Wednesday, December 19, 2012

More on kerosene lamps

A reader left a comment on an earlier blog post about oil lamps as follows: "Do you have any advice on stopping my lamp from smoking so bad? The chimney gets black quickly and then light cannot shine through. Thanks ma'am!"

I don't purport to be an expert on All Things Oil Lamp, but I believe I can help in this case. It probably has to do with the height of the wick.

The wick determines the shape and quality of the flame. Wicks themselves don't burn; what burns is the oil (or kerosene) that is absorbed (or "wicked") by the wick. By the way, when using a brand-new wick, install the wick in the cap and let the wick dangle in the oil or kerosene for a few minutes so it can fully absorb the fuel. Otherwise you'll just burn the wick itself. I've used the same wicks for years and years and years.

The shape of the wick is important. A new wick has a square end. It is advisable to trim the wick to an oval shape at the tip; this will result in the classic "flame"-shaped flame. If a wick is left square, the flame has kind of a funny "turreted" shape. For a new wick, you might have to light the flame and then blow it out and trim a bit more, then light the flame and then blow it out and trim a bit more, until you're satisfied by the shape of the flame.

What a lot of people don't understand about wicks is they should NOT be visible while the lamp is lit. For example, let's say you light the lamp with the wick visible, as below:

The flame is WAY too high (and, not incidentally, is burning too much kerosene). A flame of this height will instantly soot up the chimney.

Instead, the wick should be just below the mouth of the cap, not really visible.

Some people prefer to light the lamp with the wick high, then adjust it downward (this works fine). Me, I prefer to light the lamp when the wick is already lowered. To do this...

...I hold the match horizontal to the cap, rather than pointing it downward.

This lights the flame with the wick already in the correct position, so I usually don't have to make any adjustments at all.

However, if I do have to adjust the wick up or down in order to regulate the flame, that's what the little knob is for, on the right. Don't hesitate to raise or lower the wick as necessary.

Besides protecting the flame, the chimney helps regulate the air flow to the lamp and will stabilize the light. The flame will "fatten" and keep still once the chimney is in place.

No matter how well trimmed your wick, some soot is expected on the chimney, but it shouldn't accumulate very fast. In our oil lamp experiment we did last week, we had the lamp burning for 33 hours almost nonstop, and this is what the chimney looked like at the end of it. A little bit of soot, but not much.

Nonetheless, once in awhile you'll have to clean the chimneys. I don't recommend washing them directly in the sink, as they're easy to break if the glass bumps the sink walls. Instead I wash them in my plastic dish tub.

I also recommend stocking up on chimneys. There are online sources for chimneys; or, if you frequent thrift stores, just keep an eye out for chimneys in the household glass section. I snag them whenever I find them and tuck them into empty liquor boxes, which have built-in cardboard dividers. I probably have fourteen or fifteen spare chimneys. (My thought is, I never know when it may be necessary to provide an oil lamp to someone left in the dark after an emergency. Because I can assemble up to twenty lamps from caps that fit on canning jars, I'd like to have enough chimneys to match.)

With a little practice, oil lamps can provide a soft, beautiful, clear light to fill a darkened room. It's not the best light for reading (unless the lamp is right next to the book) but is fine for just puttering around. Oil lamps should be part of everyone's non-electric lighting repertoire, unless health reasons don't permit their use.

And stock up on matches!


  1. Terrific primer on oil lamps!!! I had to find all of this out myself and I was very glad that I lit my first oil lamp BEFORE we really needed it. That way I could light it and blow it out outside and then let the sooty chimney cool down properly before washing it and starting all over again with my self-imposed oil lamp lessons. 8-)

    Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge along with these marvelous photos that I can now forward to my friends who need to know.

    God Bless,
    Janet in MA

  2. You have a knack to answer my questions before I can ask them. I was just wondering about the usage of kerosene in lamps and how much to store. I use a kerosene lantern to heat the green house and we have just started to use it enough to make this question something I needed to ask or try. On a completely separate note I have loved several of your last home page photos! You have a real eye for composition.

  3. Just wanted to say how much I like your header photo. Warm, cozy, inviting.

  4. We've turned mason jars into lamps for our cabin. I'm not sure if the quart jars work better, but pint jars are VERY top- heavy with a glass shade on them. We use them very cautiously. A family here in our area lost their home during Hurricane Sandy because of a kerosene lamp getting knocked over. It was so sad to see their home engulfed in flames. Good article though- a reminder to get some kerosene stored.

  5. Reading your post about kerosene lanterns and I realize we live in a world without fire! Most people (especially those who live in the major cites) never experience FIRE! Think about it. The occasional BBQ or birthday candle, or romantic dinner.... most Americans have never had to experience real Fire. We don't use it to cook with, or heat their homes, or even lights.

    No wonder we are helpless when the electric goes out. I bet most people don't even have matches (or lighter) unless the smoke cigarettes. That's we are so unprepared when catastrophe happens. Most natural disaster surrenders us as helpless little infants, waiting on mom and dad to turn on the light. That is a sad state of union. Our For Fathers are probably rolling over in the grave by the thought of our useless state of being.

    Preppers and Survivalists are just people who are smart enough not to sit in the dark and wait on the lights to come back on. THEY are prepared! I just wish more people who claim to be prepared would take the time to learn how to use their supplies, before they have to figure it out the hard way. Short term black outs are a good thing! Like you said Patrice They teach us where the holes are in our supplies and plans.

  6. yes, the height of the wick when lit has everything to do with the soot that accumulates too quickly. also, something to consider is the type of kerosene or lamp oil used..i prefer it to be clear and not colored - most of the colored oils do tend to smoke more. another thing about your lamp oil- store it in glass containers with good caps...the plastic bottles will become brittle over time and then crack-which of course can make a real nasty as well as dangerous mess.

  7. I couldn't help but to post this quote by Laura Ingalls Wilder: “If only I had some grease I could fix some kind of a light," Ma considered. "We didn't lack for light when I was a girl before this newfangled kerosene was ever heard of."

    "That's so," said Pa. "These times are too progressive. Everything has changed too fast. Railroads and telegraph and kerosene and coal stoves--they're good things to have, but the trouble is, folks get to depend on 'em.”
    ― Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Long Winter

  8. So thats how you do it! I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong, didn't know the wick needs to be lower. You're so awesome!


  9. You also have to take into consideration what type of fuel you are using with the wick you use. most of the lamps are kerosene or oil lamps.Wally world and other stores sell liquis parafin for lamps ,totally different fuel and once used it will ruin the wick when you try to use oil or kerosene. it prevents the wicking action when the two are contaminated.

  10. If the wick is burned dry, the end gets carboned up and stops the flow of fuel.

    Agree with lots of matches. I buy strike-anywhere matches every time I find them and stash them away. They're hard to find for some reason

  11. You answered many questions I had about how to light, and where the wick should be positioned on the lamp itself. My parents never taught my siblings & I this information, and I know they must have used oil lamps sometime in their youth. This is why I really enjoy reading your articles.

  12. Dear Patrice, I was at Lowe's Lumber today and they have an alternative for their kerosene heaters. It is called Klean-Heat and it is odorless and less smoke than kerosene and less soot. It safer to ese and store. A 120 ounce bottle is 10.98 on the east coast. A quart of lamp oil is 7.98 quart at lowe's. Will be trying this in my lamps tonight. Thanks for the great blog.

  13. Thank you! And have a Blessed Christmas xx


  14. Thank you for taking the time to write such a concise and accurate primer. I have several kerosene lanterns left to me by my late grandmother and had no idea at all how to use them in terms of wick height and shape. Thank you!