By Kellene Bishop You might not think that there's much to know regarding Tips and Tricks for Using 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?
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.
All 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 get 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 burned 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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