Estimated reading time: 16 minutes
The concept of an oil lamp is literally thousands of years old. Many ancient oil lamps were fueled by animal fats, oils from seeds like olive oil, and in time were fueled by whale oil. In fact, in the 17 and 1800’s the use of whale oil in lamps was the primary reason for whaling, but as time went on new alternatives emerged.
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Yet Still, Not Much Has Changed
We’re going to cover all of the possibilities for various and alternative fuels for an oil lamp. We’ll also cover some fuels that should simply never be used like gasoline. In an ideal scenario, an oil that will burn steadily but with a low intensity is ideal.
These oils are not as flammable as other fuels and also don’t give off noxious or deadly fumes like carbon monoxide. Ideally they also don’t fill a room with smoky odors and manage to burn and maintain a flame for hours rather than minutes.
Oil Lamps Vary
The first oil lamp was nothing more than a sea shell or shallow dish with a fibrous wick hanging over the side in a pool of some kind of oil. This was on “open lamp” design and worked when the oil used would burn, but was not highly flammable. The flame was rather weak in terms of brightness, and the primitive lamp was dangerous if knocked over or spilled.
A step up from a wick in a dish or shell was the clay oil lamp. It did a better job of containing the oil, and even had a handle so the lamp could be transported safely without spilling. Here again, the oils used were primarily animal fat and vegetable oils. This type of oil lamp was the primary light source across ancient civilizations.
The clay pot oil lamp continued to be the technology of choice in the ancient world and the concept is still used to this day in glass and crystal globes that are more ornamental than functional.
True functionality emerged in 1780 when the son of a Swiss watchmaker named Francois Argand used blown glass to create what is commonly known today as a hurricane lamp. As a result, the oil lamp emerged from the primitive confines of thatched huts and caves to living rooms and bedrooms of homes and apartments.
Eventually the concept of a hurricane lamp was adapted and modified to create a more portable and durable configuration and fuels like kerosene joined the growing assortment of fats and oils that fueled the flames. These lanterns are sometimes referred to as “railroad” lanterns or farmer’s lanterns because of their regular use by railroads and farmers.
Today the classic hurricane lamp is still a popular choice for people who live off-grid or want an emergency lighting alternative in the event of power outages, and it’s still the go-to lighting source for the Amish.
The oils and fuels we’re about to cover are all flammable to varying degrees. However, there are some options we’ll cover later that should not be used in any type of open oil lamp, or even an enclosed oil lamp.
Hurricane lamps isolate the wick and the flame from the fuel. Open wick lamps from ancient times are intended for viscous, less flammable oils only. A highly flammable oil or distillate will burn across the surface of the exposed oil in an open oil lamp. That’s a bad idea.
Lamp Oil 101
Before we get into all of the natural and sometimes messy lamp oil alternatives, you can buy lamp oil online. It’s a paraffin based oil that gives off no noxious fumes and for the most part is odor free. The only downside is that it’s a little expensive and when you run out you need an alternative.
Alternative Lamp Oils
If it’s an oil it will burn in an oil lamp. Just be careful with petroleum based oils like motor oils. They give off carbon monoxide and can be used outdoors in an emergency but are best avoided for any indoor use.
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Animal fats like pork fat (lard) and beef fat (tallow)was the first oil type used centuries ago. Animal fats were rendered and stored and used both for cooking and as fuel for oil lamps. Even bear fat was sometimes used assuming someone could safely and effectively hunt for bears.
Bacon fat was another possibility but it will fill a room with the aroma of bacon. For some of us, that’s not all bad and in an emergency it makes for a safe burning fat. We inhale the fumes every time we fry bacon.
What always help with a rendered animal fat is to strain the fat after rendering. This will remove any bits of meat that find their way into the rendered fat, and will allow your wick to burn more effectively. Not a big deal, but it helps.
Olive oil burns well in an oil lamp but it’s very expensive these days. If it’s all you have it will provide you light if an oil lamp is your only alternative. Regular olive oil is cheaper than extra virgin and both burn equally well.
Other Seed Oils
Oils made from other types of seeds like safflower seed oil, sunflower seed oil, cottonseed, canola (rapeseed oil), and others all will burn effectively in an oil lamp. Here again, there might be a slight odor but the fumes are generally safe. If you use it for cooking you can burn it for light.
A lot has been written about making candles and lamps from a can of Crisco. Shortening is a vegetable oil that has been exposed to hydrogen gas bubbles causing it to solidify into a solid form at room temperature. This solid form can be a bit of problem in some oil lamps.
The best oil lamp type for a solid oil like shortening is an open lamp where the burning flame is exposed to the shortening. This will keep a sufficient amount of the shortening liquid so it can wick up and burn.
These are some of the cheapest oils off the shelf. Buy the most inexpensive store brand. Types of vegetable oils include corn oil, palm oil, peanut oil, soybean oil and others. All of these oils burn well in an oil lamp. The odor from the burning oils will vary and the fumes are not toxic. If you don’t like the smell of the vapor from a certain oil, use something else unless it’s an emergency and it’s all you have.
There are some oils that aren’t exactly common but will burn in an oil lamp. These include castor oil, fish oil, and hemp oil. Some will have a distinct odor that you may or not tolerate especially fish oil. Then again you can always use an oil like fish oil outdoors.
Another emergency possibility is butter or margarine. Margarine essentially has the same characteristics as shortening and is made the same way through hydrogenation. Butter is another expensive fuel but in an emergency it will burn in an open oil lamp where the open flame can reduce the solid to a liquid.
Contrary to popular belief, a kerosene lamp or lantern should not be used indoors. This is especially true for red kerosene, but even K-1 kerosene (non-died kerosene) should not be used indoors. The fumes give off a strong odor along with gases like carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and black carbon.
However, kerosene can be used outdoors without a problem and will burn long and relatively bright. It’s also somewhat inexpensive but it’s not something you can make yourself if you run out or it’s unavailable.
Tiki Torch Fuel?
A popular outdoor lighting option is known as a Tiki torch. It’s usually a fuel chamber with a wick attached to the top of a long pole pushed into the ground. They burn long and bright but the fuel is intended for outdoor use only.
If used in an oil lamp, Tiki torch fuel is best used in an enclosed lamp design like a hurricane lamp or railroad lantern. It’s more flammable than an oil and the exposed surface in an open lamp will ignite all of the fuel.
Fuels to Avoid
Here are some fuels to never use in an oil lamp especially indoors. They are either highly flammable creating an immediate fire hazard, or give off any possible combination of noxious fumes and gases. A few can be used outdoors in an emergency but others should never be used. Some just stink.
- Any type of gasoline including white gas
- Diesel fuel
- Aviation fuels (de-icers in aviation fuel are highly toxic)
- Paint Thinner
- Paint Stripper
- Wood Alcohol
Can Be Used Outdoors in an Emergency
These fuels should only be used outdoors in an enclosed lamp with a solid separation of the wick and flame from the fuel.
- Motor oil
- Transmission fluid
- Brake oil
- Tiki Torch Fuel
- Citronella oil (a specialized lamp oil used to repel mosquitoes and gives off a distinct odor)
- Rubbing alcohol or other spirits in an enclosed lamp
A Word About Wicks
Wicks for oil lamps vary. Some are thin strips of fabric that can be turned up and out of the fuel chamber to increase or decrease the size of the flame. Others are simple, round wicks that emerge from the chamber and burn the fuel as it is literally “wicked up” to the flame.
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One thing to keep in mind is that using different oils over time can affect the performance of a wick depending on the type of previous oil permeating the wick. Paraffin oils are a good example.
Any wick that has become saturated with paraffin oil should be replaced before using with any other type of oil or fuel. The paraffin clogs the pores of the wicking and the wicking action will fail if you try to burn a vegetable oil with a paraffin saturated wick.
You can improvise a wick from varying materials. Here are some possibilities:
- Rope made from hemp or other natural materials. Always avoid using a rope made from plastic or polyethylene. They will simply fill a room with black smoke and the smell of burning plastic.
- Braided strips of fabric tightly braided to form a wick.
- A length of string from the head of a mop. These tend to be made from cotton or other natural fibers and are tightly wound and highly absorbent.
- A natural length of cordage braided from the dry stalk of a burdock plant or other plants with long fibers in their stalks or branches.
- Tightly braided yarn made from natural fibers.
- Strips from a fabric belt or strap. Make sure it’s made from natural fibers and not synthetics and without any elastic bands sewn into the fabric.
- A braided cotton shoelace if tightly braided can also work in a pinch.
Better yet, just stockpile some extra wicks.
Improvising a DIY Oil Lamp
This is easy to make and a very simple extension of any enclosed oil lamp with an open flame. You can even buy a Mason jar lid with a wick to quickly make your own.
- A canning jar with a lid or any other glass food jar with a metal lid.
- A wick either from your stockpile or from found or homemade materials. We’re using a short length of rope from a mop head.
- Your fuel of choice. We’re using vegetable oil.
- Use a Phillips Head screwdriver or a hole punch to punch a hole in the center of the metal lid. Do this from the inside surface of the lid so any flanges that emerge from the punched hole are pointing up to hold the wick and prevent it from slipping into the chamber.
- Carefully insert your wick into the hole in the lid and pull it up so about a ¼-inch to a 1/2-inch emerge. You may need to trim the wick after lighting if the flames burns too large. You want a nice, even and consistent flame.
- Screw the lid with wick onto the jar and assess the length of the descending wick. It should coil on the bottom of the jar with the end of the wick at the bottom of the jar at the tail of the coil.
- Fill the jar 2/3 full with your oil.
- Tightly attach the wick and wait a few minutes for the wick to draw oil into its fibers.
- Light the wick and watch it for a few minutes until your satisfied that its burning properly and the wick is the correct length. Blow out the flame and trim the wick if needed and relight until you’re satisfied.
- To extend more wick from the jar, use a pair of needle-nose pliers or your fingers to gently lift the extinguished wick up from the chamber to the desired length.
Any open flame can cause a fire. This is particularly true if an oil lamp tips over and spills onto the floor. Some of the more viscous and less flammable oils like vegetable oils may simply extinguish the flame, but if it spills onto a carpet or fabric furniture things could get out of hand.
Keep any oil lamp on a table or countertop and remove any tablecloths or fussy doilies so a spill won’t ignite any other flammable materials. People have been lighting their way with oil lamps for thousands of years but that doesn’t mean any of us can be complacent with an open flame in the house or barn. Just ask Mrs. O’Leary’s cow who was once blamed for kicking over a lantern and starting the Great Chicago Fire.
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