Thursday, September 4, 2014

Care and Feeding of Oil Lamps

Since I live in a semi-rural area, my electrical supply is sometimes unreliable. Wind, ice, and trees tend to knock the power out at least a few times every year, for up to a day at a time (just yesterday I went two hours without power). Kerosene lamps are part of my normal life, but I realize that many people have never used one. This is an example of old-school technology that is still fairly common and can be very useful in an emergency.

Facts about Fuel

Oil lamps evolved from the basic wick-in-a-bowl that provided light for centuries. Instead of using animal fat as fuel, a variety of oils have been used depending on location and availability. Whale and fish oils were common near the coasts, while kerosene and coal oil were more popular inland.
  • Just about any oil -- animal, vegetable, or mineral -- can be used as fuel, so long as it is liquid and your wick material will absorb it. 
  • The amount of light put out by the lamp will vary according to the fuel you use, as will the smell. 
  • Each fuel has a distinctive odor that may or may not be pleasant. 
  • Do not use gasoline, alcohol, paint thinner or any other fuel that evaporates quickly in a wick-based lamp/lantern. I will cover those fuels in a later article. 
  • All liquid-fueled light sources involve fire. Extreme care needs to be taken to keep hot surfaces away from flammable materials. 
  • Remember that heat rises, so flammable materials above the lamp need to be considered when placing a lamp.
  • Keep children and morons away from lit lamps, unless you enjoy treating burns and putting out fires.

Anatomy of an Oil Lamp

Oil lamps come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from the simple table lamp to the “hurricane” lanterns commonly seen in old movies. They all share the same three main parts:
Fuel Supply
For a table lamp, the base is usually the fuel supply, keeping the weight and center of gravity low to keep the lamp from falling or being knocked over. Glass bases are common on table lamps because it allows you to see how much fuel is left without disturbing the lamp. For a hurricane lantern, or a lamp with a metal base, the easiest way to check the fuel level is to pick it up and shake it gently, listening and feeling for the “slosh” of fuel. 

Burner and Wick
The burner holds the wick out of the liquid fuel and usually provides some way to adjust the height of the portion of the wick exposed. The burner will have holes in the bottom to allow air to flow past the wick (covered by a guard on this burner) and supports for the chimney. Wicks come in varying widths and you can use a slightly smaller wick than your lamp is designed for as long as the teeth on the raising/lowering mechanism will still get a good bite on it. Have extra wicks on hand if you're expecting to use a lamp for a long period of time.

The chimney is usually made of glass to allow the light from the flame out and protects the flame from breezes. I have seen some more “rugged” lamps that used sheets of mica (a translucent mineral that forms in layers) instead of glass, but being translucent instead of transparent, they don't allow as much light out. Any lamp or lantern that is made to be moved while lit will have some form of protection for the chimney since it is the most fragile part. Extra chimneys are good to have around since the lamp won't work well without one. They are measured at the base and for height (2 inch by 8 inch for example)

Before lighting a lamp/lantern

When it looks like the sun is going down or you're going to be moving around in the dark, you'll want to get your lamp ready. While not as complicated as a pre-flight check on an airplane, preparing your lamp properly will provide better light, more efficient fuel use, and less mess.
  1. Check your fuel supply. Top off the fuel if you have it, since keeping the wick wet is what allows it to draw fuel up to the top where it can be burned. There is a point where the wick will not have enough contact with the fuel to sustain a good burn, but that depends on the type of fuel and the type of wick being used. You can't have too much wick in the fuel, so keep the fuel level full.
  2. Check your wick. The purpose of the wick is not to burn, but to carry fuel up to the top edge where it can burn. Because the wick is so close to the fire it will char and burn slowly, but it is the fuel that is putting out the light. Blackened, charred wick material (like that shown in the picture above) doesn't carry fuel very well, so you'll occasionally need to trim the wick in order to keep fresh material exposed. Adjust the wick so that it protrudes slightly beyond the burner guard and use sharp scissors to trim away the burnt portion. Cut the wick into the shape of the burner guard, normally a gentle curve or at least cut the corners. The shape of the wick will affect the shape of the flame.


    This is what the flame will look like from a wick cut straight across. The flame concentrates on the corners and if you raise the wick much at all, it will smoke and soot up your chimney.

    After cutting the corners of the wick, the flame is more rounded with the peak of the flame more towards the center. This flame can be turned up or down through a wider range of light output without sooting up your chimney.

  3. Check and clean the chimney. Look for chips and cracks. The cheaper lamps use low quality glass that doesn't stand up to the heat of open flame very well. A crack or chip will spread once the lamp heats up and may cause the entire chimney to shatter or fall apart. Clean the chimney with soft cloth or newspaper. Keeping the glass clean lets out more light and looks better. Don't use any solvents to clean the glass and let it dry before before you light the lamp.
  4. Put it back together, making sure you get the base of the chimney inside all of the legs of the burner.

Lighting the lantern

  1. Clear a spot for the lamp to sit. Keep it away from curtains, drapes, cloth, pets, and other things that can catch fire.
  2. Have a match or lighter handy, but don't light it yet.
  3. Adjust the wick up to where it is well clear of the burner.
  4. Tilt the chimney enough to expose the wick.
  5. Strike the match or light the lighter and apply the flame to one corner of the wick.
  6. Snuff out the match and safely discard it.
  7. Place the chimney back on the burner base.
  8. Adjust the wick to give a small, even flame.
  9. After a few minutes, adjust the wick to give the flame that gives the desired amount of light.

Extinguishing the lamp

  1. Turn the lamp down to a low flame
  2. Holding your hand at about a 45 degree angle over the top of the chimney,
  3. Blow a sharp puff of air at your hand.
  4. Be aware that the chimney will be hot for a while after the lamp is put out.

The lamp I used as an example is a burner designed to fit on a Mason jar, so if the base ever breaks it is easy to replace. They can be found on Amazon, as can chimneys and replacement wicks. Another good source of parts and lamps is Lehman's

Hurricane Lanterns

Hurricane lanterns are similar, but they have wire guards around the globe or chimney and a metal top, bottom, and handle for carrying. The Dietz Air Pilot shown is one of the best on the market, burning for 24 hours on a fill and being as wind-proof as you can make a lantern. The main difference is the fact that the globe (chimney) is held down with a spring-loaded top cap, and the burner has a lever on it for lifting the globe enough to light the wick. Extinguishing the lantern requires lifting the globe and blowing out the wick.

Dietz lanterns are now made overseas, so the quality isn't quite what it was, but they're still dependable.

Older Lamps

Cheap Chinese oil lamps can be found in just about any "dollar" store and most big box hardware stores for just a few bucks. The better ones, made before 1960 or so, can be found in antique stores and at estate sales. Check used metal lanterns carefully for rust along the bottom edges, and be aware that some idiots like to drill holes in old lamps to convert them to electric power.

Long-Term Use

Lay in a supply of oil for your lamps and get the clearest, cleanest oil you can find. The more pure the oil, the longer the shelf life. Kerosene will keep for decades, although it will discolor with age. There are microbes that will grow in diesel fuel/kerosene, so you may have to filter older fuel before use. Plant and animal sourced oils will not keep as long, they tend to go rancid within a few months at best.

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