Oil Lamp Basics

As far as oil lamps go there are basically 3 or 4 different kinds:

  • Floating Wick Lamps
  • Mantle Lamps
  • Flat or Round Wick Lamps
  • Pressurized Lamps

For power outages it’s a good idea to own at least one oil lamp. Your personal family needs and economic considerations should influence the type of lamp that is best for your situation.

Floating Wick Lamps

Floating wick lamps are really just for decorative lighting and emergencies. The light is faint and soft.
For the most part they are safe to use and are based on a design that has been in use for well over 6,000 years.

Floating Wick Lamp

Floating Wick Oil Lamp

The way that they work, is that a piece of cork, bent metal or other material is fitted with a small wick. The whole rig floats or sets on top of a layer of oil and water. Some people will just use oil in the lamp without the water. Olive oil works best – corn oil is almost useless.

Clip-On Floating Wick

Copper Clip-On Wick In Oil & Water

The advantage of using oil and water is that if the lamp should accidentally over turn the water will extinguish the flame.

Floating wick lamps are very similar in principle to early American Betty Lamps.
Betty lamps burn animal fat, grease or oil with a simple cloth wick without the floating cork or water. Betty lamps can be difficult to light when the room temperature is below 45°F . They were usually made of wrought iron or ceramic so the container could be heated from underneath to melt the grease so it would burn.

Mantle Lamps

Aladdin Lamps are perhaps the best known mantle lamps.
In my opinion they are the most effective type of oil lamp for general everyday household non-electric lighting needs. You can easily read and work by them without eye strain. A properly lit Aladdin lamp produces the light equivalence of about a 25 -40 watt electric light bulb. However they are expensive.

Aladdin Lamp

A Green Glass Aladdin Mantle Lamp

Aladdin lamp light is harsh and has a distinctive blue cast to it. They make a very faint humming sound when in operation.

The way that a mantle lamp works is by the combustion of volatile gases moving across the knitted webbed mantle via a round tube-shaped wick and flame spreader. I use only Aladdin Lamp Oil and K-1 Kerosene in my Aladdin  lamps. Liquid paraffin and dyed kerosene should never be used in a mantle lamp like an Aladdin.

Lamp Mantle

A Lamp Mantle

Mantle lamps are  safe. But as with all open flame lighting common sense and caution must be used. The top 18″- 24″ area around the chimney of an Aladdin lamp gets extremely hot and stays hot for a long time after the lamp is extinguished.
In fact the entire gallery assembly of an Aladdin lamp gets super hot. So be careful!

Like all mantle lamps, the flame of an Aladdin lamp will tend to creep higher if it is turned up too high and too fast. When the lamp is turned up too fast it can cause sooting and black spots on the mantle.

Lamp Mantle With Soot Spots

A Mantle With Carbon Spots From Over Firing

But sooting is an easy fix. Just allow the lamp to cool and relight it again and allow the soot to burn off.

An over-fired mantle lamp can be dangerous and lead to a “runaway” lamp. A runaway lamp is a lamp that burns uncontrollably. The best way to deal with a runaway lamp is to turn down the wick and place an empty tin can over the chimney. The can will starve the fire of air.
Aladdin lamps need close supervision if used around children or people who don’t understand how they work.

Most Aladdin lamps benefit from a shade. A shade moderates the bright light and will direct the light downwards towards a work or reading area. Glass shades have the advantage that they are easily washed. The downside is that they are expensive and can be broken.

Aladdin Lamp By Cook Stove

Glass Shade On Aladdin Lamp. The Shade Directs The Light Downwards Towards The Work Area

Cloth or parchment shades are affordable alternative. They are not as heavy as glass and can be easily covered with any fabric.


Flat Wick or Round Wick Lamps

These are the type of oil lamps that most people are familiar with. The light is soft, quiet and soothing.

Flat Wick Oil Lamps

A Group Of Flat Wick Oil Lamps

The way that a flat wick lamp works is similar to a floating wick lamp. The difference is that the wick is much larger and stationary; and is threaded through a brass or nickel burner.The flat wick burner is fitted with little “teeth” or gears that allow the wick to be turned up by a round knob.

Oil Lamp Burner

Brass Burner From A Flat Wick Lamp

The lamp fuel is drawn up through the cloth wick by capillary action and is burned off. The higher the wick is turned up – the higher the flame. Wick height determines the amount of light.

One problem with a flat wick lamp, is that the wick can be turned up just so far, before the lamp smokes and the flame possibly breaks the chimney. A flat wick lamp has the lighting equivalency of a small electric nightlight. Maybe a little less.

All flat wick lamps benefit from having their wicks occasionally trimmed of carbon deposits and cleaned.

A lot of people will use ordinary kerosene for fuel in their flat wick lamps without any problem. But kerosene can give some people a headache. Ultra Pure Liquid Paraffin, K-1 Kerosene and Aladdin Lamp Oil  are a better choice for sensitive people. Those fuels will burn cleaner and without too much odor. However sometimes there is a noticeable odor after the lamp is blown out.

Round wick lamps do seem to give a bit more light than flat wick lamps and can be turned up higher without sooting and smoking.

Round Wick Lamp

A Miniature Round Wick Lamp

Flat wick or round wick lamps are easy to use, but don’t give enough light to read by. And just so you know, there is a type of lamp called a double wick lamp.
It works just like a single wick except there are two wicks attached to the burner. In theory a double wick lamp gives off twice the light.

Pressurized Lamps

I have limited experience with pressurized lamps. They are popular with the local Amish here in Western Pennsylvania. Petromax, Coleman and BriteLyt are the two brands I’m familiar with.

Like Aladdin lamps pressurized lanterns are expensive to buy. But they are cost-effective to run; safe and very dependable. But there is a learning curve.

Unlike Aladdin lamps, pressurized lanterns must be used with adequate ventilation. Pressurized lamps use a gas generator and gas mantle. They have to be pumped by hand to create the interior pressure and can be a little tricky to operate. Some people find the hissing noise that they make disagreeable, but some people find it soothing. The light is very bright and harsh.


Go ahead. Share it!...Share on FacebookPin on PinterestShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponDigg thisPrint this pageEmail this to someone

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *