a "been-there" mom of six offers encouragement
to wives, young mothers, and those not so young,
and simple common-sense approaches to
the "ings" of life:
child-rearing (hints and helps), homemaking (all areas),
cooking (simple, cheap, and do-it-yourself)
making (toys and gifts), preparing (for the unexpected),
maintaining (sanity and peace in this increasingly crazy world) and more---
all aspects of making the most of making do on little---
and having fun in the process.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Homemade Olive Oil Lamps: Safe, Cheap and Quick to Make . . .

with things you probably already have on hand.

It is important to have backup lighting available in case of emergency. While there are many different types available, this post is addressing what we feel is the safest, cheapest and most satisfactory.
From left: 1. Household emergency candle - burns about one inch per hour.
2. Olive oil jar light and 3. Canola oil jar light -
each used only 1/4 inch of oil after burning for 7 straight hours.
4.  Regular tea-light - burned for 4 hours and 45 minutes.
5. "Three match" oil light - see information in post
A major benefit of olive oil is it's high flash point. If one of these oil lamps gets tipped over the spreading oil will not burn. Not even if you hold a match directly to it. That makes an olive oil lamp far safer than a candle or kerosene lantern. We have found the very same results with canola oil, even though its flash point is slightly lower than olive oil.

Olive and Canola oils are odorless and safe to burn indoors. Kerosene is smelly, smoky and highly flammable!

These two oils do not smell. And except when extinguishing the lamp, or if the wick is too long, there is no smoke. If you are having problems with it smoking when you blow it out, use wet fingers to put out the flame, or just douse it with the oil in the jar.

The olive oil is drawn up the wick where it vaporizes and gets burned by the flame. A few ounces of oil will burn for several hours, so if you are concerned about the cost, it is much cheaper than most candles. Our 128 ounces (1 gallon)  of canola oil worked out to 6 cents per ounce.

Upper left: original oil lamp
Whelk sea shell used for oil lamp
Olive oil lamps have been used for thousands of years and people relied on oil lamps in general up until the last few generations. They are reliable. They burn bright and long.The most basic lamp used in ancient days was a small and simple vessel with an extended “lip.”  Oil was poured in the basin, a wick was laid along the lip and when it was saturated, the wick was lit. It was that simple. Using that concept we used a whelk sea shell approximately 4-1/2 inches long.          
It burned steadily for four hours before the oil needed replenishing.

There are many internet sites available showing different ways to create an oil lamp. Some of the instructions are pretty simple, some are complicated, and some strive for beauty along with light. Most are made from items you will already have on hand. If not, everything is easy to acquire, inexpensive and kind to the environment. Again, and most importantly, these lamps use olive oil or canola oil which both have high flashpoints and will not burn by themselves.

We tried different ones and combined some to come up the one we prefer.

  • A  glass jar  or other clear glass container
  • A small circle or square from a thin sheet (about 1/8 inch) of cork, and a piece of aluminum foil to wrap it in
  • A wick
  • Approximately 4" of flexible wire or a spring from an old retractable ball point pen
  • Olive oil (or canola oil)

JARS: We like wide mouth pint canning jars but you can use most any clear glass container. We like a wide base for safety purposes and not too deep because the flame needs to be close to the oil ----unlike kerosene lamps.

If you use a deeper jar you can fill it part way up with pebbles and/or water so you do not need as much oil.

WICKS must be made from 100 percent cotton.  We have used cording, string, jute (single strands and braided), "official" flat braided wicking, and "sugar and creme" crochet cotton. Others report they have used strands from 100 percent cotton string mops, strips of old tee-shirts, tea towels and socks.

Some sites suggest salting the wick to ensure that it burns long. We have not done that ourselves, and have not seen the need to, but have included the directions at the bottom of this post.

WICK HOLDER: The spring or wire coil is what holds the wick upright.

  • You can use a spring from an old dried-up ballpoint pens (the cheapskate way!) The springs in "fatter" ballpoint pens work better because the spring is a little larger, allowing for a thicker wick. 
  • You can also buy springs at a hardware store.
  • Or, fashion your own from flexible wire, made into a coil.
The coil needs to be tight enough to hold the wick upright, but not tight enough to pinch the wick----which would cut off the oil flow.*

1. Cut one 1-1/2" to 2 " circle or square from the sheet of cork (this is the float)
2. Cover the cork completely with the aluminum foil  (to keep the cork from burning)
3. Punch a small hole* in the foil-covered float.
4. Push the coil through the hole.
5. Thread the wick through the coil, leaving about 1/4 inch above the top of the coil and enough length to reach just to the bottom of the jar.  (We have found if the wick coils on the bottom of the jar it may cause the float to tip a little.)
6. Add oil.

Note: In the photo, for  the third light from the left, we used an empty tea-light cup with a hole punched in it, as the "float." It tipped a little and, as you can see, didn't burn as bright----probably because of the metal rim of the cup deflecting some of the light.

It is wise to experiment before the time of need.


  • You must be patient and wait for the wick to become fully saturated before lighting it for the first time. This is not the case for subsequent uses because the wick remains saturated. 
  • Before each use you should trim off the previously burned black top part of the wick and pull up a new 1/4 inch section. 
  • We found the greater the oil surface and the closer the wick is to the brim (but not clear to the top), the steadier the flame. This is because the flame can breathe easier. The same is true when using a wide shallow bowl, despite the depth of the oil. The advantage of jars is having the lid for storage purposes. Glass bowls with tight-fitting plastic lids are also available. We found ours at thrift stores.
  • We have experimented with 100 percent cotton cording, jute, flat, braided commercial "wicking," and "Sugar and Cream" crochet cotton. 
  • For a thicker wick we braided jute. The top raveled, producing a brighter light but also smoke. It also burned the oil at a faster rate, and the wick had to be trimmed about every two hours.
  • Single strand jute burned at the same rate as the cotton cord---we burned the samples for approximately 7 hours each, and during that time they consumed 1/4 inch of oil.
  • You can use recycled oil, either your own, or you can check with a restaurant that uses olive or canola oils to see if they will give it to you----or sell it to you cheaply.
  • Any kind of liquid fat or grease can be used in a pinch, but-----and it is a big but----it will smell and smoke and can easily catch fire.
  • Used oil must be strained before using. Paper coffee filters (about $1 for 100) make very efficient strainers and are an excellent addition to your emergency storage.  Fit a single paper strainer over the top of a wide-mouth jar, fold the top edges of the paper over the lip of the jar and secure with an elastic band.
  • It has been reported that rancid oil works also, and nothing was said about it smelling rancid. We haven't tried it.
  • We have made wire hangers for some of our jars so we can hang them. This "spreads" out the light even more as it reflects through the bottom of the jar.

THREE MATCH OIL LIGHT   (We didn't believe it until we tried it!)
One internet site shows how to make a tiny light by using a twist-tie to wire together three paper matches torn from a matchbook. After securing the paper matches together with one end of the twist-tie, they bent the rest of the tie for a base so the "wick" would stand up. (We found that fastening a small paperclip to  the twist-tie made a stable base.) We then placed our light into a clear tea-light holder.

Because of the small size of the container the olive oil had to be replenished frequently but it burned for almost five hours (until we added a little too much oil and "drowned" the wick!)

Since book matches are not readily available, we repeated the process using small wooden "strike on the box" kitchen matches and canola oil with the same success.

These tiny match lights provided enough light to be able to move around a room or for bathroom use.  In the photo at the beginning of this post you can see how much bigger the flame is on the match light, compared to the regular tea light.

We have researched and experimented very thoroughly but cannot be responsible for the information provided. Some of the sites we found useful are listed below. I especially like the ones that offer comments from their readers. It is so great that we can learn from one another. 

http://www.worldwideflood.com/ark/technology/oil_lamps.htm - shows ancient lamps

http://www.motherearthnews.com/Do-It-Yourself/Make-Olive-Oil-Lamp.aspx?page=2 -
this site authored by Deanna Duke provided information for much of this paper, plus comments and suggestions from viewers. 

http://www.instructables.com/id/Oil-lamp-with-three-matches/ instructions, photos, and comments/suggestions from viewers.

Additionally, there are many other sites with instructions for using bottles, pop cans, and even an orange!

How to Salt a Wick
To salt your wick, take your cotton twine, put it in a bowl with a little water and then cover with table salt. Squeeze it dry and let it dry overnight, or until it is no longer damp (or bake it at 200F for 20 minutes). It will be crusty with salt but that's good and the wicking will still be reasonably flexible. Salt prevents the cotton from charring too early so you can burn your lamp for an hour or two without any adjustments. 


  • Think about how dark it is in your your home when your turn out the lights. 
  • In ours, there are still many, many tiny lights all around us ---- from all our various electronic things.               
  • Our office looks like an airplane cockpit when we turn off the overhead light.
  • Every time we lose power I am "re-amazed" at how really dark it is! Really, really dark!




Anonymous said...

This is really, really cool.

Anonymous said...

Gail, thank you and congratulations on some outstandingly written information. When people actually care about what they offer, it really shows.