Improvised oil lamp

We’ve been having some warm evenings here, warm enough to sit outside in our small back patio. I wanted to sit and the patio and read, so I picked up the LED lantern we have as emergency lighting. We now have to have emergency lanterns on hand because Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) has decided that in times of high fire danger, it’s cheaper to turn off power than to actually spend their shareholder’s money to upgrade their crumbling infrastructure.

The problem with LED lanterns is that you have to keep buying batteries. Plus the LED lanterns we have tend to have weird internal reflections and shadows. I looked at Carol’s collection of oil lamp parts, harvested from her scrounging expeditions, but unfortunately there weren’t enough compatible parts to make one working oil lamp.

Surely there must be a way to make a simple oil lamp without buying anything, I thought to myself. A quick Web search revealed lots of DIY plans for a glass jar oil lamp, all of which probably stem from an old Mother Earth News article on the subject.

I took one of Carol’s Mason jars, cut a piece of cotton string for the wick, and bent a piece of wire to hold the wick up, and poured in some olive oil (the only vegetable oil we happened to have on hand). The tiny wick didn’t produce enough light to read by, so I braided three pieces of string together. Now the lamp produced enough light to read by.

The glass jar oil lamp in use; I put it on an upside down clay plant pot to raise it up.

Unfortunately, with the bigger wick, the lamp produced a lot of smoke; I’d never use this lamp indoors. And the glass jar didn’t adequately shield the flame from the evening breezes, so the flame flickered and jumped, making it hard to read; in fact, I had to leave the LED lantern turned on to have enough light to read.

There’s a reason manufactured oil lamps have elaborate glass chimneys, and large flat wicks the height of which can be adjusted by a turn screw. Those technological innovations provide more light, and prevent the lamp from smoking. The glass jar oil lamp is better than nothing, so it’s useful for emergency lighting if you don’t have anything else. But with fire season due to begin soon, and with the continued incompetence of PG&E suggesting that we’re going to have more power outages this fire season, I guess I’d better bite the bullet and buy some manufactured oil lamps, with wide flat wicks and glass chimneys.

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