An Oil Lamp Primer

Author Photo
By Katherine Grossman | Feb 21, 2017

Flat wick oil lamps and an Aladdin Mantle with a glass shade sit ready for a power outage

It’s a good idea to keep a couple of oil lamps on hand for power outages and emergencies. Personal economics and family lighting needs should influence the type of oil lamps you choose for your home.

In general there are four different types of oil lamps:

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

Floating wick lamps are good for decorative mood lighting or extreme emergencies. These lamps use a small wick that floats on a surface of oil and is threaded through a piece of cork or some type of noncombustible fixture.

Floating Wick Lamps

Floating wick lamps are only for dire emergencies and decorative or mood lighting. The way that a floating wick lamp works, is that a bit of cork or bent metal or other non-flammable material is fitted with a small wick. The entire wick assembly sits on top or floats, on a layer of oil and water. Some people use just oil in the lamp. But oil and water is actually safer combination. In the event the lamp should accidentally overturn, the water will extinguish the flame. Not all vegetable oils work equally well in floating wick lamps. Olive oil is the best and burns cleanest and brightest. Corn oil is worse than useless. Floating wick lamps are similar in design to early American Betty lamps.

Flat wick lamps are the type of oil lamp most people are familiar with. They use a metal burner with teeth that allows the wick to be turned up.

Flat Wick or Round Wick Lamps

These are the type of oil lamps that most people are familiar with. The light is soft, soothing and has the lighting equivalency of a small electric nightlight. Flat or round wick lamps work vaguely similar to floating wick lamps. Except the wick on a flat wick or round wick lamp is much larger and is held in place by a metal burner that has small teeth or gears. The teeth on the wick burner allow the wick to be turned up by a small knob. Lamp fuel is stored in a fount and is drawn up into the cloth wick via capillary action. The flame burns off the fuel and the flame never drops lower than the burner. A glass chimney sets tightly inside burner assembly to prevent the flame from flickering in drafts. With a flat wick lamp, the higher the wick is turned up the larger the flame. Wick height determines light.

One problem with flat lamps is that the wick can only be turned up so far before the lamp smokes, and the chimney breaks or is sooted.

Flat or round wick lamps are easy to use but don’t give enough light to read or work by. Round wick lamps tend to give more light. Just so you know there is a type flat wick lamp called a “double wick”. As the name implies the lamp burner is fitted with two flat wicks. In theory the lamp will give twice the light. But in practice it really doesn’t.

Many people use ordinary kerosene as fuel in their lamps. However kerosene can give some people headaches. Ultra-Pure Liquid Paraffin, K-1 Kerosene or Aladdin Lamp Oil are better fuel choices for sensitive people.

Mantle lamps employ a round or conical shape knitted “mantle” that is attached to a round tubular wick and burner.

Mantle Lamps

Aladdin mantle lamps are perhaps the best known mantle lamps. It’s my opinion that they are the best choice for everyday non-electric household lighting. It’s easy to read or sew by a mantle lamp without eye strain. While in operation mantle lamps make a faint humming sound.

A properly lit Aladdin lamp produces the light equivalence of about a 25 – 40 watt electric bulb. But mantle light is harsh and has a distinctive blueish cast to it. Most mantle lamps benefit from a shade.

A mantle lamp works by the combustion of volatile gases that move across the mantle via a round continuous tube-shaped wick and flame spreader. The mantle is a round or sometimes conical shaped knitted mesh that is attached to the burner. Mantle lamps are safe. But like all open-flame lighting, common sense and caution should be exercised. The 18”-24” above the chimney of a mantle lamp gets extremely hot and stays hot even after the flame has been extinguished. Aladdin and all mantle lamps need close supervision around children and persons not familiar with them. Aladdin lamps and replacement parts are expensive and should be a consideration when considering the purchase of one.

Pressurized Lamps

Pressurized lamps are cost-effective, safe and dependable. Like an Aladdin lamp the light from a pressurized lamp is also quite harsh. And like Aladdin lamps, pressurized lamps can be expensive to buy. But unlike Aladdin lamps pressurized lamps must be used with adequate ventilation. In drafty older homes this usually isn’t a problem. But in new tight homes it can be. Pressurized lamps use a combination of a gas generator and mantle. They must be pumped by hand to create internal pressure and can be a little tricky to operate. Pressurized lamps make a hissing noise while in operation that some people find disagreeable.

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