Greg’s post about his oil lamp and the responses to it had me feeling nostalgic. When I was young (very young!) Grandma used sit in her rockeralongside a table in the living room, reading by the light of a coal oil lamp. I can see her reading there now, the lamp throwing rounded shadows that swayed and danced as she rocked.
Although she called it coal oil, the fluid that burned so brightly might have been kerosene. There is little distinction between the two fuels, but coal oil is distilled from a combination of cannel coal, mineral wax and bituminous shale, while kerosene is distilled from oil. Kerosene burns brighter, longer and cleaner than coal oil and it smells (a little) better, too.
Today you can buy lamp oil, which is further processed and refined from oil. Lamp oil doesn’t have a kerosene smell – as a matter of fact, pleasant scents are often added to it. It doesn’t smoke as much or produce as much soot as kerosene – but neither is it as cheap.
Coal oil was used in lamps before we learned to process oil into kerosene, and many of the same lamps that burned coal oil were used for kerosene without any adjustments or changes. The same lamps can be used with lamp oil.
Whether it’s coal oil or kerosene or lamp oil, the fuel is extremely flammable. If you pour a thin line of kerosene from your front door down the street and light it, it will follow the line all the way to the house. (Don’t try it!) It LIKES to burn, so remember that if you spill a little on your fingers when you fill the lamp.
When you fill a lamp, only fill it half to three quarters of the way – never fill it to the top of the lamp reservoir. Put the burner back on and adjust the wick so that it’s just above the top of the burner.
If you’re using a new flat wick, trim it just a little on either corner – about a sixteenth to an eighth of an inch, slightly rounding the top. Be careful to get it even so the flame will burn evenly. It took me awhile to figure this one out, but it seems obvious, doesn’t it? (I was very young when I witnessed the whole lamp thing.) Another thing is that you need to let a new wick soak for a half hour or so before trying to light it. It needs time to “wick” up the lamp oil or kerosene before it will burn. Yup, I’ve ruined a few wicks in my day.
Another thing I learned, but not through personal experience, thank heavens: Never turn the wick down into the lamp when it’s burning, as it can catch the top of the fuel in the reservoir on fire and the lamp will explode, with fuel and fire going everywhere. That’s not a pretty picture.
Wicks need to be replaced when they get too short to reach into the fuel, and chimneys get broken now and then. Most other lamp parts will last a very long time, but now and then you might need a new burner. Lehman’s has all the replacement parts you’ll ever need, and that’s good to know, because they’re not always easy to find.
I remember Grandma trimming the wick before she lit the lamps each evening. That removes charred edges and keeps the soot and smoke to a minimum when the lamp is lit. Chimneys are delicate glass! Grandma used a piece of wadded up newspaper to clean the inside, but I remember her washing them in her round metal dishpan. That was something that little girls never got to help with, so it was sort of a rite of passage when I got my own lamp and washed the globe for the very first time! (Lehman’s carries a handy brush for this purpose, too.)
Another (random) caution is that kerosene or lamp oil will freeze and become unstable when it thaws, so keep it in its original container if possible (for protection and identification).
Most kerosene lamps will burn for hours on a refill, making them inexpensive to use, and they’re so pretty I love to display them – no special storage needed – so they’re ready whenever I am.
They manage to be practical, frugal, decorative, and romantic all at the same time. I really doubt Grandma thought of those things though.She just wanted some light to read by, and that’s not a bad use, either.
To view an instructional video on how to use Aladdin lamps, click here.