Tips and Tricks for Using Oil Lamps

By Kellene Bishop You might not think that there's much to know regarding Tips and Tricks for oil lamps, kerosene lampUsing Oil Lamps, but since I've practiced using all of my supplies that I intend to rely on someday, I've discovered that there are some idiosyncrasies when it comes to using and maintaining my oil lamps. I've got all sorts of brands and such of oil lamps and I've used all kinds of different oils for my lamps too. As such I believe that these little tips will be helpful across the board for all of our oil lamp users.  

The Oil Lamp--Primary Light Source

My primary light source in a “lights out” scenario will be oil lamps. They put out much more light than a mere candle and they tend to be more stable and safe. But in order to truly be “prepared” there’s a lot of simple information that one should know in using them. So today I’m going to share with you the best way to use them to get the most light for the longest period of time as well as some great do-it-yourself methods for creating your own lamp oil and your own wicks.   First, let’s start out with the most basic information. When you fill up your oil lamp, be sure to leave at least a ½ inch of headspace. Lamp oil swells in the summer time and if you don’t leave enough leeway you’ll end up with flooding problems which can then be followed by a fire. Yikes!  

Alternative Lamp Oil

I’m not a fan of using canola, soy, or corn oil any longer thanks to the nasty GMOs present and the fact that they are hydrogenated oils—a recipe for disaster when your heart is exposed to them. But now I’ve got lots and lots of oils that I’ve paid good money for. No problem, they will make their way into my oil lamps. Yay!! Even my favorite oils will go rancid on me sometimes. No problem. I can use those too in my oil lamps, though using these alternative oils will put off an odor. As long as you don’t mind that, then you don’t have to worry about wasting any of your oil purchases.  

How Much Lamp Oil Do You Need?gallon lamp oil
 
 How much oil do you need? As a general rule, oil lamps will burn about ½ an ounce of lamp oil per hour. For some reason they will burn a little bit more in the really cold weather—though I have no idea why.  This means that a half gallon of lamp oil will last about 140-150 hours. I find that the alternative oils (i.e. canola, rancid olive oil, etc.) will give you as much as a 10% lower output than traditional lamp oils. But the good news is that you can add as much as 5 to 10 drops of essential oils each time you fill the lamp and that will thwart much of that off-putting odor you can get.  I’d personally suggest something with eucalyptus radiata in it since that helps the respiratory system. (Do NOT use eucalyptus globulus as the white camphor content can actually STOP the breathing in a small child.)  For optimal burning you’ll want to keep the lamp at least half full all the time--not to mention the fact that if you keep your lamps filled halfway all the time, you're not likely to run out unexpectedly. You know...learn from the 10 Virgins--keep oil in your lamps. *grin*   One thing you need to be aware of is that lamp oils can actually freeze when you get in the 20 degree or colder range. Also, it’s best to make sure your oil is at room temperature before filling the lamp. Oil lamps burn about ½ oz. of lamp oil per hour; they will burn a little more in cold weather though I don’t have a clue as to why.   I’m not a fan of using any gasoline or alcohols in my oil lamps. They are way too volatile or burn dirty, in my opinion, thus ruining my lamps even when I’m using traditional lamp oil. I don’t know about you, but in my world a prepper’s worst nightmare is a fire! So I’ll refrain from doing anything that gives me a greater chance for a fire.   When it comes to purchasing lamp oil, I’ve come to the conclusion that the “ultra pure” lamp oil just isn’t worth the money. It freezes sooner than regular lamp oil does and it really doesn’t seem to burn cleaner to me. You’ll also want to know that the so-called “odorless” lamp oils aren’t really odorless. When using an oil lamp regularly becomes a way of life to you though, I suspect that you’ll get used to it quickly.

roll of lamp wickAll About Oil Lamp Wicks

  Now let’s get to the wick. Purchasing wicks is very affordable. They run about 50 cents to $1 a piece and one wick will last you a long, long time with proper care. Burning through a half gallon of lamp oil will only burn down ¼ to ½  inch of your 8 inch long wick (which is the smallest size that I’ll purchase). This means that an 8- inch wick will last through about 15 gallons of lamp oil. Yup, that means that you don’t need as many wicks as you might have thought before now. If you find yourself “overly stocked” in lamp wicks right now, don’t fret; I’m sure they’ll make great barter items for all of those folks who haven’t read this article and burn through their wicks too quickly or who forgot to even purchase spare wicks. *grin*   The key to proper wick maintenance is to be sure the wicks are always properly soaked in the lamp oil. (Never burn them dry). You’ll also want to trim the char off of the wick after each use. There are 4 different schools of thought when it comes to the shape of wicks. Some folks go for the “crown” shape which is like a slightly rounded point, some trim them just flat across, some trim them nicely pointed, and some don’t trim them at all. I’ll just cut to the chase—you’ll get the brightest light if you trim your wick nicely pointed. You’ll burn your oil just a bit faster that way, but really, just a bit. I used a pointed tip when I got the 140+ hours out of half gallon of lamp oil.  

Make Your Own Oil Lamp Wicks

If you find yourself lacking in good oil lamp wicks, no problem. They are really easy to make yourself. Be sure that you only use 100% cotton though. I’ve heard of some folks thinking that they were going to use nylon or “paracord” as their oil lamp wicks. Yikes! You want just plain cotton. So that means instead of throwing out those t-shirts you can easily make 8-12 inch wicks that will last just as long as the commercially made ones. I take squares of cotton fabric 12 inches long by 6 to 8 inches wide. Beginning at one end of the fabric, I fold the wide portion over and over again in a ¾ inch width each time. When I’m finished with the folds, I just put it in my sewing machine and sew down the length of the fabric once or twice to create a flat wick. (It doesn’t have to be all tight and pretty like you see in the commercially made ones; so you could conceivably sew these by hand if necessary.) You can roll the fabric instead if you’d like, but I’ve found that the flat wicks, cut in a point at the top, will give me brighter light as mentioned above. Besides, rolled pieces of fabric are more difficult for me to get to maintain their shape. They keep wanting to un-roll. So I prefer the sewed flat wicks instead.   It’s important that your wicks are at least 8 inches long as 3 of your inches are going to be used for the lead space into the oil at the bottom and in the adjustment portion at the top.  

 Trimming the Wick

You’ll often hear folks talk about “trimming the wicks.” Unless you’re using those fancified Alladin wicks, you can simply trim the char off of the wicks after each use. So long as I keep my wick trimmed in a pointed top, it keeps my flame bright and smoke-free so that I have less to clean with the chimney. As long as you let the wicks burn moderately and never let your wicks get dry, you’ll not have to worry about running out of them. So long as your wick is wet with the oil, the oil is actually what’s burning, not the wick. That’s why it gets shorter and shorter at such a slow pace.   The only problems I’ve ever had with my oil lamps are when I’ve forgotten just how hot those dern-blasted chimneys can be. At least three times now I’ve lamp chimneyburned my hand on those dang things. Even after the flame’s been snuffed out, the chimney remains hot for as much as an hour. This is one of the reasons why I don’t care for purchasing oil lamps that don’t have a nice handle to use when moving the lamp. (The oil base shouldn’t get too hot, but it does get warm when used for a long time, so resist the urge to carry the lamp by the chimney or the base.)   An old-timer taught me that it’s best to let the chimney warm up for about 10 minutes before increasing the light output. Again, not being a physicist, I don’t understand why that’s the case, but I gotta say, it does make a difference.   Another tip that I was taught is that a big flame isn’t really what you want. Not that you’ll actually measure it, but your ideal ratio of air to fuel when using your oil lamp is 94% air and 6% fuel.   Soot will build up on the chimney over time. (Keeping your flame small will prevent this from happening.) You’ll want to make sure that your chimney gets cleaned of the soot as having too much on it can actually cause a fire. Soot build-up will also lessen your light and strangle the oxygen that you need for a nice, even burn on your wick. Obviously keeping the soot cleaned on your chimney will also give you the best light output too.   You never want to use a lamp without a chimney. Doing so will cause the chimney to overheat and can pressurize the lamp base and even create an oil fire.  If you see any smoke while your wick is lit then you’ve got it too high.   When it comes time to extinguish your flame, just cup your hand above the chimney and give a little burst of a breath. The air will travel down the chimney and extinguish it just fine.   One other tip is that I’ve found out the hard way that the cheap plastic containers that the lamp oil typically comes in are not viable for long-term storage. I suggest you transfer the lamp oil to a more stable container after purchasing it. It becomes brittle quickly and it takes very little to nick a hole into it. Last but not least, I strongly advise you to not take for granted just how important light is. It's so stressful to me to try and prepare dinner or take care of the dogs when I don't have sufficient light. Knowing this as a result of some practice runs that we've done in anticipation of a myriad of potential crises, I've discovered that planning  to have a couple more lamps, than what I originally thought was necessary, makes a HUGE difference. It seems ridiculous to me to not invest in a couple more lamps if it means that I can eliminate unnecessary stress. But if oil lamps aren't your favorite solution for light, then you might want to check out this cool method I use to light up the kitchen.    

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Comments

Excellent source for lamps, parts, information, and other things non-electric is Lehman's in Ohio. They have a good web site with a great deal of information on non-electric living, lamp parts, tricks and tips, oil, chimneys (they have hundreds of types) and Aladdin lamps and parts, and advice. The web site is lehmans.com. I live in Costa Rica and use them for all my lamp needs and parts, but we only burn kerosene-it is far cheaper, and we have good ventilation as we do not have glass windows, only screens.

I'd think that sewing them by hand is simple enough. As a non-sewer (at least for now), this is a simple enough task even for me as I did the first ones by hand easy-peezee.

Your info on making your own wicks is great. But I don't have a sewing machine. What I've been wondering about doing instead is using old blue jeans (cotton) - cut strips from them that are the correct width. Maybe hand sew two strips together to double the thickness? Have you tried blue jeans for wicks? It would be heavier than t-shirt material.

Hi I was wondering what kind of lamp oil you like to use ? also would you post any info on how to make the oil lamps with mason jars . thanks so much

That was a great in-depth article. It's amazing how much there is to know about a simple thing like using an oil lamp. I lived with kerosene lanterns, candles, and back up flash lights for many years, so have a few things I'd like to add. The two ways I prefer to keep my glass chimneys clean is with Dr. Bronner's liquid castile soap (my favorite by far because it cleans fast and efficiently). Alternately, when I'm filling the lantern, I place it on a paper towel to catch drips then wipe the inside of the chimney with it. I find the kerosene makes a pretty good soot remover. As far as doing things like cooking in the (relative) darkness -- it helps to plan to do most of the work while it's still light -- it's a matter of function following form, so to speak. Also, I always like to have a solar flashlight on hand!

I have never seen a solar generator. Can you tell us the brand and model number that you like best?

Barbara, I love my Humless Sentinel brand. You can see the info on it at Five Star Preparedness.com and a great price too if my memory serves me correctly. It's bigger than the one I'm using in the video but they don't sell the smaller one any longer unfortunately. If you put in "What I finally bought a generator" in the search bar you'll see all of the details on the Humless and why I finally gave in and got a generator after previously being vehemently opposed to one for anything other than medical necessities. *wink*

Another thing I've learned about keeping my chimneys clean is that if you've just filled the lamp base with oil and have any oil residue on your fingers at all, you leave "finger prints" on the chimney when you're putting it on the lamp. Those "fry" onto the glass as the lamp is used and will not wash off later without using an abrasive cleanser. I have several chimneys that are somewhat scratched down around the base from having to do this but.....it's better than it was with the burned on fingerprints which turn brown!! Since I've now know to wash my hands before putting the chimney on, I shouldn't have a problem when I replace the chimneys later with new ones!.

You can also make your own "lamps" from mason jars, some heavy wire and wicks. I've made quite a few even using pasta sauce jars. My preferred oil in them is olive oil, which even rancid does not emit a smell when burning. When the lamps are not in use I just place the lid loosely on the top of the jar. The nice thing is, none of the oil has ever evaporated and I've had some jars for a couple of years 'ready to go'. Once I learned about making my own oil lamps we have not bought commercial lamp oil, which we learned evaporates over time and it smells. The only thing is, once you've had commercial oil in your lamps, they can not be converted to cooking oil type lamps. You can't wash out the residue, I did research on it because we have several hurricane style lamps that we used commercial lamp oil in for years. That is why I switched over to making my own out mason type jars.

no chimney needed in a mason jar. the wick is way down towards the bottom of the jar.

I've found that cleaning your chimneys with newspaper cleans easy and well. I also would recommend that if you have lamps with handles you can buy decorative wall holders that hold plants or wind chimes and put them on the wall in advance to hold your lantern by the table or by the sofa or in the kitchen or bathroom. Keeps it from getting bumped if you have kids or animals.

Aladdin lamps cost more, consume more kerosene, but also make the most light. They use a mantle like a Coleman gas lantern. The mantle is bigger than the Coleman. and is fragile, but worth the extra cost!

I have an antique Aladdin that I did use several times some years back....when I was living "modern" and only needed it during a storm! Now, I have to make FREQUENT use of oil lamps and candles and I needed new wicks (mantles) for the Aladdin and ordered 2 them. Need to get more, of course, but didn't have the money for more at the time. Anyway.....when I lit the mantle the first time, it immediately burned a hole thru the mantle fabric!!! I've never had that happen before! What did I do wrong? I followed the directions and it is the right mantle for the lamp. Any ideas? I haven't tried the 2nd mantle yet as don't want to ruin another if there's a trick I've forgotten about using them!!!

I'll try that and if I find out something helpful, I'll post it on here so others don't lose an expensive mantle the way I did! thanks.

What about Kerosene? I stocked up with lots for lanterns but then also got some lamp oil too and figured I use the oil first if needed.
Will kerosene work in them or is it only for the Deitz type lanterns?

Yes, Stevo, Kerosene WILL work, but it's not my favorite fuel. You do need air to flow otherwise the kerosene fumes can get to be too much and cause breathing problems. Just FYI.

Kerosene is all I use in my

Kerosene is all I use in my oil lamps. I can buy it in bulk for around $6 per gallon. I find it burns just as clean as lamp oil at up to a quarter the price. As for odor, my family and I don't notice any difference than from lamp oil.

Thanks Kellene, for the article and the video!
The article reminded me of our tough years of no-power after the devastating earthquake, when we were using oil lamps. My Mom would make wicks herself and we burned any kind of oil we could get. You are absolutely right that not every oil is going to burn well and clean, without a smoke. Our eyes would tear up from the smoke but we didn't have a choice!

Thanks again for your preparation and hard work to help others learn about those things that are so crucial for survival!

Okay so I have some really old glass lamps from my husbands grandmother. They have the beautiful glass bases and the all glass chimmenies. The table top kind for back in the days. I wondered how to get the wicks or where until you said how to make them. But, I do need to practice using them. They don't have any oil in them now, so I have to work on that! I also have thought of getting some from the camping store, and did not want to use the dangerous fuels you mentioned. I like the idea of the decroative wall holders. This will be another thing I will look for at my second hand stores. Great article! Thank YOu as always!

I've been making & using olive oil laps for several years now. One thing I have learned during my times of experimenting is if the top of the wick is more then 1/2" above the level of the olive oil, you will burn the wick and not the oil. Olive oil and other vegetable/seed oils do not wick fast enough through the wick to sustain proper burning when there is a large distance between the reservoir and the flame. So unfortunately most of the common oil lamps will not work with the vegetable oil. My favorite base is a small glass bowl/vase from the thrift, make a twisted wire wick holder, fill most of the bowl with water and then pour the olive oil on top and place the wick in. Also I have found corn oil will clog any wick.

Hmmm...that's interesting. I'm not sure how to differentiate between a "common oil lamps" and others as I've not run into a problem yet with using the alternative oils in any of mine. In fact, olive oil, rancid or not, a person shouldn't ever have a problem using. I think perhaps the "trick" is to ensure that the wick is properly soaked.

As for the corn oil, you do bring up a good point. I've always combined by vegetable and corn oil--not because I'm smart or anything but for convenience sake. As such I haven't had any problem using the combo.
I think it's been mentioned enough that I need to describe how to make and use the twisted wire to hold the wick too. Thanks!

I have several extra chimneys stored in my preps as well. If you break one, and eventually you will, you are sunk without a spare. I store all of them on the top shelf in my sewing room where they are far out of reach from grand kids. I have them wrapped well and the boxes labelled as to which lamp they are for.

We had a 3 1/2 hr power outage 2 weeks ago. We have lamps we have purchased and lamps that were handed down to us. I keep several bottles of lamp oil and pkgs of wicks on hand. I think it's time to stock up on even more do to the economy. I now understand why our grandparents "went to bed with the chickens"! I spent the evening knitting on my baby grandson's blanket, finishing food for church picnic and taking my by oil lamp. It isn't a good situation to live in the country in an all electric home. We can see that there are many ways we need to become better prepared.

Thankful for all your informative articles.

Jackie, you can buy lamp wicking @ Amazon in a 6-ft roll (from Idaho Supply). I just added it to my "wish list!"

Karen, just Google "mason jar oil lamp" and you can find lots of info. You can even purchase the wick/chimney holders for mason jars on Amazon.

OK, I'm confused...if you're NOT using Kerosene or Ultra Pure, what ARE you using? I understand the rancid oil theory, and I'm sure we will all have some eventually, but what are you using otherwise? And to the person who said, once you use one kind of oil, you have to use the same all the time, I do not believe that is correct, you just can't MIX different oils at the same time....you must completely empty, wash and dry before refilling with a different type of oil and a different wick?

Where do I get it? I only have Wal-Mart or a gas station available as far as I know....Forgot to tell you how much I appreciate all you do, I really enjoy and admire you!

You shouldn't have any problem finding lamps and lamp oil at Wal-mart. Also, I'm a Prime member of Amazon and buy stuff on there all the time because as a Prime member I get free shipping on most items and their pricing is almost always the best on the items I need/want. You shouldn't have any problem finding what you want on Amazon if you can't at Walmart. Lehmans.com is also an excellent site but you'll want to wait for sales as their pricing can be pretty hefty sometimes.

To help increase light output put the oil lamp in front of a mirror. You can use a frame stand with a mirror tile set in it to put behind the lamp on a table or counter top.

Kellene, I totally understand why you have your articles protected from being "robbed" by those who give you no credit for the content.........HOWEVER, I for one have a "notebook" I started with articles such as your tips and tricks, and some other survival sites on such things as survival medicine, etc. etc that I have stored with my preparedness stuff. In the event wef lose all our power for the long term by the "bad guys" wiping our all our electronic systems, or any other type of disaster...........I sure can't remember all this detailed stuff and won't be able to access it on computer! Is there no way to copy or print articles for our own use? If no, I understand.....but I sure dread trying to re-type so much of this stuff, switching back to read a few sentences at a time on the web and then back to a Word document!!!

I just double checked the

I just double checked the copyright and it stated approximately half way through "This content may be printed for personal use only." So according to this you're all good as long as you don't distribute it.

I have a question. I have been prepping ( buying Walmart type ) lamp oil since before Y2K. How long does it store and will mine be any good or should I throw it out and start all over?? It seems ok when I check on.it..it's in the garage in a cool area.

There's no reason for you to throw it out considering that even ten year old alternative or cooking oils can be used successfully. If it were me I wouldn't be throwing it out, but I would transfer the fuel into a more sturdy, perhaps metal, container.

Loretta, I also have lamp oil stored since the late 1990's. I use it and have had no problem with it. I live in northern Wisconsin so it's a pretty cool climate. I keep my oil in the basement. I haven't had any trouble yet, with the bottles getting brittle. If they did, I would be losing a lot of valuable oil. Like Kellene said, I think I'm going to get some metal fuel cans and transfer it to them. I'm going to be sure and clearly label them as well.

I love the LED strand lighting. What type of attachment did you use at the end for the car adapter, or where did you purchase it? Thanks so much!

Did I miss something in

Did I miss something in reading this article that talked about chimneys? As I was told that people often use the wrong chimney for their altitude, like the higher the altitude, the longer the chimney should be. Can anyone clarify this?

I'm new to the world of lamps

I'm new to the world of lamps and I need a bit of guidance. I recently bought a kit to make a wine bottle hurricane lamp. The wick is held in a ceramic cork and I have a small chimney for the flame. However, whenever I light the lamp, the wick burns down within minutes. I gave the wick a good 24 hours to soak up the lamp oil, but it still seems like only the wick is burning. What am I doing wrong?

being a auto mechanic. i can

being a auto mechanic. i can help you with your knowledge about fuel consumption in cold weather. cold air is more dense. this means it has more oxygen in it. when you have more oxygen you must compensate with more fuel. if you watch any form of racing. they sometimes say cold weather makes more horse power. because the colder air having more oxygen in it. it can support the burning of more fuel. allowing the creation of more power. but an engine must maintain a proper fuel oxygen ratio. so the engine management teams calculate for that. they will jet or calculate a higher fuel rate from injectors. a burning wick will do just that all on it's own. so having a higher abundance of oxygen says it will consume more oil in it's burn. i hope this helps to explain why cold weather burns more oil.

I found this article very

I found this article very informative. I have inherited a lamp from my sister who didn't want it any more. I have been frustrated at it though because it puts out about as much light as a birthday candle in the next county. I'll see if I can troubleshoot the cause now that I know a little more. I think there's plenty of oil so maybe my wick is dried out.

Hi everyone...is it possible

Hi everyone...is it possible to burn a oil lamp without soot on your walls? I have a apt. with all white walls...have used candles in the past in an outage and notice soot on my walls. I have oil lamps and am very interested in using them if they won't make a mess. :)
Thanks in advance,
Debbie

Debbie,

Debbie,

The soot problem is mostly controlled by the lenght of your wick.  It is the same for candles also.  The longer the wick the more smoke and soot you will get.

If you will re-read the "Trimming your Wick" section of the article it should help you out.

I have learned a lot from

I have learned a lot from this article and all the replies. Like someone mentioned earlier, I would love to have a copy of this for reference. If you do not allow that, then would you consider an E-book on all your topics? Thank you

Thank you guys, I am older

Thank you guys, I am older and have the responsibility of informing inner city youth. I lived downtown for 25 years involved with a childrens ministry. When preparing I think of others and really appreciate the info. I am limited, yet some of the boys are showing interest in the herb medicine because on of their buddies was deathly ill and I gave him herbs that had took me 6 wks to prepare and he was well within an hour. He told his buddies, I ended up on your site because I collected 40 oil burning lamps over the years dating back to the 17 hundreds. I love the mason jar thing and plan to try and teach on this. Is it ok to show them your video and teach from your website. There is no money involved only love. Thank you.
Sincerely,
Ana Thunder

As a health nut and as a

As a health nut and as a science junky, I have to argue one thing - everything and anything that could be wrong with GMOs is literally incinerated if used as lamp oil, especially if only the wick is exposed to open air. The worst you'll get are a few trace vapors from the process, which carries no solid strains of the genetic make-up of GMO's altered DNA or complex altered proteins. Do I eat the stuff? Not when I can avoid it, but burning it should be just fine.

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