Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Make It! Light Bulb Oil Lamp

I've been intrigued by oil lamps for such a long time now. They seemed so mysterious and ancient to me. The only type of lamp I've used is the electric kind, or battery operated when camping. An oil lamp seemed like such a good thing to know how to make for an emergency, yet the process was daunting to me.

It turns out, it couldn't be simpler. All you really need is some wicking, some oil, and a shallow vessel. I read up on making your own oil lamps. Many tutorials talked about making an oil lamp out of a tuna can. While economical and practical, it wasn't quite what I was hoping to make.

And then, one evening while I was changing a light bulb out of our side table lamp I decided to try upcycling it into a chic oil lamp. It just seemed like it was time to take the plunge. I wish I had taken pictures during the process, but alas I only have pictures of the finished product. I'll try to give you a rundown though of the steps I took.

Following the directions here, I carefully removed the glass end of the light bulb in order to put a wick and oil into the body of the light bulb. Once all the shards of glass were removed I noticed that there was a white powdery substance that was scratching off on the inside of the bulb from the glass shards and filament wire. I poured about a teaspoon of salt into the opening, plugged it with my thumb and shook like crazy. The salt took the remainder of the white powder off and I was left with a crystal clear light bulb. Pretty cool, and though not the effect I was going for. I didn't realize the white stuff would come off and I had planned on having an opaque oil lamp. I love the look of the clear light though.

Next I found a small flat washer in our garage and super glued it to the bottom of my bulb, allowing the glue to set for about 10 minutes. The washer allows my light bulb to sit slightly angled without tipping over.

Oil lamps require some sort of natural wick to work. Cotton, hemp, string, paper towels. All are purported to work. I had hemp rope available, but I also had an old cotton sock with a hole in the toe. I cut a strip of sock about 1/4th inch wide and 6 inches long for my lamp. It didn't take much time before I realized I would need something to hold my sock in place though, or it would sink directly into the body of the vessel when I tried to use it. I grabbed a diet Pepsi can and cut out a small circle, just slightly larger than the opening of my light bulb. I used an exacto knife and made a small "X" in the middle of the aluminum circle. It was through this "X" that I would thread my sock.

I poured some olive oil in the bulb, threaded the sock strip down inside the body and through the aluminum circle and waited for the oil to wick up through the top of the sock. It takes a LONG time. Like an hour for the oil to soak all the way up. This was the finished oil lamp:

Olive oil is thick, and doesn't wick very far or very easily. The lamp didn't stay lit very long. This is most likely why early olive oil lamps were made in shallow containers. You really need the wick to rest just above the level of oil. I filled the lamp a bit more, allowing the oil to come almost all the way to the top and it remained lit for about 1.5 hours. Pretty neat.
Today we decided to try our lamp with regular old lamp oil that you can find in any major box store. I actually prefer the look of the olive oil lamp better, but in this shape vessel, the lamp oil works much better. It wicks faster, isn't as viscous, and allows for a longer burn time. We'll keep our olive oil for shallow vessels and use the lamp oil for the light bulb. Oh...and also? I also don't recommend burning these where little hands might be - like near the wooden toys I have in the photo. It was simply staged for the shot. Ours is safely out of reach and ready to use in case of emergency, or when we just want to look plain cool.


  1. OK, that's the coolest thing I've seen in a long time! We're making our way through The Long Winter (L.I.Wilder) and Ma made a "button" lamp with axle grease, a button and scrap fabric. But, this wins! Thanks for sharing!

  2. That, is pretty wicked. Who knew a coin could help a lightbulb keep balance. Very creative.

    Visiting from an Etsy thread :)

    Priscilla & Vi

  3. Cotton shoe strings work well as a wick if you can find them. Just cut off the hard tips. Also, clothesline works but you usually need to pull out the nylon center.

  4. so cool! Now I know what to do in case of an emergency! (you know if all our flashlights fail to work ) ;)

  5. so cool! Now I know what to do in case of an emergency! (you know if all our flashlights fail to work ) ;)

  6. I love this idea. You described the steps very well.

  7. Cotton string mop refill make great wicks