Oil Lamps


I found two oil lamps in the cellar when I moved in. I’ve never had an oil lamp before. I’m not familiar with using them, so I just left them there. I leave the cellar window cracked open just enough for the cats. There’s always an open bag of cat food in there and I let them help themselves. It keeps dogs and chickens out of their food and enables them to choose their own dining hours. On the downside, it means there’s always cats tramping in and out of the cellar. I noticed them knocking down the oil lamps (among other things) so I decided I’d better rescue them. I brought the lamps inside and cleaned them up. There was also some lamp oil and extra flat cotton lamp wick.

So I filled the lamps with oil. Now what? I investigated the operation. I figured it out, which means it’s really simple.

You turn this little knob on the side and it makes the wick go up and down.

I wasn’t sure how high up it was supposed to be, but I turned it pretty low before proceeding. I’ve always relied on candles during power outages, and I do have a generator now, but backups to the backups are always a good idea. And oil lamps seem so quaint. I decided I should light it!

I hoped nothing was going to explode!

And it was fine! And very quaint! And then I realized I did not know how to TURN IT OFF. Are you supposed to blow it out? Umm…. I tried the little knobby thing, turning the wick way down, and poof, it went out.

And nothing exploded. (Edit: DON’T DO THAT. See comments section. It’s safer to blow it out.) So I set the lamps on the mantel until the next power outage.

These lamps aren’t antiques, and I was able to find similar ones on the internet. You can burn kerosene in them, too, but some people prefer lamp oil because it burns cleaner and it doesn’t smell like kerosene. (I think kerosene is cheaper, though.) In the old days, people used any kind of grease or oil, and often just a rag floating in a dish, though that was sometimes dangerous. The “original” oil lamps go back to the days of Aladdin and the olive oil lamps. I found this nifty-looking DIY olive oil lamp here if you want to try making your own emergency/power outage olive oil lamp with a canning jar. I’m a little tempted to try it myself! You could add herbs or essential oils to make it fragrant, and it’s even a kinda neat tablescape idea. Anyone want to try it with me?

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Posted by Suzanne McMinn on September 27, 2012  

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28 Responses | RSS feed for comments on this post

  1. 9-27

    I am planning on making a bunch of these mason jar lamps for lighting/table decoration at my camping wedding next summer. Like you said, I think the concept works with just about any kindo of oil.

  2. 9-27

    I’ve used them for years. Much better light to read or knit by when the power is out. Just don’t grab the globe–it will be HOT!!!! And they do generate heat, so I like them MUCH better when I have to use them for cooler weather. Just place where the heat doesn’t affect anything and where cats and dog tails won’t knock it over. Even my husband uses one on his screen porch at his hunting camp-where there is NO electricity.

  3. 9-27

    So if you want to sit outside and you want to avoid having mosquitoes join the party, use citronella oil in your lamps. The odor might be overwhelming indoors but outside is quite acceptable. I have metal lanterns I use when camping for this purpose.

  4. 9-27

    oh, one more thing–if the wick is too high, they will get sooty…

  5. 9-27

    I’ve missed hearing about the cats, since I’m such a cat lover myself. Do you still have all ten? I’ve often wondered how they acclimated to living on your new farm. Are they still allowed inside the house? Would love to see more pics of them. I’m curious how you keep other critters, such as squirrels, raccoons, etc., from getting in your cellar and eating the cat food. Don’t they go in through the open windows too?

  6. 9-27

    What a wonderful find. Lucky you. I once had one made from red glass. But unfortunately in got broke. I doubt it was very old either.

  7. 9-27

    When I was little my family had a house in a little town in Mexico that had no electricity, and we used kerosene lamps. It was my job to clean the chimneys, refill them and trim the wicks every morning. I like kerosene lamps.

    Wendy is right about not touching the chimney glass; hot glass can give you a nasty burn. It’s also best not to put them out by turning down the wick. It’s safer to blow the lamp out. Cup your hand around the far side of the chimney (without touching it) and blow across the top, into your hand. That way there’s no danger of carrying fire down into the fuel. Use the little knob just to adjust the wick. You want it only high enough to have a good flame; if it’s too high the chimney will get sooty, which cuts down on your light. When you refill the lamp, cut the burnt bits off the top of the wick and trim it so that it’s nice and square and even across the top. That will help give you a clean flame.

    For emergency lighting, kerosene lamps are good for ambient light, but for task lighting, Coleman-style white gas lanterns give a brighter light, because of their Welsbach mantles. They’re more work, though, because you have to keep them pumped up. Or you can use a propane lantern with a Welbach mantle and it doesn’t need pumping.

  8. 9-27

    We used oil lamps whenever we had a power outage when I was growing up. In fact my paternal grandparents never had electricity on their farm, just oil lamps. Kinda dark in there!
    Whaledancer is right about trimming the wicks and blowing the lamp out. The globe gets very hot…I know from experience!
    You’ll be glad you have them when you have your next power outage.

  9. 9-27

    I grew up with these, too! We are just finishing construction on our new house and I definitely want to make something like this for when we may lose power over the winter. We lost it for a week during the terrible storms in June (I’m in Harrison County).

    Here’s another article from Mother Earth News: http://www.motherearthnews.com/Do-It-Yourself/Make-Olive-Oil-Lamp.aspx

    Speaking of Mother Earth News – they hold a “fair” every September at Seven Springs (about an hour or so from Morgantown)…this year they had 15,000 people attend. Joel Salatin did a live chicken butchering demo. Perhaps it might be something you’d be interested in attending in the future :-)

  10. 9-27

    I have several antique oil lamps that I just love. One belonged to my grandmother and I really cherish that one.

  11. 9-27

    Yes, I will try the DIY Olive Oil lamp with you. I am a prepper (not the NatGeo kind…LOL) and this would be a good skill to learn.

    Sharon B., VA

  12. 9-27

    Oh, BTW, what is on that blue Ball jar to the right? It looks like a handle- What is it? Inquiring minds want to know…….. :woof:

  13. 9-27

    My grandmother taught me how to trim the wick. Turn the wick down close trim straight across. Turn wick up a little and snip off the corners. Blow out the flame as described – Never turn it down into the fixture. Be safe.

  14. 9-27

    I use olive oil and fish oil (no, it doesn’t stink!) oil lamps when I do reenactments….. they are very safe and give good light. Just remember to hold the flame to the wick for a good minute to light it, since olive oil has to be heated to burn. Bonus…. if you knock them over, they self extinguish!

  15. 9-27

    When growing up, there was always a kerosene lamp in the house for those power losses. Since Florida is the lightening capitol of the world, it happened more than you would have suspected.

    I still keep an oil lamp on hand just for that kind of situation but don’t have to use it very often. Better to be prepared…….

  16. 9-27

    Not high tech at all, but they work well. We used “oil lamps” when the power went out when I was a child–we usually used kerosene. I have an old one–for when the power goes out–and I use lamp oil.
    However, it’s good to be aware that the lamp oil can evaporate (well, it does out here in the desert where I live–maybe not back east in humidity).
    I think it’s safer than candles–but that’s because I once had a big candle “meltdown” during a power outage.

    And, let’s face it, I love the way they look.

  17. 9-28

    Love the oil lamps. I scored a nifty older one this summer for 5.00
    Went to buy new guts for it and discovered the new one screws on and my old one just slips on, no threads. The old one is still in pretty good shape, just needs a few dings popped out. I have the oil ready to go so when we loose power I won’t be totaly in the dark. Altho I do have my solar yard lights I bring in for nite lit path ways through the house.

  18. 9-28

    Right away I thought, I’ll try making a mason jar oil lamp with you. Then I could almost hear my mother, from heaven, saying, “Vanessa, you’ve always been a “fire-bug” and you’ll burn your house down yet”.

  19. 9-28

    I am now motivated to bring the oil lamps up from the basement. I haven’t lit one in years.

    The cat food buffet in the basement worries me a bit. Other critters will discover it as a food source and where there are little critters like mice, there are snakes that like to eat mice, snakes like basements…ask me how I know.

  20. 9-28

    I recently did the same thing, except I found my oil lamp at an antiques shop. I took it home, cleaned it up, put new a new wick and some oil in it and.. VOILA! However, i wasn’t quite as brave as you.. I lit it for a minute, but , too, was waiting for the explosion…LOL! I don’t know what has gotten into me… I wouldn’t call myself a prepper, but am sure finding myself buying kitchen gadgets and other “decorations” that allow you to get the job done without electricity.. I’ve bought a couple of food mills, a(nother) waterbath canner, old-fasioned hand-cranked beaters, one-piece sheep shears (why on earth….?) and an oil lamp…. since last year, I have begun to can again, I have finally mastered the art of breadbaking and have saved all of the DIY instructionals on making candles, soap, cleaner, etc… Maybe I’m like my horses when they are putting on a winter coat… Something is telling me to GET READY!!!

  21. 9-28

    Me again…Back in the Great Ice Storm of 1998, we used our oil lamps a lot! We learned that you can make a lamp wick from a piece of old jean leg. Works great! I made a bunch of them just in case, and still have them. You couldn’t buy wicks anywhere back then.

  22. 9-28

    I have oil lamps and I haven’t been using them. I love them and I’m starting to do that again. Thanks for reminding me. BUT, I really, really recommend you don’t let your window open for the cats. Snakes and mice will come in. Believe me, you won’t like the snakes, especially. The cats will kill the mice but any snakes that come in could be harmless or poisonous. Just sayin’

  23. 9-28

    Oh yeah, my mom used to have the job of filling the lamps at her house on the farm with kerosene. She told me to blow the flame out and she said if you wind it up too far, it will smoke and then you have to clean the globe.

  24. 9-29

    I have several with different colored/scented lamp oils in them. I light some of them, in the winter, and turn the lights down low. They provide a nice ambient light and look so cozy…even when the power is NOT out! :woof:

  25. 10-1

    I had a little collection of mini oil lamps when I was a kid. I think places in the country still had them and my Dad bought them for me. I wish I still had them, but he must have tossed them when he was moving (long ago). I’ll have to keep my eyes open for one at antique stores.

  26. 10-3

    :sun: I absolutely LOVE my oil lamps! Although the electric doesn’t go out very often, it’s comforting to know I have them “just in case.” Candles are good for general lighting, but if you want to read or sew or just light the whole room, an oil lamp is the answer. Turn the wick up for more light, turn it down for less light. However, I join with so many others and urge everyone NOT to turn the wick completely down to extinguish the flame. I’ve known of a couple of folks who found out the hard way that this can lead to an explosion. Not good!

    There are many times during the winter snows that I like to turn out all the lights, open the windows at night, and turn an oil lamp down low. Creates a wonderful atmosphere–very peaceful and quiet. Similar to turning out all the lights at Christmas and just having the lights from your Christmas tree on.

    Since you’ve already been given all the advice you need on maintaining your lamps, I won’t add any more. All I can say now is…Enjoy! (isn’t it nice to be prepared???)

    CynRob in Huntington, WV

  27. 10-3

    Note: my previous comment should have read….open the curtains at night–not the windows during a snowfall! Oops!

  28. 10-11

    I have several oil lamps, old and new, that I use when the power is out. FYI: You can buy oil lamps at stores like Walmart, some for around $10. They also sell lamp oil and wicks. Some are non-traditional geometric style. I also have one that’s dark metal that hangs on the wall. It has a shield behind the globe, but I placed foil over it to reflect more light. Also, I remember watching an old Mickey Rooney movie where he was playing Thomas Edison. A doctor needed to operate but there wasn’t enough light, so they placed oil lamps on the fireplace mantel because there was a huge mirror hanging above the mantel, which in turn amplified the lamps and made more light. I think they used more lamps and mirrors around the room, too. Just my little 2 cents on the subject.

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