When the Lights Go Out: Tips and Tricks for Priming Off-Grid Light Sources


As discussed in the previous article, on primitive light sources, early humans used shells and other non-flammable objects found in nature to create the first oil lamps.  Later, hand-made oil lamps were created using clay.

As human civilization progressed, so too did the oil lamp.  The earliest records of mass produced lamps have been found in Egypt, Greece, and Rome and may have been the first mass produced objects in history.  They were easier and safer to use than the open flame of a torch, burned more efficiently, and gave off fewer residues than candles and were refillable.

Not much changed in the design until the 18th century when Aime Argand, a Swiss physicist and chemist, invented and patented the “Argand Lamp”.  Like primitive oil lamps, his lamps contained a vessel in which to hold the lamp oil, but he improved upon the design by creating a cylindrical wick to give a larger surface to the wick and a glass chimney to direct the draft and protect the flame (and the person carrying the lamp!).  During the middle of the 19th century, oil lamps gave way in popularity to kerosene lamps and design improvements continued.  Kerosene lamps stayed popular into the 20th century, especially in places that were late to acquire the new invention of the electric light bulb.

Today, oil and kerosene lamps remain popular with those that live off the grid, collectors, and those that need an emergency back-up light source for when the power goes out.

First, the Fine Print

Before beginning a discussion on oil lamps, it’s important to talk about what you should NOT do.

Do not use any of the following fuels

  • Gasoline, diesel, or aviation fuel
  • Coleman brand fuel
  • White gas
  • Paint thinner or Mineral spirits
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Naphtha
  • Turpentine
  • Benzene

These fuels are extremely dangerous and are either explosive or create deadly fumes when inhaled, or both.  There are other equally dangerous reasons not to use these fuels or any fuel with a flashpoint under 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but for the sake of brevity in this article, I’ll leave it up to you to research the reasons these fuels are no bueno.

Read more about the most popular types of fuel to store for emergencies.

Be very cautious when lowering a lighted wick on the lamp.  Lowering the lighted wick is sometimes used to control or reduce the flame and is a perfectly acceptable method; however, use caution that the wick stays within the grip of the cogs in the burner and doesn’t drop down into the tank.

Oil lamps use flammable fuel and should be handled with care.  If your pet or dog knocks over the tableside electric lamp, you’ll probably end up with a broken light bulb, at worst.  If they accidentally knock over a lighted oil lamp, the glass tank could break spilling fuel out, ignite, and cause a major fire.  Always place oil lamps out of reach of little hands, wagging tails, and either species if they’re rough-housing.

If you plan on leaving your lamp stationary on a flat surface (like a shelf), museum putty works well to hold it in place.  Museum putty can be found here.  This is also a helpful product for areas prone to earthquakes.  Modern oil lamps, when used properly, are very safe.  However, accidents do happen.  If you find yourself with a runaway flame or a fire from a spill, do not use water to extinguish it.  Oil and water don’t mix and you’ll likely spread the flaming oil out further and cause a bigger fire.  Instead, smother the flame by using a fire extinguisher specifically made for flammable liquids, smother it with dirt, or invert a metal bucket over the lamp.

How to Care for the Lamp

If you’re like me and like to pick up bargains at thrift stores and garage sales, you’ll probably need to clean your lamp before use.  A dirty lamp can take years off of its usability and won’t function at its peak performance.  There are two methods that work well with most lamps and lanterns regardless of the material used to construct them:

PH-Down (Sodium Bisulfate) Method
This method will remove rust, crud, (and eventually paint) without removing the patina.

1.  Remove the fuel cap, globe, and burner from the lantern.
2.  Mix 1 cup of PH-Down in Warm Water in a sealable 5 to 10 gallon plastic container.
3.  Submerge the lantern and burner *entirely in the Solution for **1 day.
4.  Remove the lantern, and lightly scour with a Brillo pad, (not SOS,)
5.  Repeat steps 3 and 4 until all the rust or tarnish has been removed.
6.  Once you are finished, give the lantern one final rinse in the solution, then dry with paper towels immediately.  Use a blow dryer on low to dry the inside of the tank.
7.  After the lantern has been cleaned, I recommend polishing it first with Blue Magic ™ Metal Polish to bring out the luster. You can also use #0000 steel wool to buff out the lantern.
8.  To finish the lantern ***paint or lacquer it with your choice of finish.  If using paint, taping off the center air tube on hot blast lanterns, or the chimney on cold blast lanterns, makes for a professional, like factory, looking job.  If the filler spout is brass, you might also tape it off as well.  This also goes for brass wire guides and lift brackets as well.  The burner cone and burner should be left unfinished.  An alternative to painting tin plated lanterns is to wipe them down with a small amount of boiled linseed oil mixed 50:50 with kerosene.

Molasses Method

This method will remove rust, crud, (and eventually paint) without removing the patina.
1.  Remove the fuel cap, globe, and burner from the lantern.
2.  Mix 12 oz. of Grandma’s Molasses in Warm Water in a sealable 5 to 10 gallon plastic container.
3.  Submerge the lantern and burner *entirely in the Solution for **1 day.
4.  Remove the lantern, and lightly scour with a Brillo pad, (not SOS,)
5.  Repeat steps 3 and 4 until all the rust or tarnish has been removed.
6.  Once you are finished, give the lantern one final rinse in the solution, then dry with paper towels immediately.  Use a blow dryer on low to dry the inside of the tank.
7.  After the lantern has been cleaned, I recommend polishing it first with Blue Magic ™ Metal Polish to bring out the luster. You can also use #0000 steel wool to buff out the lantern.
8.  To finish the lantern ***paint or lacquer it with your choice of finish.  If using paint, taping off the center air tube on hot blast lanterns, or the chimney on cold blast lanterns, makes for a professional, like factory, looking job.  If the filler spout is brass, you might also tape it off as well.  This also goes for brass wire guides and lift brackets as well.  The burner cone and burner should be left unfinished.  An alternative to painting tin plated lanterns is to wipe them down with a small amount of boiled linseed oil mixed 50:50 with kerosene.

Source

Always make sure everything is perfectly dry before adding the fuel to your freshly cleaned oil lamp.  Refill the tank to the recommended level for your model, replace or trim the wick as needed, trim the wick, attach the burner assembly to the base (tank), and allow the wick to become saturated with fuel for about five minutes.  If you’re using a new wick, let it become saturated for at least 30 minutes prior to lighting.  Replace the chimney and you’re done!

If you use your oil lamp regularly, you’ll also need to clean the chimney frequently to remove soot build-up.  Extinguish the flame, let the chimney and lamp cool completely, and wash the chimney in warm, sudsy water.  Take care with temperature fluctuations and thin chimney glass.  The chimney can break easily if exposed to temperature extremes.

Proper Feeding

There are several options to choose from when deciding on which fuel is best for you.  Keep in mind that some fuels should not be used indoors, so check to make sure the fuel you choose is intended for indoor use only.  They all have their pros and cons:

Kerosene

  • Before using any kerosene, verify that the flash point of the kerosene you’re using is between 124 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Dyed kerosene, or any dyed lamp oil for that matter, will eventually clog the wick and inhibit proper functioning.
  • Regular kerosene, like the kind used for heating, while typically less expensive than Ultra-pure lamp oil made specifically for oil lamps (which is also a kerosene product), will also create more soot and for some, gives off an unpleasant odor.
  • Heating kerosene also requires ventilation: a door should be left open to an adjoining area or a window should be left cracked open. Without proper ventilation, one risks carbon monoxide poisoning

Clear Lamp Oil

  • This is hands-down the best oil to use in conventional oil lamps. Conventional oil lamps were designed to burn petroleum-based products, not animal or vegetables fats.
  • Due to the ultra-filtering, this product gives off very little fumes and soot and since it contains no dyes, it is least likely to clog the wick
  • Readily available nationwide in the United States and online
  • Can be scented with essential oils

Olive Oil

  • Not recommended for conventional oil lamps
  • Has the potential to clog the wick
  • Considered more sustainable and “greener” than petroleum-based oils
  • When burned, will give off less particulate than petroleum-based lamp oils but will also produce more odors*If you would like to use plant-based oils, it’s better to use lamps designed specifically for that purpose. They have a “rope” type wick instead of the flat wick used by conventional oil lamps.  Supplies to make your own can be found here

Paraffin Oil

  • Paraffin in the UK is kerosene. Paraffin Oil in the United States is Liquid Candle Wax , and is mislabeled for use in oil lamps and lanterns, when in fact it is only suited for Candle Oil Lamps that use small diameter (under 1/4 inch) round wick. Further, it burns only 1/2 as bright of any of the approved fuels listed above. Paraffin oil has a much higher viscosity and a flash point of 200 degrees or higher, as compared to the flash point of 150 degrees for kerosene. These differences inhibit the necessary capillary action of the wick, and will cause Lamps and Lanterns with 7/8″ or larger wick to burn improperly and erratic. Once a wick is contaminated with paraffin oil, it must be replaced in order for the lantern to burner properly. If you must use paraffin oil, it may be mixed 1:10 to 2:10 (one to two parts paraffin,) to ten parts standard lamp oil or kerosene so that it will burn satisfactorily. Source

Never add fuel to a lit lamp or to one that is still hot.  Extinguish the flame and allow the lamp to cool completely before refilling.  Wipe odd any excess oil from the outside of the lamp that may have accidentally spilled.  Kerosene and lamp oil will evaporate over time, so it’s best to store it in air-tight containers.  If you’re not going to be using your oil lamps anytime soon, it’s better to empty the fuel (cooled!) back into the storage bottle and clean and dry the lamps.

If you’re not sure where to fill the tank on a thrift store find, allow at least one-inch headspace.  This allows room for the fuel and gasses to expand and the lamp warms up.  Keep your lamps at least halfway full and use indoor lamps at room temperature for the most efficient use.  Very cold temperatures (under about 20 degrees Fahrenheit) can cause kerosene and lamp oils to freeze and become dangerously unstable, even when thawed.  Normal room temperatures allow the gasses to expand and be burned along with the kerosene and oil itself, thus producing a more efficient burn.

Whether you choose conventional oil lamps or vegetable oil-burning lamps, they’re a great alternative to relying on electric lighting and can add a wonderful ambiance to your home.  They’re also one of the less conspicuous preps for your home and can be beautifully and innocuously displayed.  Stay tuned!

Ruby is a first generation Californian who grew up in the heart of the Central San Joaquin Valley farming community. She’s been involved in agriculture for 40 years and learned to preserve food, traditional home arts, to hunt and fish, raise livestock and garden from her Ozark native mother.

This information has been made available by Ready Nutrition

Originally published November 8th, 2015
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  • mensa141

    My dad used mineral spirits in place of kerosene to heat our house. It burned with a lot less residue and smell than kerosene. Flame was very similar in heat and size.

  • Ruby Burks

    I feel the same way! I really like the preps that I can do that make my home prettier. I’m a very practical person, but I do like a little pretty in my home. I recently picked up a couple of matching vintage oil lamp wall sconces, but haven’t put them up yet. They’re on the small side, so I’m thinking they would do well in the hallway- not too big that they would get in the way and not so small that they can’t provide sufficient lighting when needed.

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