Home made oil lamps, candles and do-it-yourself emergency fire starters, for simple living or the apocalypse — as is relevant to the situation.
I first learned about burning oil and fat for light from a little booklet called I Didn’t Know That Olive Oil Would Burn by Merry Bickers.
This was many years ago. At the time I made some of the olive oil lamps mentioned in the booklet using a jar, wire and wick.
I also made a more primitive version of this oil lamp using an abalone shell to contain the olive oil and cattail fluff for the wick. I was living in California. I had experimented with different fibers for wicks: hemp, jute, cattail fluff, soap root, soap root leaves, redwood bark, and wild oat grass stems. (Note: braid or twist the grass while still pliable, before completely dry. Then dry the braid/cordage, otherwise it will be too brittle to fashion into a wick.) All of these fibers worked to one degree or another but cattail fluff was by far the best. I put it in a clump, partially submerged in liquefied oil before lighting. It was the simplest and brightest of the wicks that I had tried.
I bought olive oil for my fuel because that is what was locally available. I didn’t want to use high quality olive oil to burn for light, nor did I want to spend a lot of money and I didn’t want to buy from a conventional chemical olive producer either. So I called up a local organic olive producer and asked for their their lampante oil (the leftover oil after pressing). At the time it sold for $20-25 per gallon. I bought a 5-gallon bucket of the stuff.
Fast forward several years…Now I’m in Patagonia and over the past several seasons my lighting system has dramatically improved. I have stopped using the jar, the wire wick holder, and purchased manufactured wicks. I use a simpler system that is cheaper and brighter. This post is about the evolution of my lighting system.
There are three components to consider when making an oil lamp: fuel, type of container, and wick. In this post I’ll cover these components as well as the operation of the oil lamp and why I prefer to use an oil lamp for lighting.
Toward the end of the article I will also go over how I make both wax and tallow candles.
Lastly, I will share the emergency fire starter that I invented.
MAKING A METCHERO
How I make oil lamps. In Patagonia one name for an oil lamp of this type is metchero.
For the past several seasons I have been living in the Andes mountains in this house:
The house mostly sucks: no insulation, no critter-proofing, a very leaky roof, an exposed and easily frozen water pipe, a sink that takes a few hours (at best) to drain, a floor that floods during heavy winter rains… you get the idea.
The house has one redeeming quality, no electricity! So my lighting sources were the glow from the wood stove, my headlamp, home made candles and oil lamps that burnt goat or cow fat.
The oil lamps were my primary source of light.
Any oil/fat from plant or animal sources will do.
Olive oil is said to be the purest vegetable oil. Olive oil is produced from trees rather than most other vegetable oils that are produced from annual crops. Typically annual crop production degrades the soil much quicker than the production of tree crops due to tillage. Olive oil is also obtained from pressing olives, unlike the complex chemical extractions used for many other common veggie oils. If olives are grown locally in your area then this is a good oil to use.
Mary Bickers has used sunflower, canola (rape seed), safflower, peanut, sesame, walnut, grape seed, corn, hemp and soy oils. Some of these oils are not as bright as others or clog the wick and soon go out. The oil sometimes varies in its performance from one batch to another. Some may be smokey with corn oil being the worst in her experience. She prefers olive oil.
There are ways to acquire cheap veggie oil: you can buy it in bulk in 3-liter cans or you can collect waste oil from restaurants. From what I have researched most veggie oil is nasty stuff. Plus, I avoid cities, so scavenging waste fry oil or buying things from stores has no appeal. Also, much of the corn, soy, and canola oil is genetically modified and grown with glyphosate (Round-Up) or other toxic biocides. I don’t want nothing to do with any of that. I don’t want to buy it, get it on my skin or burn it into the air that I breath.
So, for me, organically grown olive oil is probably the only veggie oil that I would consider using in a Mediterranean climate. Coconut or palm oil would be a possibility if I was in the tropics.
According to Miles Olson in his book Unlearn, Rewild: Earth Skills, Ideas and Inspiration for the Future Primitive “Animal fats that are liquid or soft at room temperature are easiest to use (fish, raccoon, pig, seal, bear) while those that are solid (deer, cow, elk, moose, sheep, goat), also known as tallow, are a bit trickier to work with. Both can be used.” Mary Bickers says “that chicken fat and in the Far East butter is burned for light. Melt the butter, skim off the foamy top and use the rest.”
The tallows will need to be heated, melted into a liquid (on top of a wood stove for example) before they can be used. Mary Bickers suggests: “You can also make a depression in the center of hard fats, place a wick and use a little veggie oil to start the lamp. The heat produced will melt the tallow.”
Miles also mentions that the Inuit (Eskimo) use of this style of oil lamp to light their ice homes with “beautifully carved long shallow soapstone containers with many wicks burning at the same time, using whale or seal oil as a fuel source, the warm light reflecting off the rounded, white interior walls of the igloo. These oil lamps were actually used as a heat source and method of cooking by the Inuit, oil being a far more abundant fuel than wood in their bioregion.”
In most wilderness and rural environments animal fat is probably going to be the most available and ecological option available for lighting.
Don’t use petroleum based fuels with these lamps.
Starting with raw goat (or other animal) fat. Cook it on a low-medium heat. I usually add a little water to the bottom of the pot when starting. This helps prevent burning, especially when using a wood stove where temperatures are more variable.
Starting to cook. Check periodically to make sure the fat isn’t sticking.
As the fat is heated, the oil is released from the membrane and the water is cooked off. I continue cooking until the fat membrane is brown and shriveled up. Then I strain out the membrane and let the pot of rendered fat cool.
Rendered oil with membrane removed.
I then take the pot of solidified fat and turn it upside down. I slam it onto my counter or table, knocking the disc of fat out of the pot.
Cutting fat disc into chunks that will fit into a tin can.
I will later melt these chunks down on the wood stove using a tin can. Then I will add the melted oil to the oil lamp prior to lighting.
MAKING THE WICKS
I have been using three types of wicks this past year for lighting: cotton cloth, charcoal, and “punky wood.” All work well and are widely available throughout the world.
All of these wicks (cotton, punky wood, and charcoal) can provide enough light using only one oil lamp to light up a room. The light produced is sufficient for cooking, reading or doing other activities. When well constructed, these lamps are vastly superior to candles. They are brighter and are less work per hour of light.
Punky Wood Wick
The spongy, partially decomposed wood chunks known as “punky wood” can be found anywhere wood is growing. It makes a great wick.
Chunks of punky wood.
Chunks of punky wood placed in tuna can.
Chunks of punky wood soaked in oil. Note the tips of wood extending beyond the rim — this will increase the lighting angle and keep the flame from drowning.
Lit punky wood oil lamp with a lovely flame.
Another great option for a wick is wood charcoal. I discovered this by using a flaming stick to light my metchero when the tip of the stick broke off and fell into the lamp. The charcoal tip was integrated into the wick and I noticed it burning well.
Charcoal placed in can.
Pouring melted goat fat into the charcoal can. I roll the charcoal in the oil, coating al sides, before lighting.
Lighting the charcoal oil lamp.
Charcoal lamp lit. You can’t get a flame like that with any standard candle. The flame that these oil lamps emit is sufficient for cooking over, if you set up a stand to support a pot.
This charcoal wick and the punky wood wick are my two favorite types of wick. They are among my most important lighting discoveries this year. I prefer these two types of wicks to cotton because they seem to last longer as a wick, requiring less maintenance. Also, they are more natural than cotton. Burning old cotton rags exposes you to dyes or other chemicals used in manufacturing the cotton fabric. Never trust industrially produced anything, it’s all poison.
Every metchero and tallow candle that I’ve heard about, read about or seen in Patagonia uses cotton rags for the wick. Cotton rags are plentiful in most places.
Using a stick to push the cotton wick into oil. The cotton is from an old scrap of torn up jeans.
Notice how the cotton rag is mounded above the oil and rim. This lamp is ready to be lit.
GLASS JAR OIL LAMP
Cotton is the most effective type of wick that I have found for using glass jars to make oil lamps.
If you are going to use a glass container for your lamp, you will need to make a wire wick holder and have wicks that will fit. The wick holder keeps the flame from directly touching the glass and cracking the jar. The advantage of using glass is that the light shines in all directions and if you place a small mirror underneath a glass oil lamp, you reflect the downward light upward. This can really help light up a room.
Making A Cotton Wick
Cut cotton cloth strips.
Making A Wire Wick Holder
The purpose of the wick holder is to suspend the wick above the oil. The wick is suspended enough to maintain a small flame to glow and through capillary action sucks oil from the container through the wick to the fire. The oil should not be too far below the flame, as the oil may not be wicked up as fast as the flame is consuming the oil. If this happens you will burn up your wick quickly and your lamp may produce smoke. You want the oil to wick (move) quickly up the wick. The less distance that the oil needs to travel upwards, the better.
Wire wick holders can be made from steel wire.
Note: avoid copper and galvanized steel. Vegetable oil and animal fats are made of fatty acids that produce toxic verdigris when in contact with copper. Copper, like lead, is a metal best avoided in general. Galvanized wire has a zinc coating and may release toxic vapors when burnt.
Twisting the wire into a wick holder.
The spiraled wire holds the wick above the liquefied fat.
Completed wick holder with wick placed inside the glass bowl.
Soak your wick when filling up your lamp with oil.
The flame will only travel down your wick until it reaches the coiled rim of the wire wick holder. Adjust the flame so that it burns bright and clean with no soot. Too much wick above the oil causes smoking and burns up the wick quickly.
For optimal brightness it is good to occasionally trim your wick.
These lamps need to be tended regularly, the oil replenished, and the wick adjusted. Use something non-flammable to adjust the wick (pin, tweezers, pliers, knife). If your lamps are smokey, make adjustments to the wick, find a cleaner fuel or you may be subject to certain health risks.
Why I Stopped Using Glass Oil Lamps
I stopped using this type of lamp. Now I just use a scavenged tuna can and slump the wicking into a mound that protrudes above the rim of the can. The tuna can is more durable than glass. The glass container in the photo broke from the heat of the wood stove. It was just sitting on top of the stove when it cracked, not even above direct flame. If I was using a better quality glass made by Pyrex or a mason jar, this should not have been a problem. I also don’t like the hassle of fussing with and constantly adjusting the greasy wick on the wire holder. I can get a much larger and brighter flame with much less maintenance by using a tuna can without the metal wick holder.
TIPS TO OPERATING THE LAMP
The photos in the wick section show the basic process: place wick and liquefied oil into a fire resistant container (tuna can, shell, clay pot, etc.). Then light the wick.
Here’s a few other things that I do when using these oil lamps…
Each time I light my lamp, I top up the fuel.
I preheat and melt down a fat chunk in a tin can. Then I ladle the liquid fat into the oil lamp.
In this picture you see my basic system. To the left, on the front of the stove is the ladle resting on a tuna can. In the middle is the tin can that I use for melting down fat. I keep this liquefied so that I can add more oil to the lamp as needed. To the right is the oil lamp. All are heated by the wood stove during operation to keep the fat liquefied and flowing. I tend to sit and read in front of the stove with the oil lamp slightly above and in front of me.
To avoid the constant need to top up the container with fresh oil, the surface area of the lamp should be greater than the height, i.e. a wide, shallow container is best.
If using an opaque dish, it is best to get the wick above the rim to increase the area that can be lit up.
Avoid lighting the wick while the fat is still solid. The fat will not be able to move up the wick unless liquefied.
Don’t do this! Lighting a lamp that uses wick holders while the fat is solidified will result in the wick quickly burning out.
Cold oil doesn’t wick as well as warm and tallow (animal fat) must be melted prior to use. As the lamp burns, the oil gradually warms up making it easier for the fuel to travel up the wick. I melt tallow by placing the lamp on my wood stove. I do all my cooking on the wood stove and usually start a fire in the evening, before I might need to use the lamp. Mary Bickers warns: “Be careful when heating your lamp on a stove or it could burst into an impressive column of flame.” I have not had any issues with this myself despite placing these lamps on the hottest part of the wood stove.
In the winter, if it is particularly cold (my house has no insulation) I keep the lamp on the stove to prevent the fat from solidifying.
Make sure to completely dip your wicks into the liquefied fat before lighting.
For lighting my lamp: I put a stick into the wood stove fire box. Then after it has caught a flame on the tip, I will dip the tip into a little bit of liquid fat/oil and re-light it. The first burn “charcoals” the tip of the stick. The dipping of the stick in the oil coats the tip of the stick in a flammable fuel. This usually puts out the flame on the end of the stick. On the second lighting of the stick the tip will burn better and longer, making lighting the oil lamp easy.
If I need to move the lamp to a new spot, I will put on a leather glove. Then I will place the lamp onto a folded-in-half piece of card board.
Then I move the lamp around with the cardboard. Spills can and do occur. Be careful. If I had a nicer house I might take the time to make a wood plank with a trough around the perimeter to catch any oil that might spill over the side of the lamp when carrying.
I snuff out the lamp by placing a flat stone over the top.
AVOID USING FAT/OIL FOR LIGHTING THAT YOU WOULD EAT.
This was a realization that I had early in the Winter. Fat is a very important food source, arguably the most important. It is especially important if it is very cold or if there are problems with your food supply.
I had to deal with cold, running low on food, scavenging two dead horses and (a many weeks dead) cow to get through the winter.
Any fat that is good for eating is better to save for food. I use moldy, rancid, old, and burnt fat for lighting now.
Luckily, part way through the winter while scavenging supplies from the house of a man that had died a couple of years prior, I found several gallons of rendered fat in pots. The fat was dusty, some had been chewed on by rats and it was sitting in aluminum pots. I avoid things cooked in aluminum because of the association with Alzheimer’s. So the dead man’s fat stash became my lighting fuel for many months.
These are two photos of the abandoned house that visited in the winter where I found rendered fat.
The floor is dirt and the walls are mud adobe. Much of the walls are blackened by the smoke from the stove. This house is better sealed, more insulated, and smaller than the house I was living in. It is probably a more comfortable winter shelter, being easier to heat.
I use a form to make candles because I find that dipping takes too much time.
In this picture there is the bottom of a glass wine bottle, with the top sawed off and a beer can with the top cut off. I don’t consume alcohol. I scavenged these containers from the trash. There’s also two paper inserts from rolls of toilet paper. The wick is twisted cotton from an old t-shirt. It was dipped in wax a few times, letting it cool before each dipping. After the last dip, I held the wick straight and blew it dry. This gave the wick some rigidity, which is important for this process.
Place the paper cylinder from the toilet paper roll into the jar. The jar must be perfectly cylindrical (the sides need to be straight) in order to separate the form later.
Pour in the tallow. Fill it up so that there is a little bit of the paper insert protruding above the oil. You will need to grab onto the paper with some pliers later.
Notice that the color of the tallow is dark. I am using burnt tallow as a deterrent for rodents. I don’t want them eating my candle. This seems to kinda work. Alternately, you can make your tallow candles with a food grade tallow and have it as an emergency food source. You will just need to store it so that critters can’t get to it.
Let the tallow cool. You want to have the fat solidified just enough to hold the wick in place but not be so solid so that the wick gets bent while being inserted into the fat. If the tallow becomes too hard and the wick is bent while inserting: remove and straighten the wick, and place the glass jar on a warm surface to remelt the tallow. Then try again. If you insert the wick while the fat is still hot, you will lose the rigidity in your wick and it it may not stay centered and straight in your candle. You want the wick centered in the middle and straight.
Use a stick to test the softness of the fat. Choose a stick that is a smaller diameter than your wick, just in case the fat doesn’t fill the hole back in completely.
Insert wick. If needed you can use the stick to support the wick to keep it upright.
Let the tallow cool until solid.
Grab the paper board insert and pull. Sometimes it comes out.
If the mold wont separate, place the jar in an oven or somewhere warm. It just needs to slightly melt on the outside. Then pull the paper insert out.
If you heated the tallow to pull it free, let it cool.
Cut off excess around the paper insert.
I collect the tallow bits and remelt them for later use.
Peel off the paper. Cut the bottom of the candle so that it is flat and sits level.
A beer can can also be used. I bent in the sides of the can to hold the paper insert in place. This wasn’t necessary as it is easy to position the paper insert once the oil is poured in. By bending the can, I was not able to reuse it and had to cut my candle free.
Notice the whiteness of the tallow. This candle could be eaten in an emergency.
Finished. Notice the untrimmed wick on the dark candle. This later causes a problem when burning.
Place candles in a container to catch drippings.
Because I didn’t trim down the excess wick from the dark candle, the larger flame melted a channel on one side of the candle, drained the tallow and quickly, in about 20 minutes, burnt through the candle.
If this problem is caught early, you can use a finger to move some of the tallow around and reinforce the leaking area, thereby damning up the leak. Trimming the wick when it curls or if the flame is too large can also help.
It is important to figure out the right diameter (or thickness) of the wick in relationship to the outer diameter of the candle. If the wick is too thick, it will cause the same problem as shown in the photo above. If the wick diameter is too thin, it may tend to create a crater in the candle and drown the flame. Somewhere in between is just right.
The same diameter wick in the above photo worked well for the wax candles that I made in the winter. But tallow seems to melt at a lower temperature and these tallow candles were lit in the warm spring. The appropriate diameter of the wick will be influenced by ambient temperatures and whether you are using tallow or wax candles.
I use the same process for the wax candle.
I collected candle stubs and melted them down into this can. This is a mix of beeswax and whatever other kind of candle wax that I collected.
I used tape to seal the bottoms of the paper insert from the toilet paper roll. Tape is hard to come by out here, so I came up with the re-usable bottle mold featured in the prior section.
Wax candle after use.
I made a couple of the wax candles and tallow candles to try them out and compare them to the oil lamp. I can not think of any scenario where I would choose to use a candle over the oil lamp. So I probably won’t bother with making candles anymore.
MAKING AN EMERGENCY FIRE STARTER
Originally I was trying to make a Sterno can for cooking in a situation where I couldn’t make a fire due to excess moisture from rain or snow melt while in a wilderness setting. This would be in a situation in which sticks and wood might be too wet to start a fire. Basically I was trying to make a low tech backpacking stove that didn’t rely on petroleum based fuels or things I would have to buy from the store. While my experiment worked, it only burned hot for about an hour. For me, an hour of cooking was not enough to justify carrying the extra weight. So my idea morphed into an emergency fire starter.
The idea is that I have a wick embedded into a hot/slow burning flammable media. This media would burn for awhile to help get a fire going. It is very similar in concept to fire starting logs. Here’s how I made my fire starter…
I collected sawdust from logs that I was sawing for firewood. I placed a small plastic sheet underneath the cutting area to collect the sawdust. I then packed the sawdust into a tuna can. I let the tuna can of sawdust sit on the wood stove for a couple of days to make sure that the sawdust was completely dry.
This picture is from when I was trying to make the Sterno can project. It only has one wick in the middle that is hard to see. In the version that I made for the fire starter, I placed 7 wicks into the sawdust before pouring in the oil. The oil being poured in is burnt. I used burnt oil to deter rodents or other critters from eating the fat/oil.
Here is the finished emergency fire starter. One wick in the center with six more in a ring around it. I pre-stiffen the seven wicks by dipping them a few times in grease or wax before letting them cool and being laid out straight.
The plan is to cut out a section from the can with a wick. Then light the wick and place the fire starter chunk into a pile of kindling and wood. The fire starter should be water-proof as it is coated in grease.
I have not yet had the opportunity to field test this invention.
Also, it might make a mess if you travel through a really hot environment that melts the grease. Be sure to pack it well.
Oil lamp vs …
Other lighting options:
-Kerosene lamps are toxic, a fire hazard and utilize petroleum fuels. They are not local or sustainable. You cannot use a standard kerosene lamp as a fat lamp. It doesn’t wick up the oil properly.
-Batteries, Solar Panels, LED’s, Electrical Grid, etc. are all dependent on industrial manufacture, with all the mining, pollution, shipping and so forth associated with mass production. These methods are not sustainable nor local.
-Fire place/wood stoves can be fed sustainably and locally, but are not portable.
-Torches are an option, though less practical and probably more work to construct per hour of light.
-Candles – tallow and beeswax candles are two types that can be made with local materials on a home scale. The wax can be reused. They are more work and not as bright as the oil laps.
Attributes of the fat/oil lamp (or why I consider it a superior form of lighting)
-Animal fats and olive oil are nearly smokeless. Olive oil is about 99% pure fuel and burns cleanly. If smoking occurs with these fuels the wick is either too long, there is a draft or the fuel level is too low to travel up the wick – causing the wick to burn.
-Odor free in my experience using olive oil, bacon grease, cow and goat fat.
-Olive oil and animal fats are non-toxic and hypoallergenic unlike kerosene or paraffin candles.
-Safe: when burning olive oil (and other fats) with a high flash point it is not as likely to cause a fire if knocked over. Kerosene lamps are much more dangerous.
Flashpoint of tallow: 525 °F (274 °C)
Flashpoint of olive oil: 600 °F (315 °C)
Flashpoint of kerosene: 100 °F (38 °C)
Auto-ignition temperature of tallow: 662 °F (350 °C)
Auto-ignition temperature of olive oil: 815 °F (435 °C)
Auto-ignition temperature of kerosene: 428 °F (220 °C)
-Reliable and long burning.
-Simple to make and maintain. All the materials can be locally gathered or scavenged.
-The production of renewable fat/olive oil is less harmful to the environment than petroleum based products. Both of these sources for fuel can be truly sustainable surplus materials produced or acquired on a small scale indefinitely without significantly adverse impacts on the environment. For the survivalist, fats are easily stored in bulk.
-Brighter than a good bright candle and can be made to be as bright or brighter than a kerosene lamp.
-Inexpensive. It can even be cheaper than candles depending on how you acquire your materials.
Interestingly I started following the work of Dr. Jack Kruse over the past year or so. He is a neurosurgeon that has made a compelling case that light after dark and artificial light in general is very detrimental to our biological functioning.
His perspective in a nutshell: We evolved to go to bed and rise with the sun. We also evolved to spend most of our time outdoors in nature.
Since I have considered all the ways that artificial lighting may be interfering with my health, I have stopped staying up at night. I am going to bed as it gets dark and I am spending my mornings with my skin exposed to the sun. I get up earlier and am better rested. I don’t really use much lighting anymore. Maybe I’ll use my red filtered headlamp if I need to poo or something at night. My life has become simpler as I don’t need to focus as much on producing fuel for my lamps.
So in a sense I have moved beyond the tools that I go over in this tutorial.
Still I am glad for the knowledge and experience that I have gained as it is useful.
Its funny how new pieces of information can change your whole paradigm.
Here’s a couple of good talks from Dr. Jack Kruse:
He has a lot of other great interviews and other content online.