s oil lamps for lighting this winter. So I trimmed our wicks this week.

I’d noticed that the flames of our pedestal lamps had grown ragged through use, lopsided and a bit smoky. They needed a good trim.

(I apologize in advance for the rather crappy photos in this post!)

Wick trimmed to shallow point (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

Wick trimmed to shallow point (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

I approached this task with a bit of surprise. I came to it with a basic knowledge of what I needed to do and why, choosing from a couple of different wick convigurations to achieve the right flame shape for our needs. I wanted to double check my knowledge, but I couldn’t find the source. I assumed I’d learned it from a book I used to borrow a lot from the Juneau Public Library, Tim Matheson’s The Book of Non-Electric Lighting: The Classic Guide to the Safe Use of Candles, Fuel Lamps, Lanterns, Gas Lights, & Fireview Stoves is the best guide we’ve found for use . However, checking the book’s listing on line, I read that it does not include this information. I think a revised edition came out a few years ago; I wonder if the older version I read might have had it?

At any rate, I knew enough to shape the wicks to our needs, which are very basic, less specialized than some of the alternatives I know. I focused on shaping the wicks to this use, and I’ll focus this post on that same use.

A properly trimmed wick should provide a full, rounded flame that provides the maximum amount of light with the minimum amount of smoke. The wick shouldn’t have any points that might elongate the flame. A long flame often creates smoke, which pollutes the room, smudges the chimney (which lessens light), and wastes fuel.

Trimming a wick with scissors works poorly. The mechanical action of scissoring pushes the wick fabric ahead of it slightly before it cuts. Even a good, sharp, clean cut tends to leave a wick ever-so-slightly slanted to a point at the far end of the cut.

The slant cut burning. Point becomes elongated in the current chimneys (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

The slant cut burning. Point becomes elongated in the current chimneys (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

I use a pair of end cutting pliers to trim oil lamp wicks. Like a giant pair of toenail cutters (truly a cringe worthy simile!) these clip the wick straight as can be. I labeled these pliers as wick trimmers, and refuse to use them for any other purpose. This ensures that they stay sharp and true.

Even with a sharp tool, take care to avoid snagging the wick. Don’t leave any loose threads that stick up from the cut.

Normally, I cut a wick to a very shallow point in the center by making two slanted cuts on each side of the wick. I count the lines of warp to determine the center of the wick. I count the lines of weft to ensure that the lower, outer end of my cut matches on each side.

Generally, this gives a well shaped flame. In our two large pedestal lamps, though, the shape of the draw makes even the shallowest point a sharp, smoky flame. I don’t have the original chimney for either lamp. If I did, perhaps I wouldn’thave this problem. Chimneys are expensive, fragile, and hard to come by, so trimming the wick to the existing draw makes better sense.

I trim these two wicks straight across, then I clip each corner slightly. This usually works. If not, I’ll trim the new corners slightly, to round the wick further.

zFlat cut with trimmed corners (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

zFlat cut with trimmed corners (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

With any trim, check the flame as you work. If not satisfied, blow it out and continue trimming until you like the flame.

The process can be tricky, time consuming, and frustrating. I could have further fine tuned the flames on these two wicks, but I judged this latest adjustment good enough for now. If we use these lamps as much as I think we will, I’ll no doubt need to trim them again before very long.

Not perfect, but a decently rounded flame from the flat cut (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

Not perfect, but a decently rounded flame from the flat cut (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

For our more complete overview of oil lamp use, see Oil Lamps as Alternative LIghting in the Home.

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