How to Light Up Your World, part 1: Oil Lamps

using oil lamps after the end of the world

“Light” and “darkness” have been important features since the creation of the world.  The two opposites provide division of our days and help set the rhythm of our body clocks.  In addition to providing us the opportunity to see once the sun has gone down, light has always been important to people as a source of comfort.

We like to have candles to light when a storm knocks out the power.  We want to have a flashlight handy to determine the cause of the thump in the night.  If the electrical grid should fail for any length of time, how would you provide that precious light?

In this series, I want to cover some of the various possibilities you might consider for light sources.  I will focus on one or two per posting, discussing the pros and cons of that source, and list some choices in style or brand.  I’d love to hear your feedback and suggestions too.

Oil Lamps

The oil lamp has been around in one form or another for a LONG time.  One of my favorite passages in the Bible even mentions the wise young ladies who brought extra oil along for their lamps and those who ran out while they waited (Matthew 25) .

An oil lamp can be made at home with found materials-  as simple as a wick of some sort sticking up out of a jar of olive oil or even something fun and unusual.  There are also lots of reputable companies that make durable ones, too.  Lehman’s carries some.  Beyond the old-timey looking and lantern styles, there are some beautiful tabletop versions that look like porcelain or brass lamps even.

Benefits vs. Drawbacks

Some of the pros for choosing oil lamps for a light source include:

1.  you have a choice of oils to use–  kerosene, “lamp oil, and olive oil will all usually burn in the typical oil lamp.   It’s possible to even burn used cooking oil, but it will likely give off the smell of whatever you cooked in it

2.  they can be nearly odorless– kerosene is the exception hereoil lamp

3.  little to no smoke–  this will depend on what type of oil you choose, but they tend to produce less smoke than candles and some other fuels

4.  many can be hung or mounted on the walls to provide something like a sconce;  others are made to be portable

And the cons:

1.  kerosene is a non-renewable fossil fuel that produces an odor many find disagreeable, especially indoors

2.  it’s not advisable to put different kinds of fuel/oil in the same lamp.  Many advise replacing the wick if you have to empty the lamp and fill with a different oil

3.  lamps need occasional cleaning and filling

4.  lamps may contain breakable glass

I’d advise stocking oil and extra wicks.  If you run out of wicks, it is possible to fashion your own.  Note that the addition of salt to the wicking material will help make it stiff and slow down the rate of burn of the wick itself.

Important note:  In the U.S., “paraffin” oil is a liquid candle-like oil.  In the UK, “paraffin” means kerosene.  Be sure you know what you are buying and how it can safely be burned.  Kerosene is less viscous and draws up the wick more easily, often producing a brighter light.  It has a lower “flash point” than paraffin lamp oil.  Sometimes lamps or wicks work better with one fuel vs. the other.  Be sure you read the instructions that come with any lamp you purchase.  NEVER put an unapproved petroleum based oil in a lamp to burn- it may explode!

Got a favorite brand of lamp or oil?  Any tips to share?  Do you scent the oil?  Please share in the comments section below.

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13 Comments on “How to Light Up Your World, part 1: Oil Lamps”

  1. Stan Morris Says:

    Wouldn’t it be better to stock up on solar panels, rechargable batteries, and Led bulbs? They may not last forever, but you should be able to keep enough around to last a few decades?


    • Laura Says:

      Your point is valid and we have some of those too. I will cover more possibilities in future posts. I wanted to be sure that I am at least providing info about the major choices out there so people can make informed decisions. When I began looking into this topic years ago, I was surprised that there were more options than just the old kerosene lanterns we had for power outages growing up.

      Any source of fuel you cannot produce on your own could be problematic in the long term. If the grid were down a very long time, we would begin to render tallow and other fats for soap making and other things. In theory, we could use that in some type of simple lamp too as long as it was warm enough to be liquid- that could be tricky since they are usually saturated (solid at room temperature). We’d have to do some experimenting, maybe store the lamps near the wood stove (?).

      One thing I forgot to mention above is that any burning flame also produces significant heat- that has its pros and cons also.

      Thanks for your question.


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  3. EW Says:

    You can also use tallow, rendered fat, for the oil or to make candles and soap. My great grandma used to put a string in her butter pats and light it, and it would burn just fine. Also, you can soak your homemade wicks in different minerals, ie salt and borax produces a yellow flame, soaked in epsom salts produces a whiter flame. I often have leftover wax from store bought candles, and I just remelt the bits and make a new candle and my own wicks. Be aware though, when making your own wicks, the size/diameter of the wick IS important. Use the original sizing as a loose guide for either candles or oil lanterns!


  4. George Says:

    keep the wicks trimmed to make them burn better and more efficiently. i have found that it works best by trimming it to the shape of the dome were the wick exits the lamp unless it is the Aladin lamps.


  5. Jack Dumbauld Says:

    These lamps are highly dangerous if they are knocked over. I believe the great Chicago fire was started with an oil lamp.

    I bought some real cheapie lamps from china and they leaked fuel and made a mess.

    This is great way to dispose of old diesel fuel.

    These are best used out doors if kero or diesel is used due to the smell and once again, the fire hazard.


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