Oil lamps have been around almost as long as mankind has, but today we have replaced the single digit candlepower oil lamps of the Bedouin days in the past and live by bright as day electrical powered lamps. We all know that and it’s one of those facts of life we never even think about. But it surprises me that more people don’t know how to care for, or even properly utilize the oil lamps of today. I often hear complaints of how dim the light is, or how the chimney tends to soot up, or how disagreeable the odor is and so on. These problems really needn’t exists, especially in light of the fact that these are the same tools in use during the eigthteenth and nineteenth centuries, with no change to them in the 200 plus intervening years. And yet these complaints were never uttered in those days at all.
There are a couple of different types of non-pressurized oil lamps and lanterns on the market today, those being of the wick type for one, and the other being the mantel type lamps. For now I’m only going to address the simple, yet widely available simple wick types today. There are a great many makers today, and unfortunately most of them come nowhere near in quality to the older units we generally see for high prices in the antique shops. But some of them are of excellent workmanship, such as the Dietz lanterns, still available in a wide range of styles.
My first piece of advice is one I frequently promote, and that is that you buy the very best that you can buy with the budget you have. Don’t skimp on the tools that will be the ones you use most, you’ll just regret it in the end. Some of these cheap tinplate lanterns and lamps you can pick up at the mass merchandisers are ok for occasional use, but they won’t last, and require more care than a well made tool will require.
And by the way, always look upon the things you plan to use to survive with as tools, not stuff that’s hanging around. If you end up going without power for an extended period of time, you’ll be glad that you have kept this equipment in good order.
An important component of your lamp will be the fuel, so let’s talk about that for a moment. There are a number of fuels on the market, and some of them can cause a lot of difficulties with daily use, while others can be dangerous to use in your lamp. We’re talking about simple wick style lamps here so ignore the more volatile fuels such as white gas, alcohol and so forth. None of those should be used in a simple lamp, no matter how desperate you get for that little bit of light. They can be somewhat explosive in the way they burn and you just may lose the roof over your head from the resulting inferno.
Stick to the basics, kerosene, lamp oil and mineral oil if you will. Liquid paraffin will work, but it will clog your wick and burner mechanism resulting in a lot of unnecessary work, avoid it. Mineral oil is difficult to obtain and isn’t as efficient as lamp oil or kerosene, so I wouldn’t spend any effort in utilizing that fuel either. In the old days sperm oil was favored and was plentiful, so you may from time to time see a reference to its use, but for all intents and purposes is extinct today. The closest you can get would be highly processed fish oil which stinks, gives a smoky residue and is dirty in a regular lamp. Sperm oil is whale oil, by the way.
There are also scented and colored lamp oils on the market which will work OK, but they may leave a visible, colored residue if you have a clear glass font, and these oils are less efficient as the additives cut down on the available BTUs the naked oils should be providing. It’s like putting ethanol in your cars gasoline supply. It works, but it cuts down on your mileage and you have to use more to go the same distance as without the ethanol.
Regular lamp oil is clear, and usually comes in a quart or 64oz bottle. If you keep it tightly sealed and out of the warmth of the sun the loss through evaporation will be negligible over normal time. It won’t last years and years, but you can expect it to be around for at least a few for storage purposes. A couple of decades ago I bought a couple of bottles to see how long they would keep. After six years in a closet we went through a several day blackout and ran out of the everyday oil. When I used this stored oil it worked fine and the loss was minimal, hardly noticeable in fact. I’d say it was probably less than a two to three percent loss at the most.
But kerosene is a much better choice. Its higher BTU rating will provide more candlepower, meaning a brighter light. Unfortunately, it does have an odor, but that can be eliminated by adding a special chemical that is said to eliminate the odor. It is also a much cheaper fuel in the long run compared to bottled lamp oil. You can buy it in bulk form, and many gas stations have K1 available that you can pump into five gallon cans. This fuel contains a red dye to make the federal tax collectors happy though, and I have had some discoloration in some lamps due to this dye. You can also buy it in crystal clear form from a lot of places that sell portable kerosene heaters, and also in one gallon cans in many paint supply stores and chain hardware stores. It can be much higher in cost that way though.
You will also need a supply of wicks. You can by them in a roll from some places and cut them to length, or in packages of usually five. ½” and 5/8th inches are the most common. Most of your lanterns will have a ½” wick while many lamps have a 5/8th inch wick. Cotton is the best material, but sometimes you can get fiberglass wicks that work very well also. However, the fiberglass is not so common a product and can be difficult to find unless you know of a particular supply house that trades in this sort of item.
That’s it for this time, next time I’ll look at the different parts of the lamps and lanterns and how they work, as well as how to maintain them.